When you’re going through something difficult or scary in life, it’s the most natural thing in the world to want someone close to you; to go with you or to be right by your side. For the Christian, one of our dearest hopes in pain or trial is also that God Himself is close to us and present with us by His Spirit. We cling to verses like Prov. 18:24 (“there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother”) and Matt. 28:20 (“And, behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”) as anchors in the storms of our lives that God is close to us; the He is immanent and that He cares for us.
But how many of us in our trials and difficulties would also ask God to reveal His transcendence to us; just how very far away and separate He is? How many would go to verses like Ecclesiastes 5:2 (“God is in the heavens and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”), Isaiah 55:9 (“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”) or Dan. 4:35 (“He [God] does according to His will among the hosts of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him ‘What have you done?'”) to find comfort in our pain and confusion? It may seem incomprehensible to make such a request, and yet, I was reminded again recently in a difficult situation of my own, that without a clear understanding of God’s transcendence, His immanence (nearness) actually ends up being diminished in the comfort it offers.
The God who is near
All the verses and hymns and prayers for God to be close to us in our pain are absolutely good and right. God has promised to be near to us and to comfort the lowly and afflicted (Ps. 34:18; Is. 42:3). And because He is God, there is an additional comfort in knowing that we have access to His closeness whenever we need it; whether we are suffering in a prison cell in North Korea, or visiting hours have simply ended and we’re alone in our hospital bed at night. His presence is what brings us hope and comfort and joy (Ps. 16:8,11).
The God who is far away
And yet we must not be so captivated and focused on the immanence of God, that we begin to substitute the true picture of the God of the universe for what I once heard Alan Hirsch refer to as “Buddy-Jesus.”
For all of His closeness, He is also the God who is from before all things and the Creator of all things (Gen. 1:1, Col. 1:16-17); the God who has dominion over all things (Dan. 4:34b-35, Col. 1:17) and who works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). He gives and takes authority from kings (Prov. 21:1, John 19:11) and He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). And that’s just a fraction of all that the Scriptures have to say about just how far away and separate – how “other” – the God of the universe is from His creation.
Why far away is so good
Does that weaken your sense of God’s immanence? Does it make the comfort of God seem farther away and inaccessible in your pain and your struggle? It shouldn’t. Because you see, absolutely nothing about God’s transcendence cancels out a single thing about His immanence. The truth is, it makes it even more comforting.
Think about it:
- If God is not just near, but also far away and sovereign over all, that means He can offer us, not just a hand to hold at our hospital bedside, but healing from what’s put us in the hospital bed!
- If God is not just near, but also far away and sovereign over all, that means He does’t just carry you through the hard times (sorry “Footprints”) He carries you through every moment of your life!
- If God is not just near, but also far away and sovereign over all, that means He doesn’t just stand beside you as you go into that scary meeting or that difficult conversation, He also has the power to change and shape the hearts of the people you are facing!
In fact, it’s even the transcendence and complete “other-ness” of God, that makes Christmas and the Incarnation of Jesus so much of a bigger deal. Because it only highlights all the more just how incredible it is that this massive, transcendent, sovereign, holy God actually took on human flesh and really came to dwell among us (Is. 9:6-7; Col. 1:19; Phil. 2:5-8).
So if you’re going through some trial or difficulty today yourself, know that God is absolutely right by your side; as close as your very breath. But He is also completely “other” from you and able to act on your circumstances according to His perfect sovereign will in a way that can truly affect change (both in you as well as your circumstances).
And if you’re a pastor or a parent or a communicator of God’s word in any way, give the people you counsel and teach and comfort with the word of God a picture of both God’s immanence and His transcendence. I hope you’ve seen that understanding the breathtaking holiness, sovereignty, power and “other-ness” of God does not weaken or diminish the reality of His immanence and comfort in our trials. It is – in fact – the very thing that makes His immanence truly comforting.