Worship and the Presence of God, Part Four
- Friday, May 09, 2003
If you're like me, then sometimes, right in the middle of congregational worship, you realize suddenly, "Hey, God is here!" It may be a wave of peace, an irrepressible joy rising up from the depths of your soul, or even the sweet sting of the Holy Spirit's conviction. Whatever form it takes, our words suddenly become richer, our hearts fuller, and our focus clearer.
Such moments are so powerful that we can subtly slip into the danger of pursuing experiences with God instead of pursuing God Himself. We begin to measure the success of meetings by how moved people seem, how freely the tears flow, or some other physical phenomenon. But experiences of God's presence are never the goal of our worship; God's glory is.
While God's presence can be sensed, it is wrong to think that feelings are the primary means God has given us to recognize His presence. It's a sad truth that sincere, worshiping Christians have said they "felt God's nearness" in the midst of committing adultery, spreading gossip, or lying to a boss. They imply that God was there to bless their actions, even though the Bible unequivocally calls those actions sin. In actuality, our sins separate us from fellowship with God (Is 59:2), and prohibit us from experiencing the joy of His presence (Ps 51:11-12). If God is in some sense near us when we sin, He is there to bring conviction and godly sorrow, not comfort and assurance.
How do we become aware of God's presence, then, if not through our feelings? Do we just trust that God is everywhere, plod on indifferently, and have no expectation of His active presence in our lives or our corporate worship? Certainly not.
God has given us a means of experiencing His ongoing presence in our lives. That means is faith in His Word and in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Donald Whitney writes,
"All access to the presence of God, with His universal presence excepted, is through Jesus Christ...We could never discern the presence of God rightly and in truth if He did not first reveal Himself to us. He has revealed Himself generally to us through creation (Ro 1:20), but much more specifically through the Word. His self-revealing Word has come to us in two living ways: the incarnate Word (Jesus) and the written Word (the Bible). And it is through His Word that our experience with God, including our perception of His presence, is mediated" (Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health, p.59).
In other words, our understanding of God's nearness is based on the promises and truths of Scripture. We know God is present with us because His Word tells us so, and His Son's sacrifice on our behalf has made it possible. Non-Christians might have a mystical sense that God is near when they narrowly escape death in an accident. Christians, on the other hand, know that a sovereign, holy, loving God who cares for them is with them each moment, carefully directing their lives, working all things out for their good and for His glory. They know this is true whether they feel anything or not!
So, we trust that God is always with us and we expect that at various times, in different locations and ways, He will make His presence known to us.
Those times are obviously beyond our control. But there is often more evidence of the presence of God around us than we appreciate, and increasing sensitivity to God's activity is a sign of Christian maturity. Next time we'll look at ways we can cultivate that greater awareness.
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