Sunday, June 12, 2016

When God Is Near

By Jill Carattini and originally published at
On a routine trip through well-worn streets, I found myself pulled out of the fragmented consciousness of a mind captive to the day’s worries with the jarring lyrics of a song. Up until that point, the song itself was much like the familiar patterns of scenery, an external factor impervious to the siege of my own fears; I was seeing but not seeing, hearing but not really hearing. But then I suddenly took in the artist’s abrupt words: Hoping to God on high is like clinging to straws while drowning.(1)
The stark image of clinging to straw while desperately trying to stay afloat cleared everything else from my mind. It also set me thinking about the descriptive words of a friend hours earlier. Encouraging me in the midst of a difficult place, a friend simply reminded me that I was not alone. She was intending to assure me of her friendship and support, but I also knew she was assuring me that I was not aimlessly floundering on my own, with God no where to be found. “The LORD is near to all who call on him,” declares the psalmist; and I needed to hear it.
Christians take comfort in the thought that God is among us, comforting our fears, quieting our cries of distress, standing near those who call, moving in lives and history that we might discover the God who is there. As a follower of Jesus, knowing that he is with me as a fellow human in struggle and darkness is one of the only reasons I don’t completely surrender to my fears and stop moving forward. Knowing that there is a God of grace, beauty, truth, and mystery, which the Spirit is constantly at work lifting me toward, is the hope I remember when I fear death, my console when I fear uncertainty, the picture that somehow makes sense of a strand of DNA and quiets my fear of being uncared for and alone. I can relate to the resolution of the psalmist in a world of many and distant gods: “But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge” (73:28).
But what good is it if there is indeed a throne but it is empty, a kingdom without a king, a god who may be close but is like strawWho is it who is near us? If god is an impersonal force, or a tyrant, or a distant, semi-interested being, then neither God nor God’s kingdom is any sort of refuge. If the hope we cling to is like straw that cannot actually save us from drowning then we have good reason to live in fear, “huddled,” as the musician later describes, “afraid if we dance we might die.”
This image that brought my distraction to a grinding halt forced me to think graphically about the hope to which I actually cling, not just in theory, but in real life. What is actually behind that promise so often on the mouth of God in Scripture and in the well-meaning encouragement of friends? Do not be afraid, for I am with you.(2) If God is merely straw and fairytale, then what does it matter? Emptiness is inevitable, fear is certain, and hope is indeed futile, for we are ultimately alone; we cling futilely to fantasy and drown in delusion. Could there really be one both graceful and near enough to answer the cry of one lonely heart, the fears of entire nations, the uncertainties of the world around? Or is this hope like grasping at straw?
Throughout Scripture that very divine vow “I am with you” is made with sovereign confidence, but also in stirringly human circumstance. Speaking into the fears of exile, God said to the prophet Isaiah, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west.” To the apostle Paul who was struggling with uncertainty and weakness, the divine voice encouraged him in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” God’s assurance of nearness comes in the midst of struggle, in the sieges of lament and despair and death. In spite of every appearance to the contrary, God claims to be working in the very midst of human sorrow, struggle, and weakness. This is most tellingly clear as the vicariously human Jesus himself lays down his own life, suffering the deepest wounds of humanity, delving into our darkness, and leaving his closest followers a promise that remains comforting today: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”(3)
Thus, the promise of a near God is one that Christians utter as encouragement and hold to in hope, in fear, and in sorrow because there is one who has shown us that he will always be near and not even death will stop him. When God assures us of this life-giving presence, it is far more than a promise of proximity and intimacy. There is a purpose for God’s nearness, the pledge of relationship, the promise of community, the hope against hope that God is at work. For Christ’s is not an empty or superficial presence, having taken on the very things of humanity itself in order to draw humanity into everything he imagines for us. As the Father reminded the prophet Jeremiah, so God attests that the promise of God’s proximity may well be far more profound than we even fathom: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…Do not be afraid…for I am with you to deliver you.(4)

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) Dave Matthews Band, “What You Are,” Everyday, 2001.
(2) Genesis 26:24, 2 Chronicles 20:17, Isaiah 43:5, Daniel 10:12, Matthew 1:20, John 14:27, Acts 18:9-10, and Revelation 1:17 among many others.
(3) Isaiah 43:5, Acts 18:9-10, John 14:27.
(4) Psalm 1:5-8.