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God With Us … Really!

By Gary J. Tyra | Posted In Ministry Tools

Early in my pastoral ministry, something remarkable occurred that caused the notion of Jesus being “God with us” to really come to life for me.

St. John of the Cross wrote about a painful but ultimately beneficial spiritual experience he referred to as his “dark night of the soul.” My own dark night of the soul occurred in the early 1980s and lasted 18 months.

I had been under a lot of pressure, doing my best in my mid-20s to pastor a small, somewhat dysfunctional church while also hurrying my way through a master of divinity degree and endeavoring to be a responsible husband and father. Then, on top of the physical, emotional, and mental stress I was already wrestling with, I entered a  season of psychological and spiritual desolation.

Routine medical tests, the recounting of my family’s medical history, and careless comments from a doctor triggered a mental health crisis. In essence, I developed an intense phobia related to cancer, the disease that claimed the lives of both my mother and father during my youth.

I remained fully functional in terms of keeping up my responsibilities. However, my spiritual life was strained like a guitar string tightened to the breaking point. I questioned whether God really cared. At times, I wondered whether He was there at all.

In seminary, I had been studying the theology of John Calvin and the doctrine of the double decree — the notion that prior to creating any of us, God sovereignly predetermined who would receive salvation and who would not. At that spiritually precarious time in my life, I applied this doctrine to myself in the worst possible way. Thus, in addition to a phobic anxiety regarding my physical health, I started worrying obsessively over my spiritual wellbeing. As irrational and theologically naïve as it may seem now, the fear was real and overwhelming.

Then I had what I call my Immanuel moment — a personal “God with us” experience. While it didn’t immediately end my dark night, it has profoundly affected my life and ministry ever since.

It was late on a Saturday night. I had just finished cleaning the church and was kneeling at the altar in prayer, desperately seeking some relief from my pervasive and growing sense of anxiety.

In the empty, dimly lit church, I literally cried out to  God for some sort of word of assurance that He did love  me and had chosen me to be a part of His elect. While  praying, I sensed I was supposed to pick up my Bible and read Deuteronomy 7:6. I had no conscious awareness of what this verse said. Still, in obedience to the Spirit’s prompting, I turned to the passage and read these words:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

Of all the verses in the Bible, I heard a voice in my  heart telling me at that critical time to turn to and read  this particular one. What are you supposed to do with  an experience like this?

What do we do with a God like this, a God who is so faithful to show up at just the right time? What do we do with a God who reveals His love in such a personal way  as to change the course of our lives?

The notion that God is committed to being with His people permeates the Biblical witness.

Such moments powerfully illustrate Jesus’ commitment to be Immanuel, “God with us.” As we enter the Advent season following a difficult and painful year, it’s worth considering again what it means to encounter the reality of the Incarnation in our lives and ministries.

I’m convinced we can go beyond merely singing about Jesus being “God with us” and really experience Him  as such. As we prepare for the holiday season, it is the  perfect time to prepare our hearts to receive anew the blessings of God’s abiding presence.

I believe there are four key ingredients to Immanuel moments.

1. Theological Realism

It’s alarmingly easy for even seasoned Christians to slip into what I refer to as functional deism. Simply put, deism is the belief that God exists but He’s not really with us. Deism assumes God created the universe and then with-drew from it, leaving it to run according to natural laws.

Deists might pray, but they tend to talk toward the idea of God rather than to God. They might participate in worship, but they don’t genuinely expect to encounter the God in their song lyrics. The idea that the Creator might be up to something in their lives — something deists should be careful to cooperate with rather than resist — never occurs to them.

The truth is, many people who claim to believe in God are content to live each day in a way that’s essentially bereft of the experience of His empowering presence. In his 1971 book, $3.00 Worth of God, pastor Wilbur Rees drew attention to this lamentable reality. With biting  sarcasm, he wrote the following:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Few American churchgoers would refer to themselves as deists. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a functional deism at work in their day-to-day lives.

The alternative to functional deism is theological real-ism. According to this biblically supported perspective, God is a real, personal, relational, Trinitarian Being with whom we can interact in deeply meaningful ways.

Thanks to the incarnation of Christ (John 1:14) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we not only can conceptualize God, but we can also experience Him. He really can be with us!

There is a vast difference between a real relationship with God and a merely philosophical faith or formalistic religion based on rules and rituals. Theological realism makes a real relationship with God, and personal experiences with Him, possible.

2. Theology of Presence

In addition to theological realism, we must also become convinced of how eager God is to interact with us in empowering, transformational, life-story shaping ways. The notion that God is committed to being with His people permeates the biblical witness.

Consider first the Old Testament. Though some biblical passages may seem to portray God as an austere deity who is always aloof, such a reading misses the point of the Scriptures. In every era of Old Testament history, and in every book, we can see God’s deep desire to dwell with, rather than apart from, His covenant people (e.g., Genesis 26:24; Leviticus 26:11–12; Deuteronomy 20:4; Joshua 1:5; Judges 6:12; 2 Samuel 7:9; Isaiah 41:10; Jeremiah 30:11; Ezekiel 37:27; Amos 5:14; Zephaniah 3:14–15).

The Book of Psalms repeatedly points to the reality of God being present with His people (e.g., 14:5).  More specifically, the Psalms speak of God surrounding His people (125:1–2) and being ever available as a Source of personal guidance and empowerment (73:23–24; 118:6–7; 139:7–10).

A careful reading reveals that the possibility of experiencing the presence of God is a major theme in the Old Testament. Yet the story is earmarked by exasperation. Tragically, God’s covenant people kept pushing Him away. They continually engaged in acts of self-sabotage. Their hearts were hard and prone to wander. As a result, they proved to be incapable of experiencing God with them in the enduring manner their God desired.

But God’s grace was greater (Romans 5:20). The prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of a “righteous servant” whose substitutionary suffering would atone for sins and make reconciliation with God possible (Isaiah 53:1–12).

Isaiah also spoke of the birth of a future messianic king who would “reign on David’s throne and over His kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9:6–7).

The witness of the Old Testament to the importance of God’s presence brings a sense of hopeful anticipation.

The witness of the Old Testament to the importance of God’s presence brings a sense of hopeful anticipation. It looks forward to the time when the Messiah would arrive on the scene and make things right. According to Isaiah, this Messiah would be born of a virgin and would be called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).

The season of Advent is all about the fulfillment of Israel’s wistful longing for the appearing of the One whose name literally means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

It’s no wonder, then, that the New Testament also presents us with a powerful theology of God’s presence. In addition to passages that focus on the possibility of believers experiencing the presence and reality of God in general (e.g., Acts 17:38; Hebrews 13:5; Philippians 4:4–7; 2 Corinthians 6:14–18; Ephesians 3:16–19; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; Revelation 21:1–3), there are texts that por- tray the dramatic significance of the incarnation of the eternal Son.

This is especially evident in Chapter 1 of John’s Gospel. In the opening verse, John reveals that the Word, so critical to the experience of the life and light that flow from our Creator, was not only with God in the beginning, but He was and is God. In verse 14, we read that the Word has become flesh — appeared in incarnate form — and pitched His tent among us. In verse 18, John indicates that one of the reasons for the Incarnation was precisely this: to make God known to His covenant people, to literally be God with us.

But that’s not all the New Testament has to say about God being with us. Other passages portray Jesus himself assuring His followers of His perpetual presence (Mat-thew 18:19–20; 28:19–20). Still other texts speak of the amazing possibility of an ongoing mentoring relationship with the risen Christ by means of His indwelling Spirit (e.g., John 14:16–18; 16:12–15).

Just think of it: The incarnate Son continues to be with His followers in a comforting and empowering manner, through His Spirit, even after His return to the right hand of the Father.

The upshot is that, according to the New Testament, the events of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost combine to create the potential for us to experience the power and presence of God.

But to realize this potential, we must embrace a realism that’s not only theological in nature, but pneumatological as well. After all, possessing the potential as Spirit-filled believers to experience a moment-by-moment mentoring relationship with the incarnate and risen Christ doesn’t do us any good if we’re not alive to the Spirit’s moving in our lives. Thus, there’s a third ingredient if we’re to fully experience “God with us.”

3. Pneumatological Realism

The Greek word for wind, breath or spirit is pneuma. Therefore, pneumatology is simply the study of what the Bible has to say about the Holy Spirit. Pneumatological realism begins with the recognition that just as God the Father can be conceived of in an impersonal manner and reduced to a mere idea, concept or force, so can His Spirit.

What’s more, it’s possible for church members — and leaders — to assume a posture of presumption with respect to the Spirit of God, rather than one earmarked by a sense of expectancy. It’s one thing to say we believe in the work of the Spirit. It’s another to seek Him, wait on Him, and expect Him to impact us in meaningful, life-transforming, ministry-engendering ways. Doing the former without the latter is like pulling the power cord on our walk with Christ.

Even some non-Pentecostal evangelicals have been willing to acknowledge how crucial the Spirit of Jesus is to our following Him. Biblical scholar John Stott once said, “The Christian life is essentially life in the Spirit, that is to say, a life which is animated, sustained, directed, and enriched by the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, true Christian discipleship would be inconceivable, indeed impossible.”

The sad reality is it’s possible for the life-giving, transformational work of the Spirit to be resisted (Acts 7:51), grieved (Ephesians 4:30), rejected (1Thessalonians 4:8), and quenched (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

Really experiencing “God with us” — life-story shaping encounters with the incarnate and risen Jesus — requires that we assume an attitudinal posture of expectancy toward the Spirit of Christ rather simply presuming His presence in our lives.

This is why the apostle Paul encouraged church members to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:15–18), and to “keep in step” with Him (Galatians 5:25). Learning to live each day aware of, in touch with, and responsive to the Spirit’s promptings in our lives is what a pneumatological realism is all about.

4. Proximity

Finally, we must take the initiative to draw near to God. This is especially necessary in times of intense spiritual attack when we might wonder whether He’s really there.

Like it or not, the devil and the demonic are also realities. According to passages such as Hebrews 2:14–15 and 1 John 3:8, another major reason for Christ’s incarnation was the empowering of God’s people to overcome the evil one. Not surprisingly, the experience of “God with us”  is key.

The events of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost combine to create the potential for us to experience the power and presence of God.

My dark night of the soul taught me this. What started as a physical problem turned into an anxiety disorder and, finally, a spiritual battle. Taking advantage of the situation, the devil launched an insidious assault. The result was a season of suffering that I knew was irrational but simply couldn’t control. The more I prayed, the more  confused and bewildered I became.

My Immanuel moment opened my eyes to the reality that God was with me in that dark place, but I still needed to take intentional steps toward Him.

At one point early in my crisis, I sensed God telling me He had allowed this difficulty. He then showed me how to overcome it. Although this prophetic encounter was reassuring at the time, I failed to act on it in a responsible manner. So, the dark night continued. My anguished wrestling with a spirit of fear persisted. Self-sabotage happens.

Finally, a year and a half after the onset of the crisis, I experienced another prophetic encounter with God. I was away from home attending a pastors’ conference. One evening, while I was alone in my hotel room, the anxiety demons pounced. Unable to sleep, I sat on the edge of the bed, in the dark, with my head in my hands and my elbows resting on my knees. I cried out to God in frustration, “Where are You? Why won’t You just say the word and deliver me from this spirit of fear?”

Then, in the early morning stillness, I heard a word from the Lord deep in my heart: “Gary, I told you at the very beginning of this ordeal that it was purposeful, that I wanted to teach you vital lessons about dealing with the devil that you, as a pastor, can pass on to others.”

The next day at the conference, God continued to speak to me, but in a powerfully affirming, comforting manner.

I had become desperate for a personal encounter with God. In His time, He showed up, communicating a message of both truth and grace. He directed my attention specifically to James 4:7–10:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

I returned home and began focusing on drawing closer to God. When I finally realized the way to defeat the devil was not by battling him myself, but by drawing near to God, I experienced the empowerment I so desperately needed. Within a couple of weeks, I realized my spiritual struggle had come to an end.

I’m not suggesting my experience represents the  sum total of what it means to overcome the devil. Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 suggests there may  be times when the appropriate response is not to keep praying for deliverance, but to embrace the trial, allowing it to intensify the manner in which our lives speak  to others of God’s reality and empowering presence. Sometimes God asks us simply to persevere in faith  (Revelation 2:10).

Yet I have learned proximity to God matters. Drawing near in desperation and obedience was what saved my life and ministry nearly 40 years ago. If we want to experience “God with us,” we sometimes must “come near” to Him in a proactive manner, defying the devil in the process.

Our God is holy, but He is not austere and aloof. He is a personal God who is eager to be with us. He is a speaking, communicating God who, through the incarnation of His Son and the outpouring of His Spirit, wants to mentor us in a moment-by-moment manner through the entirety of our lives, even in our darkest hours.

But for us to really experience “God with us,” four things are necessary: theological realism, awareness of the Bible’s theology of presence, pneumatological realism, and a willingness to keep coming near.

Because of Christ’s incarnation and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we don’t have to settle for $3 worth of God. It really is possible to experience the power of “God with us.”

May your Advent season this year be especially blessed!