Over the years I’ve received many letters asking my opinion on various issues or requesting my help with a troublesome concern. I take these inquiries as occasions not only to do something good for others but also to think about an issue of interest. I received a letter a few years back in which the correspondent asked this compound question: “Why does God seem so distant to me, and how can I experience God as real?” Perhaps you’ve also felt this absence and asked this question. I know I have. I was so happy to receive this note, because it gave me an occasion to think about my own experience. Here is the essence of what I wrote in response:
God is not a physical object we can experience through the five senses. God is not merely a concept we can think in a clear and simple way. Nor is God an idea or image we can picture in our imaginations. How then can we experience God, if God is not like anything else we experience? Let’s not give up hope. God can be real and active without being real and active in the same way that other things are. I know you believe that God exists, creates, and takes care of us and our world. And because of Jesus, you believe that God loves the whole world and you. Hence you know that God is everywhere active and loving. But we don’t experience God’s omnipresent action in the way we experience the local acts of people and animals and the forces of nature. Why? Local acts stand out from their backgrounds and call attention to themselves, but God’s action—except in the case of miracles, which we are not discussing—touches everything at once. As the most universal agent, God’s actions are undetectable in the ways we notice other actions. So, we should not be surprised that we feel God’s absence from the array of our ordinary experiences. But we are not satisfied with this. Is there another way to experience God as really real?
We crave experience because experiencing gives us immediate certainty, which beliefs, thoughts, and ideas do not. To experience something is to be changed by that thing so as to become in some way like it. In our awareness of ourselves—in what we call our feelings—we also experience the other thing. I know you believe that God is active and loving. The idea of God is clear in your mind. What you want now is experience. Here is my opinion on how to attain what you seek: In this life, we can experience God best by becoming like God in his activity. God is present in our world in his loving, self-giving action. Hence when we join with God in loving what God loves in the way God loves it, we will experience God in action in us. We will experience ourselves as changed and formed by God’s loving action on us and through us. As in all experience, we receive an immediate certainty of the presence of the thing we are experiencing; we know that the changes in us don’t come from us alone.
And perhaps you have guessed already that I am speaking here of the action of the Holy Spirit, which is the cause of all human experience of God. As Paul promises, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Notice also how John connects our confidence, our immediate certainty, with the action of the Spirit working in our actions of loving others in imitation of God’s love for us:
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other…This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters…Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us (1 John 3:14-24).
By the witness of creation and Word we come to believe that God is real and that he loves us. And by the action of the Spirit we are prompted and empowered to respond to God’s love with our love. God’s love frees us to love him in return and to love what God loves in the way he loves it. In our acts of love we experience a taste of God’s own feelings of love for us and the world. What joy and certainty can be ours if only we will heed the Spirit’s prompting, follow Jesus’ example, and dive into the flow of God’s love.
I hope these thoughts help.