Question: "What does it mean to be in the presence of God?"
Answer: Adam and Eve had intimate fellowship in the presence of God before the fall (Genesis 3:8). Since that time, sin has prevented our ability to be in the physical presence of God (Exodus 33:20). Now only the holy, sinless angels are in the physical presence of God (Luke 1:19). But Christians have the presence of God within us by virtue of His indwelling Holy Spirit (John 14:23; 15:4), and that indwelling presence comes only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are aware of the reality of this presence from our obedience to His Word. “We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praise of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). Note that Peter says that “we are chosen people . . . belonging to God.” If we belong to Him, will He not be present among us? We never lose the reality of God’s presence, no matter how badly we fail; we never sin so much as to lose our salvation; we never sink so far as to banish the Holy Spirit forever. We can anger God because of our sin, but true believers never lose the presence of the Holy Spirit. While we will never lose the reality of God’s presence, we might well lose the “sense” of His presence.
Every child of God invariably goes through this feeling of losing God’s presence from time to time, like a landlord who has left his house and gone away on business for a while. He has not left the house completely empty, for, if he had, he would have taken all his belongings with him. But because he has left all his furniture and belongings in that house, does it not mean that he will return once again? Any believer knows that there are times of spiritual leanness where perhaps the Lord determines to test our faith. Does He not sift us; does He not push us through the winnowing flames of affliction that we might be all the more pure? (Job 23:10; 1 Peter 1:7)
But the practical upshot of being in God’s presence is joy! Many Christians go around gloomy and dejected because they lack this sense of God’s presence. The hymn “Trust and Obey” tells us there is “fellowship sweet” for those who walk with the Lord in obedience and faith. But the sweet fellowship that comes from obedience and trust in the Lord is not a mere fancy or passing whim. It sustains us, especially during trials, for “the joy of the Lord shall be your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). James, the Lord’s brother, writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trails of many kinds” (James 1:2) because trials produce faith and develop perseverance. When we persevere through trials, proving to ourselves and to others that our faith is real, our sense of God’s presence increases, as does our joy in it.
David speaks of a joy that only the righteous can know (Psalm 16:11)—a joy that is but a foretaste of a far greater and everlasting joy when we see the Lord’s face in the glory to come. The hymn writer John Newton spoke of these “solid joys and lasting treasures that only Zion’s children know.”