When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they lost the very thing they needed most—they were cut off from God’s presence. The rest of the Bible chronicles God’s plans to restore his wayward people. He makes promises to them—and to us—that centre on his presence.
This is the subject of Glenna Marshall’s debut book, The Promise is His Presence. She traces the theme of God’s presence through the whole narrative of the Bible. From the beginning to the end, God made a way to dwell with his people—through the tabernacle, temple, and ultimately in Jesus Christ.
Glenna interweaves her personal story throughout the book, demonstrating how God’s presence transforms a real life. In the past, Glenna’s suffering made her bitter, but as she desperately dug into the Scriptures she saw God was truly with her—and that this was all she needed. She writes:
“Scripture contains the history of God and His people and of their severed relationship. Always God gives Himself; always the people desire something else. His presence with them will always be enough to meet their needs, and yet they always struggle to believe that it is safe to rely only on Him.” (p. 25)
Glenna shows that this is the story of God’s people throughout history—and it’s the story of our individual lives too. We continually reject the promises of God’s presence in favour of our sinful desires, never thinking that God is truly enough for us.
One of the strengths of this book is how it’s structured around the storyline of the Bible. So many books (especially those on suffering) are experiential and self-focused, but Glenna roots the issue in biblical theology. It’s a difficult feat to write a book that is robustly biblical while also intensely personal. Glenna has done this, and wrapped it up in beautiful prose.
In the midst of great suffering, Glenna shows us how to conform our thoughts, desires, and prayers to the Word of God. Her life has not been easy—she has faced infertility, harrowing adoption processes, chronic pain, and intense church conflict. So when she exhorts us to rejoice in God in the midst of pain, it doesn’t feel like a cheap comfort. I found myself identifying deeply with her suffering, and encouraged to rejoice in God’s presence.
Many people who experienced what Glenna and her husband faced in ministry would have thrown in the towel. But she so clearly loves the body of Christ. In a chapter on the church, she encourages people to press into their communities: “In fellowshipping together, serving one another, and carrying one another’s burdens, we experience the sweetness of the Lord’s presence in other believers, and they in us” (p. 160). The church is one of God’s best gifts to us, a means of experiencing his presence. Even when it’s hard, we should gather together as a foretaste of the perfect unity which awaits us in heaven.
This is where Glenna wraps everything up—casting our eyes forward to eternity, where we will experience God’s perfect presence together forever. With that vision in mind, Glenna urges us to look ahead when we’re suffering:
“Let your suffering serve you. Let it speak boldly of the already/not-yet status that you carry as an alien and stranger who longs for a better home, a better country, and a Savior who will “transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself ” (Phil. 3:21). Because the truth is that these broken bodies are only temporary, and these sorrow-soaked days are a blip on the time line of eternity forward. We will be living in transformed, pain-free, tear-free bodies for a million years’ time and will still have just begun to enjoy them.” (p. 178)
This book will be especially helpful to Christians who are suffering and struggling to make sense of it, especially with long-term suffering like chronic illness. But I also recommend it to every Christian. We need the truths of this book deep in our bones before suffering comes. In our prosperity and ease, we must learn that God’s presence is truly what we need most. Then when suffering comes, we can hold fast to God and trust that he is using it for our good—to bring us closer into his presence.