How can one know God’s presence?
How can one live in the presence of God?
Everyone has a need to feel worthwhile. Paul addresses this universal yearning in his sweeping overview in Romans 8 of the constancy of God and how a walk with God can meet this need. He begins the chapter with a proclamation that moves to stamp out humanity’s guilt complex by declaring that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Then he describes how all things can work for good in the lives of those who are dedicated to seeking and walking with God. At last Paul grandly proclaims the stability of God’s love, and His commitment to being present always, even in any sort of ghastly situation that one would imagine.
So with such expansive promises, what could be the problem? The problem is we often do not sense that God is with us. We often feel alone, depressed and forsaken. Why?
God is to each individual the basis of security, mental health and the basis of character.
But in most instances, respecting boundaries and individuality, God is not pushy. Despite the occasional testimony of a forceful encounter with God, He typically acts in the way described in Revelation 3 — He stands at the door and knocks.
With a commitment to cling to God’s extravagant promises of our worthiness, let us focus on two aspects of God’s presence. Perception and power. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can do to make God love us less.
How we perceive things becomes the character of our lives. If one is in trouble, it is helpful to discern what is occupying the mind. Almost always, one’s anxieties, phobias and stresses bounce around in “Brainworld,” typically demanding more real estate than is warranted by the actual root issues. Psychologists have dedicated much effort to the strategy of encouraging clients to align themselves with reality. An effective cognitive behavioral strategy has been for one to decatastrophize, to challenge overwrought negative self-talk. The Nedley Depression Recovery program encourages participants to sharpen cognitive skills by utilizing good physical habits. With the combination of improved physical and cognitive strength, one can combat inappropriate perceptions. In fact, one of the signature books recommended by the program is entitled, Telling Yourself the Truth.1
The book offers insights about common misbeliefs. Some examples are: Misbelief in Anger, Misbelief in Fear of Change, Misbelief in Never Taking a Chance, Misbelief in Lack of Self Control, Misbelief in Self-Hate, and Misbelief in Depression. Disciplining one’s mind, with attention to confronting the harmful lies that overwhelm if allowed, will make space for a focused invitation for an invasion by the Holy Spirit.
God’s presence in our minds is the major way that we know Him. But, this is something that we must choose. Just as one trains intensively for any endeavor, a person seeking to know God’s presence must learn to concentrate on God. Much like when one wants to focus on a particular person in a crowded room, one may have to move closer to the person and to tune out other sounds and distractions. Jesus said to seek first the kingdom of God and He also promised that God knows what to give and will not neglect to give good things to His children.
Facebook selfies in fantastic settings and glossy ads of “must have” products have insidiously led many to adopt a false existential narrative that states, “The ordinary life is meaningless.” Yet, deep down, most of us relate to Dorothy’s over the rainbow quest, which ended with her renewed certainty that all she needed was in Kansas and there was no place like home. Still in some ways, we pine for a certain place or guru which will enable us to reach a spiritual highpoint. Let us remember that Jesus lived immersed in tedious activities and His stories describe kingdom work amidst common life transactions. Weddings, trips, deaths, beggars, harvesting, foot washing, dealing with day laborers. Believers can be sure that God’s presence is in the mundane activities of which we all partake. A few centuries ago Brother Lawrence penned a description of the process of “Practicing the Presence of God.” His humble book describes his growing confidence of living in God’s grace, while performing humble tasks as to the Lord. The book serves as a simple guide for Christians who want to attend to kingdom living now – with the recognition that small spheres can become big spheres. One’s everyday actions can be significant. And God is there.
The discipline of developing a perception of God requires commitment and an attentive meditation on scripture and the life of Christ. Disciplining oneself to see each person as a being created in God’s image is beneficial. That is to say regularly choosing to make an effort to look at other people through “God’s eyes” will help one to become more aware of God’s presence. But in all this we can have peace and rest assured that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less.
Paul elaborates on Christ’s kind of power in 1 Corinthians 1:18-20, 23-25:
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?...
But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
In the human frame of mind, who has less power than one crucified on a cross? But it is on the cross that God used power to overcome the world. This God is not an angry being who brings disasters. If we think about the cross we will get a notion of what sort of power God uses. God uses a self-sacrificing power that does not insist on lobotomizing others so that they will follow Him.
Since the Augustinian influence on Christianity in the fifth century, there has been a large theological voice that permeates much thought and it equates power with control. This assumes that if God is all-powerful, then He must control everything that happens. However, I would suggest that it would be wise for believers to have a healthy caution in attributing Satan’s evil actions to God. Believing God is a consummate puppeteer manipulating everyone, many misguided folk attempt to give a rationale as to what God is trying to teach when He (assuming He is in total control) allows a child to die or a husband to abuse a spouse or a tornado to strike. But this assumption does not align with what Jesus taught in relation to the evil He encountered. Jesus did not cause afflictions in order to teach, and He never once suggested that afflictions came from God. Jesus dedicated His public ministry to freeing people from the bondages and pains that came from the evil one (Acts 10:36-38).
A human view of power equates it with control. This is the kind of power after which humans lust. However, let us stay focused on God’s power that was revealed in Jesus Christ.
Some translations of Romans 8:28 do give the impression that God does cause everything:
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” (New Living Translation)
Apparently, the Greek that has been often translated to imply that God “causes” all, also has the aspect of a togetherness that yields synergy. The word has a root that is similar to the term ergonomic. Think of how properly designed ergonomic equipment greatly enhances whatever task we do. Likewise, God is so smart and uses His kind of power in such a way that He will come along side on the journey through life, even in the midst of nasty people and horrible situations. He works with each one in an optimal fashion. That is to say if one is committed to God, He will be with us in all things, enriching one’s perspective and skills, just as ergonomically designed equipment is ideal when one is attempting a task.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (New Revised Standard)
Rather than projecting the human definition of “power” in the interpretation of Romans 8:28, one would be wise to focus on God’s kind of power as revealed in Jesus, whose life was dedicated to subverting the assumptions of religious people. Many times one will sense God’s power only after the fact, when a person will note that results exceeded one’s own innate abilities. And it is then that one will know that God was in the event.
A few guidelines can help one surrender and get into the stream of God’s kind of power:
First, let go of any fixation of maintaining one’s own image in the eyes of others.
Secondly, let go of a rigid commitment to what one wants to accomplish.
Third, fear not. If God is for us who can be against us? And, His strength is made perfect in weakness.
Remember the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. The servant who did not please the master was the one who feared the master. “Master, I knew you to be a hard man…So I was afraid.” A fearful frame of mind led the servant to miss opportunities for growth, adventure and service. In anxious dread, the servant chose to just sit on the property with which the master had entrusted him.
Put yourself in the position to join the flow of God’s power. The journey will be unconventional and include unexpected joys and learning opportunities. Practice God’s presence. Fear not. There is nothing you can do that will make God love you more. There is nothing you can do that will make God love you less.
Holy One, God of Mercy. There are things we cannot bear to see. We turn away from the flaws in our character and the failures in our conduct. We avert our gaze from our own talents that lie buried and gifts that go wasted. We struggle to deny or wallow in our own imperfections. To descend into awareness, God, is a painful journey, but do not let us to settle comfortably in fool’s paradise. Let us know that your Spirit travels with us, sees for us, and loves us with a faithfulness that defies our fears. Help us to move toward the truth that sets us free.”2
1. Telling Yourself the Truth by Backus and Chapian, 1980, Bethany House.
2. Rickeman, Virginia, The Well Is Deep, United Church Press, Cleveland OH, 1999, p. 137
The following sermons were influential in this essay:
How Is God With Us? How Can We Know It? By Dallas Willard, May, 2011
When Surprise Shows Up by Greg Boyd, November, 2015
Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.
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