God’s Presence in an Age of Social Distance

If you're anything like me, you had never heard the term “social distancing” before last spring. Now it’s a phrase indelibly etched in our collective vocabulary, destined to define the year 2020 for generations to come. What once seemed strange and foreign now seems almost (dare I say it?) normal. 

The little circles on the floor at the grocery store, the empty row between you and the people in front of you at church, the ubiquitous face shields and masks—all visual reminders to keep your distance. For many of us, connections with loved ones, especially those in residential care facilities, have been either eliminated altogether or reduced to online platforms such as Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime. These forms of technology have been gifts of God’s grace in the last six months, but we all recognize that seeing someone’s face on a screen is a poor substitute for being with them in person. 

Aren’t you glad that our God doesn’t have to practice social distancing? While we may be told to keep our distance from everyone else, God is still near.

At the end of his most famous psalm, Asaph the choirmaster proclaims, “The nearness of God is my good” (Ps. 73:28 NASB). I must admit that I haven’t exactly lived those words every moment of the past six months. As we’ve watched the world appear to come apart at the seams, it’s hard to believe that God is near. And if He is, at times it’s even harder to believe that His nearness could possibly be defined as my good

The psalmist understood that. No, he wasn’t acquainted with coronavirus, national elections, Twitter, or hashtags, but he did know something about evil people getting the upper hand. He witnessed the prosperity and comfort enjoyed by wicked, violent, arrogant mockers and at one point believed that his faith was worthless (Ps. 73:3–14). But when Asaph remembered his God and began to worship, he boldly declared that God’s nearness was his good. And it’s my good too. And yours.

But why is God’s nearness my good? The world is still so bad! Scripture gives us the answer: God’s presence expels fear. The most common command in all of Scripture is “Do not be afraid,” often paired with God’s gentle declaration, “for I am with you.” 

Consider these words from the prophet Isaiah:

Fear not, for I am with you; 
be not dismayed, for I am your God; 
I will strengthen you, I will help you, 
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
(41:10)

The author of “How Firm a Foundation” paraphrased that and other verses in Isaiah 41 for the final stanza of his hymn:

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake.
1

Perhaps you’re familiar with the hymn sung to its more common tune, “Foundation.” What you may not know is that previously, the hymn was more frequently sung to the tune of “Adeste Fideles,” or, “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Think about how the lyrics to the hymn’s final stanza sound when sung to the familiar Christmas tune:

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, 
I’ll never, no never,
I’ll never, no never,
No never forsake.

Sung this way, we hear God reiterate ten times His enduring faithfulness. David Powlison comments on this:

Our hymn takes God’s simple “I will not” and says it ten times in a row: “I will never, no, never, no never—never, no, never, no, never forsake you.” Far more than a mere doubling, this is a promise to the power of ten. It is pastoral wisdom, helping us to hear the fierceness and triumph of God’s lovingkindness. You will never be abandoned. You will never be alone. He will never give up on you. Never forget this. Never forget. Never, never, never forget that he will not forsake you.2

Fear, anxiety, panic, and dread have taken hold of our world. Rioting, violence, natural disaster, and pandemic have made the world a place that our selves from just a year ago would scarcely recognize. If you’re like me, you’re looking forward to 2021, hoping that it will be “better” than 2020; but will it? We can drive ourselves crazy wondering if the ship will be righted, if the unemployment rate will drop, if the economy will rise, who will reside in the White House, and on and on. 

My friends, we don’t know what tonight’s news will tell us. Will we hear of more violence? Another hurricane on the horizon? Another outbreak of COVID? We may fear for our health, our retirement funds, our jobs, and our loved ones. But in this age of anxiety, let’s cling to the One whose nearness is our good. Today, tomorrow, and forever. Do not be afraid, for He is with you!

A version of this post originally appeared at biblestudynerd.home.blog.

1“How Firm a Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord,” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/text/how_firm_a_foundation_ye_saints_of.

2David Powlison, God's Grace in Your Suffering (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), pg. 112.

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About the Author

Cindy Matson

Cindy Matson

Cindy proudly hails from the great state of Wyoming, land of more antelope than people (officially), more tumbleweeds than antelope (unofficially), and one four-year university (Go Cowboys!). She was transplanted to the Great North of Minnesota after attending college in Wisconsin (even farther north!). While she enjoys writing, her day job for the past twelve years was teaching English and Spanish to seventh through twelfth graders (hence the enjoyment of diagramming). Cindy loves her husband, her son, her crazy black dog, coffee, peanut butter, chocolate, reading, basketball (playing, coaching, watching), winter, playing the guitar, the Green Bay Packers. She hates: humidity, ketchup, the New England Patriots, humidity, stuffing, parades, and humidity. She writes at biblestudynerd.home.blog.

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