Pitfalls to Experiencing God’s Presence

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“Sure, okay, let’s say for argument’s sake God is always present and at work in my life…what difference does that make? What about all the times I can’t feel God’s presence or see God’s work? You telling me all this feels like a taunt; like something I’d wish were true but I can’t find any way to access that truth in my life!”

My friend, Bernard, was dealing—not holding back. 

He and I had been meeting for a few weeks to chat about his life that was careening out of control. One kid was constantly in trouble at school, another never left their room, and his marriage was tanking. He felt powerless and hopeless, and all data points in his life indicated he had failed as a father and husband. 

What do we do when we want God to move—when we know we need God’s presence and power—but it seems like nothing is happening? Or worse, when it seems that the opposite of what God would want is all that keeps happening?

If we’re honest, this question isn’t just for when all hell breaks loose and our life hits the fan. This question could be asked about mundane, ordinary moments as well. How do I know what God is doing, where God is working, when I can’t seem to discern him anywhere?

Learning how to meet God in our messy reality—right where we really are—is an ordinary practice that will transform us over time.

Matt Tebbe

Bernard was angry and sad, but we spent most of our time discussing how he wished things were different. A breakthrough came for him when he decided to meet God where he really was: angry and disappointed. 

Here are three pitfalls we can encounter when it comes to meeting God in our everyday life:

Pitfall #1: We try to get God to show up and do things we think are good rather than have the courage and humility to meet God right where we really are. 

It’s much easier to design outcomes we think are good and recruit God into those schemes than it is to befriend our anger and just be angry with/at God. There are a couple of reasons this is hard. First, some of us have been taught it’s wrong or unfaithful to ever get angry at God. Additionally, most of us don’t like being angry or sad, so we create bypassing strategies to distract or deny unwanted experiences.

So for Bernard, he felt anger at God and sadness over his family wasn’t faithful or good. He worked hard to hide and change his anger and to deny and conceal his sadness. We kept dealing with external realities when God was knocking on the door of his heart. 

But what if that anger and sadness weren’t obstacles, but opportunities? What if they don’t need to be eliminated or bypassed, but faced and befriended? 

Pitfall #2: We fail to realize how important things like anger and sadness are in the Kingdom of God. 

How many times in Scripture do we see God’s people crying out to God? Tears or rage at suffering and injustice and violence and greed. We can’t pray with the saints of Scripture if we don’t treat our human responses to evil as a meeting place with God. 

I’m a lot like Bernard; I work hard to minimize and silence my unwanted emotions and reactions. I’ve learned that when I express my anger, it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes I hurt people, and other times I look foolish. More often than not, I say something I regret. Sadness, too, is treated like an unwanted guest in my body. Somewhere I picked up the message that “sadness is wrong,” so I treat it as something to avoid or get over quickly.

But even in, and especially in, a life situation like Bernard found himself in, we can start right where we really are, taking agency and responsibility over our bodies and facing God’s presence there. 

What if anger and sadness don’t interfere with our life with God but are portals into the Kingdom? Maybe God’s presence and power are most available to us when we decide to be right where we really are. God is so real that he most fully meets us in reality. 

Are you angry that your family isn’t turning out as you wanted? 
Frustrated at yourself and others for making bad decisions?
Sad that you can’t seem to make amends or make things right with your spouse?

God is waiting to meet you in that messy reality, but many of us don’t know how to do this. 

Pitfall #3: We don’t know how to be where we really are with God. 

In the book I co-authored with Ben Sternke, Having the Mind of Christ, we talk about how to settle down into the silence and intimacy of our bodies via the breath. Being present to God who is present and at work starts with being present to that which God breathed into us: our very life. Each breath is a token, an embodied prayer, of God’s very life animating us. 

Let’s say we are in a similar place to Bernard today. I am. This past week, I lost my father-in-law suddenly to an illness from which we thought he’d recover. But he didn’t. I feel the ache of loss, anger toward death, and the sadness of losing such an important part of my life. 

Here’s all I have, even as I type, to meet with God in this:

1. Breathe 

2. Be present to how the loss, anger, and sadness come online for me in my memories, in my body, and in my emotions. 

3. Just tell God what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. It doesn’t have to be a ‘prayer’ or proper or presentable. It’s just me trusting my pain to God with whatever words I can muster. 

4. Be patient and sit in it for a bit. To do this, some of us may need to walk or journal or put on some music. The important part of this is giving God access to what’s actually going on, consenting to his presence in what matters the most to me.

Learning how to meet God in our messy reality—right where we really are—is an ordinary practice that will transform us over time. It’s nothing less than an invitation to God to be with us where we need love, healing, and salvation the most. 

Matt is co-founder of Gravity Leadership and co-author of “Having the Mind of Christ: Eight Axioms to Cultivate a Robust Faith.” He also co-pastors The Table Church in Indianapolis where he lives with his wife, two kids, and a very affectionate golden retriever.


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