“There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.” Jonathan Edwards
Talking about God’s love is easy. Experiencing it is quite another.
Many Christians “know” that God loves them, but many of those same people do not know–deep in their bones–the love of God.
I preached a message last Sunday that centred on Galatians 4:1-7 and our adoption into “sonship” through Christ. In my preparation for the message I was struck by Timothy Keller’s distinction between the status of sonship and the experience of sonship. It’s one thing to understand that one’s legal status has changed; that one has been adopted into a new family and placed under the care of a new father. It is quite another thing to experience that new “sonship” via the warmth and protection of a father’s embrace. For example, my son Brayden knows that he’s my son. But when I pick him up in my arms, laugh, and squeeze giggles out of him, Brayden experiences his sonship.
It’s easy for me to proclaim from the pulpit that both the status and experience of sonship are available through Christ. “That’ll preach!” as the saying goes. But how on earth can you and I access that experience? I’ll offer some ideas in a moment, but two framing thoughts:
Firstly, it’s important to remind ourselves that there is no way to control, facilitate, manage, and/or sustain an “experience” of God, anymore than you can do this with any other relationship in your life. Moments of genuine intimacy are a gift, and don’t operate according to a mechanical formula. There is no “system” or “process” through which we can secure an experience of God “on demand.”
Secondly, we should also remind ourselves that striving for an experience of God should not be the central aim of our daily efforts as Christians. Obedience to Jesus’ commands should be! However, it is a good thing to desire a full and rich experience of God. It is a good thing to want the truths of God sink into our hearts in ways that catch fire and warm us.
While I still have a long way to go in terms of “experiencing sonship,” here are five ways I’m learning to step into a deeper experience of God’s love.
The first way is easily overlooked: ask God to make His love known to you in increasingly personal and powerful ways. This is not a selfish prayer! In fact, it reveals a tremendous selflessness. You are asking for more of God, not more of yourself! When we ask for more of God, we are telling God is that we are dissatisfied with our present spiritual experience, and we want more of Him. We are proclaiming that we are hungry and thirsty for God Himself, not just abstracted truths about God. And we can ask in confidence because Jesus taught that those who hunger and thirst for God “will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
2. Confess and Repent.
Romans 8:1 declares that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” meaning that there is nothing in all of creation–including my sin–that “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:28-29). But my experience of God’s love is very much tied to whether I’m keeping short accounts with Him. Like any relationship, intimacy is lost when layers of unconfessed sin and unrepentant actions pile up in my life. Setting aside a few minutes a day to prayerfully confess my shortcomings before God helps keep my heart softened and attuned to His grace towards me.
3. Meditate on Scriptural Truths.
John Piper has some wise words as it relates to pursuing an experience of God’s love:
“One key is to realize that the experience is not like hypnosis or electric shock or drug-induced hallucinations or shivers at a good tune. Rather it is mediated through knowledge. It is not the same as knowledge. But it comes through knowledge.”
I believe it is spiritually dangerous to seek an experience of God that is untethered to His Word. Some rare cases notwithstanding, Scriptural truths are the means through which God’s love, grace, and power pour into our lives. When a sermon or Scripture passage resonates with me, I try to make it the anchor of my weekly meditations. I come back to it again and again, asking God to make this Scriptural truth real to me on every level.
4. Ignatian Prayer
Ignatian prayer is imaginative, reflective, and personal. It places great emphasis on the power of the imagination to deepen our relationship with God. One of the principal forms is an imaginative reflection on scenes from the Gospels. For example, I may spend time meditating on the truths revealed in Matthew 19:13-14 (see above). An Ignatian prayer practice, however, would invite me to put myself in the role of one of children in the story. Then I’d vividly imagine the scene in as much detail as possible as it unfolded.
How are you feeling as you are brought towards Jesus? Nervous? Excited? Ambivalent?
What does it feel like to be rebuked by Jesus’ disciples?
How does it feel to hear Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples?
What are you experiencing as Jesus embraces you and places a hand of blessing on you?
Putting myself into different gospel encounters with Jesus has been a powerful way to experience God’s love.
5. Preach the Gospel to Yourself.
“There is a difference between merely reminding ourselves of truth, and preaching to ourselves the truth of the gospel. The latter is self-consciously and intentionally reminding ourselves of the person and presence and provisions of our Redeemer. But while gospel self-preaching is not the same thing as Bible reading, the connections and interdependences are profound.” Paul Tripp