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If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time and have been attending church regularly, you may have heard people sometimes praying “more of your presence Lord”, or “we come into your presence.”
Perhaps you’ve even heard worship leaders mention how when we worship God, his presence fills the place.
What do we mean by this?
Isn’t God present everywhere? If that’s the case, how can we ask for more of His presence? Isn’t that contradictory?
What do we really mean when we say that God is especially present during our worship?
Read on below.
How worship songs differ from other types of music
In my article on why we should still worship God even when we don’t feel like it, I mentioned how worship songs are different from other types of music, even other types of Christian songs.
What do I mean by this?
Christian songs come in all varieties. Some are used for encouraging others or sharing the gospel. Others take the form of introspection. While these are also good and definitely have their place, they have a more horizontal aspect to them. By this, I mean that they’re directed from the musician or singer to another person.
Worship songs differ in this regard. Michael Coleman and Ed Lindquist, the executive producers of Integrity Music explain in their book Come and Worship that:
“Praise and worship music is vertical. To oversimplify it, ‘horizontal’ music talks about God, while ‘vertical’ music talks to God… Vertical music is directed from the musician upward to God. God is the audience and the believers are singing to Him. Both horizontal and vertical music are valid ministries; both have a place in the Church.”
Using the same vocabulary as Coleman and Lindquist, we could take this slightly further. When we’re offering praise to God, we could also say that it’s not just a one-way vertical action ascending to heaven. When we worship, and when God is enthroned in our praises, we could describe a downwards vertical movement from heaven to earth.
Sometimes Christians express this as coming into his immediate presence or where God’s presence is manifested in a particular location or even heaven invading earth.
Bill Johnson writes that:
“Worship is our number one priority in ministry. Everything else we do is to be affected by our devotion to this call. He inhabits our praise. One translation puts it this way, ‘But You are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel. God responds with a literal invasion of heaven to earth through the worship of the believer.”
The limitations of our human language
As humans, we tend to think of God being “up there” while we are “down here”.
For example, Isaiah 66:1-2 says:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.” (NIV)
Also, when we think of heaven, we also think of it as a place somewhere high up, and even talk about the skies and the cosmos above as “the heavens.” It’s natural therefore to use this kind of vocabulary.
For example, Psalm 139:7-10 says:
“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.” ( NIV)
However, one of God’s unique divine qualities is that he is omnipresent, meaning that he’s everywhere at once. He’s not simply “up there”. The verses in Psalm 139:7-10 make this clear when it talks about not being able to go anywhere without finding God there.
In theological speak, we often use the terms “transcendent” and “immanent” to describe God. Simply put, transcendent means that God is beyond or above our own human experience or understanding. But he also immanent in that he is present and apparent throughout our universe, sustaining all life as its creator. This is an oversimplification, but I’d rather leave this topic for another blog post where I can go into it more fully.
Why does all of this matter?
Well, with God being present everywhere, how can he suddenly be more present than he already was?
And is all of this talk of upward and downward vertical movements not completely accurate?
Is God really more present during worship than at other times?
When we are worshipping God, he is there alongside us inhabiting our praises. So there isn’t necessarily an upward movement of our praises ascending to him or a downward vertical movement of his presence descending upon us. It’s simply the language we use to describe things, or how we perceive events and express it in our limited human vocabulary.
This is the question that Bob Kauflin, the pastor, worship leader and director of Sovereign Grace Music asks in his book Worship Matters.
He explains that:
“…while God is present everywhere, he also chooses sometimes to localize his presence, as he did so unexpectedly for Moses in a burning bush in the desert (Exodus 3:2).”
Jesus has promised to be present where two or three are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). God is also present when we sing his praises. Ephesians 5:18-19 tells us that the Holy Spirit inspires our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. God also promises to be present whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. These, and many other instances are examples where the Bible tells us that God is especially present.
However, Kauflin writes that:
“There are, of course, times when we become unexpectedly aware of the Lord’s presence. Maybe a sudden wave of peace comes over us. Or an irrepressible joy rises up from the depths of our soul. Or we experience the sweet sting of the Holy Spirit’s conviction. In those moments has God’s presence come down to us? Have we been led into God’s presence? No. God was present from the beginning. We’ve just become more aware of it.”
It is Jesus’ sacrifice that brings us into God’s presence, not our worship as such.
In Don Carson’s chapter “Worship under the Word” in Mark Ashton and R Kent Hughes’s book Worship by the Book, Carson notes that we often speak in terms of worship bringing us directly into the presence of God or worship taking us from the outer court into the inner court.
He points out that while we can read those statements sympathetically, they are theologically inaccurate when taken at face value.
The moment Jesus died on the cross, we’re told in Luke 23:44-46 that the curtain separating the outer court (aka “the holy place”) of the Temple from the inner court (aka “the Holy of Holies”) was torn in two from top to bottom.
The curtain dividing the holy place and Holy of Holies was based on the Old Testament Tabernacle. This was a sacred tent that the Israelites transported around with them. The Holy of Holies was its inner-most chamber where the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments lay. It represented the presence of God.
No-one could come into the Holy of Holies or look into the Ark of the Covenant except the high priest.
Hebrews 4:14-16 tells us that Jesus is our High Priest. Through his sacrifice on the cross he has shed his own blood to atone for our sins on behalf of the people. And he opened the way for us to approach God when the Temple veil was torn in two.
Don Carson points out that
“Objectively, what brings us into the presence of God is the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. If we ascribe to worship (meaning, in this context, our corporate praise and adoration) something of this power, it will not be long before we think of such worship as being meritorious, or efficacious, or the like.”
It’s not our worship that leads us into God’s presence. It’s Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s why, whether we’re feeling worthy or not won’t have any effect on being able to enter into that most holy place.
Worship simply makes us more aware of God’s presence
All our worship does is affect our awareness of God’s presence. This is because we’re more aware of our sin, shame or shortcomings.
Carson explains what really happens when we worship. He writes:
“when we come together and engage in the activities of corporate worship… we encourage one another, we edify one another, and so we often feel encouraged and edified. As a result, we are renewed in our awareness of God’s love and God’s truth, and we are encouraged to respond with adoration and action. In this subjective sense, all of the activities of corporate worship may function to make us more aware of God’s majesty, God’s presence, God’s love. But I doubt that it is helpful to speak of such matters in terms of worship “leading us into the presence of God”: not only is the term worship bearing a meaning too narrow to be useful, but the statement is in danger of conveying some profoundly untrue notions.”
Thus, we may talk about coming into God’s immediate presence during worship, this is really just Christian shorthand. We are describing what we perceive to happen from our own point of view using our own limited vocabulary. What we really mean is that our awareness of him has simply increased or we’re feeling more intimate with him.
This is precisely what the bridge of “Holy Spirit” describes when it says:
Let us become more aware of Your presence
Let us experience the glory of Your goodness
Think of it like the way you might feel closer to someone when you get to know them better and have spent time with them – in their presence.
In one sense we could say we’ve managed to enter the zone or hit that sweet spot where we’ve tuned out all other distractions so that we are only aware of him.
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Finally, do you normally experience more of an awareness of God’s presence during worship? If not, what gets in the way of this?
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.