“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
Living among a busy and distracted people, followers of Jesus need to live in God’s presence. We do not need a theology of his presence: We need the experience of his presence. He is here, now. Are we awake?
The first step in experiencing the presence of God is to take the biblical witness seriously. We are told time and again that God is near—why does he feel so far? Worse still we’ve trained ourselves to dismiss the scripture as inspirational thoughts rather than a description of reality. To know his presence we must honestly evaluate whether our daily life matches God’s revelation of the way things really are. In biblical narratives, in its poetry, in the gospels and in its letters, 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 or desire this? This question is vital, because believing is seeing.
Second, we should order our lives in ways that allow us to experience his presence: We must train ourselves to recognize his presence. The spiritual practices of silence and solitude do not conjure up God’s presence; they help us awaken to God’s presence. 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). Most believers think prayer is talking to God, and it is—but only in part. The larger part is listening to him. Have you ever prayed without saying a word, but simply sitting in silence, tuning your ear to that gentle whisper? Why not seriously try silence and solitude for just 10 minutes, or an hour—or a day! This is not mysticism; it is relationship.
Third, we should consider the joyful example of others. Throughout history the witness is consistent, that those who have been most aware of God’s presence have experienced a joy and peace that flow from life with him. Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite, discovered that daily activities did not have to block his 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. Wesley shared that God sent him “transports of joy” again and again. His case is particularly instructive today because in North America many church leaders emphasize scholarship over feelings, but Wesley had received the finest religious education his country could offer but he did not personally experience God’s presence until after he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” 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)
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 people of God; he longs to bestow his presence on the assembled church. 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 refuse 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.
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 authenticated the preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Those who heard the message of the Kingdom of God also witnessed the presence of God in their midst.
This short list is not complete. They are a starting point. Why not re-think your life in terms of this five suggestions: Take the witness of the Bible seriously; order your life 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!