The past few days I’ve been posting on issues related to God’s “active” presence, especially in corporate gatherings.
A couple people suggested that “active” isn’t the best word to use. When we say God is “present” we are implying He is active, whether that’s to sustain, illuminate, bless, convict, or something else. What I call God’s “active” presence is often the evidence of his “promised” presence. I agree.
But most Christians will acknowledge times in corporate gatherings when we are physically or emotionally affected and God seems “present” in an unusual way. This is in line with the many examples in Scripture when one or more individuals become experientially aware that God is in their midst.
Do we pursue those times?
Are we missing something or experiencing less than the abundant Christian life if we don’t experience them?
How do we seek experiences of God’s presence without drifting into manufacturing or manipulating them?
Are there seasons or locations when God chooses to manifest his presence in unique ways?
These are some of the questions that prompted me to post on this topic, and they’ll take a lot longer than a few blog posts to answer. So let me offer a few thoughts and some practical implications.
There’s no indication in the Bible that God manifests his presence routinely in a way we can “feel.” God does reveal himself in dramatic ways at different times, but the Christian life is lived by faith and not by sight. We live in the “already but not yet.”
But as I mentioned in my first post, we are exhorted numerous times in Scripture to seek God’s presence, to expect God’s presence, and to treasure God’s presence (Ps. 105:4; Ps. 16:11; Ps. 21:6; Ps. 27:4). How do we do that 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 (Gal. 5:16-18). If we don’t have the Spirit of Christ, we don’t belong to him (Rom. 8:9). Apart from Jesus we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). We worship by the Spirit of God and put no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 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 Cor. 15:1-4). 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 (Ps. 19:10-11).
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 Cor. 14:24-25 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 Pet. 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 Jn. 3:2). 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.