“Many of us may not believe” he commented with his usual jovial, yet serious tone, “rather we believe that we believe.” When I was attending the Southwest School of Bible Studies one of my instructors made this statement and set my mind racing. Did I really believe? Growing up in a Christian home I never really stopped to question my faith. The habit of church was such a part of my life that belief seemed given; now I questioned its reality.
Fast forward a few years to a dark night in East Texas. I forgot something at the church building so I slipped on my shoes and headed over (we lived in the parsonage right across from the building). As I walked I looked up and noticed the moon shining particularly bright in the blackness of the night sky. It was so beautiful that I stopped to take in its glory. As I stood in the stillness of the night, an overwhelming reality suddenly encountered me: someone made this—God made this. In that moment, God was more real to me than he has ever been. It was wonderful; a terrifying and exhilarating truth in the same moment. I wanted to bottle it up and take it with me. I wanted that perception to stay with me. Sadly, it didn’t.
Since that time, I have sought to live under that Presence in my daily life. I have failed magnificently in my endeavor, but thankfully the Lord is patient with me. My most frequent prayer request, besides forgiveness, has been that God allow me to have a greater perception of his reality. There have been fleeting moments; times when God, by His grace, allowed me to perceive this reality in a greater way. I praise him for those times.
I don’t think I am alone in this desire: to live daily in the conscience presence of the Almighty. We sing about it in our hymns:
Be with me, Lord
No other gift or blessing
Thou could’st bestow could with this one compare.
A constant sense of Thy abiding presence,
Where’er I am, to feel that Thou art near.
I have read/heard about many wanting to “feel” God’s presence in their life. Some in the church have tried to dismiss these desires as mere emotionalism. But I believe it’s more than that; at least it is for me. Rather, this desire is a movement of faith—the heart of faith really. The true child of God longs, deep within his being, to be with God. To see the face of God is the ultimate promise of presence to God’s children (Rev. 22:4). So, longing to realize and live with a constant awareness of God’s presence is an echo of our ultimate desire. Maybe we should be concerned if we don’t experience this aching.
So, if this is a movement of faith with emotional and intellectual implications, why is it that we struggle to live in that reality? I think this is a multifaceted answer, one that certainly can’t be fully developed within a single article. That being said, I believe there is one facet of this issue we can address from scripture.
In Romans 1 when Paul is addressing the world’s idolatry and descent into depravation he addresses the central issue:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Notice: through their unrighteousness they suppressed the truth. The truth about what? The innate truth of God’s reality. The world is without excuse in their rejection of God because he gives plain witness to his power in creation. Yet, if it is so evident, why do so many struggle in their faith? The Spirit says that we suppress the truth through our unrighteousness. Unholy living leads to spiritual blindness.
Here I think is a key truth as we seek God’s presence: if there is perpetual sin in our life we will constantly struggle with perceiving God’s reality. This isn’t to say that Christians can’t struggle in their battle with sin, or that we can be perfected in this life. What it means is that when I’m constantly watching porn, or maliciously criticizing people, or getting drunk on the weekends, or selfishly pursuing my desires, I inhibit my ability to “feel the presence of God.” These behaviors inherently suppress the truth of God’s presence. Perpetual sin blinds us to the perception of God’s reality.
This is a serious problem. Many of us deceive ourselves by thinking that we can remain in habitual sin and still be sanctified. Yet sanctification requires that we kill sin in our heart, eradicating it from our existence. This is a progressive process no doubt (a lifetime), but a process with a trajectory toward holiness.
James speaks of the resolution to this predicament in James 4.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
There are several promises in this short scripture that bring me great comfort. First, there is the promise of victory: temptation can be resisted and defeated in my life. Sometimes I forget that. Secondly, even in my brokenness and sin my Father wants to draw closer to me. What an exhilarating delight! Thirdly, the barriers that keep God from the horizon of my awareness can be broken down; they can be cleansed and purified. This means there is hope, and that my efforts play some part in this relationship.
The central focus of the text is God’s desire to draw near us. The submission to him and the rejection of sin focus on the promise of presence. But in what way does God draw closer? Obviously, this doesn’t mean physically, as when you draw closer to another human for affection. But, Paul says that God “is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27-28). So, God is accessible, just around the corner it seems, and at the same time distant (as he obviously is to the Christians James is writing to). What does this mean?
I believe the proximity James speaks of is a matter of perception. As we cleanse ourselves of sin, trusting more in God’s person and promises, submitting to his divine will and word, we become increasingly more aware of his reality in our life. That isn’t to say that this is simply a metaphorical “drawing” that only occurs in our minds. Something occurs, through the Spirit, in which God actually draws nearer into the life of his child. There is a beautiful mystery here, but one which, when experienced, is recognized by the Christian.
Again, this is a complex question, but one I hope we can discuss more within the church. I pray the Lord guides his people to live with a greater perception of his reality. That he will create in us, by his grace, a desire to rid our lives of idolatry and perpetual sin. Until we do, we are robbing ourselves of the sweetest fruit of the abundant life. We currently suffer with this insatiable craving, but the Lord promises incomprehensible satisfaction in the resurrection.
And so we pray: Lord, draw nearer, still nearer.
Lord, we long to know you, to live with a constant conviction of your glorious, holy presence. But how often we fail. At times we are ensnared in sin and convince ourselves we can never escape. And yet, you challenge these deceptions by your glorious promise. We can overcome, by your power and for your glory. Cleanse us from within Lord; purify our vessels; sanctify us for your joy and love. Allow us, by your grace, to live with eyes of faith focused on your reality, enduring till the end when you will bless us with the sight of your face. Lord Jesus come quickly. Amen.