Category Archives: Spirit

An obsession for God’s presence

When I graduated from high school, I was only seventeen. Thinking I had a year before I needed to head to college, I decided to go to a Bible school where I and others in my church youth group had some peak spiritual experiences. That year at Elim quickly became two as I switched my career goal from biology research to researching the wisdom found in the Bible.

My years there added much to my knowledge of the Bible. light of God's presenceBut the most valuable gift of those years was a sense of the presence of God. This is something mystical and hard to describe. But I’ll try!

Two recurring experiences at Elim raised my awareness of this “presence” and allowed me to sense it often enough that I began to recognize when it was there and to miss it when it was not:

    • During my first semester, two intense personal struggles led me to engage in weekly fasts and spend much time in a prayer room, crying my heart out to God. While in the prayer room this “presence” of deep peace and joy would settle over me. It would remain as I left the room but then evaporate almost instantly at some thought or action—perhaps anxiety or pride—contrary to the spirit (and Spirit) of God.
  • As we gathered for worship at Elim, we sang both hymns and scripture choruses. And generally we were not only going through the motions but singing with full sincerity and meaning. At some point I noticed that this “presence” typically was there after a time of full-hearted worship—an inner glow, almost like my very being was in harmony with the universe (the opposite of the sinking feeling when my conscience bothers me).

This sense of God’s presence has become precious to me; like David, I’m obsessed (Psalm 63:1-7)! I don’t want to do anything that causes me to lose it. There’s a sense of “flow” to my day as I walk in communion with God. It fills me with a sense of buoyancy because I’m delivered from fears of what others might think or do—if God is for me, it doesn’t matter who is against (Romans 8:31-39)! I begin to respond like the early church as they sensed God’s presence (e.g., Acts 4:8,31).

Don’t get the impression that I have a sense of God’s presence all the time. Sometimes it is strong; most of the time it is weak. It disappears altogether when I have unconfessed sin or a broken relationship with someone.

But what a magnificent obsession! It makes my life. I’m communing with someone who loves everybody and this planet, and that love rubs off on me. And as I walk in the spirit (and Spirit) of God, I see the goodness of God’s ways, the wholeness of holiness. Which makes me want to obey more, in a glorious spiral or crescendo! Not every day (Romans 7:14-25). But many days.

I’m not sure if this is something that can be experienced by all believers at all times. Those with a different psychological make-up may perceive God differently than me. Also, some men and women of God recount going through a “dark night of the soul” where all sense of God’s presence is gone. But I do know that we all are instructed to “be (continually) filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), and to be “filled” with something (like rage or fear or compassion or the Spirit of God) is to sense it and then to respond to it. May we all sense and respond to God!

I hunger, not for progressive sanctification in holiness but for progressive nearness to God—which does result in sanctification, since delighting in God drives out desire for all that is not of God. What a joy to be godly through freely indulging an appetite for God.

We’re designed to walk in the Spirit

If you were to give a one-sentence description of human life, what would you consider most important to say? This is the truest and most life-giving description that I see: Humans are designed to walk by the Spirit of Christ.

“Designed” says that we are created beings, not the random product of blind natural laws. Going against our Creator’s intent can only diminish our lives and long-term joy.

“Walk” and “Christ” suggests that we follow Christ who not only gave the greatest moral teaching and example the world has known but also rose from the dead, showing that he is Lord.

At the center is “the Spirit.” Without the Spirit, our efforts at following Christ are limited to intellect: us finding principles in the Gospels, gaining knowledge in our heads of what we are supposed to be doing and then trying to do it. But with the presence of the Spirit, this walk is a vital, living relationship. Those principles we follow are not just in our head but also in our heart, because the Spirit of Christ is in our heart. We have the opportunity of going through life responding to the Spirit’s promptings, obeying them as we are aware of them. (We recognize the Spirit’s nudge by an accompanying atmosphere of peace—the exact opposite of the sensation of unsettledness in a bad conscience.) Our life is now an on-going encounter with Jesus by the Spirit!

Many times we genuinely are not aware of any nudging from the Spirit. We are asking for it and listening for it but sense nothing. But sometimes—quite often, I think—we do sense that God is asking us to do or to not do such-and-such. Let’s respond in obedience rather than be like the first-grade boy in this true story:

Dad: Max! Why didn’t you answer me when I called you?
Max: I didn’t hear you, Dad.
Dad: What do you mean you didn’t hear me?
      [Max does not respond.]
Dad: How many times didn’t you hear me?
Max: I don’t know, maybe three or four times.

Make space in your day to hear the Spirit. And then “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16, 25). And experience life as God designed it!

The secret behind George Whitefield’s preaching

The most famous man in pre-revolutionary war America was a preacher, George Whitefield. From 1739 to 1770, his life was one of almost incessant preaching in Great Britain and on seven visits to North America. Many periods of time during those years he was preaching six to eight hours a day, seven days a week. In America he preached in virtually every major town on the eastern seaboard; estimates are that 80% of the entire population of the colonies heard Whitefield at least once. What is more, no preacher retained his hold on his hearers so entirely as he did; his popularity never waned.

To do this, Whitefield had to have phenomenal personal strengths and ability. And indeed he did. He was affable, eloquent, intelligent, empathetic, and strong. And he had a voice like a trumpet. According to many accounts, he could be heard over five hundred feet away. He often preached to outdoor crowds of 6,000 or 8,000 people. (And this was at a time when the population of Boston was not much larger than that.) On occasion the crowds reached 20,000 or more.

To do all that preaching, Whitefield also had to have strong love and knowledge of Scripture. Here’s how he described his hunger for the Bible after his new birth: “I began to read the holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light, and power.”

But I believe his real secret lies deeper. One of his biographers, Thomas Kidd, was struck by something he read in Whitefield’s diary: day after day after day Whitefield recorded the amount of time that day that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Some persons sense fear or anger and then let those things “fill” them. For Whitefield the distinctive aspect of his Christian life was a sense of the Spirit in his life, leading him (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18), and of him yielding to that sense, letting the Spirit control and “fill” him (eg. Acts 2:4,16,33,38; 4:8,31; Eph. 5:17-18).

We who respond to the Holy Spirit are no longer only human; our potential is no longer measured only in terms of our own personal ability and resources. Our life is joined with the life of God. That was Whitefield’s ultimate secret (Acts 1:8). And why his preaching became the main catalyst for a series of revivals known as the “First Great Awakening.”

Getting back to sleep last night

It happened again last night. I woke in the middle of the night and lay there, anxious and restless, fretting over whether I can do some of the things I want to do—and others want me to do.

I knew that I had to say some things to myself and to God so I could settle my spirit and fall back to sleep. Nonetheless, it took me a while! It doesn’t work to just say the right words; there has to be a reality to them, a commitment behind them.

I had to assure myself that I can trust God, that as I walk with God nothing can happen that the two of us can’t handle. Hard times, suffering, difficulties are going to come as I live on this fallen earth among fallen people; bad things may come even as I am obedient. But God is resourceful enough to work all those things together for good; nothing can ever separate me from God’s love (Rom. 8:28-39)! I’ve of course known this for a while. But again and again my heart drifts away from the things my mind believes.

For me there is yet another thing I have to tell myself before I can fall back to sleep: that I will obey God in the next days. There are many things I do not have time, energy, or skills to do. So I won’t be able to do everything, won’t be able to please everyone. But I can always please God, can always do what God asks. Once I know that I will obey God, I find a sense of reassurance and peace building within—and ability to sleep, rather than toss and turn. Others may judge me for not doing something, but God never expects me to do what I can’t do! As I obey God and do what I can do, my conscience is clear.

When we hear that someone is struggling to obey God, we imagine them struggling to keep their life in line with biblical teaching. Thankfully, that’s seldom my battle. My struggle is with choosing the good that excites me over the good that God tells me is best.

As I commit myself to God’s way, I can indeed discern God’s choice in each situation (Prov. 3:5-6). Often that direction comes not only through the Bible but also through nudges from the Spirit: I move toward choices that fill me with an up-welling of hope and wholeness and away from what gives unease and a sense of a bad conscience. I also pay attention to brothers and sisters who know the Bible and sense the Spirit. If uncertainty still remains, God wants me to choose the acts that common sense suggests are best.

Then I get the fun of walking under God’s smile, not needing to fret the frowns of others. And the thrill of the Spirit’s wisdom and power plus love, joy, and peace! And I can rest at night, and in the morning rise in confidence and anticipation.

Seeing the white rabbit

One day a young Christian visited the home of a seasoned believer who had followed hard after God all his Christian life. The old man sat on his porch, taking in a beautiful sunset with his dog stretched out beside him.

As the two chatted, the visitor posed a question that had been troubling him: “Why is it that most Christians are complacent in their faith? I have heard that you are not like that but that you have fervently sought to follow the Lord all your years as a Christian. What makes you different?”

The old man smiled and replied, “Let me tell you a story. One day I was sitting here quietly in the sun with my dog. Suddenly a large white rabbit ran across in front of us. Well, my dog jumped up and took off after it. Soon other dogs joined him, attracted by his barking. What a sight to see—a pack of dogs barking and running across creeks, up embankments, through thickets. Gradually, however, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the chase. Only my dog continued to pursue the white rabbit. In that story, young man, is the answer to your question.”

The young man sat in confused silence. Finally, he said, “I don’t understand. What is the connection between the rabbit chase and your passion for God?”

“You’d understand,” answered the old man, “if you knew why the other dogs didn’t continue on the chase. And the reason is that they had not seen the rabbit.”

I think all of us can find ourselves in the old man’s story. Some of us at some point in life have experienced a spiritual high point that was an encounter with God; since then we have been pursuing God with faith and passion because of a sense that there is a reality to be gained. On the other hand, some of us haven’t yet experienced God for ourselves; our commitment to the church and our Christian faith mostly rests on the faith of family members and friends whom we trust and love.

I long for all of us at Trissels to have our own first-hand experience of God. There’s no formula for how it happens. But I can point in the general direction: it comes as we respond in obedience to a nudging of the Spirit.

First-hand experience of the Spirit

Two days ago was Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, when the Spirit was given on the waiting believers (Acts 2).

The Spirit is central to the Christian life. The apostles focused a lot of attention on believers experiencing the Spirit (Acts 8:15-17; 19:2). Read Romans 8 and count all the references to the Spirit!

Yet the Spirit is like the wind — we see and hear its effects but “cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8). It is a mystery, something we intuit and feel but not something we can rationally explain. The New Testament authors don’t help matters: they refer to the Spirit without feeling the need to explain what is going on, evidently thinking that their readers in the early church already knew what they were writing about — already had first-hand experience with the Spirit (eg. Gal. 3:2,5; 1 Thes. 1:5-6; Rom. 5:5) and its inner witness (Rom. 8:15-16).

In the book of Acts, it seems that the Spirit gives persons a sense of God’s love and presence: those experiencing the Spirit are moved to praise God and declare his wonders (2:11; 10:46). Martin Lloyd-Jones links the Apostle Paul’s reference to the “sealing” of the Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:22) with a taste of God’s presence which authenticates or seals to the believer that he or she is the Lord’s own. God has always been present, but this experience makes God a manifest presence, makes God immediately real to us — in a mystical, intuitive, non-rational way.

Again and again as I’m reading about strong, fervent leaders in the church, I discover some sort of supernatural encounter in their history. For instance, Dallas Willard who wrote perhaps the best book on Christian spiritual formation (The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives) had such an experience while a college student in the 1950s. He prayed to fully surrender his life to Christ during a campus service; afterward, as someone was laying hands on him and praying, he lost consciousness, later describing the experience as being enveloped in a cloud. Willard, a longtime Professor of Philosophy at USC (1965-2013), knew that spiritual reality was tangible.

No longer ‘only human’

In Sunday’s sermon we looked at this astounding fact: our physical bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who lives within us (1 Corinthians 6:19).

Even more astounding are the implications of that fact: we who open ourselves to this Spirit are no longer “only human.” Our potential and our life are no longer only measured in terms of what we ourselves have done or have the ability and resources to do. Our life is joined to Another! We need never again think of ourselves as simply ourselves.

Our Christian life can be more than just having knowledge in our heads of what we are supposed to be doing, and then trying to do it. It is that; but it is also more, because God at Pentecost sent the Holy Spirit upon the waiting church.

So often we work to be like Jesus by studying his life: reading Gospels and using our minds to figure out principles and patterns. Then we use our abilities and resources to imitate the patterns and apply the principles. And we join a community of others who are also trying to do the same in order to receive their encouragement and insights.

But Jesus is more than someone who lived in the past. So we’re not limited to studying his life and then trying to imitate it. Jesus is alive now! And because he is God, he is able to bestow on us his divine love and wisdom — by his Holy Spirit whom he places within us. Our responsibility is to “abide” in Jesus (John 15:1-8) and then trust his Spirit to work in and through us as we are obedient to his prompting.

So don’t merely strive to have Christ-like character and powers. Strive to respond to the Spirit of Christ within you.