“Let’s just bring down that glory cloud!” We were listening to a worship band play at a local coffeehouse. The leader was urging the people to participate, trying to stir up their enthusiasm for worship. As a worship leader, I fully sympathize with his plea. However, I was little surprised by the language he employed. Was he really asking for the unshielded glory of God – the unapproachable light Moses experienced – to come and visit us in these humble surroundings? At a similar experience, Isaiah fell down and cried out, “Woe is me!” But, as I looked around, no one was hiding under his or her chair. Clearly, our expectations were muted.
Misunderstandings about God’s presence are prevalent these days, particularly in the worship community, and are often reflected in the words that we choose when we speak or sing about it. For example, you may have heard the term “manifest presence” tossed around, without much clarity regarding what it actually means. Typically, it is used to suggest a kind of immediate, dynamic experience of God’s presence that is sensed through one’s emotions or spiritual perception. In this understanding, we encounter God’s presence in a special way as we worship together.
Some of the confusion is created by importing Old Testament ideas and language about God’s presence into the New Testament era in which we live. Clearly, a great deal about worship changed between the Old and New Testaments, particularly the manner in which we approach God and experience His presence. While all heaven and earth are certainly “before God’s face,” in the Old Testament era there was a special manifestation of His presence – a glory cloud, if you like – that resided in the innermost court of the Hebrew temple. Because the glory of God was instantiated in that place of worship, His presence there was experientially different from anywhere else.
Fast forward thousands of years to current times, and you will find many worship leaders continuing to employ this same idea, claiming that “God inhabits the praises of His people” in a unique way as they worship together. As I mentioned, however, much has changed in worship between the Old and New Testaments – in a word, Jesus. The glory of God left the temple in Ezekiel and is never said to have returned. Instead, it reappeared in the person of Jesus, the incarnate glory of God. When He ascended into heaven, Jesus sent His Spirit to dwell in our hearts, and there His presence remains for those who believe in His name.
God’s presence now dwells within us in a special way, regardless of whether or not we find ourselves in a conventional worship setting. According to Corinthians, our bodies are now the temple of God in the Spirit, so our experience of His presence is no longer tied to a particular time or place. Because of the Spirit’s indwelling, we carry a temple around within us, making our entire lives into dynamic venues of worship. A glory cloud is a step down from what we have been given.
We are tabernacles for God’s glory in the world, and so both our praises and our actions become offerings designed to bring glory to His name. That is, after all, the primary purpose for worship: we are composing a declaration of God’s greatness for Him and for all those around, drawing attention to who He is and what He has done. In this manner, we bring Him glory.
While worship is about God’s glory, however, it is also about our transformation. God could reveal Himself in a glory cloud every time we worship, just as He did with the Israelites, and that would certainly be a thrilling experience. However, I question whether it would create lasting spiritual growth in our lives. The fiery pillar never seemed to impact deeply the hearts of the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness. Would we respond differently? We are probably far more interested in God revealing Himself in a sensational way than He is. Indeed, our desire for His “manifest presence” in worship might have more to do with our appetite for experience than with His glory or our growth.
Still, I can’t believe that it is wrong for us to desire God to manifest Himself in our worship. Perhaps we are simply using the wrong yardstick to measure His presence, expecting feelings of exaltation as the only proof or residue of His genuine activity. For myself, I find that the work of the Spirit in my worship is as often about convicting me of sin as it is wowing me with wonder.
While God will occasionally empower our worship in an exhilarating way, making us all aware of His presence in a more dramatic fashion, I believe that the work of His Spirit is usually quiet and internal – a still, small voice inside. It is this kind of “manifest presence” that I desire and expect to see on a regular basis and, I believe, is the manifestation that we should pray and hope for in our gatherings.