Here is the cartoon that accompanies this essay.
Our constant prayer
Few pleas in prayer are more frequent than the request, “Dear Father, be with us.” It is our plea when we gather for corporate worship, when we go into battle, when we confront a daunting disagreement, and when we face financial collapse. “Be with me, Lord,” is the prayer of hospital patients, students about to take their final, and brides as they walk down the aisle.
This issue has a long-tailed history. The patriarch Jacob at Bethel makes the promise that seems more like a bargain:
If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth. – Genesis 28:20-22
As an expression of faith, Jacob’s conditional promise falls certainly falls short of his grandfather Abraham’s, especially in view of the preceding declaration of the Lord: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15).
The parting word of Jesus
At a similar moment, when the apostles are on the brink of a new frontier of faith – operating without the physical presence of their Master – Jesus offers them this reassurance: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). I believe we can safely assume that Jesus said this because the apostles need to hear it; they trembled at the prospect of once more being out in the boat, in the middle of the lake, tossed this way and that, in the middle of the storm, and Jesus-less.
Why so insecure?
Why is Jacob, and why are the apostles, and why are we so insecure, afraid of nothing so much as the prospect of being left in our rooms with the light switched off and the door shut? Is it that we walk by sight and not by faith? Our eyes of flesh look around that room and see no Advocate, no Comforter, no abiding Presence. We instinctively cry the poet’s prayer, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).
Help from Isaiah
The prophet Isaiah helps us to understand the dynamics of this perennial struggle. As the passionate and concerned representative of his people, the prophet cries out to God:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!
. . . You have hidden your face from us. . . .
Oh, look on us we pray, for we are all your people.
Your sacred cities have become a wasteland;
even Zion is a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation.
Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned with fire,
and all that we treasured lies in ruins.
After all this, Lord, will you hold yourself back?
Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure? – Isaiah 64:1,7,9b-12
To this, God immediately replies:
I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
I was found by those who did not seek me.
To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’
All day long I have held out my hands
to an obstinate people,
who walk in ways not good,
pursuing their own imaginations—
a people who continually provoke me
to my very face…. – Isaiah 65:1-3
The Cause of Separation
A little earlier, the prophet quotes the Lord as saying,
But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear. – Isaiah 59:2
This text reveals the haunting truth that has echoed in human hearts since Eden: We are hiding from God as our original father and mother did because of our sin. We don’t want the His holiness to burn away our excuses and scald us with its accusation, “What have you done?” We are afraid, so we hide, ignoring the voice of the one aware of our sin but still calling to us, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).
And even when we experience His forgiveness, our sense of guilt can still reinforce the perception of isolation and estrangement. Forgiveness that is true and deep means reconciliation. It means restored friendship. It means the embrace of the prodigal’s father and his kiss of welcome. It means, in fact, rising from the dead (Romans 6:1-7) and being set on a path of ever-increasing holiness that reaches its destination, eternal life (Romans 6:22-23), which is a paraphrase for everlasting communion with the God of community, the God of peace.
“God with us”
Knowing our insecurity and the constant need we have for reassurance, God sent His Son into our world, giving Him the name, “Immanuel,” which is Hebrew for “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:20-23). Jesus came to us that we might come to God and that we might never again feel abandoned or forsaken.
The familiar hymn that begins each verse with the plea, “Be with me, Lord” (lyrics by T. O. Chisholm, tune by L. O. Sanderson, 1935) offers this reassurance in a verse we too often skip:
Be with me Lord, no other gift or blessing
Thou couldst bestow could with this one compare:
A constant sense of Thy abiding presence—
Where e’er I am, to feel that Thou art near.
Memorize this verse; embed it in your heart and life.
Want to dive deeper?
Brother Lawrence. Practice the Presence of God. New Kensington, Penn.: Whitaker House, 1982.
Brother Lawrence (Nicolas Herman, 1605-1691) was a man of humble beginnings who discovered the greatest secret of living in the Kingdom of God here on earth. It is the art of “practicing the presence of God in one single act that does not end.” He often stated that it is God who paints Himself in the depths of our soul. We must merely open our hearts to receive Him and His loving presence, where ever we are, be it in a bustling kitchen or on our knees in prayer. A classic in Christian literature. This edition is abridged and updated, while keeping the essence of the message intact. It contains 4 parts: Conversations, Letters, Spiritual Maxims, and The Life of Brother Lawrence.
Online version: Practice the Presence of God: The Best Rule of Holy Life by Brother Lawrence.