Whenever I pray with others I usually thank God that He is not distant and far off but with us. I do this as a reminder to myself and others that when we pray we are not crying out to a God who simply created the world, got the ball rolling, and then stepped back to leave us to our own devices. God is not far away. He is not apathetic towards the human project. It’s bad theology to think of God as distant from creation.
However, I’m coming to realize that this isn’t a danger for most Christians. We don’t generally think that God is far off. Rather, we have the opposite problem, we think that God is too close.
Now, let me clarify.
God is close. But, God can only be close because He is totally and utterly distinct from us. We often talk of God as if He is simply part of the created order. Or, perhaps, that He is the height of human capacity and ingenuity. When we talk about God as one who is within us and one whom we can experience tucked away by ourselves we are in danger of confusing Creator with creation, I think.
Let me say it again. God is totally and utterly distinct from us. In the words of Karl Barth, God is “wholly Other”. If we could somehow add up everything that is (the entire universe), the God who reveals Himself to us in Jesus could not be found in the sum. This is the meaning of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). God as Creator is distinct from creation. God is not a creature. So, God is not close in this sense.
How then can we maintain that God is “totally and utterly distinct” and yet “not distant and far off”?
The answer is the gospel, the identification of God with the man Jesus who hung on a Roman cross. Because God identifies himself with Jesus, because the one killed on the cross truly is the Son of God (as the Centurion confessed) for us this means that God has come near to His creatures.
And this is good news. But it also means that we do not set the terms for how we experience or come to know God. God is nearer to you than you are to yourself, but not in the sense that He is some sort of mystical inward experience. God is nearer to you than you are to yourself in that when the Son of God experienced death on the cross he did so for you and I, and that this God transformed death and thus humanity in that Jesus lives.