God’s Presence in Bedrooms and Dung Beetle Holes
Two of my three year old daughter’s favorite questions just now are “where is God?” and “where is Jesus?” These are, I guess, fairly obvious things to ask about Persons who are regularly discussed and addressed in our home but, to her way of thinking at least, never make an actual appearance. As is true with most questions she asks, she knows the answers by heart from having heard them so many times. And so I typically put the questions back to her. “Where is God?” I say. This question is one we actually put to her long before she asked it herself, as part of a well-known children’s catechism. And so she answers appropriately: “God is everywhere.” She knows the answer to “where is Jesus?” not from any particular catechism as such but from my own consistent response to her questioning. “Jesus is,” she begins, and waits for my nod of approval to continue, “at the right hand of God the Father in heaven.”
For now, at least, she’s satisfied with those answers (and even more so with her ability to produce them), and rather than try to improve upon or properly qualify them, I try to get good mileage from them at appropriate junctures in her life. So, for example, when she’s reluctant to go to bed and expressing some degree of distress, whether pretended or real, about being left alone in her room, I remind her first of all that she is never alone because God, who is everywhere, is with her. I remind her, secondly, that Christ’s high priestly work, which finds expression both in the sacrifice He made for our sins and in His ongoing intercession for us at the right hand of the Father, tells us all we need to know about the sentiments of this God towards us. I remind her, in other words, that God loves her far more deeply and richly than even her mommy or daddy ever could, which is something Christ’s cross and heavenly session abundantly demonstrate.
God’s presence, by virtue of His omni-presence, in even the most unlikely of places is a practical truth, especially when one finds himself or herself in one of those places. This is something Erasmus appears to have forgotten in his debate with Luther over the freedom of the human will in the mid-1520s. Intending to demonstrate that certain doctrines, even if true, have little if any practical value, and so should not be proffered to the masses, Erasmus appealed to the datum that “God, according to his own nature, is not less present in the hole of a beetle… than in heaven,” which truth he argued “would be unprofitably discussed before the common herd.”
Luther responds by reminding Erasmus that God, not us, knows best what we need to know about Him. Whatever God, in other words, has revealed about Himself in Scripture—for example, the fact that He is present even in the most unlikely places (cf. Psalm 139.7-10) — is practical, whether we can always and immediately grasp its usefulness or not. But Luther doesn’t miss the opportunity to attack Erasmus on the turf of Erasmus’s own chosen example. Luther is quite happy, in other words, to spell out for Erasmus the utility of the truth that God is present even in the hole of the beetle.
“You are wrong,” Luther writes, “in condemning as unprofitable the public discussion of the proposition that God is in the hole or the sewer.” Upon the surface, it seems as if Luther has upped the ante considerably by putting God in the cloaca—a Medieval Latin term which could be translated “sewer” or “latrine”—in addition to the beetle’s hole. In actual fact he’s merely making explicit what was implicit in Erasmus’s illustration. When Erasmus referenced the scarabeus (the ‘beetle’), he had in mind that particular beetle which makes its home in and feeds upon feces: the dung beetle. Erasmus’s reluctance to put God in the beetle’s hole, then, had much to do with the sanctity of the space in question, and very little to do with the size.
Luther, by way of contrast, has no trouble envisioning God in the dung beetle’s hole, not because he believes such an environment—or really any environment—matches God’s dignity, but because he’s properly tuned in to the extraordinary and humiliating lengths God is willing to go to in order to achieve his purpose of being a God who is with and for His people. “The Son of God,” after all, inhabited “the womb of the Virgin and came forth from her belly.” In doing so He assumed human flesh. “What is fouler than that?” Luther asks.
Recognizing God’s presence in the beetle’s hole, then, is first of all a matter of fidelity to Scripture. “Scripture testifies that God is everywhere and fills all things” (cf. Jer. 23.24). But it is also a rather extraordinary comfort to the misfortunate person who finds himself or herself down the beetle’s hole (as it were). Thus Luther finally puts the critical question to Erasmus, and shows how Erasmus’s theological reticence leaves people without hope when they need it most: “Are we to suppose that if I am captured by a tyrant and thrown into a prison or a sewer—as has happened to many saints—I am not to be allowed to call upon God there or to believe that he is present with me, but must wait until I come into some finely furnished church?”
God’s people find themselves in some confusing, lonely, frightening, and downright disgusting places. God is there with them, wherever “there” might be—a child’s bedroom, a beetle’s hole, a sewer, or somewhere worse. The lengths God went to in order to be with us in our humanity are sure testimony to His loving presence with us in every other conceivable setting.
Dr. Aaron Denlinger is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College.