And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. (1Kings 18:26)
Elijah challenged the Baalites to a miracle-duel on Mt. Carmel, to demonstrate to the spiritually vacillating Israelites that there really was only one God. In this tragic but comical scene, the Baalites desperately try to get the attention of their God. They cry out, dance, shout, cut themselves – but there is no answer. Elijah mocks them, suggesting that their God must be busy, or asleep.
It seems we Christians often feel like those Baalites. We think we must get God’s attention. We use prayers that suggest that he is far off or distracted… “Hear our prayer, Oh Lord!” or “Come, Holy Spirit!” We talk about “coming into the presence of God” or “coming before the throne of grace” or “Heaven opening to us”. We try to pray fervently, or worship enthusiastically, or give sacrificially, or fast diligently, so that God will listen and grant us favor.
These are all biblical ideas, aren’t they? Well, yes, they are. They are metaphors – images of interaction with God – that can be helpful, but can also be quite harmful. If we take these ideas literally, if we believe that God really is somewhere else, and that we must go to him, or draw him to us, then we can easily become like the Baalites, pathetically crying out to the God who does not hear. Or worse, we can become proud of our spiritual prowess, our ability to get his attention when others cannot.
Jesus said he would never leave us, that his Holy Spirit would live within us. Paul writes that the Spirit within intercedes for us, and lets us know that we are God’s children. Yes, God is far beyond, he is limitless. But he is not far away. He has a permanent connection with his children. His presence is within. There is no distance between his throne and our hearts. We are always before him, his face is always shining upon us, we always have his ear.
So why all the language of distance? I think it is simply the way that we feel many times. It is the language of biblical writers who did not perceive that God was near. If we feel that way, it’s probably a good idea to be honest with God about it. But like David, in expressing his longing for God in so many psalms, we can move past the doubt and into the assurance of the abiding presence of God within. We don’t need to get his attention – we need to give him ours!
God’s still small voice speaks within. Much of our frenzied spiritual activity drowns out his voice. Our noisy efforts to get his attention deafen us. We call on him with our anxious questions and requests, and he whispers to us “Hush, child, and I will answer you!” And if we continue our vain repetitions, we will never hear him. Our greatest need so often is simply to be quiet.
Let us believe his promise. Let’s trust that he is within, that he has not left us, or that he has remained in a remote heaven where he cannot hear. Let us not always be trying to get closer to God, or draw him closer to us. There is no gap between us, but there often is a gap between the way we think and act and his thoughts and actions. That is the gap to be closed. And the beginning of that movement is the assurance that he is always near, and always whispering within. Tuning in to the voice of God is the first step to aligning our path with his. Then he will have our attention, and we will see him.