We’ve talked about the presence of God for the last two weeks, not as some theological idea, but as a living reality. (You can read those two posts here and here.) Let’s go after it! I’d like to suggest at least five ways to encounter God’s presence.
The first step in experiencing the presence of God is to take the Biblical witness seriously. For example, consider this list:
- Then Moses said to him, "If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?" (Exodus 33: 15-16)
- Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. (Psalm 139: 7 – 8)
- For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18: 20)
These passages are well known, and that’s dangerous: it becomes easy for us to dismiss them as inspirational thoughts rather than receive them as a description of reality. If we choose to acknowledge the reality of his presence we must honestly evaluate whether our experience matches God’s statement of the way things really are. Will we allow these passages (and many others) to become normative for us? The plain message of scripture is that God is highly relational and desires us to experience an awareness of him daily. Do we really believe this?
Second, we should order our lives in ways that allow us to experience his presence. The spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude stand in the forefront here. In our day, more than any other time in history, there are distractions from the moment we wake until we fall asleep. Elijah found the presence of God in a “still small voice,” or as another translation pus it, “a gentle whisper.” (I Kings 19: 12) Or take the example of Jacob, while fleeing for his life, who learned a similar lesson only after God spoke to him in a dream: "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it." Jacob’s experience is instructive: he was unaware that God’s presence was all around him. Like Jacob, we must tune our senses to perceive the presence of God. Why not seriously try silence and solitude for an hour—or a day! This is not mysticism, it is discipleship.
Third, we should consider the joyful example of others. Throughout history the witness is consistent, namely, that those who have been most aware of God’s presence have experienced the joy and peace that flow from that relationship. Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite, discovered that daily activities did not have to block an awareness of God’s presence. He experienced “little reminders” from God that “set him on fire to the point that he felt a great impulse to shout praises, to sing, and to dance before the Lord with joy . . . the worst trial he could imagine was losing his sense of God’s presence, which had been with him for so long a time.” John Wesley, a buttoned-down English cleric, had experiences of God’s presence that changed his life and ministry: his journal describes not only the feeling of his heart being “strangely warmed” but later describes that God sent him “transports of joy” again and again. Wesley’s case is particularly instructive today because in North America many church leaders emphasize scholarship over feelings as the foundation for discipleship, but Wesley had received the finest religious education his country could offer but did not personally experience God’s presence. Those who would dismiss joyful behavior as mere emotionalism somehow fail to brand depression and despair as equally emotional expressions as the lack of God’s presence. The testimony of scripture is “you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16: 11) Perhaps this is why Richard Foster lists “celebration” as a spiritual discipline: we must teach ourselves how to respond with thankfulness and joy to his presence.
Fourth, we need to consider more than our individual response to the presence of God. His presence has implications for our life together as the church. Together we are the bride of Christ, and he longs to bestow his presence on the assembled church as well. It is popular in our day to embrace Jesus and shun the church. Popular, but incorrect. For example, suppose I were to enter into a relationship with you, but also shun any relationship with your spouse. Would you accept friendship on these terms? “I like you, and I want to be with you, but please keep your spouse far away from me!” Such a friendship would be in peril from the beginning, and we put our relationship with Jesus in peril if we openly reject his bride.
Simply put, if we want to experience the presence of God in every way possible, we must look to encounter his presence within the church. This is a tall order because in our highly individualistic society, church-bashing is fun and easy. We have considered church attendance and membership to be matters of consumer tastes, as accessories to our lives. We assess everything about a church service—the music, the preaching, the seating, the people—everything except whether we met Jesus there.
Finally, there is one more expression of God’s presence available for disciples today—the power of God. John Wimber, founder or the Vineyard movement, said that power of God is in the presence of God. For those Christians who embrace the possibilities of miraculous signs and wonders in ministry, the secret is not to seek some special spiritual empowerment, but rather the tangible presence of God.
The earliest followers of Jesus understood that their beliefs had no authority in the world unless the presence of God was demonstrated after they proclaimed the coming of God’s Kingdom. In addition to forgiveness and reconciliation, the miracles of healing and liberation from demonic oppression regularly authenticated the preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Those who heard the message of the gospel of the Kingdom of God could also witness the presence of God in their midst.
This list is not complete, but here are five ways to start pursuing his presence: take the witness of the Bible seriously; order our lives in a way to let him in; embrace joyful thanksgiving as a path to his presence; look for him in the church; and understand the connection between his presence and his power. Here ends the “lecture,” let the “lab” begin!