I listened as he shared his story with us. It was a privilege to be part of this sacred moment. God had redeemed so much in his life. His story was a beautiful example of grace and growth.
Then he stopped and looked down. “I’ve never admitted this before in a group.” Tears filled his eyes as he looked back up at us. “When people talk about feeling the love of God or experiencing His Presence, I don’t get it. I’ve never felt that.”
We leaned forward encouragingly as he finished his story. Afterwards, the group leader opened it up for questions and response. A well-meaning listener asked if he really wanted to feel God’s Presence and if he’d ever asked to feel it. They had suggestions for how to make it happen. The man was completely broken. He’d asked, prayed, and begged so many times and it had never “worked.”
A few years ago I would have been that well-meaning listener, and my answer would have been horrifyingly similar. But it’s not anymore. If you are someone who feels like they are missing God’s Presence, or if He seems distant, quiet, or nonexistent, please keep reading. I am not going to give you any Christianese answers or formulas, but I am going to remind you of some truth. 🙂
Paul prays an amazing prayer for the church in Ephesus in Ephesians chapter three.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” Ephesians 3:14-19.
I am obsessed with this prayer, absolutely in love! There is so much that could be unpacked. But I want you to look at the bold words “know” and “knowledge.” In the Greek they are forms of ginosko — an intimate, experiential knowledge. It’s more than just information we know in our head; it’s personal.
Jesus uses this same word in John 10 when He talks about knowing His sheep and His sheep knowing Him.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” John 10:14-15.
And He uses it again in John 17 when He tells us what eternal life actually is.
“And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” John 17:3.
Jesus obviously thinks it’s possible for us to know Him in a personal, intimate way. But I don’t think that our understanding of that knowledge is the same as His. And that’s where we get tripped up…that’s where we end up feeling like it doesn’t work for us and that God is far away.
Maybe you have been to a service or conference where the worship was amazing and people (including yourself) were swept up in an experience. The lights were dim, the music swelled, hands were raised, and people cried. We declare that “the Spirit was moving tonight!” We ask people if they “felt God’s Presence?”
Was it really God? Or was it just our own emotion?
I want you to watch something amazing. This is Huge Jackman practicing for the Greatest Showman. They definitely have an emotional experience together and it’s quite moving! It even looks a bit like worship… But while beautiful and inspiring, it’s completely secular. It has nothing to do with God. Guys, if they can do it, so can we.
We can create emotional worship experiences with lights, music, and energy that have nothing to do with the actual God. We can feel things emotionally and physically that are amazing, and yet are not really the Spirit. Emotional experiences do not automatically equate to God’s Presence. How’s that for truth?
Those spiritual highs we get during a retreat or a worship set feel incredible, but they are hard to hold on to in real life. And it’s very possible that they have little to nothing to do with a connection to the Real Jesus.
The Old Testament includes stories about a prophet named Elijah. He led a wild life and got to experience some amazing God moments. If you remember, Elijah was part of a crazy contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. (1 Kings 18) After the prophets of Baal spend the entire day begging their god for fire, the Real God shows up, sends fire from heaven, and burns up a sacrifice completely soaked in water. It was pretty spectacular.
However, not long after Elijah is in the wilderness asking God to take his life. He’s exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and he just wants to die. God sustains Elijah and eventually sends him to a cave to wait for Him. While Elijah waits in the cave a terrific wind passes by, but God is not in the wind. Next there is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. Then comes a fire, but God is not in the fire. Finally Elijah hears a low whisper…and immediately he knows it is God.
I think too often we look for wind, and fire, and earthquakes as an experience of God’s Presence and we forget that He is actually the quiet whisper.
Let me remind you of some truth.
- Didn’t God say He would never leave us? (Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5-6)
- Didn’t Jesus promise to be with us always? (Matthew 28:20)
- Didn’t Jesus say that He would send us a Helper? (John 14:25-26; 15:26)
- Isn’t the Holy Spirit our guarantee of salvation? (1 Corinthians 1:22)
Here is the simple truth.
If we have trusted in Jesus as our Savior, then He has given us His Spirit to dwell with us forever. It doesn’t matter if we can “feel” Him or not. He is with us. He doesn’t go away. 🙂
If the Spirit dwells within us, and He is just as much God as Jesus and the Father, then we have God with us always…in all His glory and power and majesty.
I think we often look too far away, and for too much of an experience. The Real Spirit is as close as our next breath. He is here with us, quiet, gentle, whispering to our hearts, giving us strength for the day, telling us truth, and pointing us heavenward. We might not be able to feel the Spirit in the moment, but looking back we can see His shadow and we can hear His footsteps.
I’m not against experiences, they just need to go in their place. When I stop to consider Jesus, and remember the Spirit, my body often has a physical response. Tears come to my eyes, or I feel tingles. But that physical response is not the Spirit…that’s just my body responding to truth. Jesus and His Spirit is just as real and just as close even if I don’t get tears or feel tingles.
One final thought. Everyone is different. We experience human relationships differently. Why shouldn’t we also experience our relationship with God differently? It’s okay if you don’t “feel” God like some people do. You are probably experiencing Him in your own way…look for that. This is about you and the Real God. He’s pursuing you in the way He knows you will respond to best. Let go of guilt and shame. It’s not from God! Let Him be who He really is and not who we think He should be.
OUR EMOTIONAL AND PHYSICAL RESPONSES DO NOT MAKE GOD ANY MORE OR LESS REAL THAN HE ALREADY IS.