Receptive to God’s presence

Wherever we are, God is here. No point is nearer to God than any other point. No one is in mere distance any farther from or any nearer to God than any other person is. A.W. Tozer wrote these truths about the omnipresence of God in the fifth chapter of The Pursuit of God, The Universal Presence. He then asked the question, if God is everywhere, then why doesn’t mankind celebrate that fact? The answer is simple: men do not know that God is here.

In previous chapters, Tozer wrote about the manifest presence of God. The presence of God and the manifest presence of God are not the same thing. God is manifest when we are aware of his presence but God is always here whether His presence is clear to us or not.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

Psalm 139:7-10

Why does God manifest His presence to some people and not to others? Does God love them more? Or does the answer lie with us?

Tozer pointed out that if you think about any of the great saints whose lives and stories are well-known (not just people from the Bible), you will see that they were all unique individuals. Moses was not like Isaiah. John was not like Paul. C.S. Lewis was not like St. Francis. God did not choose to reveal Himself to these men because there was something really special about them.

What quality do all of these people have in common? Tozer concluded that it was spiritual receptivity – being open to God and being responsive to that inward longing that so many of us feel. Spiritual receptivity is not just one thing; it is “a blending of several elements within the soul.” Spiritual receptivity is not a constant quality; people possess it to varying degrees. We must actively cultivate these “elements within the soul” if we want to be open to God’s manifest presence.

God is here but man does not always know it.

During this Lenten season, my church is reading Scot McKnight’s 40 Days: Living the Jesus Creed. In the reading for day nine, McKnight wrote about a God who is “on call.” When Scot was a teenager, he foolishly drove an old car 100 mph on a two-lane highway. The road crested slightly and the car was slightly airborne. Then the road curved and Scot realized he couldn’t make the curve at such a high speed. Through the mercy of the God who is always on call, Scot was able to slow down enough to navigate the curve.

We are made aware of God’s presence through personal experience. Like Scot McKnight, I have had a couple of near-misses on the highway when I was very aware of and thankful for God’s protective presence! I have felt God’s comforting presence in moments of grief and emotional turmoil. I am aware of God’s guiding presence as I navigate the difficult spiritual tests of this life.

Tozer did not attempt to identify any of the elements of spiritual receptivity. From my own experience, I’ve listed a few elements of the soul that open me up to God’s manifest presence.

Devotion

The greatest commandment (part of what McKnight calls The Jesus Creed) is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Simply said, it is to love God with everything you’ve got! It is having a personal relationship with God and making God the most important part of your life.

Many religious people treat God as just an icon or a set of beliefs. Loving God is more than loving the idea of God. As Jason Gray sings, this is more like falling in love than religion. I need a truth that lives, moves, and breathes. It’s gotta be more like falling in love than something to believe in. More like losing my heart than giving my allegiance. Jesus made God real to me and swept me off my feet!

Humility

I just read a non-religious article about the power of intellectual humility. The author wrote that humble people are more open to learning from others because personal growth is their goal, not social status. Likewise, spiritual humility is the key to spiritual growth.

I think of humility in two ways. One, I am the small ‘c’ created being and God is the the big ‘C’ Creator. He is omniscient. There is so much I do not know about countless topics, even in comparison to other mortals. I can’t see the future; God already knows it. He is powerful; I am weak. Two, God is holy. He is the source of all that is good and moral. I am confronted daily with my sinfulness and inability to ever be pure in my thoughts and deeds.

Humility makes us receptive to God because we have to first acknowledge our fallibility and weakness to seek God’s help. Humble people are open to learning from Him. Humble people get their courage and strength from God.

Honesty and Openness

I believe that God reveals himself to those who are honest with themselves and with Him. We can’t hide our thoughts and feelings from God. Before an all-knowing God, it’s pointless to pretend to be something we are not. Before an all-seeing God, it’s pointless to cover up our thoughts and feelings. God is not fooled or impressed with our pretenses.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

In the psalms, I find the kind of honesty and openness that characterizes a person who is receptive to God’s presence and to the transforming power of the Spirit. David was honest with God about his fears. At times, David felt ignored and rejected by God. He was honest about his frustrations with injustice. In Psalm 10, David asked, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” He then went on to complain at length about the actions of the wicked before acknowledging that God sees the troubles of the afflicted. God hears the cries of the afflicted. God is not indifferent to our suffering. God defends the oppressed. God is here.

Hunger

I eat several times a day. It’s hard for me to ignore hunger and the allure of my favorite foods. I am fortunate that I never have to be hungry for long because food is almost always readily available.

To be receptive to the presence of God, we have to long for God just as much as we long for our favorite snacks. God is readily available. We must long to fill that gnawing spiritual emptiness that exists when we are not fed by God.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Matthew 5:6

Lord, you are here. You are always near, even when it feels like you are far off. You are always on call. I am always in your hands. Thank you for loving me and protecting me from harm. I pray that you will cultivate the elements of my soul that make me receptive to your presence. Search me and show me the errors of my ways. Fill me with your goodness! Give me eyes that see and ears that hear your truth. Amen.

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Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

A kingdom of mercy

I am convinced that the hope of the world is found in a kingdom that is not of this world – the kingdom of heaven. I’ve been studying the kingdom parables because I believe that God’s kingdom is the perfect antidote to the troubles that plague this world. Of all the kingdom parables, I think the easiest parable to understand is also the most difficult to put into practice.

Jesus told the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant after Peter asked him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus replied, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus then told a parable that compared sins to debts.

In the parable, a servant who was deeply in debt to the king begged the king for patience in settling his accounts. The king was more than patient; he took pity on the servant and canceled his debt in full. The servant then went out and demanded payment from a fellow servant who owed him far less than he owed the king. The servant’s debtor also begged for patience but the servant refused. Instead of being merciful, he had the man thrown into prison. When the king heard that his servant had not shown the same mercy that had been shown to him, he was angry and handed him over to the jailers.

Jesus said, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I say this parable is easy because the message is clear. We are all so deeply indebted to God that we could never repay him. And yet, because he is merciful, he cancels our debts in full. We are to forgive others just as our Father forgives us. We are to be merciful just as our Father is merciful.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8 (NIV)

I struggle sometimes to forgive others as I have been forgiven. The Lord’s prayer presupposes that we have forgiven our debtors. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” How can we pray this prayer if we have not forgiven those who trespass against us?

This parable is hard because many of us do not forgive easily. We hold grudges. We keep score. We are so full of pride that we take the slightest offense as a personal affront. We don’t use the same standard when judging others as we do when judging ourselves. Instead of being honest about our own transgressions, we minimize them and make excuses.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Matthew 7:1-2

How easily we forget how much we have been forgiven! God sees us at our worst and he still loves us. He sees the darkness in our hearts and still forgives us.

As I was contemplating how difficult it can be to forgive, I read a few stories of forgiveness (and unforgiveness) in The Washington Post. As the author notes, sometimes we have to choose to forgive over and over again because the wounds are so deep. And some people cannot bring themselves to forgive at all.

Forgiveness may feel unfair. It may feel like you are letting someone get away without paying the right price. But unforgiveness is an awfully heavy burden to carry. As Joyce Meyer points out, unforgiveness is a poison that hurts the person who chooses not to forgive. Forgiveness frees the forgiver.

To all those who struggle to forgive deep hurts, I pray for healing. I pray for an obedient and humble heart. And I thank the Lord for his never ending mercy and forgiveness.

The Pernicious Lie of the Prosperity/Success Gospel

As I get ready for work in the morning, I often see a Joel Osteen commercial in which he says, when you humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, in due time, he will exalt you (1 Peter 5:6). Joel Osteen is known for preaching the “prosperity gospel” and for that reason alone, I steer clear of him. But while staying in a hotel, I watched a few minutes of his Sunday service and saw how easily Osteen misleads people with what is also known as the “gospel of success.”

In a Huffington Post article, Pastor Rick Henderson called out Osteen and Joyce Meyer for The False Promise of the Prosperity Gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel is much like all other religions in that it uses faith, it uses doing good things to leverage material blessings from God. Essentially, use God to get things from God.

Pastor Rick Henderson

Henderson’s article includes a link to a ten-minute video of Pastor John Piper explaining why the prosperity gospel is abominable. To explain why this false teaching is spiritually dangerous, Piper repeats Jesus’s warning about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Jesus also said that you cannot serve both God and money – Luke 16:13).

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Luke 18:24-25

The Apostle Paul wrote about how destructive it is to chase after wealth because the love of money often leads to temptation. We should be content if our basic needs are met.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

1 Timothy 6:6-9

Piper says that those who believe in the prosperity gospel are confused about the timing of the blessings promised in scripture. The truth is, Christians face trials, persecution, pain, suffering, failure, and poverty in this life. Heaven is our eternal reward for a righteous life.

In the few minutes that I watched Joel Osteen’s sermon, he said that while there is nothing wrong with being a cheerleader for other people, you should be your own cheerleader because you have God-given talents. This sounds innocuous; I credit God for my abilities. But cheerleading the self is not consistent with the real gospel. And it is clear to me that Osteen has a self-serving and not a God-serving reason for pushing the success gospel. In his book, “You Can, You Will,” he offers to teach you how to reach your potential.

There is a winner in you. You were created to be successful, to accomplish your goals, to leave your mark on this generation. You have greatness in you. The key is to get it out.

Joel Osteen, promoting his book “You Can, You Will” on Facebook

The Truth Project’s lesson guide on anthropology says that some Christians “may have difficulty accepting the idea that ‘self-fulfillment’ and the call to ‘follow your heart’ are inconsistent with a Christian worldview.” Dr. Del Tackett says that “self-actualization” is a “pernicious lie.” He criticized Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs because self-actualization is depicted as the highest human need.

I say that the prosperity/success gospel is a pernicious lie. I think that Pastor Hariton Deligiannides would agree. In writing about Osteen’s cult-like influence, Diligiannides said that Osteen feeds his audience’s egos, scratches their itching ears (telling them what they want to hear), and covers up the true condition of the human heart.

Adam Blosser also calls out Joel Osteen as a false teacher because Jesus made it clear that his followers would be persecuted for their faith. Jesus said, you will be persecuted but you will be rewarded in heaven.

Osteen’s message is built on the power of positive thinking. If we will remove any semblance of negativity from our lives and focus only on things that are positive, then we can live lives that are victorious and successful. The clear problem with this message is that it ignores the reality of Christian persecution and suffering around the world.

Adam Blosser, in Why I call Joel Osteen a false teacher

Peter said that when you humble yourself, in due time, you will be exalted. I don’t know what Osteen has in mind when he quotes Peter’s verse about humility but I do know that my study Bible says Peter wrote to offer encouragement to suffering Christians. When I read about humbling yourself, I have in mind Christ’s humility (Philippians 2:5-11).

Even though Jesus was in his very nature God, while he walked on the Earth as a Son of Man, he did not exalt himself above us. Instead, he made himself nothing. He took on the nature of a servant, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, washing dirty feet. He was obedient to God, even to death on the cross! And after he lived a life of service and humility, God exalted him to the highest place – at His right hand – and gave him a name above all names.

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Photo of man kneeling by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

Kinder, gentler, wiser

But where is it written that we must act as if we don’t care, as if we’re not moved. Well, I am moved. I want a kinder, gentler nation.

George HW Bush, 1988 speech

When I heard that George HW Bush passed away, I thought not about his politics but about his call to care about others. “I want a kinder, gentler nation,” he said. Bush knew that in caring about others, some would see softness and weakness. He cared anyway.

In the kinder, gentler speech, Bush said, “[p]rosperity with a purpose means taking your idealism and making it concrete by certain acts of goodness.” Thirty years later, America is still a prosperous nation.  Unfortunately, she is losing sight of her noble purpose. She is losing her goodness.

George Bush’s sentiments were at odds with those of the current president. Today, Americans are encouraged to be self-centered – to put America first. Today, Americans are urged to live in fear of others. Instead of celebrating a thousand points of light – selfless volunteerism – we’re building walls to keep others out. 

George Bush had a privileged upbringing yet he still lived a life of humility, a life of servant leadership. He understood that from those who have been given much, much will be demanded. He understood that from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked (Luke 12:48).

Kindness flows from wisdom, but as I think Bush understood, it is not the “wisdom” of the world. The world sees kindness and gentleness as weakness. The world teaches a false wisdom of selfish ambition and vain conceit. Those who subscribe to this way of thinking put themselves first, viewing others with an “us verses them” mindset. Instead of sowing unity and peace, they sow division and discord. Instead of practicing acts of goodness and kindness, they look only to their own interests. Instead of lifting others up, they tear others down. 

Kindness and gentleness, like all good virtues, flow from the wisdom of God. A person with heavenly wisdom sees the self realistically, with humility. It’s a wisdom born of pain, the ability to step into and share the feelings of others. Kind and gentle people value others above themselves, looking to their interests (Philippians 2:3-4). Those who are wise in God’s eyes, emulate Christ, clothing themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).

Where is it written that we must act as if we don’t care, as if we are not moved? Where is it written that we should act out of selfish ambition? Well, I am moved and I want a kinder, gentler, wiser nation.

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Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash

Come out of hiding and confess your brokenness

My church studied 1 John in a sermon series called “Living Deep.” My pastor then gave us a list of practical steps to help us go deeper in our faith. I am slowly making my way through the list and am now on step six, “Come out of hiding and confess the reality of being broken.”

I am not a Catholic so I have never “been to confession.” I have no idea what it is like to confess my wrongs to a priest. When I became a Christian, I learned that “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” I confess my sins to God directly because Jesus intercedes for me.

Come out of hiding. Many of us want to hide our sins because we feel guilty and are ashamed. But there is no point in trying to hide from God. He is all-seeing and all-knowing. In one of my favorite psalms (Psalm 139), David wrote that God knows everything I do. He knows my every thought. He knows what I’m going to say before I say it. God created my inmost being and knows everything about me. God is everywhere. It is impossible to hide or flee from his presence.

You, God, know my folly; my guilt is not hidden from you (Psalm 69:5).

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Eccl. 12:14).

He who conceals his sins does not prosper but whoever confesses and renounces finds mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)

Sometimes we sin willfully and sometimes we don’t even know that we are sinning. For example, we may not be aware of our own pride. We often excuse the same selfish behavior in ourselves that offends us when we see it in others. God knows ever corner of our hearts. We can ask him to show us our hidden faults and to reveal the ways we offend him.

But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. (Psalm 19:12)

See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:24)

Be honest. Just as there is no point in trying to hide from God, there is no point in lying about our sins and our struggles. There is no point in pretending to be better than we really are with anyone, but especially with God. He sees right through the kind of hypocrisy that Jesus called out. We can be real with God because he can’t be shocked by what he already knows.

In Psalm 139, David admits that he hates those that hate God. He counts the enemies of God as his personal enemies. I don’t find permission to hate anyone in David’s confession; I find the freedom to be completely honest with God about my feelings about wicked people. I am ashamed of myself when I catch myself hating God’s enemy, a man who opposes and exalts himself above all that is good, a man who sows deception, hatred and division. My heart convicts me because Jesus holds me to a higher standard – love your enemies. Getting real with God, I can say, God please help me not to feel this way.

Confess your brokenness. Confession starts with recognizing our brokenness before God. Many people don’t confess their sins because they think, I am not as bad as other people. They don’t understand that we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Too often, the sin of pride gets in the way of admitting out failure to live up to God’s perfect ways. People avoid facing the reality that they are broken because it’s painful and messy.

Confessing our brokenness is good for the soul. Confession breaks the spirit so that it is open to being transformed by God. It puts us in the right posture before God – humble and contrite. God is pleased when we come to him with a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17).

We Are All Broken. That’s How the Light Gets In.

It is only when we confess our sins and renounce them that we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is only when we confess our sins and repent that God can give us a new heart and a new spirit.

Reading List

Psalm 139:16-24
Proverbs 28:13
Ezekiel 36:26-28
Matthew 11:28
Galatians 3:4-7
1 John 1:9,4:16-18