Cultivating the Presence of God

Asaph, reflecting on some of his deepest struggles in the life of faith, concludes one ohis psalms by saying, ‘But as for me, it is good to be near God’ (Ps 73.28). David says something similar in the most memorable of his penitential psalms with the words, ‘Cast me not away from your presence and do not take your Holy Spirit from me’ (Ps 51.11). God’s people often only begin to appreciate the importance of knowing God’s presence when they are deprived of it through their own spiritual wanderings. How, then, can we safeguard the nearness of God?

The answer comes in what Alec Motyer pointedly describes as learning to ‘cultivate the presence of God.’ He deliberately reaches for the spiritual discipline that is more habitually called communion with God. It is the conscious effort on the part of God’s children to grow in our knowledge, love and enjoyment of God in a way that leaves its imprint on our lives.

Too often we can be content with focussing on the forensic elements of our salvation. The fact that we are justified by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone. Or that we know the grace of adoption – no longer are we children of darkness; but, children of light through our union with Christ, the archetypal Son. The one in whom our sonship – even for ‘daughters of Eve’ – is realised. So too we can home in on the fact we are ‘saints’ – those who are positionally holy in the sight of God.

Each of these gospel blessings is an affirmation of the once-for-all, inviolable standing we have with God through the saving merits of Jesus. But the Bible never allows us to focus just on what we are in terms of our legal status before the Judge of all the earth without simultaneously reflecting on the existential impact this must have on our lives.

Just as a married man or woman could never enjoy the benefits of marriage simply by staring at their marriage certificate or wedding ring all day long, or an adopted child at their adoption papers; so, for every true child of God. Our new standing before God must always manifest itself in a whole new way of living in fellowship with him.

What, then, does it mean in practical terms to ‘cultivate the presence of God’? Asaph points to a key component when he speaks of the vital importance of being in God’s ‘Sanctuary’ (Ps 73.17). Pointing to the physical location of the temple to speak of the spiritual reality of drawing near to God in the company of his people. Doing so for the all-excluding act of looking to God, listening to his word, responding in joyful adoration, he reminds his readers of the benefit of public worship.

David also helps us to understand what it means to cultivate God’s presence when he links it to the work of his Holy Spirit in his people’s lives. As Israel’s king, he had allowed his heart to become so dulled to the voice of God and inured to his warnings against temptation, that he never stopped to consider the consequence of taking another man’s wife and then his life. The holy God of heaven cannot ignore the wilful disobedience of his children on earth and ‘carry on as normal’ until they face up to what they have done and repent.

It is, however, in another of David’s psalms that we catch a glimpse of what it means to cultivate the nearness of God. It is the shortest of his psalms, Psalm 131, filed among the Songs of Ascent. It gives every indication of being a psalm David composed in the latter years of his life. One in which he surveys the sinful failures of his life along the way, which had been fuelled by his headstrong foolishness on so many fronts.

David speaks of humbling himself before God: ‘My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters, or things too wonderful for me’ (Ps 131.1). He consciously ‘comes to an end of himself’ – sees his smallness, weakness, ignorance – and looks away from himself. The cultivation of self is the biggest obstacle to our cultivating the nearness of God.

He then goes on to speak of consciously casting himself on God: ‘But I have stilled and quietened my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me’ (Ps 131.2). It is in light of this idea of a child who has been ‘weaned’ that Motyer raises the idea of cultivating the presence of God. A weaned child is one who has reached that stage of development at which he or she begins to appreciate the company of their mother (and father). Relationship is more important than the mere benefits it may bring.

No wonder, then, that David tells the nation to learn from his foolish mistakes – the heart of which was his neglect of the nearness of God – and he calls upon them, to ‘put your trust in the LORD, now and forevermore’ (Ps 131.3).

The words of this ancient king of Israel take on new dimensions as we see them realised in the life and work of his great Son, the Lord Jesus, in whom and through whose work the nearness of God and the means by which we are able to ‘cultivate God’s presence’ take on a whole new dimension.

Mark Johnston