Encountering the Surprising Presence of God

By Mark D. Roberts

August 24, 2017

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”

Genesis 28:16


Photo of men sleeping while sitting on public benches.Have you ever been surprised by God’s presence? Has God ever “shown up” when you didn’t expect him?

This happened to Jacob in Genesis 28. The chapter begins with his father, Isaac, telling Jacob to go to Paddan-aram (a plain in upper Mesopotamia; 28:2) in order to marry someone in Jacob’s kinship group. On the way to his destination, Jacob stopped to spend the night. There, he dreamed of a ladder (Jacob’s Ladder) that reached to heaven, with angels ascending and descending it (28:12). The Lord spoke to Jacob, promising to give him the land where he slept and to bless him with countless offspring. Like his grandfather Abraham, Jacob would be blessed so that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in [him] and [his] offspring” (28:14). Finally, the Lord promised to be with Jacob and keep him always (28:15).

When Jacob woke up, he realized that this had been no ordinary dream. God had truly appeared to him and spoken to him. Therefore Jacob said to himself, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!” (28:16). We don’t know exactly how Jacob envisioned God’s presence. It’s likely that he thought of God as dwelling primarily in heaven. Yet, the place where Jacob had his dream was also “the house of God” and a “gate of heaven” (28:17).

As I reflect on this story, I’m struck by Jacob’s statement that the Lord was present “and I did not know it.” For much of my life, and sometimes still, I lived with the assumption that God was present mainly in worship services, mission trips, evangelistic efforts, and, most of all, heaven. I assumed, as many Christians did and still do, that God would every now and then “show up” elsewhere. But, for the most part, God was not present in ordinary spaces and everyday experiences.

One of those places where God was mostly absent was the workplace. Sure, God might use someone in a special way at work, to care for a hurting colleague or share the gospel with an associate. God might occasionally “show up.” But, mainly God was to be found elsewhere, in more obviously religious places and activities. What a delightful surprise it has been for me to discover, along with millions of other believers, that God is truly present in every part of life, including the workplace. God is at work through his people at work. God is present with his church gathered and his church scattered. God is present where I work and where you work.

What about you? As you look around wherever you are, might you be able to say with Jacob and me, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it”?


Can you think of times in your life when you had an experience like that of Jacob?

Have you ever had a dream in which God spoke to you?

Have you ever had an experience in which you were not aware of God’s presence, only to look back and say to yourself, “God was there and I did not know it”?

What might help you be more in touch with God’s presence in your daily life, including your workplace?


Gracious God, I am so much like Jacob! I’m embarrassed to admit it, but, of course, it’s no surprise to you. I tend to expect you to be present in places like worship services, chapel, prayer partnerships, mission trips, and the like. But I can go through my day completely unaware of your presence, like when I’m ordering my lunch at Lucky Boy, or slogging through gobs of email, or sitting in a meeting that is both interminable and wearisome. Forgive me for putting you in such a small and predictable box!

Lord, may I be like Jacob, recognizing your presence when I wasn’t expecting it. Even more, may I be like Brother Lawrence, who learned to practice your presence even while working in the kitchen. Help me to be attentive to you at all times. Help me to expect you to be at work in me, through me, and around me.

To you be all the glory! Amen.


Photo Credit: “Day Sleepers crop” by Julio Rojas ; cropped by Before My Ken 14:48, 13 April 2009 (UTC) – originally posted to Flickr as Day_Sleepers. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.


This post originally published on November 4, 2015.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentaryJacob’s Stone Pillar

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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