The Holy Distance
How close is God? In his famous sermon on Mars Hill the Apostle Paul reflected on the proliferation of idols in the city of Athens. Pagan temples dotted the landscape, and just in case a god had been overlooked, a monument had been erected to the “Unknown god.” The people of Athens were terribly misguided in their worship, but their behavior indicated a strong yearning for the supernatural.
Paul fed this hunger with a description of the Living God followed by this stunning statement: “he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). Incredible! Could the God who created the universe really be close to the citizens of a city fixated on stone images?
Indeed, God is always near. He was near the Athenians and He is near to us. But He rarely interacts with us unless we welcome Him. I say “rarely” with some reservation. Certainly, the very air we breathe is a touch of God’s presence in our lives, and His providential hand is working all around us, regardless of whether or not we seek Him. The Bible also gives us examples of people who purposely tried to hide from God, but were pursued by Him just the same: people like Adam, Eve, Jonah, and Zacchaeus.
Yet, the presence of God has little impact on our lives if we refuse to acknowledge our need for His active participation. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He wanted us to know His Father’s plan was unfolding all around us, but our place in that plan was contingent on our willingness to embrace His will in humble obedience.
Perhaps you already know all of this. However, something has obscured God’s presence and right now He seems distant. You cry out to him like the psalmist, “O Lord, you have seen this, be not silent. Do not be far from me, O Lord” (Psalm 35:22), but no answer comes. In your better moments, you know your circumstances are altering your reality. A relationship has ended. Your health has broken. Financial strain has brought you to the point of bankruptcy. Your sin has hurt those close to you.
Sometimes our perception of distance is impacted by the intensity of our need. For example, if we live three blocks from a fire and rescue station, we might complain when sirens wake us or disturb our family gatherings. But in an emergency, three blocks isn’t close enough. Five minutes isn’t soon enough.
This might explain why friends and family members are often unaware they haven’t given us the attention we needed in a time of distress. It isn’t that they didn’t care, but rather that our need was pressing in on us in indescribable ways. We were calling out with the psalmist, “Rescue my life from their ravages, my precious life from these lions” (Psalm 35:17), but no help came; or so it seemed.
And so we look to God with great expectation, remembering He not only cares for us but has immeasurable power. He can’t say, “I’m only human” or “I would have been there, but I was away on a business trip.” We reach our limits and lament, “We have done everything possible,” but God specializes in the impossible. He is not limited by time and space, and there is never a reason why He can’t be near.
Even if God had limitations, which He does not, He could overcome them with His creative genius. He comforted His own son with angels (Matthew 4:11). His Son sent His disciples out two-by-two to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom (Luke 10:9). And throughout the biblical account we find God working behind the scenes through humble servants who were willing to be His earthly angels to those in need (Acts 9:36).
How then, can we ever say God is distant? I think the answer lies, not in God, but in our weak human condition. Please don’t misunderstand. I do not intend to heap additional guilt on our hearts that are already burdened. It would be cruel to say to the struggler, “Not only have you distanced yourself from God, but as a result He wants nothing to do with you.” In my experience, it is natural to assume this anyway. We speculate God might be distant because He is angry with us or has written us off. Certainly, this is not the case, but our feelings can deceive us.
Our sense of distance with God is further complicated because it is a “holy distance.” We come to Him because we are incapable of healing ourselves, and we know if He cannot help us we are doomed. God is often our last hope before we cross over into unbelief or lose ourselves.
Thus, when help doesn’t come at once, or the people around us fail to collaborate with our spiritual appeal in some way, the ominous gap between ourselves and the holy grows bigger. God has not left us, and we have not necessarily left God. But there is an elephant in the room. If He is there with us, why are we still so cast down, and why is there no forward movement in our lives?
The good news is, not only is the holiness of God ever-present, but He understands our frustration with answers that don’t come quickly. If we could remove the veil that separates our earthly reality from the spiritual realm, I feel certain we would see a flurry of activity. God, together with the Son and the Spirit would be discussing our every need. They would have a clear strategy, considering the tapestry of past, present and future events, and monitoring the people we interact with on a daily basis. There would be an overriding passion to draw us into the holy; to call us from the mundane and the desperate into eternal light.
When you go through difficult seasons in your life, your senses can be dulled. But, rest assured. You are as close to our holy God as ever and He is close to you. The weight you are carrying may make it hard for you to feel His presence, and the urgency of the moment could be what leaves you aching for more. But His glory surrounds you, and He is already working. The psalmist complained, “O Lord, how long will you look on?” (Psalm 35:17) Indeed God is doing more than looking. He can never be compared to the priest and the Levite who looked at the dying man on the road and walked by. He is the heart of the Good Samaritan, and is in fact the Shepherd of our souls. He never leaves us, but is an ever-present help in time of need.
Call to the holy God and forget any notion of a holy distance. The One who is holy is present, and draws us to His side.