On November 10th, just after the 2016 presidential election, Franklin Graham was interviewed by the Washington Post about the outcome of the election, and in it he stated that he believed “God showed up”, something he also posted on Facebook. Since then, I’ve seen a few other uses of the phrase “God showed up” in various contexts.
There are a few things I’d like to point out about that phrase, and why I don’t think it appropriate to use in this context:
1.) God is everywhere
This is a no-brainer for those who believe in the “omni”s about God. He’s omnipresent. That means that he ALWAYS “shows up”, because he’s never absent from a place. That means that with every crime that has ever been committed, with every lie that a teenage girl has told her friends about another girl, with every act of adultery a husband has committed against his wife, with every rape or genocide or act of injustice, God was there.
That’s what makes the Christian conception of sin so heinous. Every time someone uses the gifts that God has bestowed upon them – gifts of personal agency, or of power, or of choice – and uses them to do evil, an infinitely holy God is desecrated. It’s not that God wasn’t there when evil things happened, it’s that he was there with you, suffering in every act of evil.
So, when those like Franklin Graham say that “God showed up”, it needs to be clear that God was always going to be there. God didn’t forget about election day in 2000 when Bush beat Gore, or in 2008 when Obama beat McCain, or in 2016 when Trump beat Clinton. God doesn’t just show up when your side wins, and wasn’t absent because your side lost. God always shows up because he’s trying to call all people everywhere to His side.
2.) God’s presence intensifies and rarefies
If God is omnipresent, then what do we do with scenarios in scripture where He seems particularly present or absent? There are stories of him coming to visit Abraham (Genesis 18), or leading the nation of Israel through the desert with a pillar of smoke or fire (Exodus 13), or when His presence filled the temple during its dedication (2 Chronicles 5), or when Jesus walked the earth as God-with-us.
There are also stories about God hiding Himself from people. The Psalms are full of references of God “hiding his face” (Ps 17, 39, 55, etc). The prophets proclaim that God had hidden his face from Israel and Judah because of their evil (Jeremiah 33, Micah 4, etc.), and scripture even says that God divorced Israel (Isaiah 50:1, Jeremiah 3:8, Hosea 2:2)! God’s presence is withdrawn from the temple in Ezekiel 10.
Not to mention, we have to contend with the problem of Christians being indwelled by the Holy Spirit. If God is everywhere, in what sense can Christians claim that they have the Holy Spirit when others don’t? Isn’t God’s Spirit everywhere?
The reality is that God being omnipresent doesn’t imply that His presence in every place is equal. God’s presence intensifies where he specifically wishes to work, and it rarefies where the people are far from him. When people draw near to God and purify themselves, God draws near to them (James 4:8), and his presence – which was always there – intensifies.
It makes sense to say that “God showed up” when his presence intensifies, but it is really appropriate to say that about this election? John Calvin wrote “a wicked ruler is God’s wrath upon the earth”. Since both of the candidates are deeply problematic (though in different ways), I think it wise to refrain from saying that God’s presence particularly intensified on election day, at least in any positive way. Trump has encouraged violence at his rallies and coyly suggested the same against his opponent. He has appealed to racism, been accused of sexual assault, bragged about his sexual advances on women, and suggested domestic and foreign policy that can do no less than provoke violence between people and nations. I’d have similar, though different, words if Clinton were elected. Are Christians really willing to celebrate that “God showed up” on election day just because Trump won? Or it just as possible that God might be hiding his face?
3.) God’s presence brings justice and judgement
Habakkuk isn’t the most popular book of the Bible, but it does tell us something interesting about what happens when God shows up – he brings justice with him. Habakkuk, it seems, is surprised that asking for God to bring justice has implications for him as well. Every one of us should pray for God’s justice to come, but each of us, whether we voted for Trump or not, should consider the ways in which we’ve been tangled up in evil, and what it means for God to come to judge. Justice just might mean that those who believe they are right and righteous because their candidate was elected (or wasn’t elected!) will find themselves in an uncomfortable spot. I’ve found that Christians, in general, tend to believe that God is on their side because they are Christians. But God doesn’t work that way. God isn’t on the side of Christians. God is on the side of those who weep and mourn, those who are poor in spirit, those who are peacemakers, who are merciful and pure in heart. Inasmuch as Christians find themselves identifying with these characteristics and embodying them, they are on God’s side, not the other way around.
The upshot is that asserting that God has shown up, without substantial ways to point to justice, is moving towards false prophet territory. Just because we like what happened doesn’t mean that God did it, any more than the Cubs winning the World Series means that God “showed up” for Chicago. That’s almost the definition of vanity.