The Experience of His Presence
Different church traditions have different ways of expressing and responding to a conscious experience of God’s presence. In my own conservative Wesleyan tradition, the response often ranged from tears and raised hands to shouting and running the aisles. Yes, it looked odd to those who were not used to it, but it was a form of genuine worship. And while some might dismiss any demonstration of emotion in a service as shallow at best and hypocritical at worst, the importance of sensing God’s presence is found in discussions and writings spanning centuries and from a wide swath of Christianity, from Brother Lawrence, the Catholic monk in 17th-century France, to Jim Cymbala, the Protestant preacher in 21st-century America.
But far more important than what church history says on the issues is what Scripture says on the issue. The immediate problem, of course, is that “a conscious experience of God’s presence” is not found in any concordance. In fact, at first glance, the concept seems to be absent from the Bible, at least in the sense that we understand it. (I’m pretty sure that the Israelites were consciously aware of God’s presence while Sinai was engulfed in cloud and fire, but that’s a bit different.)
The New Testament is, among other things, a record of the spiritual life of the early church, and that which has been normative throughout church history should be found there. In other words, if the conscious experience of God’s presence is a part of normal Christian experience, then it should be reflected in some way in the experience of the early church and in the pages of the New Testament. But we don’t find Paul or John or Jesus exhorting people to seek to sense God, and we don’t find a description of people experiencing God’s presence or lamenting the absence of the consciousness of His presence.
Perhaps the passage that comes closest to an exhortation to “get blessed” is Ephesians 5:18-21, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” One obvious difference between “getting blessed” and this passage is that the phrase “giving thanks always and for everything” indicates that this is an ongoing state of life. And, of course, what Paul is describing is not just a temporary sense of God’s presence, but a result of being filled with the Spirit.
But what if that’s the point? What if the genuine experience of God’s presence is a result of being filled with the Spirit? And what if this conscious awareness of God’s presence should be – and can be – a regular experience of the Christian? In that case, the reason that we don’t find an exhortation to sense God’s presence in the New Testament is because it’s just one effect of the real need – being filled with the Spirit, walking in the Spirit, letting the Spirit so saturate our lives that we are brought into harmony with God and into an ongoing awareness of God. And there are plenty of exhortations to be filled with the Spirit, descriptions of people being filled with the Spirit, and examples of people who were, and were known to be, full of the Spirit.
Experiencing God’s presence is not an end in itself – it’s an effect of being filled with the Spirit. When we make sensing His presence the goal, we open ourselves up to numerous errors.
- We assume that an experience of His presence is a spiritual thermometer, indicating whether or not God is pleased with our performance of His commands. If we don’t sense His presence, then we must be doing something wrong, and so we embark on a careful scrutiny of our lives, hoping to figure out what the problem is.
- Or sometimes we act like an awareness of His presence is something that God simply grants or withholds, and so we beg Him to grant it, and assume that spending more time in prayer may convince Him to give it.
- Sometimes a conscious awareness of His presence is a shared experience, something God gives to the local, gathered body of believers. So when we don’t sense God, we think that maybe someone else is resisting God and quenching the Spirit.
- Or sometimes we think that an experience of His presence is His mark of approval on how we are worshipping, so to sense God’s presence, we need to re-create the conditions under which we sensed God’s presence in the past, hold tenaciously to the worship style that He blessed years ago.
And so we are left trying to figure out why He withholds the sense of His presence: maybe our worship style isn’t quite right, or we need to live more carefully, to pray more, to beg for God’s favor, in hopes that we might sense His presence for a few brief shining moments. We keep on faithfully, sincerely missing the whole point. We are searching for the garnish instead of enjoying the meal; struggling to find a few crumbs when He wants to give us the entire feast. God wants to fill us with His Spirit, to transform our lives and our character from within. And as that transformation happens, then we are open to an experience of His presence whenever He gives it.