Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
Some places on earth offer more temptations than others, some fewer. But it cannot be said that an idyllic place on this planet exists where we can escape all temptation. Some people assume that a life spent in world missions, in the service of one’s fellow man, in the service of the gospel and the church, might eliminate temptations, but even there the tempter finds us and our old and fallen nature shows itself.
I am struck by the words of that old honest unbeliever, Paul Theroux, who wrote of the mis-perceived notions about those Westerners who had, as he had, lived long in Africa.
People would say of me, in a passing way, as they always said of such do-gooders: “He devoted his life to Africa.” But that was not it at all, for it was just a version of Rimbaud in Harar: the exile, a selfish beast with modest fantasies of power, secretly enjoying a life of … scribbling and occasional mythomania in a nice climate, where there were not interruptions such as unwelcome letters or faxes or cell phones. It was an eccentric ideal, life lived off the map.
A story from an old Chinese man, from my church in Asia, illustrates the point. His son at six years old asked if they could move to a new place because there were too many devils where they lived. To which the wise father replied that that was impossible, for wherever they went they would find other devils were there as well. And the biggest distraction from living a life for God anywhere on this earth is the old man, our sinful nature, which goes with us everywhere. A “life of service” does not remove one from all temptation.
But there is also a positive side in this, that, as the psalmist wrote, we also find God wherever we go. We cannot escape His presence or His encouragement. In the darkest spot on earth, there He is. In our moments of discouragement, grief, sadness, difficulty, frustration, confusion, He is there, just as in our moments of joy and celebration.
The Hebrew words in Psalm 139:7 above are sharp ideas and notions – “flee,” meaning to bolt or run away; “Spirit,” also translatable as wind, that blows no matter where we go on earth; “presence,” meaning face and intimate, personal connection. And even in the prepositional phrases it carries the idea that no matter where we go trying to run from God we find ourselves face to face again. He is the One whose stubborn redemptive loves searches us out, calls us to Himself, and is unsatisfied with anything less than whole-hearted devotion.
Let’s not be satisfied with merely the Old Testament thought of God’s presence with us, as wonderful as that is, but let’s go to embrace the New Testament doctrine of His indwelling and filling. We do not merely go to find Him there, we also go and find Him “here,” within our lives. The secret of abiding in Him (John 15:1-16) is to do so with wholehearted devotion to Him. As we abide in Him He also abides in us, as He said, “Abide in me, and I in you” (John 15:4) or as the newer translations tend to put it, “Remain in me and I will remain in you.”
Many believers pray and long very earnestly for the filling of the Spirit and the indwelling of Christ, and wonder that they do not make more progress. The reason is often this, the “I in you” cannot come because the “abide in me” is not maintained. “There is one body and one spirit”; before the Spirit can fill, there must be a body prepared. The graft must have grown into the stem, and be abiding in it before the sap can flow through to bring forth fruit. It is as in lowly obedience we follow Christ, even in external things, denying ourselves, forsaking the world, and even in the body seeking to be conformable to Him, as we thus seek to abide in Him, that we shall be able to receive and enjoy the “I in you.” The work enjoined on us: “Abide in me,” will prepare us for the work undertaken by Him: “I in you.”
If a Christian cannot escape the old, sinful nature, neither can He escape the indwelling Spirit. God is there. Whatever sin blocks us from hearing His voice, we should confess and forsake and turn to Him.
Lord, there is no escaping the fallenness of this world, nor escaping the greatness of Your love. Let our thoughts dwell on You and Your compassion for us. As we abide in you, even so, as You promised, abide in us. Amen.
 Rimbaud (1854-1891) was a French poet who lived in self-imposed exile in Harar, Ethiopia.
 Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari (Houghton Mifflin co., New York, 2003) pp. 249-250
 Andrew Murray, True Vine, chapter “Abiding,” online edition: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/murray/true_vine.toc.html