The Trinity, Social Distancing, and Presence in Absence

The world is changing. We are being called to keep physical distance in a world that was already relationally distant.

Does distance from others mean that we cannot express our caring? Where is God in the social fabric of our unravelling?

Embrace and Created Space

Creating space for protection can be an act of love to keep the other healthy, which is a good thing. God creates a world with space and provisions. Eden was a garden space, with one tree for provision and nourishment (Gen 2). The other tree required social distance for the health of humanity. Eating from it would bring death, especially the social, spiritual, relational kind of death, but also the physical. However, a voice came to bring doubt and weave a lie that caused relational separation (Gen 3). It appeared that eating would bring wisdom and create social connection. But there was a hidden virus in the eating. It was invisible and judgmental, an exposure that set shame, blame, and guilt into action. It created the wrong kind of connection. All future carriers would not be aware of the future spread of the veiled disease that brings death. Up to that point, presence with God had meant distance from what destroys. But now a new kind of distancing emerged.

After this breakdown in the relationship with God, physical distancing from God and the Garden resulted in physical separation by leaving the Garden and the morning walks. This removal is seen by some as punishment,[1] but by others, it is seen as an act of protection,[2] lest their disease spread with potential immortality. The disease of violence and destruction was spreading, as brother killed brother (Gen 4) and eventually there was corruption and violence everywhere (Gen 6). This caused the breakdown of families and cultures who were physically close, but relationally distant. And then came the flood. God brought a one-time lockdown (the flood) on that situation—never to happen again. Extreme times may call for extraordinary measures, but they come with a promise and a reminder that connection is the goal, as symbolized in a covenant of promise (Gen 9).

God with us

But God did not leave humanity alone. His name is “God with us”—“Immanuel.” (Isa 7:14 and Matt 1:22–23). He went with his human creations into the world that he had provided for them. There was a new hiddenness, but also a new presence: “There is a presence in His hiddenness and a presence in His revelation.”[3] His is the story of being the connection-making God, even in the new eras of physical separation—both the time of the Old Covenants with Abraham and Moses, and the New Covenant in Jesus, leaving the Spirit are promises of presence in the eras of imperceptibility. The Great I Am became the Great I Will Always Be with You (Matt 28:20). The covenant-making God provided ways to counter the separation in unilateral acts of restoration and atonement. Even in the desert, this God gave provisions (Exod 16), as well as wisdom, in how to live in the times of not seeing the Presence of God (Exod 20). There were times of testing and wandering, but God created hospitality in the Tent of Meeting called the Tabernacle (Exod 33:7–11).

The God of Covenant is the God of Connection. The story of the Old Testament is one of ongoing spreading of the disease of separation. It is a story of sending frontline health care workers (prophets) to call the people out of their lack of concern for each other, including kings, merchants, and unfaithful Israelites. He was there to make atonement and bring justice to the broken in all their forms of dysfunction. But the people would not comply and eventually did what was right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). The disease spread and only a remnant believed the hope-filled news that a new day was coming.

People came to think that God’s transcendence meant God was practising social distancing as echoed in Job, Ecclesiastes, and many of the Psalms of Lament, but to transcend means “to go out beyond.”[4] In God’s case, this meant to go out beyond himself to meet and heal his people. God is not transcendent by being beyond our reach. He is not in quarantine in case we might infect him. Even in the decades of the wilderness wanderings, God did not bypass or abandon his people in distancing from them.

In the New Testament, Jesus comes as the Presence who steps into the midst of the social distancing and offers healing as his core commitment. He is the new tabernacle (John 1:14), the place of meeting.[5] When he met them, some people were healed and given new life. But many of the politicians and religious leaders could only think for themselves. In their religious blindness, they preferred to keep this one who claimed to be the healing presence of God at a physical distance so they could keep control. This was distancing with a selfish motive. Their agendas got in the way of God’s work.

Presence in Absence

But Jesus shows us that personal presence is not always about physical presence. In his ascension, he departs bodily, affirming connection with humanity, and yet moving to a distance as the mediator between heaven and earth.[6] He also keeps a presence in absence by sending His Spirit.[7] He promises to be with us in our spiritual distancing, no matter what. He shows us that there can be personal presence in physical absence. The field of the personal is unacknowledged by those who can only relate to the physical world.[8] But the Personal God is present and active in speaking and connecting through the Living Word spoken to us in Jesus, the Written Word, the Bible, that overcomes our distance by making His Word present, and the many ways we encourage and build up each other is His Word in action. This is more than an echo in the silence, it is the music of God that moves us to dance—at an appropriate distance!

The fact is that Jesus (and His Father and the Spirit) practice physical distancing for the sake of personal presence. They make hospitable space for us. Through promise, prayer, reading, and practicing the presence of God, we learn to become attuned. We accommodate ourselves to their way of the reconciling, sustaining, and acting. Our reception and participation in God’s life correspond to this restoring God who does not practice personal distancing.

In him, we move and breathe and have our very existence (Acts 17:28). That space is created in order for us to thrive and grow. Through making that space available, he makes it possible not to be overcome with a presence that would diminish our freedom. This God loves in freedom and chooses to maintain a certain physical distance that all might have spiritual closeness with Him. We now connect with him at the personal level, not necessarily at the social or physical level, although these can be used as places of connection. However, one can also be socially and physically present and relationally distanced from God and humans alike.

The Son, who was the physical presence of God here on earth, still has our human existence in heaven. He still mediates our distancing existence to make us new.[9] He promises to be with us and in us and bring us to live in him. Personal presence for him means that his promises still stand. He is still available to speak to us through His Word and Spirit. When we are conscious of his presence by paying attention, we know we are not alone—we are being sustained beyond the distance. He is not limited to somewhere else; he can be here and now. Absence with presence.

The Spirit is personally present as the very breath of life that sustains us. The Spirit also practices physical distancing, but not personal distancing. Our senses do not apprehend the Spirit’s presence, and yet in another way, we sense the Spirit speaking, guiding, and producing fruit in us that is the outcome of this personal presence. The Spirit connects us to others, including the Father and Son, in a manner that is entirely connecting and not distancing. This is much deeper than social connection, for we are always limited in our social connections. We manage life in social and cultural ways, seeking to maintain distance with scripted connections. The social life meets human demands for sharing space at the same time as keeping our distance. The personal life opens us for personal connection, with or without physical proximity. That is the work of the Spirit. The work is done on a whole different plane.

In attachment theory,[10] the healthy person grows up in a safe, secure environment.[11] They can make mistakes, be adventurous, be alone, or be together. But when there is love, there is always an environment that is safe and secure. If I think that others are unsafe, I will hide and be anxious. If I think that I am a problem I will become avoidant, distancing so as not to be exposed. If I think that others are a problem and I am not much better, I will become disoriented and alone in a fearful place of never belonging—a personal distance that fractures relationships. We live in a largely detached, distancing fragmenting world. This time we are currently experiencing is a wakeup call. We need to learn to pay attention to what we really need to be healthy, and it is not just avoiding getting sick.

The God revealed in Jesus is a God of presence. Most concretely, Jesus shows us a personal presence in physical absence. John Zizioulas, a Greek Orthodox theologian, talks about presence-in-absence. He describes it as that feeling you have when you have promised to meet someone at a café and they are late. They are personally present even though they have not physically shown up. Their presence is profoundly felt in that they are still absent.[12]

In the case of the Triune God, the promise is to be with us even when not physically present. This God has been physically present in Jesus. This God is personally present in all three who still speak and we respond. This God practices presence-in-absence. So might we. The Bible is a book of connections and distancing and how to survive them all with love that makes both achieve the end of healthy relating with God, our neighbor, our family, and ourselves.

Making Space for the Other

This Triune God empowers us to empower each other. Each person of the Trinity maintains a unity while making space for the distinctiveness of the others. So too, by God’s grace, we are revitalized to be connected in whatever ways we have available even as we make space. We can encourage, support, dream, help when necessary, and affirm our deep commitment to love one another. Social distancing is not personal distancing. Like never before, we have tools to transcend our social distancing and to personally connect. It will not always be that way. Maybe the window of our life at the moment is a dark and unclear barrier. Right now we cannot find fulfilment in having the things we regularly desire. But we will see one another face to face again (1 Cor 13:12), whether now, the end of winter, summer, autumn, spring, or in heaven. Maybe it will be a few months or maybe we will never go back to the way it was. When we do connect, and in whatever ways we attach, who we are as persons will be changed. We will know more fully and practically how to care for each other in our normal forms of distancing. We may even learn to extend a lifestyle of connecting or new ways of caring in our distancing. If we are changed, our learned capacity to love and share in creative ways will matter more than the hours and days and months we spend in isolation.

Remember, the real world is not just the physical world, it also includes the personal. There are no walls that can separate us from that experience of knowing and being known. That is the true connection for which we are made. Nothing can socially distance us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:39). Stay safe; stay connected. Explore personal connection as the authentic reach to the other, as theology in action.

Learn to leave behind what is unimportant, all those games of social tap-dancing that compel us to follow the rules of the culture. Life in the Spirit enables us to achieve joy and know we had a level of fun that was a gift, even from a distance. Distance is not quite the same as deep friendship. But the light shines in the darkness (John 1:5), and the voice calls in the wilderness (Isa 40:3). Be that light (Matt 5:16) and sing that new song Ps 33:3). Make straight the way of the Lord (John 1:23), which in this case is to find new ways to connect with presence in the absence created by social distancing. That Promised Land of connection takes time and willingness to find a way. The good news is that God has already come looking for you. Stop and hear His Voice, “I love you to death and to life again.” We are in a Holy Saturday, a time of separation and loss. We can see the past and what is lost.[13] But, the Resurrection is coming and it is the very life of God on display. There is no social distancing in the Resurrection—it is the reunion and communion of God and humanity, together again.

Marty Folsom, PhD (Otago, 1995) is a theologian, author, and speaker living in Snohomish, Washington, USA, whose heart feels no social distance from New Zealand as his second home.

[1] See a variety of images in Paul Morris (Ed.), Deborah Sawyer (Ed.), A Walk in the Garden: Biblical, Iconographical and Literary Images of Eden (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1992).

[2] John E. Toews, The Story of Original Sin (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013), 11–12.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God, Part 1, vol. 2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 476.

[4] Ray Anderson, Historical Transcendence and the Reality of God: A Christological Critique (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).

[5] Peter Walker, Jesus and the Holy City: New Testament Perspectives on Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 164.

[6] Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1983).

[7] “It is on that ground of the unbroken relation in Being and Act between Jesus Christ and the Father, of their knowing and loving of one another, and through the mission of the Spirit of the Father and of the Son to be with us and dwell within us, that the movement of Love eternally hidden in God has been revealed to us, and a corresponding movement of love has been generated in us toward the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.”. Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1996), 164–65.

[8] John Macmurray, Persons in Relation (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 15–43.

[9] “Jesus comes as our brother to be our great High Priest, to carry on his loving heart the joys, the sorrows, the prayers, the conflicts of all his creatures, to reconcile all things to God, and to intercede for all nations as our eternal Mediator and advocate.” See James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster, 1996), 2.

[10] In Attachment theory, the therapist discerns how one grew up in relation to one’s personal context. In a healthy setting one feels safe and secure, both loved by the other as well as being lovable. In an insecure relation, the other may not be safe, one may see oneself as unworthy and vulnerable, or both the other and self are disoriented and disconnected. Health in relational systems requires an awareness of the modes of connection and finding security and confident attachment, whether in separation or in each other’s presence.

[11] Ruth Lawson-McConnell, “Designed for and by Love: Working with Families from an Attachment and Interpersonal Neurobiology Framework,” in Stories of Therapy, Stories of Faith, ed. Lex McMillan, Sarah Penwarden, and Siobhan Hunt (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017), 77–97.

[12] John Zizioulas, "Human Capacity and Human Incapacity: A Theological Exploration of Personhood,"

SJT 28 (1975): 411–15, 420–22.

[13] Alan Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).