Christians are taught to “know” and love God. And for some, their experience in the faith leads them to moments of perceiving God with them. Here I’m not talking about some strange incursion into your life by some spirit-like presence, perhaps in response to some crisis or loss in your life. The web is full of such event-induced testimonies, and, no doubt some are true, and some are even God.
No, I’m referring to times typically of quiet reflection in which you sense the reality of God with you. These episodes are far more intense and immediate than the Spirit-filled Christian typically experiences. They are (for me at least) very rare. (I certainly am no mystic.) But they do happen.
It is reported that Aquinas, exhausted and nearing the end of writing his Summa Theologica, had such an experience. He apparently experienced the presence of God in a Mass that so affected him that he was convinced to give up his writing. Pressed to keep on and finish, he replied “I cannot, because all that I have written seems like chaff to me.” Of course chaff is that waste component of the wheat plant that is routinely thrown out and burned. As he never related the details of his experience that led him to this conclusion, we’re left guessing. But clearly he perceived God or something of God that made all of his elegant theo-philosophy seem as waste.
This is the natural result of perceiving the Almighty. How does one describe such an encounter? The problem we have in articulating the nature of the presence of God (however fleeting) is that we’re human and we use written or spoken language to communicate. And our vocabulary is simply not equipped to express the nature of the presence of God. This is to be expected, since words come about to express things or ideas that are commonly experienced and understood amongst people. The perception of the immediate presence of God is not one of those things. We (and the characters of the Bible we read about) are great at expressing a need or complaint to God. We’re great at thanking Him for meeting our needs. But we’re totally inadequate at expressing what it’s like to be with Him.
The best I can offer are some word phrases expressing what I have sensed. These are descriptions of the sensation of His presence – the environment of His presence, not feelings that I’d call personal:
- Calm, sure, immensity or boundlessness
- Confident assurance – all is well and as it should be; He is 100% in control
- Limitless peace and well-being
- Purity (Leviticus 11:44) and profound strength
- Enveloping warmth and love
Now in the Bible, we see a different picture of God. We see a smaller, less in control God primarily because He is interacting throughout with smaller, out-of-control people. Anyone who has to interact on a micro level with small, failed people must in some way reduce Himself to something approaching their level simply in order to communicate and relate. These interactions shouldn’t diminish God in our eyes, but they unavoidably do when in reality their purpose is to simply show how feeble and limited we are.
To the Israelites, their God was simply their sugar daddy – their protector and provider. When they needed something, they went to Him. When they didn’t need something, they paid Him no attention and lived as they wanted to live, in ways contrary to His wishes and instruction. In such times, God has to play the role of disgusted parent or school principal, carrying out discipline on his unruly children. That is hardly a role that reveals unspeakable power, glory and magnificence.
So we find God attending to Israel’s apostasy, dealing individually with the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.; being affronted by apostate Kings of Israel and Judah and, of course, being demeaned, mutilated and ultimately murdered by the Romans, Sanhedrin and Pharisees.
The God we see in the Bible is but a shadow; a reflection, of the true reality. He is “other” (Isaiah 55:8). If your only understanding of God is from the pages of the Bible, you’re missing Him.
So how does one come to perceive the reality and presence of God? Good question. I suspect it has nearly, if not exclusively, nothing to do with you. I can’t tell you, for the very few times I’ve had the experience, what led to it. But we can trust that God has His reasons.
To the extent it has anything to do with you, there are some exercises that may, perhaps, be beneficial. It would seem logical that the more time you spend in concentration on Him, the better the chances you will encounter Him. May I suggest focusing your mind on some facts we know:
- He “spoke” the Universe into existence
- He specified the laws of physics by which the Universe operates, and provides for the existence of you and I
- He ordained (or specified) you before the Creation, and which of His sub-atomic particles He would ultimately knit together to form you billions (if you’re a scientist) or thousands (if you’re a literalist) years later.
- He specified the design for every living thing in all of their intricacy and unreproducible complexity, and then made them.
- He, in making us, imprinted on us His image so that we could commune with and love Him
- This is a little different, but perhaps useful. Those who trust in God for their lives and who purpose to live in obedience to Him by faith, we’re told, are given life eternally with Him. Eternity is a state outside of time. There are no tenses in eternity other than the “eternal now”. (As He and Jesus said, “I Am”.) If you will be with Him after your physical death, you are now, and have eternally been, with Him. Whoever has, or will, come to Him, is with Him “now” – in eternity. Think about it.
In short, fill your mind with His acts of creativity and power and love (through Christ’s sacrifice) and dwell on these things for a time without distractions. They will perhaps lead you closer to perceiving His essence.
There are some parts of the Bible that are helpful here. For example:
“The Heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11)
The Creator of everything conveyed on humanity His image so that we can commune and live with Him. He didn’t just create un-God-aware plants and animals, though that would have been spectacular enough. He created us to know of Him and to know Him, to steward His creation, and to be His representatives.
The Bible also features many metaphors contrasting God and His people – Master and slave; Father and child; Lord and subject. Think of any violently contrasting roles in terms of position or importance or capability: infinitely superior-woefully inferior. The idea is to properly position yourself mentally so that you assume the correct posture with respect to being in His presence.
Having said all this, should we charge off striving to sit in God’s presence? No, I don’t think He intends for that to be a consuming goal for us, though I do believe that He intends for us to experience His presence.
Jeremiah 9:23-24 Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches,  but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.
Proverbs 8:17 I love those who love me, and those who diligently seek Me find Me.
Proverbs 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!
But while we’re still here, He has other, higher priority jobs for us as His representatives, as John reminds us:
1 John 2:4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him,
1 John 4:8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love
Eventually as believers, we will all bask continuously in His glorious presence (admittedly a selfish motivation). But until that day, these brief glimpses are more wonderful than description can relate.