The first is religious activity. Activity is something we control. We can choose when to begin, how much to do, and when to stop. We can look back upon our own efforts and pronounce the pleasure of God. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most “church work” has the character of human activity as opposed to the presence of God. How many of us return home from a church gathering and say, “I encountered the presence of the Living God.” Indeed, how many of us even attend such activities with the expectation that we will encounter him? Our use of business models for marketing and meetings are especially dangerous in this regard. We feel affirmed because we have drawn big crowds for God, even if he declined to attend.
Jesus ministered to crowds of people as well, but he also attended feasts with his friends, who sometimes happened to be tax collectors and sinners. They hung out together with no other objective than simply being with each other. They were people who valued his presence and truly longed to hear his voice. Yet we sometimes confuse work with friendship. Friends may in fact work together, but the difference between professional colleagues and friends is that friends share mutual affection and desire to spend time together apart from any “useful” task. When our religious activity is over, do we leave Jesus at the office?
The second great competitor to God’s presence is our theology. We often confuse knowing the truth intellectually with encountering the truth experientially. In our day understanding is overrated and personal experience is underrated. Our attempts to honor the Lord with our minds have sometimes caused us to become suspicious of any experience with him in our hearts. Make no mistake: Biblical revelation is important. It should be used to interpret and mediate our personal experience, but in the last two centuries Christian scholars have focused on rational exposition of the scriptures almost to the exclusion of personal experience with God. In the academy, and many pulpits as well, personal experience has been downgraded to anecdotal evidence and treated with suspicion if not outright hostility. Even a useful tool such a Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws suggests that our faith requires only facts and faith, but not feelings. From the very beginning of their new life in Christ, converts are warned about the dangers of emotions. No one shares with babes in Christ that the first and greatest commandment includes loving God with our hearts as well as our minds. This has resulted in Christian congregations who have no real expectation that God himself desires an intimate relationship with them. Just as Thomas a' Kempis said, "I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it," we must not mistake intellectual argument for relationship with God. The man who has experienced the goodness of God is never at the mercy of someone who has an intellectual argument against it. The Apostle Paul warned, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (I Corinthians 8:1 ESV)
Finally, consider these famous verses: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28: 18 - 20) Jesus never intended for us to be disciples or to make disciples apart from the personal experience of his presence. To make disciples apart from the active presence of Jesus is to make disciples who look like us, not Jesus.
Amazingly, opening ourselves up to the presence of Jesus is not any different from developing a friendship with anyone else. He goes where is welcomed. He stays and develops friendships with those who order their lives around him. What, then, can we do to teach ourselves to recognize and enjoy the presence of God? Check back next Thursday!