Where do you experience God? Well, answer me.

I actually did this. All by myself. Quartered and stacked. Three rows deep. I did this.

I had lunch a while back with two friends visiting the area, home for a few weeks from their normal lives in Kenya.

In the course of conversation, one of them asked me, “Where do you experience God?”

My inner recovering Calvinist quickly surfaces and I think to myself,

“Mind your own business. And another thing, we don’t ‘experience’ God. We read about him and formulate thoughts about him. When we do experience God, it may be in a harshly worded book review, perhaps a knock-down-drag-out doctrinal debate in a session meeting, or, as in the good old days, some form of physical punishment.”

All partial kidding aside, my own experience in various expressions of conservative Christianity has not set me up to answer easily my friend’s question. The theology of immediate retribution on Chronicles, sure. Got that one covered. But not this one.

Which is a shame. I actually had trouble saying where I experience God. That bothers me.

I was taught–implicitly and explicitly–that the experience of God is something that…well…it’s good if you can get it, but don’t go looking for it. After all, experience is subjective and potentially misleading. Best to get your theology in order and leave subjective experience to the Charismatics.

I’ve been thinking a lot of about this over the last few years, and my friend’s question pushed me further along:

Experiencing God is the point.

I know some of you may wonder why I even need to write this, but:

Without the experience of God, what use is all our cogitating? What good does it to to reduce God to having either the right thoughts neatly arranged, or busying ourselves with the “work of the Gospel” when immediacy with God is not part of the package?

A life dominated by worry, fear, anger, etc.,–which commonly accompany the life of the mind–is a life where the experience of God is a theory, not a reality.

So, back to my friend’s intrusive question. I wanted to say–just to get her off my back–”in church” but (1) that’s not true, and (2) she knows I know it’s not true.

So, I think I said, “I don’t know. Give me a hint.”

Here the part of Pete is being played by an actor. Also, my trim is barn red.

She encouraged me to sense God’s presence by being open to God while doing those things that jazz me. I mentioned that I sometimes get very antsy while writing, and I feel I just have to go outside and stack firewood or paint trim for a couple of hours.

She suggested that was a clue about the kind of person I am and how I actually already do experience God along paths I don’t normally think about. I need to learn to keep my eyes and ears open.

I was taught from early on to experience God in reading the Bible, prayer, evangelism, and church. Maybe an occasional feed the hungry weekend.

Or a miracle in your life. Miracles are good.

My friend, however, was reminding me that God is bigger and more pervasive in his creation than these formulas. Is this too radical to consider–that perhaps God may be present in our lives in all sorts of “unconventional” ways; and what jazzes me may be telling me when those experiences are happening?

I am a “physical” person. I used to be an active athlete; I do a lot of work on our house; I still exercise; and I am fidgety–boy, am I fidgety. My friend pointed out that I even tend to express myself using “physical” vocabulary–”no need to jump off a cliff about it” is preferred to “no need to be so concerned.”

So, as I’m stacking wood or painting trim (or rebuilding rotted trim so I can paint it), I should learn to be mindful of what is going on inside of me those moments and ask God, “Where are you right here and now?”

Or maybe better, “How are you here right now?

No bright lights of God’s brilliant presence–at least I hope not as I’m 20′ up a ladder–but perhaps deeper and more…soothing, peaceful. I don’t know. I’m new at this. Give me a break.

I am so used to accessing a far-off God through my mind, through words. Rather than me calling the shots, maybe I can cultivate a patient discipline of seeing other, less controllable, ways in which God is already part of my experience.

I’m sure I’m doing a rotten job explaining all this, but I’m fine with that. I do wish, though, that I would have been taught some of these things during my formative Christian years–especially in seminary.

On the other hand, it’s not like I can’t learn some new things and keep moving along on the journey.

I’m fine with that, too. And I believe, so is God.

  • Dan Ortiz

    Very nicely said… I also find that physical activity and spiritual enlightenment are closely linked. Maybe that’s why the yogis came up with yoga…..

    • Joel J. Miller

      And why Christians have practiced various forms of asceticism and other physical actions from the beginning (fasting, making prostrations, crossing ourselves, etc.). The spirit and body are linked. What you do with one affects the other.

      • Dan Ortiz

        word

  • Kirk Lowery

    Most Christians I know describe an emotional experience when they refer to “experiencing God.” “Spirituality, spiritual experience” is also something subjective. Others speak of hearing God speak in their head. Universally, this discussion is about something subjective.

    My question is: are these “real” experiences of God? Is there an epistemological criterion that we can all agree on to validate them? Or are they, as Scrooge once said, a bit of gravy? ;-)

    • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

      The question is, does something need to be agreed and validated by the masses to be real? Because something is subjective, does that make it false?

      I, personally, think not.

      • Kirk Lowery

        Laura, I do not deny that subjective experiences are real. My question is, how do I know any of those subjective experiences are experiences of God?

        I’m not primarily interested in evaluating the experiences of others. I’ll stand with Pete on those: not my business. My concern is how to evaluate my own subjective experiences.

        Complete disclosure: I am not a mystic, and will not walk down that path. Nevertheless, I do not deny the presence of God. I believe that I have witnessed it. But I have no way of sharing that experience to someone else, except to ask them to take it as I present it. So I ask others to have blind faith in my judgment. Not everyone will do that. :-)

        • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

          That makes sense, Kirk. I feel as though there is no absolutely objective way to evaluate even our own experiences… the closest thing is to ask if it lines up with what I know/trust about God and my best theological understanding- that God looks like Jesus… and that God is always with me, always working for good, for redemption. So I guess to me, it’s not so much a matter of ‘what experiences are of God?’ but ‘where is God in my experiences?’

          Anyways, thanks for explaining. I apologize if I seemed harsh.

          • Kirk Lowery

            Laura, I’m an academic. I’m used to disassociating myself from my ideas and then putting them out there to sink or swim. I wasn’t offended. I’ve been raked over the coals much less politely! :-)

          • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

            and I’m a young stay-at-home-mom who is used to being told she is a little too strong in my opinions and critiques… and I prob am ;)

  • Luke

    You are _this_ close to being an atheist. Sharpen yer Ockham’s razor. A couple more years should do it.

  • David M

    I enjoy your aticles, Peter, but this is easily one of the best ones I’ve read, apart from the one about the Prodigal Son. As much as I love your research, I feel like this is when I see your vulnerability the most, which is something that I enjoy in my reading. FWIW.

  • http://www.lauraljohnson.wordpress.com/ Laura Johnson

    Where I experience God- Driving alone with the windows down. Studying. (Good) Worship music. (Good) sermons and teachings. Cooking. Gardening. Being with my dear ones.

  • DJ

    Dr. Enns,

    I grew up in a Pentecostal tradition. My dad is a pastor at an Assemblies of God church. I’ve been around the Pentecostal movement since I can really remember. Nevertheless, I’ve had my experience in a Presbyterian church for nearly two years and am a student at a Presbyterian seminary.

    Jonathan Martin recently wrote a book entitled, “Prototype”. He, much like your friend, talks about experiencing God in the times he feels most free – riding his bike. Jonathan is also a Pentecostal.

    I really do think we need to look for these “sacred pathways.” Perhaps a spiritual director is important in figuring these things out.

    Personally, I do believe God does speak – even “in the head” as Kirk said – to individuals and communities and to assume otherwise is to have a very limited, western scope. With this said, I’ve experienced God the way many charismatics would say they experience God: in worship, in communal prayer, “at the altar.” I also draw a a lot from the mystical traditions: meditation, contemplative prayer, the Jesus prayer. Further, Eucharist and liturgy.

    Peace.

  • DJ

    As a follow up, if the remark about a “very limited, western scope” came across sharp and not gracious, please forgive me.

    Peace!

  • Pat Roach

    I wish we had gone to the same seminary, then.:-) I heard this kind of thing from several of my profs, e.g. Bill Edgar, Clair Davis, etc.

    Hope you are well. I’m going to be spending some time with Chapman in SF in a few weeks. And yes, going to watch God’s favorite sport at AT&T Park, too (though I won’t claim the Giants are the Lord’s chosen team).

  • Lise

    Peter – You have a beautiful mind and vulnerability. Thank you for sharing that with us. And it’s okay to loosen the grip a little. What we learn in acting work is, “Don’t tell the story. Be the story.” Just five minutes before I saw your post, I updated my FB status saying, “I’m always amazed that at the end of the day, it’s art that makes my soul float along this thing called life. No matter how happy or crappy I feel, if I act, write, paint, or dance, I’m okay. Perhaps that is God.” German precision of thought is fine and dandy for doctrine but I love that William Blake wrote, “A tear is an intellectual thing.” I had a Romanian art teacher once say, “If you over-analzye a painting, you kill it.” Our God is far larger than a theory and his love all expansive. May he continue meeting you in movement and in your chores.

  • Susan_G1

    This is quite a challenging post. Thank you for sharing such a personal experience.

    I experience God most commonly when I study science, especially molecular biology. Often, it’s stunningly beautiful, like the very best music. I also experience God in Nature, in great part due to science. I am deeply moved by the kindness of people, which makes me thoughtful of God’s love. The times that I’ve experienced God most intimately, though, occurred when I emptied my mind and waited on Him.

  • http://evanlenz.com/ Evan Lenz

    Peter, have you read Letters by a Modern Mystic (Frank Laubach)? I’m almost all the way through. (It’s tiny and I’m reading it slowly.) Highly recommended!

    Regarding experience of God, I now assume that I’m always experiencing God (how could I not be?), but that I’m not always conscious nor appreciative of that experience. And more than anything else, that’s what I want more of. To be used by God, to be completely healthy, to live in alignment with my true nature, etc. As far as I’m concerned, these are all just different angles on the same potential: abundant life. This means there’s no place or area of life that’s not sacred. Sometimes the path to an unshakeable faith is preceded by a complete and utter emptying of faith (see Luke’s comment about being close to being an atheist). As long as God remains an isolated being somewhere “out there,” or only in certain places, then it’s easy for us to believe that we could ever be (and probably usually are) apart from Him. But when that illusion of separation dissolves, and God is given permission in our minds to embody His entire creation, then it’s just a matter of waking up to what’s already real. The experience may still be elusive, but at least our belief system isn’t getting in the way as much anymore. The only “disadvantage”, if you want one, is that, as a mystic, you’ll start feeling a much higher degree of affinity with people of all stripes and from all walks of life. You’ll start to see God in them all. :-) And lo and behold, your own faith tradition will start to make a lot more sense (even if it’s no longer the only one that makes sense or the only one that has some authority).

    I’m blabbing on a lot. If I was more honest, I’d say that the answer is not in sorting out your belief system; it’s in amping up your desire. How badly do you want it? What are you willing to go through to get it? By the grace of God, you may not even have a choice, or have any idea of what’s needed. Keep knocking on that door, louder and louder and louder… That’s what I’ll always be doing, because now I know it works!

    • paulbuggy

      Evan What a great post! I recognize a lot of what you wrote in my own journey/experience. What authors have encouraged you?

      • http://evanlenz.com/ Evan Lenz

        Paul, there are a lot of them. Scanning my bookshelf for ones that were impactful for me over the years, here’s a list: A.W. Tozer, Oswald Chambers, Andrew Murray, Hannah Whitall Smith, Thomas Merton, Frederick Buechner, Brother Lawrence, Dallas Willard, Elizabeth Elliot, Henri Nouwen, Morton Kelsey, John Sanford, Robert Barron, Paul Tournier. Outside the Christian tradition per se: James Hillman, Thomas Moore, Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, Julia Cameron. Marcus Borg gave me a way to frame Christianity while it was essentially “in the tomb” for me. Joel Goldsmith is a current source of inspiration. So are Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault. Soon I’m hoping to read William Law, Teresa of Avila, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, also Aldous Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy.” I think I’ll always love books, but now it feels so much freer to read them. It’s less about desperately trying to solve a cosmic puzzle, and now it’s more about enjoying the Mystery and seeing different colors in the rainbow, reading words, and letting them sink into my heart as a prayer for transformation for myself and the world. Okay, it’s still about cosmic puzzles too, but a lot more fun. :-)

        • Lise

          Wonderful reading list. Our shelves look similar, particularly the ones representing books outside of the Christian tradition. But some overlap in the former category as well. I’ll have to look for some of the titles you mention that I’m not familiar with. :)

    • Lise

      Letters by a Modern Mystic is a beautiful book…

  • paulbuggy

    Thanks Peter, for your honesty and willingness to talk about an area you are not an expert in. Ignatius tells us to look inwards for our deepest desires and there we will find God waiting for us. Just takes a little time to carve through what we think we want and get to what we really want.

    He hides in plain sight, so close to us that we miss Him a lot of the time. I find I experience Him often when I am caught off guard and my usual lens is out of focus for a second. Of course, the consequence of this is that I am wearing a lens that actually blinds me to Him most of the time. If I gave the lens a bumper sticker name, it would be “I shouldn’t feel that”. I’d been thinking that for 35 years before I actually heard it in my head for the first time. Boy, that was a moment!

    So I’m finding that Ignatius’ encouragement to focus on my inner experience- no matter how infantile my head tells me it is, really helps me to experience what God is doing. In this, his examen of consciousness is invaluable. It opens up a layer of God enriched experience happening everyday that otherwise will disappear like tears in rain (forgive the Blade runner reference please!)

    Paul

  • Muzi Cindi

    I love THE EXPERIENCE of EXPERIENCING GOD. I’ve now come to a place where I CONSCIOUSLY allow EVERY experience to be A GOD EXPERIENCE!

  • Brian P.

    Pete discovers he likes not just Prickles, but also Goo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXi_ldNRNtM Soon, he may give himself permission to like Goo.

  • gingoro

    I have had a virus since early April and am still not fully recovered. During this time I have felt very distant from God and abandoned. Positively I have felt God’s comfort when reading The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. Negatively I have felt God’s absence when communion is served at our church as I can not partake since I react allergically to the bread and grape juice. It seems as if God has excommunicated me.
    DaveW

  • http://www.yeshua21.com/ Yeshua21.Com

    Sometimes our Christian modes of discourse can become so pious– so formulaic –that they tend to lose their meaning. Then, after a period of “desert wandering”, we can return to them with fresh eyes. During my own desert wandering, this verse from the Upanishads alerted me to God’s presence:

    “Like two birds of golden plumage, inseparable companions, the individual self and the immortal Self are perched on the branches of the selfsame tree. The former tastes of the sweet and bitter fruits of the tree; the latter, tasting of neither, calmly observes. The individual self, deluded by forgetfulness of his identity with the divine Self, bewildered by his ego, grieves and is sad. But when he recognizes the worshipful Lord as his own true Self, and beholds his glory, he grieves no more.” ~ Mundaka Upanishad 3:1:1-2

    3. How silently, how silently,
    The wondrous gift is given!
    So God imparts to human hearts
    The blessings of His heaven.
    No ear may hear His coming,
    But in this world of sin,
    Where meek souls will receive Him still,
    The dear Christ enters in.

    4. O holy Child of Bethlehem,
    Descend to us, we pray;
    Cast out our sin, and enter in,
    Be born in us to-day.
    We hear the Christmas angels
    The great glad tidings tell;
    O come to us, abide with us,
    Our Lord Emmanuel.

    Once “Emmanuel” is seen and acknowledged as Lord, one continues to “chop wood and carry water” but the “curse” has been lifted…

    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/living-faith-in-a-nutshell/

  • Gene Chase

    I experience God in doing mathematics. I’m not sure how materialists cope with knowing that mathematics is a counterexample to their view. I experience God in the love that I receive. I’m not sure how materialists cope with that either.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I’ll go with Yeshua21′s mention of the silent, wondrous gift (verse 3). As Christians, we experience God in and through Christ. Jesus first, then God. The other way ’round leads to the problems Pete describes at the beginning of this thoughtful and honest article.

  • Bryan

    For seem reason, it seems like those who do ‘think’ or ‘ponder’ or ‘reason’ about God feel the need to backpedal and find ‘better’ ways to articulate their experience of God but I wonder, is this so bad? MacIntyre argues that the way forward in establishing an ethic in our postmodern world is the recovery of Aristotle and I believe that his metaphysics would not completely divorce the thoughts we have from the God who first caused them. I realize this is not a one to one conception of the Christian version of God but it is well worth the investment in reading.

  • Adele

    Where/how/when do Christians experience God? Or how is it for me? Really. I think you are asking the second question, so that’s the one I’ll answer. I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, by parents who had been raised Pentecostal. From the time I was very young, being an intuitive child, I believe I did “experience God” through times of worship and prayer and would have described such times as feeling his presence. I also felt God’s presence when I rode my bicycle, savoring the wind in my face, and would respond by praying silently. My teen years brought a more cerebral focus to God – a need to apprehend him in a way more in keeping with my academic inclinations. I graduated from an evangelical Christian college and joined a mission organization to do Bible translation. What could be better than both head and heart in service of God?

    Fast forward a lot of years. I came to be very uncomfortable with the “answers” I had always relied on to understand and believe in God. Not only that, but I wasn’t even understanding or believing in myself anymore either. Far from experiencing God, I was experiencing a profound disconnect from him as well as from myself. I am pretty sure there is a connection. Your blog has helped me with the cerebral disconnect by not fearing to ask the questions. Others have helped me more with the psychological/spiritual disconnect. I’m glad to see you addressing both in this post.

    Today I would say that I experience God when I am most “present” in a particular moment – whether it be gardening, writing, petting the dog, watching a grandchild at play, contemplating a beautiful sunset, connecting vulnerably and deeply in conversation, grappling with a challenging idea, a yoga class – and occasionally still in church. But honestly, I find it is harder there. Too much noise. Too much trying. Too many preconceived ideas and limits. My mother asked me recently if I “thought about” God during my yoga class. Well, no, not like that. I didn’t need to “think about” him at that moment. I was experiencing him.

    I was recently introduced to the concept of “flow”. Might there be a connection there with how humans “experience God” apart from say, meditation, or other quieter and more recognizably “worshipful” activities? From Wikipedia: “Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does … The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task[2] although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.”

    What can be more authentically experiential and God-like than that?

  • rvs

    I’m eating a strawberry/banana Greek yogurt, and holy smokes is it delicious. Also, I really appreciated Gene’s answer below about doing mathematics and experiencing God. That resonates with me–not the mathematics part (yikes) but the basic idea at which he is getting.

  • Mark

    In Met. Anthony Bloom’s (Memory Eternal) biography, there was a story about a woman who came to him and said that she’d been practicing the Jesus prayer for years since her childhood but with no fruit or real experience of God. The Met. replied that she should stop saying the Jesus prayer, and simply go in her room and knit. The woman came back and said that it was only by sitting in silence and kitting that she felt God’s presence for the first time. A beautiful story, and I think it’s good advice for all of us. Some spiritual practices move some people and don’t move others. Not that we should divorce ourselves from liturgical worship and go all wonky like so many Evangelical churches… but it might take someone their entire life to figure out what works for them in their prayer time.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    What a beautiful, honest and brave post, Dr Enns. Love it!

  • Marshall

    Experiencing God is the point.

    Pretty good, sez me, but more to the point is experiencing being guided by God. Not in the theological sense, but in the small choices in daily activities, daily interactions with others and the world, the self-assembly of the Kingdom, not of my understanding. The intrusive thought, the doing of an unplanned thing. Spontaneous technique.

    Of course this is the very thing that Skeptics think is dangerous, and so it is. How do I know when it’s God and when the Adversary? When building the Kingdom and when tearing it down? I try my best, is all, which is a peculiar way to talk about surrender. Faith.

    Anyway, when did anyone have an experience that was not subjective?? So it isn’t as if we have any choice, really.

  • labreuer

    The ESV version of Psalm 119:32 is part of my answer:

    I will run in the way of your commandments
        when you enlarge my heart!

    I’m pretty sure this ‘heart’ is the same as the one in Deuteronomy 6:5. Here’s how I explain the verse: I am able to ‘run’ when I am actively growing—when my heart is being enlarged. This could be growing intellectually, growing emotionally, or perhaps the most mystical, growing relationally.

  • Evelyn

    If I understand it right, isn’t this a big part of Ignatian Spirituality? Developing the eyes to see God at work in the ordinary of life? Might be an avenue to explore, anyway.

  • ctrace

    I experience God often by grieving the Holy Spirit within me. My engine is most of the time too crude for that refined fuel.

  • Gene Chase

    (I posted this before, I think, but I’ll try again.)
    Here is what Leo Tolstoy has to say about this. http://web.archive.org/web/20110720180606/http://www.harvardichthus.org/fishtank/2011/04/tolstoys-familiar-crisis-of-faith/

    The article is in the current quarterly Ivy League Christian Observer, reprinted from from the Christian journal at Harvard called Ichthus, from April, 2011.


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