Jon Stovell’s Notebook


On why “fully” is a bad description for divine presence

In response to the statement that “If God’s presence was fully with us then surely the evil and alienation and suffering would end.”

That depends on what “fully” means. Does it mean “concretely,” “observably,” “manifestly,” etc.? Does it mean “deeply,” “intimately,” or “in the heart”? Does it mean “transformationally”? “Gloriously”? “Victoriously”? “Ubiquitously”? Something else?

If we are using quantitative metaphors (fully, partially) to talk about how concretely or manifestly God is present, then no, God being fully present doesn’t mean the end of the old order. It doesn’t get any more concrete and manifest than the incarnation—one could literally see, hear, and touch God in Jesus—and that did not bring the old order to its end.

If we are describing God’s presence with quantitative metaphors as a way to discuss how he relates to us, then once again, no. The Holy Spirit dwells in us already (corporately and individually) and is “closer to us than our own hearts,” but the old order is not ended thereby. Paul does use quantitative metaphors to talk about how the Spirit’s presence now functions soteriologically (i.e. as a downpayment on our future inheritance of glory), but this indicates how our salvation is not yet fully realized, not that the Spirit is only partially present to us. The Holy Spirit’s real, full, and true presence in us today is precisely what enables us to face the ongoing reality of the old order with faith that evil, alienation, and suffering will end.

If “fully” means “gloriously” or (more to the point) “victoriously,” then the statement is true. God’s ultimate triumph over evil will mean the end of the old order of things.

... But does God’s “full” presence properly mean his being triumphantly present? Was God less present at the stoning of Stephen than at Peter’s healing of the lame man outside the gate called “Beautiful”? Was God less present on the cross than at the transfiguration?

Perhaps we need to understand the relation between God’s presence and the existence of evil in a different way. I suggest that it’s not a matter of how much God is present vs. how much evil and suffering there is. “How much” is not the right sort of relation at all; it isn’t a matter of degree, but of mode. The right question is “In what way is God present in the midst of this suffering and evil?” Or better, “How is God acting in the midst of this suffering and evil?” The cross requires us to see God himself nailed to it, God himself surrendered to death and submitted to it. Our God does not negate evil. He does not make it as if it never were. No, he takes it, goes into it, and from the depths, he changes it! He rises from the grave not as a negation of death, but as the subversion and transformation of death. He rises with the nail scars in his hands and the gash in his side, but now they are wounds of glory. They have not disappeared; they have not ceased to be wounds inflicted on him by nails and spear. But they no longer hold the power of death, for they have been transformed into wellsprings of life. The life that flowed out of those wounds into the void has proven to be inexhaustible, and now the void is changed. Eschatological new life arises where there was only death, new life where there was only destruction, because God is there, too.

So, do we still see suffering and evil in our world because God is not fully present? No. Our world still contains brokenness because God is currently present in a mode of kenotic redemption, subverting evil into good and transforming suffering into new life. We look forward to the day when this work will be complete and he will be present in the mode of glory, having won his victory via transformation rather than negation. But in the meantime, we suffer not because he is only partially present, but because he is not yet finished the work he is doing in us and our world.