The Gift of the Experience
As I understand Scripture, having a conscious experience of God’s presence is a gift of the Spirit. Not that it’s a spiritual gift in the same way that exhortation or discernment is, but it is a spiritual gift in a broader sense – it is a gift, freely given to us by the Spirit. And as such, it has some of the same dynamics as the more traditional spiritual gifts.
Paul’s dealing with the Corinthian church makes it clear that spiritual gifts do not prove spirituality, and one’s attitude toward spiritual gifts may even indicate a lack of maturity. Perhaps there’s a similar dynamic at work with experiencing and responding to God’s presence: our response does not necessarily indicate spiritual insight or maturity. In fact, placing too high a priority on sensing and responding to His presence, rather than on being filled with the Spirit, may indicate spiritual immaturity.
There’s also an interesting balance in spiritual gifts – they are granted by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11), but are under the control of the believer (1 Corinthians 14:32). In the same way, the sense of God’s presence is granted by the Spirit, but also depends on the believer’s openness to receive it. This would also explain why sometimes, one believer may have a strong experience of God’s presence in a worship service while another may not have any conscious awareness of God’s presence at all. It can be because of a spiritual lack or distraction, but it may also be simply because the Spirit chose not to grant it.
Perhaps a sense of God’s presence today serves some of the same functions that miraculous signs did in the New Testament. Paul, for example, wrote to the Corinthians, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Corinthians 12:12), and to the Thessalonians, “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). The power of the Spirit was demonstrated through signs and wonders, verifying both the authenticity of the messenger and the truth of the gospel, in much the same way that a genuine experience of God’s presence will be recognized by both believers and unbelievers today.
The experience of God’s presence empowers the believer and validates the gospel. The Spirit grants it at His will and when we are able to receive it. But the crucial point is that it is a gift from the Spirit. And the gift is less important than the Giver. The most essential issue is to be fully surrendered to God, to be filled with the Spirit. As we keep ourselves in that condition, as we develop an ongoing focus on God in our daily lives, the Spirit is then free to grant a personal or shared experience of God’s presence as He will.