A Psalm for the Expatriate

Where can I go to escape Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I live at the eastern horizon or settle at the western limits, even there Your hand will lead me; Your right hand will hold on to me.” (Psalm 139:7–10, HCSB)

When we told friends we were moving to Papua New Guinea, many said, “Now, where is that again?” I remember my mother saying, “Isn’t that where the head hunters live?” One friend sent me a photo of a Huli tribesman she found on the Internet and, in jest, asked if he was to be my new neighbor. I knew I was headed to a strange and distant place. I wondered if I would also feel distant from God – something I had experienced before.

Was this to be my new neighbor?

Was this to be my new neighbor?

Early in my Christian life I struggled with my sense of God’s presence. He seemed detached, like I didn’t really know Him. I felt like He was a stern, judging perfectionist and that I could never do enough to please Him. My ideas about God gained a foothold in my unsaved life and it wasn’t easy to shake my misconceptions. Many of my Christian friends have relayed the same experience to me. Without the Holy Spirit , our thinking is disproportionately affected by our temperament, personality and especially our relationship with our earthly fathers. As for me, I had to learn how to have a right relationship with God. Crucial to my learning was a proper understanding of one of God’s incommunicable attributes, His omnipresence. I came to know that whether He felt close or far away, He was in fact, present everywhere, transcending space and time, and even if I tried, I could not escape His Spirit or flee from His presence. The mercy and grace I found through the study of His word in those early years changed how I viewed God the Father. It was a hard-fought battle, but like many spiritual struggles, it was necessary for me to gain a new foothold in my thinking.

As I’ve grown in my Christian walk, God has continued to refine my view of His omnipresence. Becoming an expatriate challenged my perceptions again when I first moved abroad three years ago. To my surprise, I discovered that my American environment largely shaped my thoughts about God’s presence in other lands. Statements like, “you won’t be able to worship there” or “there aren’t any Christians there” or “it’s a Godless country” had great influence on me. These views were well-intentioned, but not accurate. I came overseas with the skewed perception that God wasn’t really present in the rest of the world, or where I was going anyway. What a humbling experience it was for me to learn that God was quite alive and very active in the Middle East. How silly of me to think otherwise, considering that, well…you know, it was the Middle East.

God quickly made His presence known in my first days in my new home in Papua New Guinea. Those days were blessed with the formation of friendships founded on a shared belief in Christ. More than anything, I see evidence of God’s omnipresence in His people He has placed all over the Earth. They are everywhere – He is everywhere.

You may feel God is distant, or quiet in your own life. You may struggle to see any presence of Him in your world. It helps to remember the words of the psalmist, ‘whether in heaven or Sheol, in the east or the west, You hand will lead, Your hand holds on’.

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