How Can I Know God More Fully?

How can Christians know God more fully when it feels like He is no longer present in their lives?

May 23, 2018

How can Christians know God more fully when it feels like He is no longer present in their lives? Vince and Jo Vitale answer listener-submitted questions on sensing God’s presence, faith and prayer, regaining a passion for God, and more this week on the Ask Away podcast.

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Michael Davis: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. Anyone who's been a believer for any amount of time understands that faith and closeness to God comes in phases. Many of us long for the fire that we had when God first saved us and despair that he, more often than not, seems to be distance. We do the things that people say to do to remedy this condition, such as pray more often or be in God's word daily, but it feels like no matter what we do, it seems that he is not listening. How are faithful Christians to deal with these low seasons? How do Christians experience God more fully when it seems that God is no longer present in their lives. But before we get started, Vince, could you tell us a little bit about the small group curriculum unpacking Jesus Among Secular Gods published by LifeWay?

Vince Vitale: Yeah, thanks Michael. We've been really encouraged by this. It's a small group curriculum, as you've said, so it's great if you're involved in a Bible study or a small group at church, but it's also something you can do individually as well. Ravi and I had a lot of fun putting it together. It's six weeks long. It's based around video conversations between Ravi and me on different topics in the book, so some of the secularisms or gods like hedonism, scientism, pluralism, but then also sessions on practical evangelism and apologetics.

So you have the videos, then you have a discussion based format, you have practical recommended exercises and goals that you can go out as you actually have conversations with people and hopefully see those relationships deepen. And then in between the weeks as well, there are short articles and Bible studies that you can do. We really think it's quite a holistic resource and I hope you'll find it a blessing.

Michael Davis: Excellent. Well, let's get started. This first question is actually from Robert, and this actually came in from our Connect community, which is really neat. "Ravi stated in one of his Leadership and Worship series that we must first sense God before we can serve God. He did not elaborate on what he meant by sense. I struggle with this because I seem to experience more of an intellectual assent to God, but not, as one person put it, 'Jesus was more real to me than the flesh on my bones.' I questioned if I have become dulled to the presence of God in my life, though he is all I ever think about. If I had to explain to someone else what it's like sense God, I honestly would not know how to do so. What am I missing?

Vince Vitale: Robert, thanks so much for that question. Thanks for engaging on our RZIM Connect community, our online community, and if you haven't checked that out before, go to our website and check out Connect. It's a place where you can ask questions, have conversations with people. Most people, when they ask a question on that, they'll get several substantive answers 24 hours later, and, in fact, almost every week of the year we have one of our RZIM apologists who is slotted to answer questions for that week. So exciting new aspect of what we're doing at RZIM, and please check it out.

Now, to this question. Fantastic question. I'm glad we're getting to it, because, honestly, as we travel around, so many people have this question, and even our answers will probably be slightly different, as our experience of what it is like to sense God is going to be different. God made us individually and he interacts with us as individuals. One thing I want to start off by saying is, I think that it's important not to make a sharp distinction between experiencing God or sensing God intellectually and doing so in other ways or in ways that might be thought of as more emotional.

I think, sometimes, we have the temptation to think that if we are thinking about God or we are sensing God in an intellectual sense, then that's just us doing it on our own, by our own strength and merits. But if we feel God in some sort of emotional encounter, then that's the Holy Spirit. What I would want to say is it's all the Holy Spirit. When you bend your head over a book, consider that an act of prayer that's only possible for you to take anything substantive from that book because of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible talks about when we become Christians, the renewing of our minds. When you get a good idea in the shower, turn and thank God for that. You know, that's not your own effort. That's a gift from God. That's just an act of grace that just popped into your mind.

So, sometimes, the Bible does speak explicitly about the mind and speaks about the mind as a significant aspect of the way that we're supposed to sense God and develop as Christians, but remember also that even when the Bible speaks about the heart, the Greek terminology for the heart had a significantly different connotation than the way we think of it today. Today, when we think of the emotions, we think of them as residing in the heart. In an ancient Greek context, the emotions resided further down in the entrails. The heart was seen as sort of the center of one's inner life, the place from which one experienced, had emotions, but also the volitional aspect, where they determined the actions that they were going to take, sort of that center of who someone is.

So even when you see the Bible speaking about the heart, don't think that that is in any way sharply distinguished from the mind. Actually, that is the intellectual center as well in that ancient context. So, sometimes, I think that we think we need new senses when we become a Christian in order to acknowledge God with them. Now, the Holy Spirit can do that, and praise him that he can, but, sometimes, I think it's that we just need to acknowledge that the senses we already have are gifts from God and ways that we can experience him and come to enjoy the fact that, actually, you know, my visual sight of a beautiful landscape on God's creation is actually very different now than I'm a Christian than it was before. Why? Because that can be an act of worship. It's not that I didn't have the same sense before I was a Christian, but now it's something that's relational, and can be a way that I can praise him and give gratitude to him.

Jo Vitale: Robert, I was just so encouraged when you wrote that you're worried, you've become dull to the presence of God in my life. But then you said, "Though, he's all I ever think about," and I just thought, "Wow." I just thought, "Wow, I wish God was all I ever thought about." You know, I'm not there yet, and I want to be there, and I just can't imagine you being dull to his presence. As Vince has said, if he's, you know, what you're reflecting on, and just what a beautiful act of worship. You know, Ravi always says we're the generation that thinks with our feelings, but, actually, I just love that you're thinking with your mind, and I think God loves that too. And don't discount that.

And I wonder if the reason Ravi didn't specify in more detail what he meant by sense God is because as soon as he put a label on that, you immediately start excluding certain people who haven't experienced God in those ways. Because like Vince has said, we're all uniquely, wonderfully made in the image of God, but we're all made so differently, and even in our own relationships with one another, you know, we talk about having different love languages, the way that we express our affections to each other looks different from relationship to relationship, and I actually think it's wonderfully beautiful that it's the same with God as well, that perhaps each of us does sense God in slightly different ways, and that's okay, and that's one isn't better or worse than the other, but, actually, it's just part of what it means to each have unique and meaningful relationships with him.

I love that my relationship with God doesn't look like anybody else's relationship with God. That I'm not just like one of this huge mass of people that God can't distinguish between, but it's very personal and it's very specific and intimate for that, so don't discount the way you interact with God because other people's faith looks different to you. I remember being so upset as a teenager when I was away at a Christian camp, and a lot of people were having very emotional encounters with God, and I'll be honest with you, I was one of them, and I don't discount that experience.

I really believe that that week I had a very genuine and true experience of the Holy Spirit and I'm thankful for it, but I was there with someone who I dearly love, a very close friend, and she didn't have an experience, an emotional experience of God, and because of that, she actually walked away from Christianity that week, because she thought, "Well, clearly God doesn't love me, because everyone else is weeping on the floor and I'm not having a moment like that, so that must mean something about me and my faith, or God doesn't really love me, or he's not there for me," and, actually, it wasn't that those weren't genuine experiences for other people, but it really upset me that she'd been led to believe that was the only way to experience or sense God, and if she wasn't having the same experience that everybody else had, that that meant somehow that God didn't love her or the way that she interacted with God was less authentic, or less real, or less good somehow. That's just so untrue.

I have so many friends who relate to God in different ways. My Dad became a Christian because he was at the Grand Canyon and he heard an audible voice say, "I made it." Now, I still find that hard to believe, even though it's my own dad, because I've never heard God speak in an audible voice. I can't really even imagine what that would be like. And he would say himself he's never heard God speak audibly since, but that was his genuine experience.

Now, I have other friends who really see God work in powerful ways when they pray for other people, and it's unbelievable, some of the miracles, I would say, that they have seen but in their own life they would say they've never sensed or experienced God in a way that seems supernatural to them. They experienced it for other people, and when they pray for other people, other things happen, but never for themselves. And, you know, I have friends who for whom their faith as much more quiet and it's much more intellectual. For me, I go through seasons where I do experience God in a, I guess, and you might say in a more feeling based way, but I also go through seasons where I don't experience him for long periods of time.

Now, should I think in those periods of time that that means that God isn't speaking to me, or that he's no longer real, or that something's gone wrong? I don't think so. I think it's just part of the journey of faith. I mean, throughout the Bible, that's the stories we read about people who, sometimes, God seems close and other times he seems incredibly far away. That's kind of the heart cry of a lot of the psalms. But here's my key point here. While, well, it's a great blessing in those seasons where I may experience or sense God being close to me, that isn't actually the foundation of my faith and nor is that what I primarily seek after. I'm not seeking God for a sort of felt experience of him. My faith doesn't rely on feelings, but it relies on the conviction that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

And it sounds to me like that's what your faith stands on as well. And that is as true on the days where God feels exceptionally close as it is on the days where he feels a million miles away, and that that is the bedrock of my life, and that doesn't change. And I have such confidence in that, because it's not down to me and my fickle feelings, but it's down to who God is and who he said he always be to me. And, if nothing else, on those days when God feels far away, I have the Bible that I can go to, and that is God speaking in very clear and direct ways to my heart, however else I may or may not be experiencing him outside of that.

Michael Davis: The relationship we have with God is, and that's what it is, it changes, it matures. You know, when I became a believer, I, just like you and your camp, I had a visceral physical experience that I've never experienced since then. It was one of those things where because God knew me to my core and knew that I would need that during periods of where I felt separation from him, that I would be able to rely on that emotion, or not on that emotion, on that feeling and that experience to be able to carry me through.

But I also remember when I first married my wife, where there was that honeymoon phase where things were electric and all we wanted to do was just spend time together, and it was just this magical moment. And then, you know, after a couple of years, and anyone who's been married for a while understands that, then you get into a routine. You don't love them less, you don't rely on them less. Honestly, you rely on them more, but the experience of loving them is different.

I think a lot of us remember what it's like to first be believers and just be so grateful for how God saved us, and there's that physical, visceral experience, and we say that this is normative, but a mature relationship is not based exclusively on feelings. It's based on an understanding that person is there for you. It's that person is there to support you and to love you, and it's not based ... And you can have a bad day and that person will still be there. And I'm not saying ... And this is an imperfect relationship. What Jesus did on the cross was fix a broken relationship. He didn't die on the cross to make us feel happy and to feel good, it was literally to repair a relationship that we are born and we were made to be in. And that relationship is, is so multifaceted.

So just look on our normal relationships and realize that you don't get fuzzy, squishy feelings around your wife all the time, or around your husband all the time, and it's going to be the same, but we know that he is there, he is always there. That is the promise of scripture and that is the promise that that is just as real the day you were a believer until the day that Jesus comes backs and redeems the heavens and the Earth. So just have faith in that.

Vince Vitale: I think that's so helpful. You know, we rely on the truth of who Jesus is and what he claimed, and then, because of that, we have confidence that we are sensing God, but that can look very different in different people's lives. And, as Michael put really well, can look different in different seasons, and he even explained in part because sometimes we need something different in different season and that can be part of the care of God as well. And so, you know, I would encourage you, why don't write down a list of ways that you do sense God? Sometimes, just writing something down and just widen the scope of what it could mean to sense God.

Maybe it's just sensing that he's there, or maybe it's a sensing him speaking through the Bible. For me, I would say it's often like a sense of peacefulness in a situation that I know before my Christian life I wouldn't have been peaceful, or a sense of home, or sort of security of identity, a sense of purpose. But, like I said earlier, it could be a philosophical idea or a sensation of moving across a wave on a surfboard. Waking up in the morning and taking your first breath, you know? Do you respond to that by saying, "Thank you God," because that's a way that you're sensing him. There are no sensors that are a part from who he is, and, sometimes, just recognizing that can really transform our experience of day to day life.

Michael Davis: Well, let's go into the next question. This is actually an anonymous question. "I love God and I read the Bible and I try to pray regularly, but my prayer life is really bad and I never feel like I have anything to say. What does this mean about my faith if I find it so hard? Please don't just tell me to pray more or spend more time with God, because I've tried that. I just want to know what this means about my relationship with God if I'm struggling so much." I love this question. I love it so much.

Jo Vitale: So good.

Vince Vitale: I love when people tell me how not to answer the question too, because I'm like, "All right, there's at least one way that I won't get it wrong."

Jo Vitale: This question actually came from a young person at one of our Reboot youth events in Canada recently, and I just love it, because teenagers tell it like it is, right? It's just a directness to the question. Thank you so much for this question. I think I'll just start off by saying, you're not alone. If this is your experience, if you find prayer hard, don't be discouraged and thinking you're the only one or that this says something about your faith, like you're a terrible Christian, while everyone else is just finding it so easy. That's not true.

The reality is, a lot of Christians find prayer really, really hard, and if you don't now, you will at some point. I think it's just part of the Christian faith, and let's be honest, let's just hold our hands up and say, "You know what? Prayer, it's a little bit weird, right?" I mean, what is prayer? It's basically communication with God, and communication is hard in any relationship. I drive Vince crazy, because he'll be talking to me in our house and I'll be half listening to him, but I'm also on my phone reading, and it's really annoying that I get so easily distracted when he's trying to talk to me.

Vince Vitale: I don't know what you're talking about. Like, what are we talking about?

Jo Vitale: Yeah, it definitely happens. But my point is, even the people we love the most, it takes hard work to communicate. In fact, sometimes, it's harder with the people we love the most, because we make a bigger effort to be polite to people we don't know very well, and when we're just being completely ourselves, that's when sometimes communication can be a struggle. And let's also be honest about the fact that it's weird because you're talking to someone you can't physically see with your own eyes, and even as human beings, a huge percentage of our communication is nonverbal. It's body language based, which can make prayer a challenge when you're not seeing anyone looking into your eyes and response and nodding affirmatively, and, you know, that's hard. That is hard to pray. So it should feel a little bit weird to learn how to pray when it's something that we're just not used to.

I remember as a teenager, I'd cry out to God, because I just get so upset that I couldn't physically see him and touch him, and I just found it so painful that I could relate to other people that way, but I couldn't relate to God that way. So don't be discouraged that you're finding this hard. I love the authenticity of your search, that you want to get better at this, that it bothers you, but I think the fact that this is bothering you so much and it hurts you that you're not good at it, it says a lot about your faith and how much you love God, rather than being assigned that you don't love him.

Vince Vitale: And I think, sometimes, it's helpful to shift perspective a little bit about seeing challenges and trials not just as negative things, but also as opportunities. Not good in themselves, but something that God can work through. And I'm thinking of the beginning of the book of James, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." And then a bit further down in verse 12, "Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, because having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him."

And I think there's at least a principle in here for us that God doesn't necessarily want an easy relationship with you. That wasn't his first and foremost goal. He wanted a deeply meaningful and intimate relationship with you, but that's not always the same as an easy one. And, in fact, if every day you woke up and you just thought, "I can't wait to pray, that's just the thing. I mean I can't even stop myself from engaging in relationship with God. There would be, on the one hand, something really wonderful about that, but there also wouldn't be the opportunity to feel the challenge of not feeling like engaging in the relationship and yet choosing to do so, because it's worth it.

And we can think of human relationships as an analogy there. You know, the most meaningful times in my relationship with Jo are not necessarily the times when, you know, we were on our idyllic vacation, and it's just exactly what we would have liked to been doing, and it was so easy for conversation to come, because we were just so happy that we were there and we were doing that. It's actually in the times where, you know, you'd rather not talk to anyone, and yet we made a choice to engage with each other through that trial, because that's part of what it looks like to step into not an easy relationship, but a deep and a meaningful one.

Michael Davis: It's interesting, talking about what you were saying, there was a couple days ago I was tired, and everyone's had these days, these days where literally everything was going wrong and I was just exhausted, and I knew that my kids...You know, I've got three little children, and they're just a bundle of energy and I just didn't want to deal with it. And it was one of those things where I was like, "I'm not going to avoid my children," I just didn't want to deal with it. And my daughter came up to me and just started telling me the story about how they saw a snake in the backyard. And it was one of those moments where the entire day just washed away, you know? It was like I didn't want to do it, I didn't want to interact with her. She walked up to me and it was just something I just had to do, and it was the silliest story about seeing a snake in the backyard, and it lasted forever, but it was like the entire day just didn't matter.

All the bad things that happened were just...And it was, you know what? You told me, you told us, don't just say to pray more, but, you know what? I'm going to say it.

Vince Vitale: Uh-oh.

Jo Vitale: No, no.

Vince Vitale: You know, it's like this is one of those...I know, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. But the reality is, is that because I was...I could have gone upstairs, got in the shower and just avoided that conversation, but because I intentionally made eye contact with my daughter and let her tell this story, I found the joy in there, and, sometimes, I hate to say it in with prayer, sometimes you just need to just don't expect God to constantly affirm what you're saying. But you are commanded to pray, and as you do it more often, so I am saying it, pray more often, I think that you are going to find the joy in it.

You know, some of the people who know the least doctrine and know the Bible the least have the most amazing prayer life, and, oftentimes, I would say I would give up knowing half the doctrine I know to be able to have that amazing...But difference between them and me is an intentionality, as they are on their knees every single day. And it's like that is a beautiful, beautiful image of someone intentionally going into a relationship with God.

Jo Vitale: I'm about to say something super controversial, which is you could also pray less, which, before Michael shoots me with the heresy squirt gun, which we've threatening to buy and shoot each other with during these things, it was going to be water-based, don't worry, but just to say that I think sometimes the reason we find prayer so intimidating is because we think it has to fit a certain format, where you have to sit down for, like, a solid hour of quiet time, whatever that means, and just kind of endure it. And I think we put so much pressure on the certain amount of time, or what that has to look like, or the format or structure that we freak ourselves out, because we can't measure up to these, like, human measurements that have been put on this thing. But prayer can look like so many different kinds of things.

So if you're finding I can't actually sit down for 45 minutes and just pray, or for half an hour and just pray, how about just spending five minutes? Start out with five minutes every morning a day and just talk to God in that time, you don't have to make it into some extensive monologue, but just start in the small ways and get into the practice that way, and then you may find that, naturally, as you get into the groove, that you start wanting to pray longer, it comes on naturally. But don't put the pressure on yourself to have to be at a certain level. Begin at the beginning with these things, and maybe you feel like, "Hey, I don't know if I have words to say."

Sometimes I'm in that position where I don't know what to say to God and I'm struggling. I actually sometimes find prayers that other people have written, ancient liturgy, beautiful, ancient prayers that you can pray that are based out of scripture very often and they sometimes give me words when I feel like maybe I don't have the words, because I'm going through a tough time. Maybe I didn't have the words to speak, I'm not sure what to say, but other people help me vocalize what, on my own, I might not be able to come up with.

Or maybe it's, you know, listening to worship music, or maybe it's just spending more time in the Bible. Sometimes, we didn't know what to say, because we need to listen before we can speak. So maybe it's reading a passage of scripture, and as you read it, maybe read it out loud, and then, once you read a verse, just talk back to God about what you thought of that verse. You know, that's one way to start a conversation. I just say, "Oh, is this what you're saying to me through this? This is why I struggle with this verse in my life," or, "I'm not sure what to make of that for this reason." Just had a conversation around scripture. There are different ways to get into praying to God, rather than having to follow this long, lengthy, certain format that people call a quiet time, when it really doesn't have to be quiet at all.

Vince Vitale: And let me tell you, it's not when Jo does it.

Jo Vitale: It's good, because I'm a verbal processor, in case you hadn't worked that out already.

Vince Vitale: So putting together Michael's recommendation and Jo's, we suggest that you pray more or less. Just one more practical thought here, is that, sometimes, I think, in our contemporary age, we think of prayer as such a individualistic thing between me and God, and that's great, and what a blessing it is that we can go as individuals directly to God, but in the history of the church, so much more prayer would've been communal. Even when they heard the word of God, people wouldn't have had their own bibles that they were sitting there with, they would have heard it read out loud, and they would have responded in ways and engaged together as a community.

I just think that God loves to speak to us in the context of community and through each other, and that is just the narrative of the entire Bible. One of the things we love to do with our team here, with our department within RZIM, is to read a whole book of the Bible together. We just go a few verses each, around in a circle. We listen to the whole book, and then we just spend about an hour just talking about it. And it's amazing to me how different I can experience God through that than just through my personal quiet time. Both are important, but I would say if you're finding a struggle here, one practical thing, can you get some people together and pray together and hear the word of God together? I think that could be really helpful.

Michael Davis: Well, that is all the time we have today. Vince, sum it up for us.

Vince Vitale: Well, what an encouragement it is that we're sitting here and we're talking about sensing God, and we're talking about praying to God, and hearing from God in the context of the Christian life, and it's just worth taking a step back and just saying what a privilege that is, that that's what we're talking about and we're talking about it with the confidence of knowing that we can sense God, even though sometimes we have questions about exactly how we do, and we know that we can pray to God and that he hears us, even though sometimes we can find that a challenge.

Just the fact that these are the topics that we're talking about, what a distinct privilege that is of the Christian faith. In atheism, there's no one there to talk to. In Deism, you might have a god, but he would be indifferent, far away and indifferent to whatever you were saying. The ancient Greek gods, they were fickle. You wouldn't know one way or another, or one day to the next whether they would be interested in hearing what you have to say. In Buddhism, it's not clear you have anyone to talk to. In Islam, the idea of having that personal relationship with Allah is just not something which can be fathomed. It is utterly unique that we're even having this conversation about faith, about a god who wants to hear from us, and a god who wants us to sense him. So we're incredibly grateful for that as we end this episode.

Michael Davis: Vince, Jo, thank you guys for joining me. Thank you all for listening, and we will catch you next week.

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