Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
There are lots of pretty songs out there with lovely melodies. I guess you have your favourites. The 1990 hit song “From a Distance” sung by Bette Midler is a popular choice for many people, written by singer/songwriter Julie Gold.
It is a nice song, which became a big hit and is still considered a classic. But there is a problem. The chorus says:
From a distance we are instruments
Marching to a common band,
Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace,
They’re the songs of every man.
God is watching us, God is watching us.
God is watching us from a distance.
I’m not sure what message Julie Gold was trying to get across, but she is wrong. God does not watch us from a distance—God is with us and is closer to us that our own breathing. Our culture has, unfortunately, become obsessed with this idea that God has left the scene. And many believe he is not deeply involved in our world—that he keeps his distance. Bette Midler was wrong when she intimated God was way out there somewhere in heaven, miles away, untouchable and unreachable.
God came near to us
In his book Seeing God in the Ordinary, Michael Frost tells of attending a strange and yet wonderful church worship service. It was held in a dusty church fellowship hall. The service itself sounds like something of a mess. A children’s play was followed by someone cracking jokes and doing magic tricks. Then a woman with a Broadway-sized voice came out onto the stage and began singing Bette Midler’s pop hit “From a Distance.”
The main line of this song, repeated over and over, is that God is watching us, watching us, watching us from a distance. The basic idea is that God keeps an eye on the world, but only from a safe distance. Indeed, life’s problems would not seem nearly so bad if we looked at things from a distance too.
Frost says in his book that this seemed like an odd choice of songs for Christian worship:
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…but we all politely listened, until halfway through a woman in the front row could stand it no longer, jumped to her feet, and strode onto the platform. Then she burst into singing the same turn but with the following words, ‘God came near to us, God came near to us, God came near to us.’ (Michael Frost, Seeing God in the Ordinary, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000, pp.14-15).
Emmanuel, God with us
I think most of us prefer the old saying, “What the Bible expresses so clearly is that God has drawn near to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.” As the message about Christ spread out over the Roman Empire, this was a crucial part of the message. When Paul engaged with the sophisticated Greeks in the city of Athens he chose to quote one of their own poets when he said, He is not far from each one of us.
God does not give up on us either and the story of the Bible is the story of God searching after men and women who have turned their back on him. If we feel that God seems remote from us, it is just possible that the problem is with us.
So God is not a remote God watching us from a distance, but powerfully present, eager to enter into friendship with us, for he is truly Emmanuel, God with us. The Apostle Paul said:
For in him [God] we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28 – NIV).
We can take great comfort in knowing that God is out there—but we really don’t want to be challenged by a God that is too close. We might think, I don’t want God invading my personal space. The proper place for God is far away, not interfering too much, not disrupting too much. Everything looks better from a distance, and that’s especially true about God.
“Am I a God near at hand,” says the Lord,
“And not a God afar off?
Can anyone hide himself in secret places,
so I shall not see him?”