Most of us create within our mind a picture and concept of God that fits neatly within a three-volume systematic theology that we can proudly display on our bookshelves. Along the very noble path of attempting to explain God and His ways, we tend to domesticate His awesomeness and attempt to create Him in our image. This approach usually works well until God shows up in our midst with His manifest presence. At that point, we quickly discover our faulty misperceptions of God—namely that He is manageable and that His ways are fully rational to humans.
According to the Barna Research Group, a majority of people who attend Christian worship services leave without feeling that they experienced God’s presence. Less than one-third of the adults feel as though they truly interacted with God. Stunningly, one-third of the adults who regularly attend worship services say they have never experienced God’s presence at any time during their life. According to George Barna, "The research shows that while most people attend church services with a desire to connect with God, most of them leave the church disappointed, week after week. Eventually people cease to expect a real encounter with God and simply settle for a pleasant experience."
So what happens when the pleasant experience is replaced with the real encounter? "God is, of course, present everywhere," writes author John White. "But there seems to be times when He is, as it were, more present—or shall we say more intensely present. He seems to draw aside one or two layers of a curtain that protects us from Him, exposing our fragility to the awesome energies of his being." Theologian Guy Chevreau explains: "Theologically, what we are talking about is the omnipresent and eternal God localizing and actualizing His presence, in space and time."
With the Scripture and Church history as our guide, it becomes very evident that when a holy God encounters sinful people three things usually occur: 1) Sinners are radically converted, 2) Christians are transformed and renewed, or 3) The mind of the saint or sinner is offended and the state of his heart revealed. Just as a storm is produced when high and low fronts converge, so too a storm of a different kind emerges when the glorious and radiant presence of the Lord comes near.
How different would our perception and understanding of God be if we had been one of Saul’s companions on the road to Damascus? As you were traveling with him, "suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
"‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.
"‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’"
Luke says the "men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything" (Acts 9:3-9).
Without wanting to make this a normative conversion experience, it is safe to say that witnessing the holiness and awesome power in that one encounter would forever shatter your one-dimensional, flannel-board-Sunday-school concept of Jesus. Conversion, in this instance, was not merely an intellectual ascent to the doctrinal positions of Christianity. Nor was it an emotionally cathartic event. It was just plain terrifying!
"It is time for Christianity to become a place of terror again," writes Michael Yaconelli in his book Dangerous Wonder, "a place where God continually has to tell us, ‘Fear not’; a place where our relationship with God is not a simple belief or doctrine or theology, but the constant awareness of God’s terrifying presence in our lives. The nice, nonthreatening God needs to be replaced by the God whose very presence smashes our egos into dust, burns our sin into ashes, and strips us naked to reveal the real person within."
Yaconelli points out that religious leaders in the days of Jesus had the same tendency we have today. "The Pharisees wanted Jesus to be the same as they were. His truth should be the same truth that they had spent centuries taming. But truth is unpredictable," he writes. "When Jesus is present, everyone is uncomfortable yet mysteriously glad at the same time. People do not like surprises—even church people—and they don’t want to be uncomfortable. They want a nice, tame Jesus."
Over the years, Jesus has been re-formatted into a cross between Ghandi and a sentimental, doe-eyed host of a Saturday morning children’s show. We superimpose His image upon our pet political dogmas or water Him down so that our sin does not seem so bad. "How did we end up so comfortable with God?" asks Yaconelli. "How did our awe of God get reduced to a lukewarm appreciation of God? How did God become a pal instead of a heart-stopping presence? How can we think of Jesus without remembering His ground-shaking, thunder-crashing, stormy exit on the cross? Why aren’t we continually catching our breath and saying, ‘This is no ordinary God!’?"
Within particular seasons throughout 18th Century minister John Wesley’s entire life, he saw people weeping, violently shaking, crying out, losing consciousness, falling down and occasionally becoming uncontrollably agitated during his meetings. In response to one who was concerned about the "strange work" that occurred in his meetings, Wesley testifies: "I have seen (as far as a thing of this kind can be seen) very many persons changed in a moment from the spirit of fear, horror, despair, to the spirit of love, joy, and peace; and from sinful desire, till then reigning over them, to a pure desire of doing the will of God. These are matters of fact, whereof I have been, and almost am, an eye or ear witness."
Wesley continues: "I will show you him that was a lion till then, and is now a lamb; him that was a drunkard, and is now exemplarily sober; the whoremonger that was, who now abhors the very garment spotted by the flesh." Wesley judged by the "whole tenor" of their lives and called these people his "living arguments."
He then offers the following remarkable explanation for the outward signs:
Perhaps it might be because of the hardness of our hearts, unready to receive any thing unless we see it with our eyes and hear it with our ears, that God, in tender condescension to our weakness, suffered so many outward signs of the very time when he wrought this inward change to be continually seen and heard among us.
When Wesley prayed, he says that the flame broke out. That same fire of God’s holiness is available to us today. But we must be like the men and women in Wesley’s meeting: "athirst for God, and penetrated by the presence of his power."
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