Q. I've been a Christian for a long time. I believe in the Bible and have asked Jesus to forgive my sins but I want to experience a deeper spiritual life. I don't really know what it means to practice God's presence or abide in him. Can you help me learn how to do this?
A. I know what you mean. For a long time in my own Christian life I knew the right things to believe and believed them but I didn’t understand what I could do other than read my bible and pray to experience a closer walk with God. Many of us never receive any training in learning how to experience God's presence or how to listen for his still small voice. We know we should but actually knowing what to do to make that more likely to happen isn't taught very often.
I don't claim to be an expert in this. I am still learning so I will share some of my observations and experiences with you and some ways I have learned to experience God more fully. Perhaps other's can comment so that we can collectively learn other ways that we have learned to abide in Christ and he in us.
First we are not going to experience God if we are too busy to hear him or even notice him. God assures his people that he is always present with us (Hebrews 13:5) but we are not often present to him. He says he is in us, all around us, and Paul reminds us that “in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). We are never alone (Luke 17:21) and so the problem isn't figuring out how to get God to be present to us, but rather how to get us to be aware of God's Presence that is already with us.
Recently I was struck by the words of Job. He said, “Behold he passes by me and I see him not; he moves on me but I do not perceive him” (Job 9:11). God is in us and with us but we don't perceive him. In another example, Jacob woke up from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn't even aware of it” (Genesis 28:16).
So how do we learn to be more aware of God? First, slowing down and being still is key to perceiving God’s Presence. He tells us to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Our lives are so full of noise that we must be intentional about creating pockets for quiet and stillness. I’d recommend making silence a regular part of your daily prayer. I have discovered that prayer is much more about listening for God than telling him what he already knows. Start with 5 minutes of silence and work up to 20-30 minutes each day. When distracting thoughts start swirling around in your mind, just gently let them go and return to being still.
One way of thinking of this period of silence is being willing, eager and open for God to make himself known. You can’t make yourself “see” him or “perceive” him anymore than you can make a seed take root. But you can make it more likely that a seed will take root if you prepare the soil and water the ground. In the same way, practicing the discipline of stillness and silence, prepares you heart to “notice” the Presence of God more readily. It prepares your heart to be “in tune” with a larger spiritual reality that is always there, but like radio waves or cell phone waves, we can’t “experience” them unless we are tuned in to the right frequency.
A second way to be more present to God is to spend more time in nature. The psalmist declares that “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Paul tells us that we can know God by observing the natural world. (Romans 1:19,20), but instead of honoring him and thanking him we exchanged the truth of God for a lie and became foolish and our hearts were darkened.
As I write this I am vacationing in Hawaii. It is hard to not experience God’s Presence amidst such beauty. But our busyness and priority on productivity robs us of actually experiencing beauty even though it may be all around us. How many times do we fail to notice what is right in our own backyard just because we are too busy getting things done or worrying about the next thing on our list of errands or chores? Slowing down and intentionally paying attention to what is already there, helps us be more able to be present to those God moments as well.
Lastly, Jesus tells us throughout the gospels, especially in the book of John, that abiding in him and in his word is key to experiencing his Presence. Abide means to stay close and connected. It is an experiential knowing, not an intellectual assent. The Word of God isn’t merely the scriptures; it is Jesus himself (John 1:1-14). How close would you feel to someone if he or she was always too busy doing other things to spend time with you? How connected would you feel if whatever he or she said you didn’t remember, or didn’t believe or think was important? Sadly, Jesus told the religious leaders “my word finds no place in you” (John 8:37). Although they had the very “Word” right in their midst, they failed to recognize him.
Instead of seeing your time with God as one more thing to “do” in your day, begin to cherish your time with God as if you were a lover in love and see what happens. As you read God’s words to you, ask him what he wants you to pay attention to. When something jumps out at you, like Mary, Jesus' mother did, take time to ponder it in your heart. I believe as you do these things, you will become much more aware of God in you and with you.