Early in my walk with God, I read a lot of articles or book chapters with headings similar to the title of this post. Most commenced with a lengthy list of prerequisites for God’s presence.
Fervent desire. Purity. Self-abasement.
Or, questions. Are you sinning? Do you really love God? Are you harboring desires for anything other than God? (“Complete this quiz and we’ll tell you which Disney villain you most resemble!”)
It was a bit like applying to a degree program. Have you taken this course, gotten this grade? Boiled down to the essence, these books and articles communicated one very specific supposition to the subconscious level of my anxious self:
Experiencing God’s presence was reserved for the most elite of Christ-followers. If I wasn’t experiencing it, I wasn’t working hard enough.
Along with that, there was another, more insidious idea hanging out in the basement of my beliefs. I held the impression that God was not truly interested in me as a person. He was interested in me as a subject, a law-keeper, and a cog in his world-saving machine.
He loved me, of course. But it was a distant and impersonal kind of love. Because I wasn’t allowed to experience his love unless I measured up.
My deep misunderstandings have shifted since then. Sometimes this happened little by little, like a slow dawn of morning light. Other times, understanding arrived through lightning bolts of comprehension, gifts within storms of circumstance or struggle.
Though I’ve identified three different facets of my own process of experiencing the presence of God, I don’t think there’s a magic combination for “cracking the presence code” with God. Everyone’s journey is different. I do think everyone’s journey includes some version of these principles, even if expressed differently.
Here are three things that have helped me experience God’s presence.
Accepting my identity in Christ
Identity in Christ is a statement about belonging and belovedness. I find deep-rooted security in identifying first and foremost as a being united to Christ. He is unshaken, and therefore so am I. His life is significant and meaningful, and so is mine. He is delightful to God. So am I.
As my secure identity became clearer to me, I realized God was far less interested in how well I performed than in being present with me, and inviting me to be present with him.
I grew, both slowly and suddenly, into the truth of my absolute belovedness to my Father, realizing nothing could shake his regard for me. I finally understood that keeping a list of arbitrary rules didn’t earn me any brownie points with God. If anything, they distracted me.
When I receive the truth that I am accepted by God and always welcomed into his presence, I’m freed up in soul, spirit, brain, and body to experience the presence of God instead of being occupied by running the numbers on my performance.When I receive the truth that I am accepted by God and always welcomed into his presence, I'm freed up in soul, spirit, brain, and body to experience the presence of God instead of being occupied by running the numbers on my… Click To Tweet
Knowing and accepting who I am in Jesus was the first pathway I had to walk in order to experience the presence of God.
Assuming God is present with me, always
I used to think I had to conjure God’s presence by ticking a set of boxes that would entice him to be near instead of far.
I think some of this stemmed from stealing verses out of their literary and historical context, zooming in so that nothing else was visible, and then misapplying them.
Take James 4:8: “Come near to God, and he will come near to you.”
James’ audience was a group experiencing division caused by pride. This oft-quoted fragment is a single member of a series of directives James gave to his readers to restore their unity. I absorbed only one statement out of the whole and believed it meant that if I wasn’t “coming close to God” he wasn’t present.
But Jesus promised to never leave me, and his Spirit has made a home within my body. I don’t search for his presence as much as I remember that he is already present. And God’s presence is a constant; my [very human, very normal, sometimes-scattered ] attention is the variable.
No matter how close we are to someone, if our face isn’t toward them, we won’t experience the full scope of their presence. I believe God’s face is always toward me; I get to choose whether or not to look at him.
So when I am living my ordinary, everyday life and I feel a sense of lack or emptiness, I have the option to remind myself that God is truly and fully present with me—while I let the laundry soap spin into another load, or stack the plates up, or grumble because of heavy traffic; while I drip a few tears into the bathroom sink for yet another pandemic-provoked loss, or laugh in delight at the antics of small children. In all of it, he is present not only to be with me, but to handle my pain or pleasure with care.
I can experience his presence as often as I remember to.
Communicate as if God is in the room (since he is)
I’ve learned that the best way to receive God’s presence is to talk to him like he’s actually already here. With the two previous understandings intact—I am accepted and welcomed in God’s presence, and his presence is an unbroken actuality—I have the courage and desire to simply start talking. And listening.
Communication is the foundation of every valuable relationship we experience. This is true for my relationship with God, too. And communication with God isn’t drudgery through a devotional or ticking a quiet time box. Communication with God can be vibrant, matter-of-fact, uninhibited, and constant.
These days, my favorite way to communicate with God is through Immanuel Journaling—writing down our conversation helps keep me focused and invites me to tune into his compassion.
I think our most natural and life-giving ways of communication are our best starting points for experiencing God’s presence. As a writer, journaling is meaningful for me. Visual artists may connect deeply with God through drawing or sketching, and verbal processors may appreciate praying out loud. I suspect however a person best expresses their thoughts to others is probably how they will most sense the presence of God.
For a long time, I felt like I had to ensure God’s presence with my good behavior, then keep his attention with my “correct” prayers. Yet, I rarely felt as if I was experiencing God being present with me. I was trying to feel and experience something before I believed, deep down, that his presence was already a loving reality. I was attempting to communicate in order to “bring” God’s presence to me. But when I was able to trust that he was present despite my imperfection and humanness, and wanted to be, communicating with him took on new life. I began to experience what was true all along—God is present, and happy to be with me.
One last thing. Experiencing God’s presence is something to practice. I’m finding ways to do that through simple, everyday activities, and I find I can practice best when something takes minutes, not hours. I’ve created a short guide offering specific, uncomplicated ways for being mindful of the presence of God. Each suggestion takes from 5 seconds to 5 minutes. Moving through the day with God will become more second-nature when we create sensory connection points for tuning into his presence.