Exciting phrases, easy acronyms, and memorable lists formed from dense works of systematic theology can be helpful for the everyday Christian. While these reductions of God’s Word and His nature help us understand general frameworks, they are unable to help us understand everything the Bible teaches. It is one thing...
The term coram Deo (before the sight of God) has been used for millennia as a way to remind God’s people to live worthy of our calling. Unfortunately, instead of seeing the glory of the invisible God, our eyes tend to fall upon a thousand examples of sin and brokenness, our own and that of the world. We therefore wonder, How can we recognize more of God’s empowering presence? I think the following illustration may help.
Acting the Fourth Wall
Years ago, when I studied acting at the HB Studio in Manhattan, I learned Uta Hagen’s concept of the “fourth wall.” Simply put, in performance theater, the “fourth wall” is an imaginary wall located in between the audience and the stage. Actors are instructed to envision specific items on their fourth wall (eg. a sunset, farmland, urban sprawl, rolling ocean waves…whatever is required by the scene), keeping their eyes pointed toward this foreground.
In doing so, one’s face remains visible to the audience in a way that conveys integrity to his (dramatic)identity and calling. In other words, by giving attention to the unseen dimension, one’s mind, emotions, and countenance are lifted above the mundane theater environment in apprehension of a new world.
I remember when I first applied the fourth wall technique at the Studio. It was a monologue before an audience of fellow actors. Crazy as it may sound, it worked. I found the bright lights of the stage, against the backdrop of a dark theater, created a blurry haze on which I was able to visualize my character’s environment. (If my memory is correct, I portrayed a Sicilian mobster undergoing psychotherapy…a foreshadowing of Tony Soprano.) It was a transcendent moment.
Let me mention a couple of places where the analogy obviously breaks down. First, the presence of God is not a human invention, imagined and projected upon reality. God is ultimate reality, the One by whom all things have been created and are held together (Colossians 1). Secondly, instead of escaping from ourselves (by emulating other characters) we are called to be genuine. The more we encounter the living God, the more authentic we will be.
Living Coram Deo
With those qualifications said, here is how I think Hagen’s fourth wall can help us to live coram Deo. Just as an actor will concentrate upon his character’s foreground, we focus upon the reality of God’s presence, for it is there — in God himself — where we find inspiration and direction:
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. (1 Peter 1:8)
Yes, sometimes we feel isolation and despair. But we have God’s promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). Indeed, every hair of our heads is numbered (Matthew 10:30)…and if you’re bald, God knows every dysfunctional follicle. We will sometimes feel abandoned. We may feel defeated. We can even feel like hope has evaporated.
But this is not ultimate reality.
In truth, God is present; he is Immanuel, God with us. And he has promised to be with us unto the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). To what extent do we recognize this truth? When we do, our minds, emotions, and countenances are supernaturally elevated.
So where do we find inspiration to live coram Deo? It is in the realization that God is always leading us by his grace. As the Lord says through the Psalmist: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Psalm 32:8).