Everyone who believes that God exists would like “a personal encounter with God.” We want that back-and-forth, knowing-and-being-known, emotional liveliness that is the fruit of a growing relationship. No one who follows Jesus harbors dreams of emotional and experiential dryness. Instead, bring on that promised abundant life (John 10:10).
Moses led the way. He wanted to feel God. He wanted the promises of God bolstered by a display of God’s glory (Ex 33:18). Times were tough. Doubt was in the air. A little experiential boost in which God confirmed his promises to Israel would go a long way. And God accommodated Moses’ request. His glory would go whooshing by and Moses would get to see God’s back, which we assumed happened but Moses doesn’t record the event.
The desire to experience God is a good thing, a very good thing. Scripture leads us in our aspirations for full-bodied praise, love and unity.
But there is a problem. What about those who feel God’s absence but desperately want to know his presence? What about those who sense that God hides himself, and he seems to do it at the times we need him most? What about those whose emotional experience is so dominated by depression or fear that the experience of God just cannot break through?
Questions like these bring us back to Scripture—back to the Lord—with internal tensions that acknowledge both “I will never leave you or forsake you” and “My God why have you forsaken me.”
What we find in Scripture are the deeper ways of God with his people. “Sometimes God puts his children to bed in the dark” is one way to put it. Another way is this: in this era, our God has chosen to make walking by faith more fundamental, and more blessed, than walking by sight (2 Cor 5:7). This means that there will be many times when we can see the goodness of the Lord with our very eyes. But there will be other times when our experience says “God is far away” and he counters “I am with you.” In those cases, his words win.
Just expand the word “sight” in “walking by sight” to include all things sensory, such as our emotions. Then we are back on track: God is speaking right to us. He is not far away. This teaching gets to the heart of Scripture. Scripture exists because we need revelation. We can’t see reality clearly with the naked eye. Scripture is God’s technology that allows us to see everything we need to see.
You don’t feel his presence? Here are God’s words to you.
Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)
There it is. Our senses say that we are destitute; God reveals that we have spiritual food that is profoundly satisfying. Our goal is to hear the word of the Lord in such a way that it drowns out our less-informed emotions.
Moses stands in this tradition too. Though he wanted to experience God’s glory, what he really needed, and what he valued most, were the words of God that guaranteed God’s compassion, mercy and forgiveness (Exodus 34:6). This revelation is what wowed Moses and led him in worship.
Feed on the revealed promises of God rather than rely on an experience. Otherwise, life becomes one continual leap from one experiential lily pad to another.
This feature of the kingdom of God is announced most clearly at the end of Jesus’ earthly stay. What better time to map out the way of the kingdom. His disciples were just moments away from never seeing Jesus as a tangible presence in their earthly lives.
Then he [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:27-29)
Jesus was saying nothing new. He was reminding his disciples, and us, that the way of his kingdom has always been this: when there is a competition between our senses and his promises, we rest in his promises, whether the situation is the Old Testament wilderness or all the variations of “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). The only thing Jesus adds is a tender reminder about how the way of faith is better than—more blessed than—the way of sight.
How many times have I wanted Jesus’ audible voice and physical presence? I would even have settled for some handwriting in the sky or on the living room wall. But there is a better way… Believe. Believe in the one who has spoken promises and has backed up all those promises with his self-sacrificial actions.
So many followers of Jesus feel spiritually handicapped because they don’t feel the presence of God. They feel blind and numb. All they can do is trust in the God who has spoken to them and, because of him, put one foot in front of the other, care about others, and faithfully slog through the mire of life. Well, it’s time to track these people down and give them a big fat kiss because they are the ones who are knocking on the door of the abundant life. They are learning to believe what they don’t feel, and they are blessed. They are the heroes we can emulate.