For many years in my spiritual walk I wandered in the wilderness, seeking answers down many avenues and not a few dark alleyways. I often felt bewildered, alone, without direction and devoid of guidance. All too often I found myself isolated at a spiritual dead end, trumpeting loudly in my heart like an elephant at a dried out waterhole. I often felt abandoned by God and spiritually exhausted. I was burned out, burned down, and, more times than I care to admit, so despondent that I wanted to take the whole spiritual quest and toss it once and for all.
Now, in retrospect, I can see God’s hand in each dark alley I stumbled down. I can see his caring guidance in each barren and arid well. For in each of these wanderings I learned much. I gained not only knowledge that has proved useful in many areas of life, but also obtained an experiential understanding of what Solomon meant when he said so many of our pursuits, even the most noble ones, are chasing after the wind. Most significantly, the Holy Spirit gave me the awareness that in my times of despair and what I thought was spiritual failure, I had not failed completely.
I only failed to hear the voice.
What voice? The same voice that accompanied Moses and his large band of followers in their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The voice that whispered the comforting words that would have filled my empty heart with a glimmer of hope. The voice that said, “I am with thee”.
The Creator and Sustainer, the God of All Comfort led the wandering Israelites through the barren landscape, always remaining faithful in his promise to lead them into the land of plenty. He remained with them, in spite of their lack of fidelity, in spite of their disobedience, in spite of their seeking comfort in places and things other than Himself. “I am with thee”, he said and surely he was. How much more is he with us now? Has God changed? No. Has he altered his promise? No. Has he withdrawn his covenant to lead us into the Promised Land? No.
In fact, since the Incarnation he is with us more than ever. The angel of the Lord announced to Joseph, “They shall call his name Emmanuel,” God with us. How much more is God now with us, even in our meandering faithlessness and spiritual adultry? No less than he was with the Israelites. In fact, he is now with us in a new and more glorious way. He lived among us and left one-third of himself to reside in each and every one of us. It is to this God who we are called to consecrate our lives. The call to us is the same as the call in those days of old. We are called to trust in the God who is with us.
Hannah Smith says it so cogently:
God is everywhere present in His universe, surrounding everything, and sustaining everything, and holding all of us in His safe and blessed keeping……We cannot drift from the love and care of an ever-present God. And those Christians who think He has forsaken them, and who cry out for His presence, are crying out in ignorance of the fact that He is always and everywhere present with them. In truth they cannot get out of His presence, even should they try.
The message in these words by Smith, as well as in the adventures of the Jewish people in the wilderness serve to bring home to us the fact that God is always there whether we perceive his presence or not. He is there with us in times of trial and in times of blessing; in the darkness before the dawn and in the brilliant light of midday; in the brittle and barren moments of spiritual aridity and the lush and lovely times when we feel awash in the everlasting waters. He is, indeed, Emmanuel – God with us.
Given the realities of the pressure-packed, fast-paced world in which we daily go about our business, it is an easy affair to forget God’s presence. I know this is true in my own life and I suspect, from time to time, this sense of God’s absence is a universal experience. It is a vital blessing and a comfort to know and trust that, even in those times when we think the Lord has gone on Sabbatical, that his life-giving presence is as close as our own breath and our own heartbeat. It is so easy to overlook this reality and yet it is so crucial that we keep coming back to the awareness, revealed not only in scripture, but in the experience of countless saints and in the traditions of the church in all its flavors, that God is right there with us.
Often our sense of God’s absence is brought about by external factors such as stress, pressures from family, work, or friends, or the myriad responsibilities we all face in trying to make ends meet in a world that demands much from us. At other times, however, we avoid God’s presence if at all possible. Take Jonah, for example. God had a clear mission for Jonah to accomplish yet Jonah wanted no part of it. He chose to flee God rather than face him. God directed Jonah in one direction and he went double-time in the opposite way. The results were predictable because God is there, even when we don’t want him to be. Perhaps nowhere is this reality more clearly penned than in the words of David in Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there?
If I make my be in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
And settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
And your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
And the light around me become night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to you;
The night is as bright as the day,
For darkness is as light to you.
(Psalm 139: 7-12 NRSV)
I take great comfort in the promise that God is there at all times, whether I want him or not. You see, the reality is that I want him far more than I don’t. I have come to understand that even though there may be things that I want to hide from God from time to time, it is in my best interest not to hide them. And beyond this, I could not hide them, even if I wanted to.
God is described by Paul as “the God of all comfort,” and to my way of thinking, one of the greatest comforts is the fact he is always present, no matter what I am going through. We could ask for no greater resource than this. Jesus clearly understood this when he made this promise to his disciples (and to us) shortly before he ascended into heaven:
“And be sure of this, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20 NLT)
(c) L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved