Encountering God

When children are young, their world is little bigger than their neighborhood; their home, their school, their friends’ houses, and their church. When people reach young adulthood, their world expands, perhaps even to encompass the whole globe. Slowly though, muscles weaken and eyes get foggy. Women lose their ability to conceive, and hair grays. At those moments, pensive people begin to truly understand that though the world will not leave them, they will leave the world. While little children anchor themselves in their parents and young adults in career and family, the aged realize that these anchors will not hold.

Thoughtful people realize that no temporal anchor – job, family, wealth – will hold through the storms of old age and death. The only anchor that can hold the ship of a man’s life steady in these tempests is God’s Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). He is the Rock of Ages that can shelter our souls against the storm (Isaiah 26:4). We will find refuge only under His wings (Psalm 91:4).

But how can we know God? We must encounter Him. A lifetime of experiencing His faithfulness will enable us to trust Him for the next life. This article will describe how Christians can encounter God regularly.

Background

Matthew 5-7 highlights one of Jesus’ most famous sermons, the Sermon on the Mount. He begins chapter 5 with the Beatitudes (Blessed are the …), discusses the role of His followers in the world (salt and light), and ends with a discourse on what it means to be perfect in the eyes of the Father. In Chapter 7, the Lord warns His listeners to judge only as God Himself judges, encourages them to good actions, and concludes telling the crowd to build their lives on His teachings as a wise man would build his house upon a rock.

Nestled between is chapter 6, beginning with an admonition against hypocrisy, a lesson on prayer, and a summary of trusting in God. Another look, however, reveals that Matthew 6 tells listeners (and in our case, readers) how to encounter God. Four things about experiencing the Lord are evident from verses 1-18:

  1. We must want to encounter Him.
  2. We must know how to encounter Him.
  3. We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him – physically, personally, and with others.

Keeping these three themes in mind, let us discover how to encounter the God of Creation, the Lover of Our Souls.

We must want to encounter Him.

By nature, man does not want to encounter the real God. We want to find power, knowledge, and beauty, but we are terrified by the blinding purity and the overwhelming holiness of the Lord of the Universe. Our finitude, our mortality, and our love of evil – though we don’t consider our private, favorite sins to be evil – make us afraid and ashamed in His presence. Being face to face with God is a little like being face to face with a deathless angel, a lender to whom we owe millions, and a policeman who has just caught us burning down a house.

Far from being a path to God, most of the religions of the world are attempts to escape the truth about ourselves and our Maker. We pretend that we can put God into our debt by doing good works, when actually every part of our moral nature is corrupt and we are incapable of good works; deeds that share the goodness of God. We pretend that our religious rituals and offerings can force God to act in accordance with our will when in truth our duty is to do His will. We act like we know what is best for ourselves and others, while in reality over the course of our lives, our desires change like the wind. If we finally realize these facts about our nature, we deny that a personal God exists and pretend that we can reach Enlightenment, attaining a state of bliss, by our own efforts.

Jesus described this problem in Matthew 6. The hypocrites (ὑποκριτής hypokritēs – pretender, false face) wanted to convince onlookers that they performed their “good deeds” for God and others, when they actually performed them to glorify themselves before man. They received what they sought – other people were impressed. We do the same thing, both with “religious” and with other actions:

  1. We make money to meet our physical needs, but beyond this we make money to glorify ourselves in the eyes of others (“keeping up with the Joneses”).
  2. We accomplish goals to make money and to do things that we consider “good” for ourselves and others. Often, however, we do so to feel better than our compatriots, to gain their approval, and to “earn ourselves a place in history.
  3. I sometimes make the same mistake. I have a New Testament in English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, and Arabic. Sometimes I read this New Testament to learn languages, not to discover God.

When Jesus says “thy Father will reward thee openly”, He was not talking about money, fame, or power on earth or even “jewels in your crown” in heaven. The Father is the Rewarder and He is also the Reward. God will give more of Himself to those who love and obey Him. To perform any act for any reason other than the glory, enjoyment, and love of God, and secondarily for the benefit of others, is to seek the glory of men. It is also to seek a reward other than the Rewarder. People who do these things do not really want to encounter God, and they will get their wish.

We must know how to encounter Him

Mystics, whether Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, practitioners of Kabbalah, or others, often chant phrases over and over again. These chants do not need to make literary sense in any language, because the mystic hopes that the tone and rhythm will lead to an ecstatic experience; one that overwhelms the body with emotion and a sense of the numinous. The mind, and certainly not reason or logic, is often not involved beyond executing the chant. While there is nothing inherently wrong with chanting, Jesus taught that mere repetition of words does not avail to speak with God. Put another way, chanting, dancing, and other practices can be useful to worship, but vain repetition is not useful. The Lord taught a better way:

  1. Our Father – plural, as if praying in community to the powerful yet close and loving One with authority over us. Note that each member of the community is equal before Him.
  2. Which art in heaven – though He is close to us, He stands in authority over the whole universe.
  3. Hallowed by Thy name – a statement of how we must and will revere Him. It is “your name will be honored” rather than “I hope your name will be honored” or “will your name be honored?”
  4. Thy kingdom come – We want your authority, your protection, your sustenance, and your love upon us on this earth…
  5. Thy will be done – We want your will, not our own, to be done on earth…
  6. On earth as it is in heaven – Your kingdom and will are perfectly in place in heaven, we want them perfectly in place on earth, and they will be perfectly in place on earth.
  7. Give us this day our daily bread – Provide our material and spiritual needs today
  8. And forgive us our debts – We have failed to behave in accordance with your character, and therefore have become morally indebted to You.
  9. As we forgive our debtors – Others have sinned against us, and help us to forgive them as we have graciously been forgiven.
  10. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – Protect us not from hardship but from sin.
  11. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever – not found in many manuscripts, this refers to the overarching glory of God.

Note a few other things about encountering God. The use of plural at the onset suggests that many people are praying together. Jesus’ example showed Him praying alone but also praying with others. Therefore we must strive to encounter God both alone and in groups of other believers. We are to honor God, ask for spiritual and physical needs, and consider the desires of ourselves and others.

We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him

Many Christians have a devotional time of prayer and Bible reading but nothing else. This is good, but to most effectively encounter God, we must do more. Consider what Jesus is telling His disciples to do, and how each act corresponds to a spiritual discipline:

  1. Acknowledge God (worship and celebration)
  2. Give to others (service)
  3. Go alone into a closet, a secret place (solitude and secrecy)
  4. Be silent (silence)
  5. Pray (prayer and meditation)
  6. Let the Word of God inform your prayer (study)
  7. Fast (fasting)
  8. Confess and be forgiven (confession)
  9. Forgive (sacrifice and submission)

The Spiritual Disciplines are traditional practices that Christians since the 1st century have used to discover God. In Matthew 6, Jesus is not only warning His followers against hypocrisy and teaching them to pray, He is describing what believers need to do to encounter God to the fullest.

We have seen how encountering God involves a personal devotional time and also involves others. This passage also suggests a physical component to encountering the Lord. Silence and fasting are both physical. Body position, whether kneeling, lying prostrate, or standing with uplifted arms, is physical. Mystics, charismatics, and others chant, dance, and do other physical actions to better feel God’s presence.

How might this apply to the modern day?

A man gets up early and goes alone with his Bible into his prayer closet (silence, secrecy, and solitude).There he confesses his known sins, receives forgiveness, and forgives others (confession, sacrifice, and service). Once his heart is clean, the man reads the Bible silently and meditates on what he has read (Bible study and meditation). He worships God through the passage and through what He has done for him over the past day, week, month, or year (worship and celebration). The man has fasted since dinner last night, or perhaps even since lunch the day before.

Every weekday morning the man runs or lifts weights alone for exercise. Rather than listening to music, he uses the time to reflect on creation, the person of God, and to seek help with life’s’ troubles. The rhythm of his heart beat, breathing, and foot striking the ground capture his attention. The exertion of exercise hinders linear, logical thought and so he listens better to the world around, his body within, and the Lord above.

Every evening the man assembles his family for prayers. Using lists of family, friends, associates, local, national and global prayer needs, he assigns topics for each person in his family. They discuss the prayer issues as a group and then pray, each person sitting up or kneeling so no one falls asleep.

Conclusion

Life is hard; too hard to be anchored in people, things, or any other temporal creation. God the Son, Jesus Christ, anchors our souls in the stormy seas of existence, and He hides our hearts in the cleft of His rock. To anchor in Him, we must experience Him over and over again. We must want to encounter Him, know how to encounter Him, and encounter Him with our whole self; our bodies, our minds, and those around us. Only then will we anchor ourselves securely forevermore.

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When Crisis Comes

Carolyn, a friend in her 90s, approached me at church after the morning worship service a few Sundays ago. She and her husband Alan had had a terrible week. The previous Tuesday she was hit by another car while driving, destroying her vehicle but leaving her mercifully with only a few bumps and bruises. On Friday there had been an electrical fire in her house. She and her husband were safe but their home was badly damaged. They were living in a nearby hotel and needed prayer. The couple, another friend and I prayed together immediately, and my family has lifted them up before the Lord several times in the past few weeks.

Every life has times of crisis. Some crises seem small, like having trouble not getting the classes that you wanted in college or having trouble setting up the Internet in your apartment. Other crises seem huge, like losing a job or losing a spouse. No matter the size, no one escapes crisis in their lives. The best we can do is learn what to do when crises come.

David faced one of the biggest crises in his life in 1 Samuel 30, and he provides an excellent example of what to do when crisis comes.

Background

After David’s faithfulness when he refused to slay Saul in 1 Samuel 26, he became discouraged. King Saul was nearing the end of his life and was growing more desperate to kill David and secure his dynasty. The Ziphites had betrayed David before, and Saul was ramping up the pressure on the inhabitants of the Judean wilderness to turn him over. Unable to see a better alternative, David took his men, their families, and their belongings, and fled to the Philistines (1 Samuel 27:1-4). They did not know that they would have had only 16 more months of wandering before Saul was dead (1 Samuel 27:7).

David was playing a dangerous game, and Saul knew it. By supporting the enemies of Israel, David and his men would be perceived as enemies of Israel. Even if David did nothing directly against his countrymen, his name would be associated with the hated King Achish of the Philistines. Even if David did not kill one Israelite, by attacking the enemies of Philistia, David was sparing the blood of Philistines, who would then shed the blood of Hebrews. Saul could not kill David while under the protection of the Philistines, but he did not feel that he needed to. In his view, David had disqualified himself from being king.

Though the circumstances between Canaan in 1000 BC and those in modern America are vastly different, perhaps a historical parallel would be useful. David had served Saul and was a great combat leader, responsible for mighty victories against the Philistines (1 Samuel 18:7). Breaking with Saul, David seemed to reject his people, the Israelites, and help their oppressors. Benedict Arnold had served George Washington and was a great combat leader, responsible for mighty victories over the British such as Ft Stanwix and Saratoga. Breaking with the leader, he rejected his people, the American rebels, and helped their oppressors. When Saul died, David became king. Had Washington died, would Arnold have become president?

David also knew that his life hung by a thread. If King Achish discovered that he lied about attacking Israel, he would have destroyed him and his band. If David had shed one drop of Israelite blood, his hopes of being their king would disappear. He could not even go back to the Judean wilderness, because after sojourning with the Philistines, he would have lost most of his local support.

Achish and the other Philistine lords planned a major attack on Israel, the Achish commanded his vassal, David, to accompany him as his bodyguard. Achish had seen David’s prowess in battle and perceived him as being loyal. Further, David was no threat; he had betrayed his people and could not be king in Israel, and as a Jew he could not be king in Philistia. David and his men left their base in Ziklag and marched with the Philistine army for three days, to Aphek. There the other Philistine lords refused to fight alongside David, and so Achish sent him home. There is no doubt that David was desperate to get out of this campaign, a fight against his own people, and the Lord enabled his escape.

Returning to Ziklag, however, David found disaster. He had been raiding the Amalekites and other tribes in the Negev Desert for 16 months, and now they had exacted revenge. A large raiding party, probably over 1,000, had attacked and destroyed the city of Ziklag, taking everything as plunder. The wives, children, livestock, and possessions of David and his men were gone. David’s band had massacred the Amalekites, and there was little doubt that the Amalekites would return the favor.

Curiously, though, there were no corpses littering the ground in Ziklag. The Amalekites had taken the people away but not killed them. There was hope.

Deal with yourself

On finding the burning city, David and his troops were devastated; they had lost everything. The soldiers had joined David in the knowledge that he was a great leader and the hope that he would be King of Israel. That chance seemed gone. Perhaps David’s men had subsequently expected him to become a Philistine warlord, and envisioned the booty they would share. If so, that hope evaporated when the other Philistine lords turned against David. Now the men in David’s guerilla force were utterly destroyed; even the little that they possessed had vanished. In their despair, they turned against their leader (1 Samuel 30:6). David could have been paralyzed in sadness and fear. He could have let hopelessness overwhelm him. He did neither. David dealt with his body, his emotions, and finally his mind.

  1. Deal with your body – David and his band were exhausted physically from the march and exhausted emotionally from the disaster. Their weeping gave them time to physically rest.
  2. Deal with your emotions – However mighty these warriors, they did not hide their emotions. They wept, cursed and groaned in sadness for hours until they had no more power to weep.
  3. Deal with your mind – With his emotions spent, David’s mind became clearer. He remembered the Lord and took comfort in Him. David remembered that God was still in charge; He still had everything under control.

Modern medicine provides a good example of how important it is to deal with yourself first in times of crisis. When a patient collapses on a ward or in an emergency room, doctors and nurses rush to assist. Emotions are high when someone’s life hangs in the balance. Experts in emergency care teach medical professionals that the first pulse each care giver should take in an emergency is their own. Doctors and nurses must first ensure that they are calm and clear headed. Only then will they be any help to the patient.

Dedicate everything (the people, the outcome) to God

David was a man of God. No matter what happened, his first love was his Creator. This eternal perspective enabled David to have faith despite being in the most desperate situation of his life. He could not know the future; as likely as not he would be killed before evening. But David did know who held the future.

Part of David’s appeal as a leader was his undying devotion to Jehovah, the God of the Hebrews. Even those soldiers who doubted his decision to flee to the Philistines had to admit his dedication to the Lord, and this brought David great credibility. As a shrewd judge of human character, David involved others when inquiring of God as to what he should do. We have no evidence that David sought the Lord’s guidance when he fled to the Philistines, but ample evidence that he sought Him now. While David’s men waited for instructions outside the tent, David’s key leaders watched the priest Abiathar perform the official ceremony to get guidance from the Almighty.  David could not know the answer to his inquiries, but knew that he and his men needed higher guidance than he could provide, and more credibility than he possessed.

Once David received the word from the Lord, he obeyed. In effect, David dedicated himself to trust and obey God no matter the outcome. He led his men in doing the same.

Deal with the situation

With a clear mind and emotions under control, David and his men armed themselves and set out in search of the Amalekites. They had not fully rested and eaten because time was of the essence; at any moment the raiders could have turned against their captives and slain them all. However, they did take enough rest and sustenance to keep going.

  1. Your enemies

The Amalekites were a nomadic tribe, but like all nomads they had a general area in which they could usually be found. David’s band knew the area but did not know where this particular party was. The raiders had attacked three days before, probably when David and his men had set out from Aphek. If the Amalekites had moved fast, they could have been uncatchable. An Amalekite raiding party would have been on camels, but David and his warriors were probably on foot. The Philistine Army included infantry and chariots but not cavalry, which did not become common until the Greco-Persian wars (4th to 5th century BC). Chariots and their drawing horses were expensive and hard to support, so David’s men would have marched with the infantry. Without a break, the Hebrews had almost no chance to find their quarry. But they did have the promise of God.

Taking the road toward Amalekite lands, David’s band set off as soon as possible. They left 200 men who were too exhausted to continue the pursuit at the brook Besor with instructions to guard the supplies. A while later, David’s band found an Egyptian slave who had been left to die by the Amalekite raiders. The Hebrews stopped for a few hours to nurse the slave back to health. Though they were impatient to move, this man was David’s best source of information. The alternative was to wander around in the desert looking for other clues. Refreshed, the slave revealed that his master had been among the party and that he could lead them to their enemies. David’s band found their enemies shortly before dark.

David had one more problem. He only had 400 men and the Amalekites had many more. As they approached the camp, David’s men discovered that their enemy had become lax. They had set no guard and did not detect the approaching Hebrews. Instead, the Amalekites were engaging the traditional joys of war – rape, pillage, and drinking. David assembled his troops and they crept into position. They attacked at dusk and annihilated the Amalekites. Once their enemies were dead or had fled, the Hebrews gathered the spoil.

  1. Your friends

After the victory celebration, David led the party back to Ziklag along the same road. When they found the 200 who had not been involved in the battle, the “wicked and worthless” among the 400 who had fought wanted to keep the spoil for themselves. David’s first crisis had been with his own men, his second had been with the Amalekites, and his third was with his own men. This is a frequent pattern in life; most of our crises involve people that are, or at least claim to be, on our side.

The soldiers proclaimed that the spoil was David’s, and he decided that everyone in the band should share equally. He reminded his men that the Lord had provided the victory, and the people had no right to deny others the treasure that God had given. This pleased the mass of his forces and set a precedent for his future kingdom.

  1. The future

Only three days after returning to Ziklag after the slaughter of the Amalekites, David learned that Saul and Jonathan were dead (2 Samuel 1:1-16). After the appropriate time of mourning, David moved to build political support back in Israel. His service to the Philistines had darkened his image in the eyes of many Israelites, so David took part of his share of the loot and sent it to his friends throughout the southern part of Judah. Rebuilding these old friendships would be useful when it came time to take the throne.

Though David and his men rescued all of the hostages, the events surely scarred them. Many of the women and some of the children had probably been raped. Some women may have become pregnant, and the resulting children had to be cared for. Other hostages had been beaten, and all had been terrified. In Ziklag, homes needed to be rebuilt and refurnished. Some of the soldiers and their wives probably remained bitter towards David for what had happened. As the leader, David had to concern himself not only with the immediate but also the long-term effects of the Amalekite raid.

Conclusion

Crises small and large are a constant part of our earthly lives. We can deal with them well or deal with them poorly. In 1 Samuel 30, David provided a good example of how a godly man handles crises. First, he dealt with himself. Second, he dedicated himself and the entire situation to God; his strength and support. Third, David dealt with the situation. He eliminated his enemies, balanced the needs of his friends, and looked to accomplish his goals in the future. Christians today who find themselves emulating David will also find themselves turning crisis into success.