4 (False) Roadblocks to Encountering God

When you go to a comedy show, you’re ready to laugh. When you go to a concert, you’re ready to sing. When you go to a Christian conference, you’re ready to be inspired.

And when you go to church or spend time alone with God… what do you expect?

In addition to the topic of expectation, this post also marks six months until Christmas! Talk about expectation!

Expectation influences reality. Nowhere in the Bible do I see this more clearly than Psalm 63. David has every right to be frustrated. He’s in the wilderness, running for his life. Yet he turns to God with some of the richest words in Scripture.

Psalm 63:1
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

This is beautiful, poetic language—but it also seems foreign to us. In our day-to-day life, we don’t experience this kind of longing for God.

But what if we could? What if I told you about four common roadblocks—and how they don’t actually exist? Let’s take a look.

1. Location

Consider the stories of Zechariah and Mary in Luke 1. Zechariah gets to minister in the temple (tradition tells us this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!). You’d think his expectation would be high! Yet when he encounters the voice of God, he doubts.

Mary was at home, probably doing chores. She’s a teenager. An angel appears and brings heavenly news. Yet in this unexpected encounter, Mary responds in faith.

We put a lot of stock into WHERE we encounter God. But God doesn’t.

Mary and Zechariah teach us a lesson—expect God in all circumstances. You never know when God’s going to show up, and we need to be ready to respond with faith.

2. Circumstances

Psalm 63 starts with the description, “A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.” Translation: He wasn’t at a Christian conference. He was running for his life.

I still remember the words a friend of mine said at a conference years ago. He said, “God doesn’t get spiritual highs.” We are prone to fluctuate based on our circumstances, but God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

We need to begin to break the idea that God is only found in specific circumstances. God is with us in the midst of the good and the bad, the extraordinary and the mundane.

3. Knowledge

“If I just knew more, I would experience God more.”

Beware of half-truths like this. While it’s true in some regard, no matter who you are, whether you know a lot or a little about God, you have the power to know God by His grace and Spirit.

God does not have a limited capacity in your life. He has promised us everything. Listen to these words from 2 Peter 1:3.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.

We have ALL THINGS we need for life and godliness. God isn’t holding out on you. In a very real way, you can have as much of God as you want.

The channel of this power is “His precious and very great promises” (v 4). At the end of 2 Peter 1, Peter recounts the Transfiguration. For all the glory he saw, he says, that we have something more certain, the prophetic word (1:19).

Even more than a personal encounter with the glorified Jesus, we have everything we need in the pages of Scripture. Don’t miss this!

4. Emotion

According to popular culture, reality is determined by emotion.

As Peter shared, our subjective experience of God is less important than the objective truth of God’s Word. But that doesn’t mean emotion is unimportant.

C.S. Lewis gives a good middle ground. Talking about relationship with others, I’ve changed the quote by just one word to apply to God:

The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ [God]; act as if you did.

We don’t like hearing, “just act as if you love God, even if you don’t feel love for Him.” Because the message we live in is, “Loving action only results from loving feelings.”

Here’s Lewis, continued,

As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you love [God], you will presently come to love Him.

Emotion doesn’t always result in action. Sometimes action results in emotion.

And this is especially important as we think about our daily experiences of God. Instead of thinking, “I wish I loved God more,” we should think, “If I really loved God, how would I approach Him in prayer, in worship, in Bible reading?” And then do that.

The key is to take our eyes off ourselves and fix them on Jesus.

The roadblocks we perceive don’t exist. We have just as much potential as David to encounter God—not in the perfect location or circumstance or knowledge or emotion. No, instead, we worship from a place of confidence in who God is and who He has promised to be for us.

The Prayer Matrix: Resurrect your Prayer Life in the Age of Distraction

How do you create a structured and spontaneous prayer life?

When I pray, I fall into one of two ditches.

On one hand, when I try to be spontaneous in my prayer, I get distracted. In the age of the smartphone, our minds don’t know what to do with open-ended time. Most of us can’t fill silence with prayer because our minds are hardwired to seek distraction. Our thoughts wander and we find it difficult to maintain a conscious stream of prayer.

The other ditch is rote prayer. I used to have a list of prayer items I would go through each morning. However, over time this list became hollow to me. I prayed the same thing every day, and eventually, the words lost their meaning.

Enter the Prayer Matrix

Several months ago I realized a need to revitalize my prayer life. I was swinging between overly rote time with God and unstructured, unfruitful time in prayer. So I created a prayer matrix.

I started by taking the long list of prayer requests I had created.

I broke this list into many categories—family, friends, church, youth ministry, personal, martial, and many more. These categories became my vertical column.

Most of us can’t fill silence with prayer because our minds are hardwired to seek distraction.

For each point, I listed five prayer requests I regularly lift up. For example, under family, I included my parents, my three sisters, and my brother-in-law. These prayer requests filled my horizontal rows.

Across the top, I put the five weekdays. This strategy allows me to use Saturday to make up for one day a week if needed. Sunday could be more contemplative.

To complete it, I included an “everyday” row on top with prayer points I counted too important to pray every day (points like “Thank God,” “Confess sin” and “Receive forgiveness”).

On the bottom, I included a note to end with the Lord’s Prayer.

The prayer matrix model really has given me great benefits. Using it daily has allowed me to consistently pray every week for every area of my life.

I encourage you to try the prayer matrix for yourself. It’s easy to create yourself, but if you’d like a template, you can sign up for my weekly updates below and I’ll send it immediately to your inbox (and if you’re already signed up, it should be in your inbox already!).

The Most Important Mark of Spiritual Health

Last week, I wrote about my friend and what to do when God feels distant. One important question helped me determine if she was on the right track:

Do you have a regular time and space to spend time with God?

Look around you. Our world is filled with patterns and rhythms.

Rhythms of Grace

In general, our lives run on rhythms. We wake up, get ready, go to school or work, come back, go to weekly evening activities, and go to bed.

These rhythms in our lives satisfy both our need for sustenance and our desire for order. We observe daily, weekly, monthly, and annual rhythms to regulate our lives.

Rhythm is no accident. The same God who made the world made the Sabbath and commanded annual observances. He made day and night to regulate our lives and the phases of the moon to regulate months.

Consider the most basic of our daily rhythms: eating and sleeping. Most of us eat three meals a day. When we miss a meal (or a night of sleep!), we feel the effects.

The same is true of our spiritual lives. Our spiritual appetite is much like our natural appetite—with one key difference. When we miss our natural rhythms, our body lets us know through physical signals—hunger and pain. When we neglect spiritual rhythms, the pang of hunger is usually manifested spiritually—either by a lack of fruit or the presence of sin.

Rhythm is no accident.

Regulating our Bipolar Tendencies

I’ve known a couple people who struggle with bipolar. Medication helps them regulate two emotional extremes—toward either manic highs or depressing lows.

Both these carry temptations. When depressed, those struggling with bipolar hardly want to move, much less take medication. And when they feel great, why do they need it?

“The Word of God is like a pill,” my friend Daniel used to tell me. “We don’t always think we need it, but we always need the effects of it.”

We all have the same fluctuating tendencies in our spiritual lives. Some days, after a conference or worship night, we feel incredibly close to God. But the very next day we could feel like God is impossibly far away.

We are all spiritually bipolar, torn between our selfish, sinful desires and the ambition to prove to God how much we love Him. God’s Word reins us in and gives us a foundation to return to each day. We need God’s Word in our lives because we need the effect of God’s Word in our lives.

Promises + Practice = Power

2 Peter 1 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. In it, Peter paints this beautiful picture of the power of God’s Word. Summarizing the first part of the chapter, Peter says this:

  1. The knowledge of God through His Word gives us the power to live for Him and escape evil desires (vv. 3-4).
  2. Because of this, we should make every effort to add Christ-like qualities so our knowledge of Him is not ineffective (vv. 5-8).
  3. Whoever does not have these qualities is “so nearsighted he is blind” (v. 9).
  4. If we practice these qualities, we will never stumble and will receive a rich welcome into the heavenly Kingdom (v. 10-11).

God’s “precious and very great promises” (1:3) is the foundation for our practice of love, which ends in a “rich welcome into the heavenly kingdom.”

It sounds so simple only because we forget about our own spiritual blindness. If we aren’t intentional about reading, digesting, and applying God’s Word (His promises), then Peter says it’s like we’re so nearsighted we’re blind. God’s Word helps us see our lives rightly.

So let’s recap where we’ve been. We see God made rhythms as part of creation and intends for us to partake in them. We see the danger of following Jesus based on our feelings and our need to daily recenter ourselves. And finally, we see the promise of heaven, if only we can hold fast and practice God’s promises.

This all brings me back to the question at the start: Do you have a regular time and space to spend time with God?

Whoever you are and whatever season of life you’re in, you daily need God’s promises to regulate your life. You may not always feel the affects of God’s Word, but trust and believe God is able to transform you from the inside out if only you’ll take the time to ground yourself in Him.

3 Truths to Help When God Feels Distant

She’s in tears. “I just want to feel close to God.”

When God Feels Distant

What do you do when your desire to experience God is met by silence?

My friend approaches me after church. In the last year, she’s made incredible strides in her spiritual life. Coming from a broken family, my friend discovered a relationship with Jesus, and she was in the process of being healed and restored.

And then she asks, “What do I do when I desperately need God but can’t feel Him?” This is a girl who has tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). She knows the sweet, comforting embrace of His presence.

But not now. Now the heavens are made of iron, and her prayers float up with no chance of reaching God.

I listen. We talk. We pray. Out of our conversation comes three truths to give her peace when God feels distant.

“What do I do when I desperately need God but can’t feel Him?”

1. You’re not alone in your struggle.

Read the book of Psalms, and you’ll find many people who felt far from God (6:2-3; 13:1-2; 90:13-14). They didn’t hide their emotions; they freely expressed them.

When we feel God is far away, we’re in good company. Even Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” The Son of God knows what it’s like to feel distant from God.

2. The recognition of distance is a gift.

The world is filled with people who are far from God and have no desire for Him. Out of this comes a simple truth: God’s mercy is seen in our longing for Him.

For my friend to express her sadness was beautiful because she said, in essence, “I know how good it is to be loved by God, and I’m not willing to let go.”

3. Trust promises, not perceptions.

The world tells us to trust our heart, but the Bible tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?

Our hearts reflect our feelings, but our feelings don’t always reflect reality.

The Bible always reflects reality. Therefore, we need to understand what it says and trust it to guide us. I’ll write more on this next week, but I found this list of promises about God’s nearness helpful.

“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13

A Strange Kind of Evangelism

When my friend looked at me with tears in her eyes, she said, “I just want my life to shine for Jesus. I want others to see Him in me.”

I’m thankful for Desiring God for pointing out this entire story arc in Psalm 40. This whole post can be summarized in the first three verses of Psalm 40.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Breaking this down:

  • “I waited patiently for the Lord.” We don’t know how long, but David committed to the waiting.
  • “He drew me… out of the miry bog.” To be drawn out of a miry bog, you have to be in it. David was facing some incredible suffering, yet he waited until God rescued him.
  • “He put a new song in my mouth.” David could praise God in a new way because he had personally experienced God’s saving power.
  • “Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” Suffering is a strange kind of evangelism. As a result of David’s suffering, people saw God’s work in his life. It’s wrong for us to think God can only work through our lives when things are going well. Often God speaks loudest to ourselves and others in our pain.

When God feels distant, we need to know we’re not alone, thank God for the desire we feel for Him, and press on to believe His promises rather than our perceptions. When we hold on, God will deliver us.

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What Egyptian Copts Teach us about Love

I want what they have.

Graffiti
A wall of graffiti in Cairo, Egypt, which reads, "The Return of the Spirit."

Most of us gathered are young adults in our twenties. We sit in an oblong rectangle, one girl sitting on a wooden swing suspended from the ceiling. The air smells like leather.

“If we want to change the culture, we need a change in perspective.” Our speaker is a professor from the University of Minnesota, about 60, with a bald head and a relaxed smile. “Discipleship must become our key focus. We need people who are willing to lay down their lives for the Gospel.”

It’s easy to say that, but so hard to live it. We didn’t know it at the time, but hours after we would finish our meeting on Thursday night, three black SUVs in Egypt would surround a bus filled with Coptic Christians and open fire.

Disciplines and the Practice of Love

Last week I talked about how to maintain joy in developing spiritual disciplines. Taking a step back, we need to understand the practice of disciplines as spiritual formation in discipleship.

The Coptic Christians in Egypt have faced incredible persecution over the last several months. In December of last year, an attack killed 29 people. Another 47 died this year after two suicide bombings on Palm Sunday. And on Thursday, 28 Christians were killed.

Luke 14:33
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be My disciples.

Why does it matter that we give up everything we have? Why did Jesus talk about picking up our cross? Why would He use such strong language?

After hearing about the ambush, I sit at my computer at work and read articles. A story from Christianity Today run after the Palm Sunday attacks leads me to this video. The speaker is Amr Adeeb, a prominent talk show host in Egypt.

Being a disciple means following in the path of someone else—emulating their life. The most dedicated Muslims follow in the way of Muhammad, who was a warrior and conqueror. The most dedicated Christians follow in the way of Jesus, who was unjustly put to death and loved His enemies.

Jesus asks us to give up everything because He knew the truth of His own death: Only unconditional surrender creates the capacity for unconditional love.

While I sat in the leather shop on Thursday and considered discipleship, I had no idea what was about to happen on the other side of the world. I still don’t know what it will take for Christians in America to model this kind of love.

In my reading, I come across a new piece by Keller on The Gospel Coalition. He’s talking about cultural transformation and summarizing how Christians can effectively engage our culture while maintaining our identity as a counterculture. This bit stands out to me:

We should be pioneers in civility, in building bridges to those who oppose us. The earliest Christians were viciously persecuted and put to death, but the church practiced forgiveness and non-retaliation. Nowhere in the West are Christians facing this, yet many respond to even verbal criticism with like-toned disdain and attacks. Christians should be peacemakers instead of pouring scorn on our critics and ‘sitting in the seat of mockers’ (Ps. 1:1).

Our lives are meant to model a countercultural love. Yet this unconditional love isn’t formed overnight.

Think about a pianist. When they know a recital is coming, they practice consistently. They practice until they know their piece by memory. When it comes time to perform, everything is muscle memory. They don’t have to strain to remember in the moment; whatever is inside them simply comes out through the keys.

Only unconditional surrender creates the capacity for unconditional love.

The Egyptian Copts were prepared for martyrdom before it came. After persecution rebounded in 2010, the Copts had to ask whether they were willing to follow Jesus, even if it meant following Him to an unjust death.

They considered. They talked. They taught. They learned. They grew. They prepared themselves, so if the time came for them, they were ready.

I’m not saying we should prepare ourselves for martyrdom. However, we should recognize this: The strength of our foundation today will determine the strength of our love tomorrow. The forgiveness shown by these Copts shows their foundation was firm.

When they were broken open, love and forgiveness flowed out.

Sitting in the leather shop, we didn’t come to any miraculous conclusions. We didn’t unlock the secret to transforming culture. But we did recognize the need for transformative relationships to prepare one another for faithfulness in the present age.

I challenge you to consider, as I do myself, whether the habits you’re developing now are preparing you to be a sacrificial disciple or only a “fair weather” Christian.

By learning unconditional love and preparing ourselves now, I hope and pray the world can be shocked by the love and forgiveness they see in followers of Jesus in my country, too.

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