To Feel God’s Presence

truck and storm

To feel God’s presence The undeniable sensation that God is active and involved in a specific moment or situation.

I don’t know when the storm started but by the time I woke up, the lightning was flickering in such quick succession that the room was lit with it.

It was shake-the-house thunder. It was rain slapping hard against the earth. Our bedroom window was open, and the room was full of the sound of it, the fresh smell of all that spring rain.

Two in the morning? Three? I’ve long stopped looking at the clock when I wake in the night to soothe a child, let the dog out, write down a sentence that breaks through a dream. It was late and early, the middle-of-the-night dark illuminated by all that lightning.

I stood in my pajamas by the thrown-open window for a while, arms crossed, watching. Without my glasses on, the whole thing was blurry, a vague kind of powerful: the sound, the smell, the warm wet air coming in through the window.

I stood there for a long time, and then I went back to sleep.

*

In the old, on-fire days, I used to beg for God’s presence. My prayers joined the litany of pleas in the evangelical world around me: Let us feel your presence God and Please be with us today and Move in this place and We want to feel you, God.

And I have been in those moments where the room feels so packed full of the Holy that you can barely breathe. I know what it is to be knocked to your knees by the unexpected power of it, by a slight, shocking movement in that veil between heaven and earth.

They are heady, emotional moments, and they overwhelm us, and it’s okay to want them. Our hearts were made to want them.

But I have also been in those moments when it feels like God is nowhere. I know what it’s like when they build up, one upon the other, for months. Then years.

I know what it’s like to sit with your Bible and feel nothing but loneliness, to pray and feel like you’re talking to a wall. I prayed to feel God’s presence, prayed it over and over, prayed it frantic and desperate, until one day, I stopped.

In the place we call “rock bottom,” I felt nothing, anesthetized by my depression. At the craggy end of the world, it all came down to one question for me: do I believe what I do not feel?

Eventually, I decided yes. Eventually, I learned to operate under the assumption that feeling God’s presence is something wonderful and unexpected. An eagle, cutting through the sky. A late-night thunderstorm.

I believe it’s true, that God is here. That he will never leave. That he is in the details of each moment of each day. But I have stopped trying to get the formula right so that I feel His presence. I no longer try to muster myself up to this impossible task, and I have stopped believing that there’s something wrong if I don’t.

*

It is a beautiful moment at the window in the middle of the night. I close my eyes and feel the breeze on my arms. It doesn’t feel charged and emotional like those nights of youth-group worship. It doesn’t feel like I once believed the presence of God felt.

I suppose I could have asked for it, for the feeling of it, the experience of holy presence, but it didn’t seem necessary.

He is here. There. The thunder is loud and wonderful and the rain is soaking into the grass. There will be earthworms for Dane tomorrow, and I suppose I could have breathed a prayer of thanks, praised aloud, sang a hymn in the dark.

But sometimes, I think, wonder is a prayer in itself. It is enough, sometimes, to let my heart simply stand next to the truth that I do not always feel and do not understand. To just watch a while before crawling back into bed and going back to sleep.

God is here. Someday, I believe that I will feel it with every last bit of me. Every last molecule of my body will know it completely and be completely moved.

But for now, I just believe it. It’s all I know how to do.

  • http://sharmeetsworld.blogspot.com Shar

    It took me ages to learn this, though I shouldn’t use “learn” in the past tense because I think I’ll never stop learning it. The middle schoolers had a campout last Friday, and we sat around a campfire in post-rain dampness, and one of the high school leaders kept telling them, “Okay, if anyone wants to say anything, they can–like a praise or a thought or something–but if you don’t want to, that’s okay, too.” And then, in the following silences, he’d prompt them again and again. All the while I thought, Silence can be enough. We always tell them it’s okay to be silent while implying that it’s better to speak, that it’s okay to NOT feel something but that we somehow SHOULD still feel something. I love this line: “But sometimes, I think, wonder is a prayer in itself. It is enough, sometimes, to let my heart simply stand next to the truth that I do not always feel and do not understand.”

    I so appreciate this blog, Addie. The work of words is important work.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks so much Shar for the comment and the story. I’ve had this same experience, particularly in youth group situations, where to be “on fire” automatically equals being LOUD! VOCAL! Long prayers and praise Jesus and yes Lord! I love what you said, “Silence can be enough.” Silence, in fact, can be the heart’s most honest response to the beauty of God. We need to find a way to be less afraid of it.

  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    Beautiful post, Addie. It sounds like we have had very similar paths.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks, Shawn. Love finding people who have traveled down the same twisted, gravely road as I have. :)

  • http://rcgale.com Ross Gale

    Thanks Addie!

  • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

    I definitely relate. I have only felt something like God’s presence a few times in my life, and one of them was in a prayer room at a Pentecostal campus ministry house. No one was in there, but I felt something like what I suspect God’s presence feels like.

    It’s something I’ve had to learn with my OCD, too, by the way, that “feelings are not necessarily facts.” That my feelings of anxiety or depression do not negate the fact that there are objects in this world that inspire wonder, that it all feels too magical and uncanny to be the product of chance.

    I don’t always feel love for my wife or my daughter or my parents. Love, when it is not a feeling, is just as real (and even more so) when it becomes a chosen action. When I resent that my wife has asked me, for the 305th time that day, to refill her water glass because she is helping our daughter, I do it because I know that action is love made manifest. But do I feel love? No.

    I stand – as you say – next to the thing I do not understand, and act in accordance with what I objectively (independent of my feelings) believe to be noble and true. My wife appreciates it. I like to think God does too when we acknowledge Him even when he feels wholly absent into of holy-present. :)

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks for this comment, Chad. Yes, in this society especially, FEELING is everything. Particularly in marriage. I wonder if it’s this cultural focus on emotion that has seeped into the church, or if it’s something reactionary from the more “religious” church experience where you act right but it never connects with your heart. Either way, emotions and feelings aren’t bad at all, but there has to be grace for when they’re not there. There has to be other default response than “there’s something wrong” if you’re not feeling it.

    • SARAH

      CHAD, JESUS SAID ” HE WHO OBEYS ME IS HE WHO LOVES ME”, NOT ” HE WHO FEELS LOVE FOR ME IS HE WHO LOVES ME”. I BELIEVE THE LORD SEES YOUR LOVE FOR HIM IN THE FAITHFULNESS YOU EXHIBIT. ( WANNA MAKE A GUESS HOW MANY MARRIAGES ENDED IN UNFAITHFULNESS JUST BECAUSE THE “FIZZLE” DIED OUT?) SURELY OUR BRIDEGROOM DESIRES THE SAME IN HIS BRIDE? DON’T LET THE EVIL ONE MESS AROUND WITH YOUR MIND.

  • http://everydayawe.com Stephanie Spencer

    Why are we so quick to put God in a box? To think God’s presence is X and not Y? Somehow we think it makes faith easier, but it actually makes it so limited. And, when we go through those desert seasons, where that tangible feeling of God’s presence is a distant memory, it makes us think we are doing something wrong.

    This, I think, I have come to understand better the longer I have been married. Quality time with my husband now does not look the same as it looked before we had kids. And sometimes we are filled with fire for one another, while others we are just living side by side. But through it all, our love deepens and grows.

    • Addie Zierman

      Yes, Stephanie. Thank you.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com Emily

    Simply: yes.

  • http://annieathome.com Annie

    Addie, I so appreciate your perspective: living right smack dab in the middle of the tension – that we were “made to want” those palpable moments, and can also walk through days and months and years of absent of any at all, and then to discover this quiet wonder growing, and to hang on to hope… I appreciated this all so very much. Thank you.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks so much Annie.

  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    This right here: “But sometimes, I think, wonder is a prayer in itself. It is enough, sometimes, to let my heart simply stand next to the truth that I do not always feel and do not understand.”

    I have found such freedom in this. When we’re focused on “feeling,” it’s easy to miss out on the other ways God shows His presence and when we don’t have those spine-tingling Holy Spirit moments, it’s easy to believe God isn’t there at all. I let go and I let it be and somehow this draws me closer to Him all the same.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thank you, Leigh. I couldn’t agree more.

  • http://spiritualglasses.posterous.com Jennifer Upton

    It took me a long time to stop believing that one, including myself must become emotional in order for Gods presence to draw near. After years of shout on demand sermons and years of laying in the isles “If you love the Lord” taught me this. I never witnessed someone merely standing in awe of creation. In secret I did but never felt it was weighty enough of a response. I am beyond joyful now leaning into him wherever I stand. A true rest. Presence felt in the knowing.

    • Addie Zierman

      This is beautiful, Jennifer. Thank you.

  • http://www.dialogueventure.com John Backman

    A few years ago, I committed to praying the Daily Office: a set of prescribed psalms, readings, and prayers for morning and evening, often associated with monasteries. For me at least, there is something about this discipline that embeds the difference between feeling and presence in the heart. I have so many mornings where absolutely nothing seems to happen; on others, due to depression or whatnot, all I can do is slide my eyes across the words and let that suffice. But over the years the sense (not the feeling) has gathered that something divine is happening there, regardless of how I feel. I still confuse feeling and presence all too regularly, but this has helped.

    • Addie Zierman

      Love this: “something divine is happening there, regardless of how I feel.” Perfect.

  • http://mostlyquestions.wordpress.com Bernard Shuford

    As usual, the way you say the things that are in my head amazes me.

    It makes me wonder how many millions of other Christians are out there who think they are alone in their messy struggles with God and Christianity.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to put it to words.

    • Addie Zierman

      I’m sure you’re right: lots of us suffer in silence. To admit that you don’t “feel God” in today’s version of evangelical Christianity seems to confess a failure instead of just recognize a natural part of the life of faith. This is sad to me because we need one another all the more in those times when God “feels” far away. We need to be able to remind each other that it’s okay. We need to speak the truth to one another – God is here – in those moments when it feels unbelievable.

  • http://hoxeyville.blogspot.com/ Eric Snider

    Articulately expressed. I think I’ve never been in a deep funk. But I had a close friend who lost almost all will to live. I had to be her will. In the morning I had to drag her ass out of bed and get her to eat breakfast. I had to get her out of her pjs and dressed. I had to get her out of the house to get in the sunshine or rain, and go for a walk. It took time, months. But eventually the training wheels came off and she could roll on her own, mostly (none of us ever can really roll on our own). Even though I didn’t think of it like this back then, I was God pursuing her, holding and sustaining her (or so I don’t get accused of new ageism by those who talk evangelical, I was God’s agent and instrument). So now when I want God to be real to me (to “feel God’s presence”) I think about people around me who have done the God-thing for me: kicked my ass (metaphorically; we evangelicals call it “being rebuked”) to straighten up a bit, been my training wheels, hand-held me back to a place of hope and trust.

    • Addie Zierman

      Thanks for sharing this Eric.

  • Aaron Zierman

    Too often we attempt to recreate the glorious moments of the past. Nostalgia covers memories with such a glossy glow. I think that it is necessary to remember those times in our past, yet impossible to actually relive them. God is here, in the present moment. His voice is not always the thunderous boom that accompanies the flash of lightning. Sometimes it is the softest whisper of “I love you”, unheard because of the cacophany of noise in our always busier world. In the times where we are unable to hear, it is enough to remember, and trust in the God who we know has guided us all along.

    • Addie Zierman

      This is so true. I hadn’t thought about spiritual nostalgia and that pressure to experience God as we have in the past. It takes time to learn to trust a God who is always doing something new and different, to trust him instead of the processes by which we’ve “felt” him in the past.

  • http://www.carolhiestand.com Carol Hiestand

    Addie,

    I really liked this. I too am learning the same. prayer without words…

  • SARAH

    Addie, I left that comment at your other article ” Unequally yoked”. I found this article before the other one. I was almost giving up when your article here gave me “feeling” again, surprisingly since it’s precisely about believing I AM is as He claim, despite the LACK OF FLASH AND FANFARE. I was starting to think no one else knows what it feels like to “trust when Heaven is silent’, when here you and all the others are, fellow pilgrims in this wilderness. Somehow, people forget that the wilderness and its “down” stages were as much a part of the children of Israel’s journey (after Egypt) as meeting God at fiery Mt. Sinai. I AM is Omnipresent and He is faithful. We don’t make or break Him. He just IS. This article is His answer.

  • Terry

    Sometimes we pray & pray & we may think we feel nothing.We may think the prayer is unanswered even.But God’s timing is different & his answers come different ways.I prayed so much once wanting an answer and there was just silence.The answer was I had to make the choice-leave my job & move back close to help my disabled parents(taking my family too) or continuing work & not being able to help as much. I did have some health issues myself too.I believe God wanted to see where my heart really was.What do you think I chose?