You’ve heard of “The Cult of Personality”? A cult of personality is when an individual or people create an idealized and heroic public image of something or someone and then worship it.
There is also what I call “ The Cult of the Presence”. It is when we hold an idealized, unrealistic image of God that when lived out in this view, always ends in disillusionment and idolatry. In this view, God ceases to become a Person and becomes a thing, to be utilized and worshiped only for what He can do.
This can be found in the sad story of the day Israel lost the Ark of the Covenant - the sacred chest where God’s Presence rested as a sign that He was with His people.
In this incident, there was a puzzling disconnect between God and His presence - Between who He is and what He can do for us.
When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” 1 Samuel 4:3.
Notice that to the elders, God was a resource, not a relationship - something to be wielded like a Spear of Destiny. God’s presence had become a spiritual “Rabbit’s foot”, a “Cosmic Santa”, a good luck charm to be brought out only when you have bad luck or hit bottom.
I would suggest four ways we can know if God’s presence has become a “Cult of Presence” to us.
Used, not Engaged
When God is seen not as a friend but a resource, His presence becomes something we control at whim. A talisman we use to confront evil and change our outcome. It is the proverbial looking at God’s hand but not His heart where God is seen no differently than a doctor, lawyer, or mechanic who offers services when needed but we don’t really know the One offering the service. We can live in proximity to His promises and not His presence. His Word can become the fell sword we employ at need without knowing Him of who the Scriptures testify as “Christ” John 5:39.
Therapy, not Intimacy
Taking from God only the practical things we need: There are so many “How To’s” of Christianity being taught today - How to raise a better family, be a better leader, improve your marriage. We know that these things are important in our faith, but they should never take precedence over knowing Him intimately. If having an intimate relationship with God is not at the center of the “how tos”, then we are no more than cultured conservatives. As far as Paul was concerned, knowing God was THE most important thing a believer could do. Everything else could burn (Philippians 3:10-1).
Absolution, not Purity
When we use God’s presence “culticly”, there is a tendency towards excessive liberty. We make up the rules because there are no rules, after all, say some “The moral law is annulled in Christ”. Some of the modern extreme grace teachings are nothing more than the repackaged antinomianism (lawlessness) that the church has grappled with for centuries. Liberty becomes distorted into license, grace becomes disgrace, and all in the name of His presence. Yet it is impossible to be with someone and not resemble them in time. The theologian as well said, “Those who are saved, act like it” (Jude 1:4).
Public Service, not Divine Encounter
There are some whose whole religion consists of curing society’s ills with the occasional name of God thrown in. They run and promote amazing programs that help the poor and needy. We know that the world is in dire need of these things, and part of God’s plan entails addressing the human condition. These great sacrifices however should never substitute for encountering the living God.
Like Samson who wanted God’s power, but not His presence, he only sought to affect the world around him with His muscle, but didn’t want relationship. God as the divine subject becomes a divine object. This is why many years earlier the golden calf incident didn’t work out with Israel.
Matthew 26:11states, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me”.
So let’s spend time in His presence. Every victory, every breakthrough, every good work, and every hope is a result of being with God. Nothing else we do will matter if He is not the centerpiece.