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The ‘Withness’ of God: Why Christians Give Thanks

‘Whom have I in heaven but You? And being with You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.’

- Psalm 73:25-6 -


In January, God willing, I will begin teaching on the attributes of God – something I have wanted to do for many years. Nothing thrills me more than pondering the sovereignty, love, holiness, grace, wisdom, compassion, beauty, faithfulness, and eternity of God. And God has many more perfections; more than we can comprehend. There’s one more attribute for which I’m especially thankful, and we must consider some Bible grammar to describe it.


We might assume that prepositions in the Bible are relatively unimportant to theology. But some prepositions are vital to our understanding of God. Paul asks: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). He also writes of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). In these two verses, the little preposition in teaches us a lot about our relationship to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And how about Romans 11:36, which employs four prepositions when it says: “For from Him and through Him and for Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.”

 

I especially want to thank God for the wonderful preposition with, which shows up in many crucial parts of Scripture. Near and close are prepositions that we can easily and grammatically turn into the nouns nearness and closeness. I would like to do the same to the preposition with. By turning it into a noun, we can consider and thank God for His withness. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve do not hide from God when He walks in the garden. But after they sin, Adam and Eve hide from Him and are banished from the garden, the Tree of Life, and the Presence of God. Habakkuk says God’s “eyes are too pure to look on evil” (1:13), so the Fall tragically brings separation and alienation from Him. Yet it isn’t long before God graciously begins drawing people to Himself.



In Genesis 5 and 6 we see Enoch and Noah ‘walk with God.’ Soon after, God graciously condescends and initiates intimate relation­ships with Abraham and his family. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, people are safe, prosperous, and successful when God is with them. In Genesis 21:22, Abimelech tells Abraham: “God is with you in everything you do.” Later, God tells Isaac: “I will be with you and will bless you” (Gen. 26:3). The next generation is also blessed when God promises Jacob: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go” (Gen. 28:15). Even when Joseph is enslaved and imprisoned in Egypt, we hear that “the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did” (Gen. 39:23). So all four generations experience the covenant blessing of God’s withness.


When God has Moses confront Pharaoh 400 years later, He encourages Moses by saying, “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12). Decades later, as leadership passes from Moses to Joshua, God says: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you or forsake you” (Josh. 1:5). Joshua must have been very thankful to hear God say that! In the Book of Judges, we learn that Israel has a wide variety of leaders after Joshua. When I was young, my favorite was Samson. I mistakenly assumed Samson's great strength came from his long hair. But his hair is just hair, like yours or mine. What it signals is his reliance upon God. The Lord is Samson’s strength, until, due to sin, God is no longer with him and Samson is powerless.


Something similar occurs when, also due to sin, the Holy Spirit departs from King Saul and comes upon young David (1 Sam. 16:13-14). Without the Spirit, Saul’s life grows increasingly miserable, but with the Spirit in his life, David grows in wisdom and strength. In Psalms, David cultivates an intense desire to be with God: ‘One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and seek Him in His temple’ (27:4). Later, David sings: ‘Whom have I in heaven but You? And being with You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever’ (Ps. 73:25-6). In 1998, as Beth’s father took his last breaths on earth, I read Psalm 73 to him. Then, in an instant, he was face-to-face with God!



The prophets write of the coming Messiah and the coming Holy Spirit – both of whom manifest the withness of God. In Isaiah 7 and 8, we learn Messiah will be called Immanuel, which means God with us. Later, God tells Ezekiel: “I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws” (36:27). God then promises: “I will make a covenant of peace with them…and I will put My sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be My people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when My sanctuary is among them forever” (37:26-28). Each prophecy speaks of a wonderful future in which the Presence of God will draw closer to us, among us, with us – even in us. It sounds as if God actually wants to be with us!


Why does God keep promising that someday He will be with us and we will be with Him? Because that’s what He wants. He wants us with Him! And in the New Testament we see the infinite price God was willing to pay to make that possible. John 1:14 says Jesus ‘became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Immanuel leaves His throne in Heaven, humbles Himself and becomes a poor peasant, all so He could show us how (by faith in Him) we can someday live forever with God. Christ proves that only God Himself can defeat sin’s alienation and separation!


Remember the separation during Covid? We wanted to be with people, and they wanted to be with us, but experts said to stay apart, social distance, work remotely, wear a mask. We felt a bit like Adam and Eve, banished from the garden and the Presence of God. No touching, no mingling – unclean! But our wonderful God is not like that. We see Jesus live among truly unclean people, eat with them, touch them, even embrace them. Yet He says: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3). Christ then says: “Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching. My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them” (14:23). What an amazing truth, that Almighty God, who Jesus says is our Father, wants to make His home with you and with me. What a wonderful preposition!



Later that night, Jesus prays: “Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am” (John 17:24). What does Jesus want? He wants us to be with Him! Just for comparison, what if years ago Billy Graham told a stadium full of people that he wanted to be with them. Wouldn’t that clearly express his deep love for them? And what a compliment! But this is Jesus Christ, the Creator-King of the universe, saying He wants us to be with Him! He knows what it will cost, and just hours later He makes it all possible by laying down His life for us!


Paul puts it this way: ‘Christ died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him’ (1 Thess. 5:10). Peter expresses the same idea a little differently, saying: ‘Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (1 Pet. 3:16). Forty-five years ago, when I wanted to marry Beth and live with her, I worked long and hard to buy a $500 diamond ring. I thought that was costly, but not compared to what Jesus did. In order to live with us, in order for us to live with Him, Jesus spent His own life on the cross to rescue us from sin and Hell. Because of Jesus, we look forward to an eternal future living with God and seeing Him face-to-face. We thank God for this precious promise, which He will fulfill someday.


In Revelation 21:3, God shouts His excitement about this: ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God.”’ That will be the long continu­ation of our glorious eternity with God. But what are the applications and implications of the withness of God? First, of course, is gratitude. It was God’s grace and love that had Him initiate this. We love Him because He first loved us, and God is with us because He graciously wants to be. For this we will certainly thank and praise Him forever.



A second application is best illustrated by a brief story. Years ago on NPR I heard an interview with Nien Cheng. During the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Chinese government had imprisoned her for marrying an American businessman. For six years, they locked her in solitary confinement. One interviewer asked: “How could you possibly survive for six years alone in that prison cell?” Nien’s joyful answer stunned everyone in a large audience. She said: “Oh, I was never alone! I had the sweet Presence of God with me every minute of those six years. God said He would never leave me nor forsake me, and it was He who gave me the strength and courage I needed to survive – so here I am!” You see, when God is with us, we are never alone. Reflecting on this truth often (but perhaps not always) prevents us from feeling loneliness.


Thirdly, God’s Presence with us can be a source of great joy. My father died in 2018, and my mother lived three more years, until 2021. Yes, Mom grieved for a time, but not as those ‘who have no hope’ (1 Thess. 4:13). Often, when I called her, she’d tell me of the wonderful times she was having with God in her apartment. Not only was she not alone, but she delighted in God’s Presence by talking and singing to her Lord throughout the day. She’d never done that when Dad was around (not that he would have minded), but now she felt free to joyfully pour out her heart in prayer and worshipful song.


A fourth application of the withness of God is that it motivates us to grow in holiness. When we willfully remind ourselves of His Presence, we are less inclined to sin. Therefore, Paul asks: ‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?’ (1 Cor. 6:19). Not only is He with us – He’s in us – so we must glorify God with our bodies, actions, words, and thoughts.



Finally, the withness of God brings peace. This is critical in a world plagued by conflict and chaos. In John 16:33, while speaking to His disciples before the cross, Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” And after the resurrection, when the disciples are hiding in fear, Jesus’ first words are: “Peace be with you!” (John 20:19). This is because, as Paul says of Jesus: ‘He Himself is our peace’ (Eph. 2:14). This Christmas season, and all year long, we have many reasons to thank God for His withness and for His infinitely wonderful Presence with us. Now may ‘God with us’ be the joy of our hearts as we begin celebrating Immanuel’s birth.



All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version Bible

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