Back in Australia feeling the presence of God was a very real and tangible thing, in fact it was hard not to feel the tangible high that being with God brought, especially if you were part of a faith community that met weekly (which I thoroughly recommend you do). Each Sunday the music team would crank out wonderful pieces of music that I would sing along to at the top of my voice. My pastors would preach ripper sermons that would take me to new heights and understanding of how wide and deep our mighty God’s love is. I enjoyed communion and being tangibly reminded of God’s grace and forgiveness though drinking the wine and eating the bread. Done well, I enjoyed the soft keyboard music which accompanied powerful, heartfelt prayers. I enjoyed getting introduced to old spiritual disciplines such as Lectio Devina and different ways of praying and doing life together.
The buzz was real, It was real because it brought me closer to God, and because it caused me to live for him and to love others more. Sometimes people, even myself in the past, have been highly sceptical of practices, especially in the weekly gathering of the saints, that have caused people to be moved emotionally. Maybe because I’m British or because I was taught to be suspicious of anything that could be seen as ‘manipulative’. But I’ve come to a place in my spiritual journey where I’ve realised God is a holistic God and our experience of him is to also be holistic, emotions and feelings included.
I am very grateful to my Church and also to the other fellowships back home that have provided opportunities week in and week out for people to draw closer to God and to feel his love in real tangible ways…
But I’ve been away from Australia, and the worship band, and my pastor’s preaching, and small group, a few days shy of 6 months now and I haven’t once felt the presence of God like I did back in Australia. I’ve gone six months without feeling any buzz or spiritual high of any kind.
To begin with I was worried. I thought maybe I was having a crisis of faith. It did enter my mind (for a split second) that maybe because I couldn’t feel God’s presence there must be no God. Fancy that, a person called to share Jesus with those who don’t know him and having doubts about whether he actually really exists or not.
I thought maybe it was my fault, that I was in some way not doing things right, that I was praying wrong or that I was reading wrong, or that I was facing east when hoping out of bed instead of west or visa versa. But it didn’t matter what formula I used I could not manufacture a spiritual high where I felt God’s presence with me.
Then I thought that maybe it was God’s fault, that he was holding back from me and not answering my prayers to him, even the ones of utter desperation. Which made me feel bitterness towards God. I thought what have I done God that you should treat me like this, why God, why?!?!
But as I’ve thought, prayed, read, and talked with older wiser people who are also living away from their homes and churches (for much longer than I have might I add), I’ve begun to see that things don’t quite add up. The lack of feeling God’s presence isn’t me having a crisis of faith (I know with all my heart that God is real), it’s not because of something I’ve done or not done (because of what Jesus has done the Holy Spirit dwells within me), It’s not God’s fault (It’s an absolute promise that He will never leave or forsake us). So what is it, how do I make sense of this? Well I I’ve come to another conclusion albeit a work in progress that is open to critique and extra input from others.
I’ve come to a conclusion that it is what it is. That I am a product of western Christianity, and that I’ve become accustomed to experiencing God’s presence a particular way. There is nothing wrong with that way… but it is just one way.
Take me away from home and all the moving praise and worship music, the hard hitting high energy sermons, the synth chords playing in the background while people pray, the weekly coming together of hundreds and what you have feels like silence, you come to a place where you need to discover new ways of following Jesus. More to the point you need to develop a robust enduring faith. After all if our faith is built on just these things mentioned above, the band, the music, etc, then what is it really? It’s a straw house that the big bad wolf will huff and puff and blow down in an instant.
This is where I am at now. A cross roads, do I give up and chuck it in or do “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”(Philippians 3:14). And work at building that house made of bricks which can stand up to the big bad wolf’s huffing and puffing.
I choose the latter.
So what does this new/different way look like? Well, instead of expecting to feel the presence of God all the time I need to be content with knowing and trusting that He is here with me because His word tells me so. Instead of being in the passenger seat and letting my Church and others do the work for me I need to be responsible for my own faith and spiritual development. It looks like living more in the present, aware of God’s presence in the things I can see and hear; in my daughters, in Sam; in those conversations where God is revealed to someone just that little bit more than he was before; in those moments when I choose Jesus instead of myself; here, now instead of searching for God in the past or in the future. It involves being with God in the silence instead of expecting him to speak with big neon signs in the sky.
I also think it requires openness and honesty. I felt like I was the only one in the world who was experiencing this until I drummed up the courage to share with some friends at our regular expat fellowship. It was such a relief to know that other felt/feel the same as me. We now have the added bonus of praying for and encouraging each other on the journey.
God’s presence felt in the past and felt in the future needs to be celebrated, but shouldn’t be expected. God is with us despite our feelings, despite the silence, and more than that God still speaks to us even though he might choose not to use billboards up and down major highways. In these last few weeks I believe God has been saying to me “Trust me, put your faith in me even if it doesn’t feel like I’m there because guess what Ben… I am here” As Paul said to the Corinthians “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”(2 Corinthians 4:18)
After all, feelings and highs and buzzes fade, Jesus, the one who was, and is, and is to come, is forever. I’d rather put my trust in Him than my feelings any day! I hope you can do the same and together lets press on, endure, persevere, and lets develop a robust faith that can withstand all that is thrown at it.