But what about…
We’ve looked at the biblical idea of God’s glory, and the biblical foundation for having a conscious sense of God’s presence. But there is one important question that we need to tackle: why does there seem to be little correlation between genuine godliness and “getting blessed” or experiencing God’s presence? Sometimes those who are the most responsive in service are also harsh, critical and even dishonest outside of service. Not always, of course – many are sweet, godly people who consistently displayed genuine Christlike character. But frankly, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent correlation between “getting blessed” and godliness of life and character. Talking with friends makes it clear that this is not limited to conservative Wesleyan circles; whatever our church background, we have probably all seen people who seem to readily respond to God during worship, but whose lives show a distinct lack of Christlikeness.
Obviously, sometimes there can be genuine hypocrisy. Someone can simply pretend in order to gain influence or to salve their conscience. But let’s not just assign blame without seeing if there are other possibilities – and there are several.
First, being human, we are affected by our emotions, sometimes strongly – and heightened emotion can be mistaken for God’s presence. Emotions are not based on level of spirituality, so people can “get blessed” in church while displaying very un-Christlike attitudes. In 2000, I went to a political rally for then-candidate George W. Bush – there was so much excitement in the air that it was impossible to sit for more than a few seconds before standing back up. Lots of emotion, lots of response, but not because of God’s presence. And in a service, sometimes “God’s presence” is simply high emotion.
Second, sometimes a person’s wrong attitude is a result of immaturity, damaged emotions, or wrong habits of thinking or reacting rather than a lack of the Spirit. Maturity takes time, healing takes time, unlearning and re-learning thought patterns takes time, and one can be in step with the Spirit and enjoying God’s blessing while the process is far from over. In this case, one can genuinely experience and respond to God’s presence even while one’s life and attitude are less than they should be.
Third, the experience of God’s presence can be “contagious.” I once had an opportunity to pray with a Hindu man with whom I’d developed a friendship. He was in the hospital at the time, and as I prayed with and for him, there was a definite sense of God’s presence. His family, also Hindu and unfamiliar with Christian theology and terminology, afterward spoke of the “vibrations” that were present as I prayed, saying, “The great Lord heard you.” Unbelievers picked up on the experience of God’s presence and recognized it as something unusual and supernatural. Paul speaks of a similar situation in 1 Corinthians 14:25, when in response to hearing prophecy, the unbeliever would “worship God and declare that God is really among you.” Sometimes, when one person senses God’s presence, others do as well regardless of their spiritual condition. And so Jesus’ promise regarding the Holy Spirit is fulfilled: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38).
So there are several possibilities as to why some not-very-spiritually-mature people may sense and respond to God’s presence: it could be mere emotion, it could be a genuine awareness of God by a spiritually-immature person, or it could be sensing and responding to another’s genuine experience of God’s presence.
My mother had a saying that she used quite frequently: “I’m glad I’m not God.” What she meant by that was that she didn’t have to figure out who was right or wrong, who was a genuine Christian and who was not. When we are around those who are responding to God in worship, we don’t have to worry about whether they are being hypocritical or genuine, whether or not their lives reflect Christ’s character. We can genuinely worship, join with others in genuine worship, and let God figure out the rest.