Pastor's Blog

I once had someone tell me the story of their conversion to Christ.  They were sitting in church, they said, when they saw the sunlight streaming through a bright and colorful stained-glass window.  And they felt so warm and happy and alive inside, and . . . well, that was it.  That was the whole story. 

Is that what a personal relationship with God is all about?  Having experiences and feelings that feel spiritual?  The average American would say “yes” to that – and so would a lot of evangelicals.  After all, Christianity “is a relationship, not a religion” and relationships are about personal experiences and feelings, aren’t they?

The funny thing is I had had a similar conversation years earlier with an addict whose drug of choice was “speed” (a less pure version of “crystal meth”).  This guy told me he loved waxing his car when he was high because seeing the sparkles in the paint under the bright sunlight made him feel “warm and happy and alive inside”.

How does his experience differ from person enjoying stained glass in the sunshine?

Jesus said that merely having spiritual experiences does not indicate a right relationship with God.

          Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but  
          the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will   
          say to me, ‘Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons   
          in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then I will declare
          to them, ‘I never knew you;  depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.    
                                                                                                      (Matthew 7.21-23)

The Corinthians had lots of spiritual experiences but Paul chided them for lacking love, the chief hallmark of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 12-14, especially chapter 13).

The apostles sidestep spiritual experiences, calling attention instead to faith in the truth and obedience to God’s commands.
         
          Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist,
          he who denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the  
          Father.  Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.  (1 John 2.22-23)

          Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and  
          the truth is not in him.  (1 John 2.4)

Spiritual experiences and warm feelings mean nothing in and of themselves.  Satan masquerading as an angel of light can generate both; deception is his stock in trade.  He deceives, and we are more than happy, not only to be deceived, but to deceive ourselves.  We are often quite willing to tell ourselves what we want to hear, even if it is contrary to what God has said or commanded.

Relationship to God is determined, not by spiritual experiences or feelings, but by the obedience of faith – participation in the covenant that God established in the blood of Jesus.  That faith and that obedience doesn’t differ from person to person.  It’s the same for everyone, and it’s the only way to have a relationship with God. 

Neither sunlight through stained glass windows nor “speed” and sparkly paint will do the job.

 

 

Once I was given two tickets to a Philadelphia Flyers hockey game.  I’m not much of a hockey fan, but I have a friend who is, so we went to the game together. 

At one point in the game a fight broke out on the ice.  Everyone in the crowd, including my friend, was on their feet screaming wildly, encouraging the Flyers’ player to put it to the guy from the other team.

Everyone except me.  I was seated, staring in disbelief at my friend who was normally a calm and collected guy.  As the referees broke up the fight and the crowd calmed down he took his seat and looked over at me and asked “Didn’t you feel the energy in the room???”  I blinked my eyes and shook my head.  I saw there was a fight and I saw people reacting to it.  But I didn’t “feel” anything, nor did I feel a need to join the crowd.

So, was there “energy” in the room?  Had a hockey god suddenly descended and filled the crowd?  Or was it just basic crowd psychology – like-minded people emotionally urged on by a mutually shared love for their sport and their team?

That experience always comes to mind when people talk about “feeling the presence of Jesus”.  I always wonder why it is that the presence of Jesus tends to show up only when the lights are down low and the music is soft and the worship leader is talking in hushed tones about some “touching” emotional story.

Why doesn’t the feeling of “the presence of Jesus” show up in the middle of an argument between you and your spouse?  Or while you’re trying to go to sleep at night and can’t because you’re worrying about money or some other problem that’s draining the lifeblood out of your life?  Why doesn’t the presence of Jesus show up in the middle of terribly BORING but solidly true sermons? 

Worse, I’ve never yet heard an evangelical attest to feeling the presence of Jesus when things in life are going GREAT – when they are playing Candy Land with a child or grandchild, when they are out for an anniversary dinner with their spouse, or when they are dutifully but peacefully mowing the lawn. 

Perhaps worst of all, I once dealt with a woman – a professing evangelical Christian – who was cheating on her husband who told me that the Lord had sent an angel to tell her that her unfaithfulness was alright!!!  Feeling the Lord’s presence in the midst of her unfaithful behavior confirmed to her that she was in the center of God’s will!

I don’t deny the possibility of feeling the presence of Jesus.  I just deny that it’s of any major significance in our relationship with God.  It’s nice to feel things, but we can generate whatever feelings we wish.  Is Jesus only present when we feel Him?  Or is He present all the time?

What we feel in our relationship with God is of far less significance than walking in faithfulness to His covenant with us.  That’s another reason I prefer to talk in terms of a covenant relationship with God rather than a personal one.

Every now and then I’ll preach a series of messages on a topic, but usually I preach my way through a book of the Bible.  Presently, I am not doing either.  Just sort of preaching week to week.

A couple of weeks ago, I was struck by an idea that arose in my devotions from Psalm 147 – so I preached it.  The response to that message has been overwhelming and positive. 

A member of the congregation shared this past week that they were just now reading a book based on the exact verses from which I preached, and the message of both the book and the sermon addressed issues that they were working through right now.  I was so glad they shared that, and I rejoiced in it – because it confirmed to them and to me God was working in divine providence through us and for us.  Nothing was orchestrated by human beings, yet everything came together in a very particular and very pointed way.

I’ve had things like that happen a handful of times (maybe two handfuls of times) since I’ve been an evangelical believer.  And one handful of them has been extremely pointed -- too coincidental to be coincidence.  That kind of providence is about as “personal” as God has ever gotten with me.  Moments that are just a little too detailed and too precisely structured to be shrugged off as coincidence.  Some of those moments involve things that I do or say affecting others, and some of them involve life circumstances that have deeply and profoundly affected me.

But it’s divine providence.
Jesus didn’t “reveal” Himself to me.  I didn’t see Him.  I didn’t see a vision or have a dream.
I didn’t hear Him or a voice or interact with an angel or a spirit.
I didn’t “feel” His presence.  I didn't "feel" anything.

I came to the garden alone -- but I didn't believe I was truly alone.
He never talked with me, but I believed He was clearly walking with me.
I believed because of circumstances too coincidental to be coincidence -- what we call “divine providence.”

I don't deny that Jesus can appear or speak;  maybe He does to some.  But I've never had an experience like that.  And that doesn't worry me in the least.

Every time I experience a providence, however, it involves one part of the body either instructing or encouraging or rebuking another part of the body.  The Holy Spirit that animates the body knows when to use the parts to minister to each other.  

Is the working of divine providence what people mean by “personal relationship with Jesus”?  If so – okay.  Because that’s about as personal as it’s ever gotten with me.  It just looks to me more like the way biblical covenant relationship works.  Yes, the Spirit of God is personally involved because the Spirit of God is a person – and He animates the body of Christ and moves the parts to bring blessing to one another.  But it's the working of the covenant.  It's not just "me and Jesus" -- and it never has been.

 

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