Intimacy with God
Even though the scriptures clearly say that God is near and intimately involved in our lives, His closeness is still hard for us to grasp. He is so otherworldly and holy that we might think He cannot relate to us and we cannot relate to Him.
We humans have enough trouble relating to each other, let alone God. For example, the rich usually do not mix with the poor, “sinners” do not often associate with the “saints,” and people with conflicting political views rarely stick together. Sometimes, even the slightest differences keep us apart, making us most comfortable around people who are like us.
What if God is the same way? As David said in the Psalms, “Lord, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him? (Psalms 144:3)” How can the infinite and the finite mix—the perfect be with ones who are so flawed? We hear the illustration that God is so far above us that comparing ourselves to Him is like comparing ants to humans. Why would God want to associate with ants?
Maybe this is why the Lord is always telling us to do what He would do. If we are a little more like Him, He might be more comfortable with us. Yet at times, telling us to behave like God seems like telling an ant to be human. It does not seem very fair.
To be honest, we are not sure we want to be with God all that much either. We sing “What a friend we have in Jesus” on Sunday, but in secret, we wonder if He is a friend we really want around. We think He is so religious, and we believe He does not like many of the things we do. Maybe we can visit Him on Sundays and Wednesdays, but we are not sure we want to be with Him every minute of every day.
Considering the alternative, we certainly want to go to heaven! And God has some pretty good blessings to share with us here on Earth. God is worth following for these things, but is God worth following just for God?
We never vocalize such concerns, but our actions betray our hearts. Usually, we spend far more time asking God for His blessings than we do asking to know the Lord. Likewise, we talk far more about working for God than possessing God. Maybe we should try to look at things from God’s perspective: if we had a loved one who wanted our gifts or employment more than they wanted us, how would we feel?
Relationship issues more times than not come from misunderstandings. We have incomplete information, so we draw incorrect conclusions. This is why communication is the lifeblood of a strong relationship, and our relationship with the Lord is no different. If we think God does not want us around, we have some bad information. In fact, the scriptures reveal that He wants to be with us more than we want to be with Him. To the Lord, the thought of not having us near is unbearable. If this was not so, Christ never would have gone to the cross.
Similarly, if we think God is someone we would not want to be around, we do not have all the facts. We have heard the expression “to know him is to love him,” and there is nobody this applies more to than the Lord. As we get to know Him, not having Him present becomes unthinkable. And if we do not want Jesus more than anything, we do not fully know who He is.
God tried to explain Himself in multiple ways throughout His relationship with humanity but ultimately sent His Son to perform the task (John 1:18). Originally, God gave us the creation to help us see what He is like, but we did not get it. Then He gave us His Law and worked wonders for us, but we still did not understand. Finally, He sent Jesus to do the talking—almost as if the Father looked at the Son and said, “You go tell them!”
Christ became one of us so we could see what God is like. Christ’s actions, the people He loved, and the people He came against showed God’s heart. Then, through the showdown and gift of the cross, God screamed at the top of His lungs, “This is who I am!”
As if that was not enough, God followed His Son’s coming with the words of the apostles, giving us teachings and wondrous images to help us to further understand. And God’s pictures speak loudly of what He desires for us and from us. We see images such as the vine and the branches, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, and the bride of Christ. If we think God is far away or only visits us on occasion, these images quickly dispel such ideas. They reveal that God is nearer and more intimately involved in our lives than we could possibly imagine.
We tend to think the differences between God and us make such wonderful closeness impossible. God is infinite, we are finite, and the latter, certainly, cannot conceive of the former. However, this is not the hindrance to intimacy with God we might think. On the contrary, because God is infinite, He can be closer to us than any human being. God is able to know us completely and love us completely in a way that no one else can.
Full disclosure and unwavering love are two great measures of a close relationship; for intimacy to occur, we must be able to reveal ourselves to another and still be loved. No human being is able to accomplish this like God, who fully knows us and fully loves us. Period. Human love may stop when we see each other’s weaknesses and failures, which is why we so diligently hide our shortcomings. Fear makes us masters of disguise, but God’s love does not stop. He knows not only our actions but our thoughts, and He still loves us relentlessly. The Lord’s infinite capacity to both know and love makes Him the best companion we could ever hope for.
Even better, it is the Lord’s greatest desire to be closer than any other in our lives. He wants the infinite and the finite to be joined together. We first see this in the Old Testament house of God, where the Jews believed the Holiest of Holies in the Temple was the place where heaven touched Earth. In the New Testament, God boldly revealed His heart when He said that we are His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19; Ephesians 2:19–22). We are the house God has fashioned for Himself.
The Apostle Paul used other astonishing imagery to help us understand what God wants most. One of the most powerful is the marriage illustration.
For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:30–32)
We have many weddings at Thorncrown Chapel, and I try to help our couples understand what they are doing on their wedding day. When they stand at the altar, they are not just making a promise to stay together no matter what; they are giving the greatest gift a human being can give to another—the gift of self. The bride and groom give themselves to each other in a way unequaled in any other human relationship. With the mutual gift of self, something mysterious and wonderful happens: the two become one.
The marriage relationship clearly points to our relationship with the Lord. For example, on your wedding day, all your spouse owns becomes yours and vice versa, but this is not the reason you got married. If it were, it would cheapen the relationship. Likewise, accepting the Lord is more than receiving mandates on how to live or answering a call to service. How many of us married our spouse solely because we wanted to work for him or her or because we could not wait to be faithful to one person? Such things are qualities of a good relationship, but they are not its essence.
When we receive Christ, we receive a Person, not a mere commandment or call to service. He gives us the gift of Himself, we give ourselves to Him, and…the two become one. Marriage is about union, and our relationship with the Lord is no different. Things like possessions and behavior are products of union, but union can only happen when God is a gift.
Our relationship with God is the best relationship we have. Yet the way we often present Him stifles intimacy and turns the Lord into someone who is the furthest from us rather than the closest.
Straight from the Old Testament, much of our teaching leads us to believe that what God wants most is for us to behave correctly. We conclude that because our lives have so many troubles, God is obviously disappointed in us. If we can become someone God would want to be around, we’ll be someone He wants to bless. Such messages are then followed by a formula to get the job done—anything from moral living to having faith.
This idea destroys intimacy, setting up a performance-based relationship with God in which our behavior dictates whether God is with us or not. Even faith can be a performance we put on for God when we are told God turns His back if we do not have enough of it. Ironically, true faith is seeing that God never turns His back.
Intimacy can only occur in an environment where no performance is necessary. If we have to earn our place with God, we open the door to fear of rejection. Closeness with the Lord grows and flourishes in the rich fertile ground of love, not the sterile ground of fear.
Fear is the enemy of intimacy. If we have to measure up, we will hide from God whenever we fail Him. Recall what Adam did when he disobeyed, hiding himself in the Garden. If we do not hide ourselves from God, we will not feel that God is hiding from us. Being able to share our shortcomings is an integral part of a close relationship. But for this to be possible, love must first banish fear.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:18–19)
Jesus came to reveal the love of God once again. Before He came, it was as if God wore a covering; the veil in the Holiest of Holies was God’s shroud. In reality, it was Adam’s choice that veiled God—He chose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil over the Tree of Life. He looked at himself rather than at God, and, in doing so, he became blind. When self became his righteousness, he could no longer see the love of God. He became trapped in a framework of trying to be someone God could accept.
Jesus achieved His revelation by tearing apart the covering humanity’s sin had put on Him. And He began by accepting people no one else would accept and by loving lavishly those no one else would love. When we think of Jesus being perfect, we think of Him never doing anything wrong. But this is a limiting view on His perfection. Jesus loved perfectly. The world had never seen such love! In light of it, the veil could not compete—especially at the cross. When Jesus breathed His last, God tore the veil surrounding the Holiest of Holies from top to bottom. Jesus humbled Himself in a way that offends the blind but compels the seeing to worship, suffering unimaginable rejection so we could know unimaginable closeness to the Father.
This perspective clarifies the maturity of which John speaks in his Epistle. We often view Christian maturity as getting closer and closer to God, but true growth occurs as Christ removes the coverings we have put on God—coverings He banished long ago at a place called Calvary. We come to see what Paul called the “width and length and depth and height” of the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:17–19). Becoming mature is the process of love’s triumph over fear.
Thinking of love as a ruler may be difficult for us, but love is—literally—King. Fear, the weaker ruler, can bring us to exhibit certain behaviors but only to control us against our will. It says, “obey or else.” Interestingly, fear and its accompanying performance-based relationship then lead us to try to control God through good works, having faith, and other religious deeds. We try to use our behavior to get God to do what we want.
Fortunately, unlike fear, love is a ruler to which we willingly bow. In the presence of infinite grace, all resistance melts away, one gift begets another, and we give ourselves to the one who loves us no matter what. When God says “I love you” to the human heart through Christ, we become love’s willing participant—as God already is. This is the way relationship with God is meant to work—as two beings who give of themselves out of love and not control.
Part of knowing how much God loves us is knowing how much He sincerely wants us. We might think God loves us because it is His duty as Love the King—that because of our inferiority, loving us is His sacrifice, not His pleasure. I have even heard people say that the Lord loves us, but He really doesn’t like us. If we are to know intimacy with God, however, we must know we are infinitely welcome in His presence. In fact, the Lord yearns for our fellowship.
We saw in the book of James that God is a “jealous” god—a description one would not expect to hear in regard to someone who does not earnestly desire us. In fact, this jealous nature alone shows how much God wants us because no one is capable of wanting us more than God infinitely does.
This concept is difficult for us to grasp, as jealousy is not typically a redeeming quality. However, what God selflessly did to gain us shows that we are His prize, His ultimate love. Perhaps during our high school or college days we had a boyfriend or girlfriend who broke up with us and ended up with someone else soon after. Devastating as it was, what if our ex had made a bad decision? What if his or her new love turned out to be a very big mistake—how would we feel then? If we are honest, we would admit that it probably makes us feel pretty good. Our former love was getting what he or she deserved.
The Bible often portrays God as a jilted lover but in a marriage context. We left Him for another lover called the world, and it did not work out for us; leaving God was a very bad choice. Amazingly, the Lord did not turn His back, leaving us with “what we deserved.” He came to get us instead.
Who among us would willingly serve the one who rejected us? Who would go after him or her knowing more rejection awaited? Beyond even that, who would die for this person in order to take on the consequences he or she deserved? God would, and He did so through Christ and the cross. If we look to Calvary, there can be no doubt of God’s passion for us.
We are told to make the Lord our greatest love, but we cannot do so until we see that we are God’s greatest love as well. No reward, no matter how great, can make us love God more than anything. Fear cannot accomplish it either. It is love that makes us love. Once we can conceive of God’s unending love for us, we cannot help but love Him in return.
No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
“The Lord works in mysterious ways”—we’ve all heard the expression, which translates as: God will not tell, so do not ask. Jesus’s words in John 15:15 contradict this overused cliché, however. Being friends means sharing intimate secrets with each other, and it means being able to ask why and expect an answer.
There are times in our lives when things do not make sense. Perhaps God seems strangely absent, or it may look like He is withholding the things we need. He may even take away what we have for no apparent reason—but God does not operate without intention. If we will let Him, God, our friend and confidant, will take us up, as if on a high mountain, so we can see the big picture. We will see that He is always there, especially when we think He is not, and we will see that anything “lost” is taken away to make room for something greater.
God is not afraid of the question “Why?”—He expects us to ask it. And He is delighted when we do, for it is an opportunity to reveal his love for us.
Years ago, I suffered from an unusual digestive disorder that would not go away and found myself asking why. I awoke each morning wondering what my bowels were going to do to me that day, and at times it was so bad that I could not preach or do my job. I prayed and prayed that God would make it stop, and all sorts of other people prayed, too. For two years, I held on to my faith that God would deliver me, and for two years, nothing happened. Finally, I ran out of faith.
I still remember the conversation I had with the Lord. I told God I was so tired and disappointed that I could not believe Him anymore. And you would think the Lord’s response for a faithless preacher would come in the form of a lightning bolt! Instead, it was as if the Lord took me up to that high place and let me see. He showed me that faith is not holding on to God but seeing that God holds on to us—even when we let go of Him. He allowed me to reach the end of my faith so I could live in His faithfulness. God was giving me something all along, but I could not see it. He was giving me Himself, and who can argue with love? When it showed itself, all I could do was apologize and let it in.
I got well soon after that, but I gained far more than my health. I got a taste of God’s gift, which heals both the body and the soul. That day, my relationship with the Lord changed, but it would not have been possible if I had not run out of my faith. There, at the end of my faithfulness, I began to live in grace.
One of the great journeys in life is self-discovery. That is why statements such as “I am what I am” and “it’s what I do” are such powerful proclamations. But getting to know who we are is not something we do alone. Self-discovery is a journey we take with God. And as much as intimacy with God is getting to know who God is, it also getting to know ourselves.
Each of our lives is a unique picture of God’s glory, and each is a picture of Jesus. By divine design, your one-of-a-kind picture does not look like mine, yet we still tend to think that everyone’s life should be a copy of ours. Evangelists think everybody should be an evangelist; teachers think all people should share their zeal for teaching. I do not know how many people have come up to me and told me what I should be doing! What they were really saying, however, is that my picture of Jesus should look just like theirs, and such thoughts, though innocent, are an offense to the Master Artist. He is infinitely creative. That is why every picture is so special and as priceless as the next. To think any less is to devalue not only ourselves but God Himself.
The Lord knows us better than we know ourselves, and it is His delight to share you, His creation, with the world. In the movie Chariots of Fire, missionary Eric Liddell said, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” Likewise, when we find God’s pleasure, we find our own pleasure—our own joyful calling. God has given each of us something to do together with Him.
Patricia Taylor, our music minister at Thorncrown Chapel, says she feels closest to God when she sings. Do I feel closest to God when I sing? Have you ever heard me sing???
Because I am a preacher, people might think I feel closest to God when I preach. However, this is not the case. I am an explorer, and I am happiest when I am seeing something about God that I have never seen before. That is who am I, and that is what I do. Yet if I try to do these things alone—without God—I end up empty. Being who we are and doing what we do is something we do together with the Lord. And getting to know ourselves is part of living in God’s grand gift.
As we walk with the Lord, He reveals the mysteries of our lives, but He remains as the greatest revelation we’ll ever discover. While our delight is to reveal ourselves to God without fear, God’s delight is to reveal Himself—His infinite love—to us in the finite. And when the Lord shows His glory to us, it is not to prove His superiority or to put us in our place; it is love in action. When God shows Himself, it is always a presentation of the gift, and it is always to raise us up to where He is, so we can participate in it. When God says, “this is who I am,” He also says, “…and all I am is yours.”
Getting to know God is the process of finding out that He is not who we thought He was; He’s infinitely better. This is why the prayer to know the Lord may be the most important prayer we pray. God’s answer will transform us and what we see when we look at the world. When we ask the Lord to change our lives, He will answer by revealing Himself to us, thereby changing our lives forever.
Jesus opened the eyes of many a blind man, yet that was only to point to His greater task. He came to open the eyes of humanity so we could see just how very much God loves us. When we began our walk with God, the Lord’s love was shrouded by our own self-righteousness, and we were blinded by the fool’s gold of other loves. Now, Christ touches our eyes and we see. We see that God is our prize and we see that we are His. And we see, from His high place, that this has always been so…and it will always be so.