A Call to Holy Experience

I think I am about to ask a potentially dangerous question. My hesitation is not so much tied to the fact that I might be misunderstood, but that the issue I’d like to talk about could be misapplied in the lives of people trying to follow Jesus. That’s a big deal. On the other hand, I also see freedom and life that could come to those very same folks as a result of engaging in this conversation. Spirit of God, please lead us as we leap. Here’s the question:

Do you experience the presence, activity and fellowship of God consistently in your life? …and the corollary here, if the answer is no—are you okay with this?

Some of you have tried to draw close to God; pressing in only to have that fragile connection challenged by the tides of emotion or life circumstances. Maybe you had something for a little while, but it somehow just didn’t stand up in the midst of real life. Along the way, you have probably heard from some well-meaning folks that experiencing God is a bit of a fool’s errand. “Don’t worry, you shouldn’t expect to feel things all the time in your walk with God” has been a common, grandmotherly piece of advice. Hey, she’s awesome, knows alot and makes really good cookies. My concern is that we may have taken the partial truths from these caring words and simply given up.

Relationship as Metaphor?

If there is one phrase I have heard consistently in the last thirty-some years of teaching and encouragement in the church, it would be the invitation to a “personal relationship” with Jesus. It is a powerful idea—incredibly powerful. This may be a simple phrase, but it is a very Biblical idea.

Jesus came as a man. In the amazing act of taking on flesh, Jesus set aside the ways in which salvation and restoration with God might have been handled from a distance. Maybe His teaching could have been communicated through prophets. I wouldn’t want to diminish the mechanism of the perfect sacrifice required for sin, but also have to wonder if God (being truly God) couldn’t have simply declared it so from Heaven.

What I do know is that He did neither of these things. Instead, He drew near and took on the form that would, in the most powerful way exemplify an invitation to relationship.

Jesus lived a daily life. He walked this earth for the last part of that life in intense, shaping, everyday relationship with those closest around Him. The Twelve and a few others saw him eat, sleep and play. They walked side by side on dusty roads. They stepped into boats together, looked at the stars from Judean hillsides. They asked questions and tried their best to answer His. In every way, they had true and real relationship.

With this backdrop, I wonder sometimes what we really mean when we hold out a “personal relationship with Jesus” to those who want to follow Him. Maybe it’s more of a “distant-cousin who’s going to visit us again sometime in the future” relationship we are actually talking about? Because alongside this constant messaging there has been another one just as present—“Don’t expect to experience it”.[i]

Let me ask you: “How many close, personal relationships do you have where you have not had any experience or connection with them in quite some time (or ever)?” If this whole thing is anything more than a tidy metaphor (or at worst, a sales pitch), then that counsel makes no sense to me whatsoever.

Granted, there is probably some degree of inaccuracy in play here. We are trying to translate the world of human relationships into our relationship with God. But the Incarnation and life of Jesus leads me to think there is something powerful and deep we might be missing.

Do you feel like you were given a bit of a bait and switch in this whole following Jesus thing? Has it turned out to be a more of a “knowing about Jesus” than actually connecting with Him in a powerful, ongoing way? Here’s what I feel compelled to say, as strongly as I can:

God wants you to know Him in an ever-deepening way. He wants you to connect with Him, walk with Him. He is real and present, inviting you to an ongoing experience of this every day.

Please don’t give up. If you have already, please allow your heart to hope again–to consider that this might all actually be real. That the powerful connection and experience you were hoping for in following Jesus might really be possible.

If that is where your heart is, let me add some thoughts that I hope will be helpful.

Every day, real relationships are the best. Do your very best from this day forward to recognize and respond to God in all the circumstances of this life—every day. Lay aside any notion that your connection with Him is relegated to a couple of hours, one day a week. Pray continually? Yes–Jesus’ conversations with His followers were in the moments and context of the hours, challenges and commitments of everyday life. That’s why they (the conversations) were rich and transformational. They didn’t require specific ritual, time or form. Neither does yours.

Experience is real (and good), but not definitive. In all the ways that we experience other things in life, you can experience the presence of God. In the same way that the best relationships are bound by honesty and the truth of the relationship, the Bible is the absolute guide of truth in which to gauge experience. You simply can’t walk this path of increasing experience of God without a significant filter with which to keep things true.

Lean into consistent, intentional study of the Word here as well as trusted friends and solid pastoral input. Quickly reject experiences that fall outside the pale of what God has already said to us. He will never contradict Himself. On the other hand, also reject the attitude that says experience is too dangerous and to be held at arms’ length. This is neither God’s invitation nor example. It must be coming from somewhere else.

Relationships take time and attention. The distant-cousin metaphor has some meaning for me. I met some of our family’s distant cousins when I was little and have a very positive recollection of a short evening together. But that’s all I have. A current, rich relationship would have required more time together throughout the years and the development and care of that connection. If you want a full, ongoing connection with God, you will need to tend it faithfully. This looks different for different folks.

Some people connect to God powerfully in musical worship environments, others in deep Bible study, still others in exploring and appreciating His creation or serving the needs of the least and lonely.[ii] Awesome. Here’s the catch—sometimes we equate the tool of connection with connection itself. Don’t trade out singing the song to Him for simply singing the song. Don’t replace connecting with God over His Word with merely learning or reading it. Don’t simply appreciate the beauty of the created world; engage in thankfulness to Him in the midst of it.

Although these are all things that connect us to God and are encouraged Biblically, you probably have one (maybe two) ways that are your primary avenues to experiencing, and having fellowship with God. Drive that road frequently and don’t let anybody detour you.

One last word here: this road is long. I can tell you that my experience of God’s presence has changed and grown over the course of thirty-plus years. Please don’t give up just because what you have now is not what you want it to be. That is how things grow—they start small and undeveloped. Keep heading between the yellow lines and you will like where you end up. And finally,

God is as close as you could want Him. I can’t tell you how it works, but inside—literally inside of you somehow, is the Holy Spirit. Nothing less than fully God, Third Person of the Trinity–Comforter. You can’t read the first chapter of Acts without seeing the significance here. Jesus’ time on earth is coming to a close, but the invitation into relationship that He exemplified and made possible by the Cross will continue. How can this happen if He is leaving? The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and then….

There is so much about God that I am certain I know so little of. This is one of those things that makes my head hurt, but my heart sing. The indwelling of the Spirit in every Believer, and by extension the Church, is a truth so glorious that it is far easier just to set aside as a truth to simply be acknowledged. Far easier than engaging in what this might really mean. Regardless of whether you think the charismatic/sign gifts are for today or not, the bottom line here is that God actually lives in you and me. Constantly. Intimately. Amazingly.

Draw near and worship big.

Wayne


[i] For all that I love about the Four Spiritual Laws, the train image where feelings are at the back (pulled by facts and faith) is a potent message without much counter-balance.

[ii] An excellent resource for exploring this idea is the book Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas (Zondervan, 2000).

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