I have heard, and continue occasionally to hear, faithful Christians talk about the lack of God’s presence in their lives. There’s no doubt they love Jesus and are eager to serve him, whatever that might mean in practice for them. But the sense of God’s presence alongside them is fleeting or non-existent, and this, for them, is a source of discouragement and dismay.
Notice that it’s the sense of God’s presence that they do not feel. If one accepts the doctrine of omnipresence, then God must be said to be present to each and every person at all times, regardless of whether or not one senses this presence. But this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. After all, who cares if God is merely present? Surely we don’t want simply to affirm the doctrine of divine omnipresence as we struggle through life.
However, it seems to me that, very often, those who lack a sense of God’s presence have only the most superficial of relationships with God. This sounds harsh, of course, especially in the light of what I wrote in my first paragraph. But however harsh it sounds, I believe it’s true. There’s no doubt that many Christians love Jesus and are eager to serve him, whatever that might mean in practice for them – but this love and service translates too often into doing things for Jesus without the appropriate balance of spending time with him in prayer and Bible-reading. An analogy could well be the stereotype of the hard-working man who grafts all the hours God sends to provide for his family, but all the while without even seeing his wife and children. So it seems to me that the reason why so many are saddened by the lack of a sense of God’s presence in their lives is because they do not practise any devotional exercises beyond arrow prayers or reading the chosen passage before the sermon in church on Sundays – assuming they still go to church, of course.
I’m being cynical and judgemental, of course. It’s not as cut ‘n’ dried as all this. Sometimes Christians fail to sense God’s presence despite persistent prayer and industrious Bible-reading. But this is surely a different issue, the so-called ‘dark night of the soul’, where God is arguably so present in one’s life that, counterintuitively, paradoxically, God’s presence is felt intensely as absence. However, the dark night aside, I do feel that if we neglect to pray, to read the Bible, to take time out to be with God – if we neglect these things, it’s no surprise that we will fail to sense God’s presence in our lives. Such things are traditionally the means by which we practise the presence of God. In the Old Testament, for example, God’s presence is maintained among the people of Israel by the rites of atonement (Leviticus) and by focussing on God’s word (Deuteronomy). And in the New Testament, the Eucharist (rites) is put forward as the means by which the risen and ascended Christ (God’s word made flesh) is made present by the Holy Spirit to and within the Christian community. So neglecting prayer and God’s word (in Scripture and in Christ, who is present in the Eucharist) is not really an option for the faithful Christian if s/he wants to recognise God’s presence.
But let’s return to my opening question: Does prayer create God? If our sense of God’s presence is cultivated by our devotional diligence, then isn’t it fair to say that our prayers actually create God for us? It’s this ‘for us’ that’s important here. Our prayers do not create God in any ontological sense; our prayers do not create God ex nihilo or conjure God up from nowhere. But our prayers and liturgical practices, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, somehow tap into the God who is already present and make God ‘real’ to us. The flip side of this is that when we neglect prayer or Bible-reading, God’s presence is perceived as absence. And once this neglect is prolonged, God, for us, may as well not exist at all, beyond an idea or a concept or a fantasy.