Thursday, July 30, 2009

What Does God Feel Like?

I often ask returning summer staff about their experience since the previous summer. Their stories are sometimes refreshing, occasionally alarming, but all too often similar in pattern. The story sounds something like this: "I went home so excited to live for Jesus and make a difference, but after a while I got so discouraged. I just couldn't feel God anymore..."

What they mean, I think, is that their experience of God at home is not what it was in the hyperbolic environment of camp. They are disappointed that the euphoria they felt when God seemed so near - when a camper put their trust in Jesus, or the worship around the fire was so pure - that this ecstasy should fade the third week of algebra class. It raises for me a question about the emotions we should expect in the presence of God.

What does God feel like?

It seems to me that when biblical characters come face to face with God, their most common emotion is utter terror. What does he (or his messengers) always say? "Fear not!" (to use the well-known phrase from the King James). Even John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, who lay back against Jesus to ask a question as they reclined at the Table, when he encounters Jesus in the first chapter of Revelation falls down at his feet as one dead. God can feel like fear.

Perhaps the greatest source of foolishness among believers is the loss of the fear of God, for "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Proverbs 9:10). Should we be afraid of God? The analogy you may have heard me use is about my stint as a mountain guide when I was about 19 or 20. There was this great cliff I liked to show my clients. The top of it was at about 2600 meters elevation, and the bottom was about 1000 meters below. You could drop a rock off the edge and it wouldn't hit a thing for 500 meters. Being young and foolish, I used to hang my feet over the edge like this:

But don't let the photo fool you into thinking I wasn't afraid. The adrenaline rush was amazing: it felt like I had the entire universe behind me, shoving. I didn't simply walk to the edge and sit down; I hung my toes over first; then wiggled so my feet hung down, then slowly sat up; then with my heart racing looked over the edge... Feel that? It's fear. It is one of the things we might feel in the presence of God. It is no small thing to sit at the edge of the abyss that is the wrath of God. Like the fear that keeps our hands firmly on the wheel as a semi passes us on either side, the fear of God keeps us from anything foolish enough to evoke his hatred of sin.

So it follows that guilt is another common emotion in the presence of God. Isaiah in the temple. Peter with Jesus in his fishing boat. I am an unclean man. Like a spot of mustard on a brand new t-shirt, our smallest sin is in stark contrast to his purity, his utter holiness. If we think we are experiencing the presence of God and our harboured sin does not throw us on our faces in the dirt, our exhilaration is something other than worship. As Adam and Eve discovered, God can feel like shame.

What did you expect God to feel like?

True, he is the God of all comfort, but he "comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:4). He does not comfort us in our sin or complacency or stubborn rebellion; he often removes comfort. "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world" (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain). God can feel uncomfortable.

Or he can produce in us great confidence. It's like when you are playing a board game, maybe Monopoly or Killer Bunnies, and suddenly all the odds are in your favour and you're schooling everyone. Sometimes the presence of God makes us bold, even daring; God is for us - who can be against us? We are God's masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus, doing the very thing he prepared in advance for us to do. Better not get in our way.

Perhaps your disappointment about not feeling God anymore is because you thought he only felt like one thing: joy or contentment or some other warm fuzzy. I am sure God has felt like that at some point in your experience, and maybe what you felt was a very small taste of what you will experience forever in heaven, every tear wiped away. But surely you didn't expect him to always feel like that on this side of eternity.

And what about when you don't feel him at all? Nothing, just a dull emptiness like he is a million light years away? I want to say to you that sometimes God will feel like a great void, and that he intends it. Let Psalm 42 tell you why:
    As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.

    My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?

    My tears have been my food
    day and night,
    while people say to me all day long,
    "Where is your God?"

    These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
    how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
    with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

    Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
    Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

God desires that we hunger after him, thirst after him, that we seek him with all our heart. To bring us to that place, we sometimes need to rediscover the vast gulf that stands between us and him and that is bridged by his Son; that deep pit in the emptiness of our lives that can be filled only by him; that sense of utter loss that prompts a frantic search until he is found.

If that is how God feels today, anchor your drifting hope in him. This is what God feels like, today. Tomorrow is another story, and whether God will feel like terror, remorse, confidence or uninhibited joy, he is near. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.


FTD said...

Thank you, Jim.
I have really appreciated all your posts, and am currently feeling encouraged by this one,
- Tracy

clairedelune said...

that's very encouraging, Jim. Thank you.