The Withness of God

Social distance. Lockdown. Shelter in place. Quarantine. Self-isolation. Politicians, public health professionals and the media are implying (occasionally even stating) that leaving your house to mingle with others will almost certainly lead to sickness and death—yours or someone else’s—and it will be all your fault.

A few weeks ago, I was miserably sick for about a week. When I feel wretched, I want my wife, Beth, to stay close, care for me, make me feel better. But, no—she was understandably wary of the corona virus. We didn’t think it was COVID-19, but we could not be sure, so we stayed apart. She wouldn’t even take the TV remote from my hand unless I sanitized it first. It felt to me like “Unclean, unclean!”

Stories abound of people who can’t be with someone they love. Nurses stay away from their children. Weak, elderly parents cannot be visited by possibly infected family members. In these circumstances, nearness and touch—normally so precious—are dangers to avoid, so we keep a distance, wear masks and gloves, and isolate the sick from those they love. Such separation makes a terrible illness even worse, because, apart from their dedicated health care workers, many patients suffer and die alone. These heart-wrenching stories awaken deep longings and fears. We long to be close to our loved ones, and we fear being rejected by them. God created us social beings, and it hurts when people must avoid us.

COVID-19 is replete with parallels to our relationship with God. Sin is a relational and moral virus causing separation, pain, even death. Because of their sin, Adam and Eve were banished from Eden; likewise, our sin alienates us from a holy God and from other people. And because of the shame sin causes we hide behind masks, pretending to be “fine, thank you,” when the truth is that our souls are sick. Nor can we save ourselves from the physical and spiritual death we deserve.

Hallelujah—God has a cure! While God’s holiness cannot tolerate or even look upon sin (Hab. 1:13), in mercy, love and grace He has freely chosen to rescue us. So while sin separates and alienates us from God, He has reached down to reconcile us to Himself because He wants to be with us!  He really does!

As we have been hearing in Pastor Lance’s series of sermons on Genesis, God initiated intimate relationships with Abraham and his descendants. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, people prosper, succeed and are safe only when God is with them. This was true of Abraham in Gen. 21:22; and, in Gen. 28:15, God promised Jacob that He would be with him wherever he went. Then Joseph’s story has several verses like this: “...the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did” (Gen. 39:23).

400 years later, when God sent Moses to speak to Pharaoh, He encouraged Moses, saying, “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12). Then 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).

When I was young, I mistakenly assumed that Samson’s strength came from his long hair. His hair was just hair—like yours or mine—but it was a sign of his reliance upon God. The Holy Spirit was his strength (Judges 14:6, 19), until, because of sin, the Spirit was no longer with him (Judges 16:20). Without the Lord, Samson was powerless. And something similar occurred when, because of sin, the Holy Spirit departed from King Saul and came upon David (1 Sam. 16:13-14).

In the Psalms, we see David cultivating 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). “On my bed I remember You; I think of You through the watches of the night. Because You are my help, I sing in the shadow of Your wings. I stay close to You; Your right hand upholds me” (62:6-8). “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” (73:25-6). In 1998, as Beth’s father took his last breaths on earth, I read these verses to him. And then, in an instant, he was with God!

Best of all, though, are the many ‘withs’ of the Gospel: Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). He came to show and teach us how we could live forever with God. “I am going to prepare a place for you. And 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” (Jn. 14:2-3). Then Jesus prayed, “Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am... (Jn. 17:24). He knew what that would cost, and just hours later, He laid down His life for us. “Christ died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him” (1 Thes. 5:10).

Some glorious day, in Heaven, we will witness the climactic fulfillment of God’s desires to be with us and our desires to be with Him. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God’” (Rev. 21:3).

THAT, my friends, will be better than our wildest dreams! No isolation, quarantine or social distance. We will be with God and see Him face to Face. Soon, Lord, soon...