Recently, I posted thoughts on attempts to manufacture and market the presence of god, both wrong responses to God’s experienced presence. One person commented that what I wrote seemed to “create hesitancy about pursing His presence” and encouraged me to “stir people’s faith to encounter God and His presence.’”
Today, I want to do just that by addressing a third way we can approach thinking about God’s presence wrongly.
3. We don’t want to minimize God’s active presence.
God has always intended to dwell with his people. We see this with Adam and Eve in the garden, in God’s command to the Israelites to build a tabernacle so that he might dwell among them (Exodus 25:8, Exodus 29:46), in Moses’ plea that God’s presence go with them (Exodus 33:15), in the building of the temple (2 Chronicles 2:2), in the incarnation of Christ (Matthew 1:23), and in the final chapters of Revelation (Revelation 21:3).
It’s a cause for continual wonder and amazement that the transcendent Creator of the universe would want to dwell among with those he created. God’s presence continues to be one of the distinguishing marks of the people of God.
But does that make any difference in real life? Time after time we meet together expecting nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary, as though it was just us, as though we were attending a Rotary Club meeting. We’re satisfied if we simply execute our plans well and avoid train wrecks. We act as though the Holy Spirit only suggests thoughts for a meeting beforehand and never during. We’d be shocked if anyone in our meetings ever lifted their hands in wonder, shed tears of conviction, laughed for joy, or knelt down in awe. We just don’t expect that kind of thing in church.
We should. When the church gathers, God himself is present with us to bless, to guide, to speak, to convict, to strengthen, to illumine, and to build up, all that we might more profoundly and consistently glorify Jesus Christ. We worship a risen Savior, not a dead historical figure.
Sundays are never “business as usual” because God is among us.
We are never merely “singing songs.” We are proclaiming and meditating on life-transforming realities that God uses to change our perspective, fill us with fresh faith, and open our eyes to his immeasurable power. We are joining in with the myriads of saints and angels around the throne who unceasingly praise the Lamb and the one who sits on the throne (Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 5:11).
We are never merely “hearing a sermon.” God himself is speaking to us as his Word is faithfully, carefully, thoughtfully, and persuasively proclaimed. The Spirit of God is seeking to soften hearts, open eyes, reveal sin, and impart faith. God is present and working in our hearts.
We are never merely meeting with each other. We meet with God in the presence of God at his invitation to celebrate the gospel, enjoy the miracle of being his adopted children through Jesus Christ, and to be changed.
How do we anticipate experiencing God’s presence without getting derailed; without getting drawn into the pursuit of emotionalism and mere experience?
1. Cultivate an awareness of your desperate need for God’s empowering presence.
We are to walk by the Spirit and be led by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). If we don’t have the Spirit of Christ, we don’t belong to him (Romans 8:9). Apart from Jesus we can do nothing (John 15:5). We worship by the Spirit of God and put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3). “Self-sufficiency” is a misnomer, and is a pure, complete, and very common delusion. That realization should make us more faithful to pray for God’s blessing and to express gratefulness for God’s aid.
2. Live with an expectation that God has promised to dwell in and among his people and is eager to manifest his presence to us.
Too often we perfunctorily pray for God to act and then approach our meetings with no anticipation that he will. Too often we’re shocked when we or the people we serve are actually affected. Some of us are even tempted to look down on people who are regularly moved by experiences of God’s presence rather than desiring more of the same in our own lives.
3. Don’t let the pursuit of experience replace a pursuit of faithfulness to Scripture and the gospel.
It seems every generation is tempted to value and pursue experience over faithfulness. The perils are numerous. It can lead to equating elevated passions to encountering God, feeling disappointed if we’re not emotionally or physically affected, making secondary means (technical skill, lights, videos, arrangements) primary in engaging people’s minds and hearts, and being overimpressed with unusual manifestations. If the people I lead get more excited about the latest “move of God” than the fact that Jesus Christ came to die for our sins and rise from the dead to reconcile us to God (the gospel), then we’re responsible to lead them back to what is of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:1). Likewise, if my congregation thinks “hearing from God” only means prophetic or spontaneous events, I need to help them treasure God’s sufficient and authoritative Word more than gold (Psalms 19:10).
4. Respond humbly to what you believe to be the Spirit’s promptings.
Often we fail to experience God’s presence because we fail to respond to the Spirit’s leadings. In 1 Corinthians 14:24 if no one was prophesying the unbeliever wouldn’t have his heart exposed. If I don’t step out to pray for someone that just came to mind I may miss seeing God work in a powerful way.
5. Thank God for his promised presence more than you ask him for his experienced presence.
If God is truly with us when we gather, we should rejoice and be filled with faith! Both attitudes are undermined when we repeat/sing phrases like, “Come, Holy Spirit,” or “Fire fall down,” “Send the rain,” or “Show us your glory,” endlessly without corresponding expressions of confidence that He is indeed near as He has promised. If we only focus on our requests and longing, God in his mercy will often work in our hearts during that time, but it can also leave people confused, dissatisfied, or more impressed with our pursuit of God than God’s pursuit of us.
6. Eagerly anticipate his unveiled presence.
No experience on earth will ever rival what we will experience in the age to come. That’s why Peter encourages us to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). I don’t want to set my hope fully on what’s going to happen next Sunday or at some conference. I can be thankful for experiences of God’s presence here without making them the goal or foundation of my relationship with Him. Our hope is knowing that one day we will see our Savior as he really is and will be transformed into his likeness (1 John 1:2). And then we’ll no longer be seeking his presence. We’ll be in it forever. Praise God.
For further study check out god’s empowering presence by Gordon Fee, and this message called a people of god’s presence by my friend, Jeff Purswell. You can also check out this post i did on resources related to the holy spirit.