Evangelical Knowledge and Reason Based Approach
With the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of the Evangelical movement came an emphasis away from emotional and intuitive forms of knowledge and towards the exaltation of human reasoning. Thus, knowledge that comes via feelings or personal experience is suspect, being considered subjective, as if ‘subjectivity’ is some form of disease! On the other hand, ‘objective’ knowledge deduced by thinking or derived from the systematisation of the knowledge of ‘authority’ figures is considered to be trustworthy.
So, achieving intimacy with God is attempted primarily by studying the Word (here meaning the Bible), thinking about it (theology), obedience to the Word (witnessing, church attendance, good works, character development, striving for holiness), worship (singing songs), and prayer (telling God how wonderful he is, seeking his favour for ourselves and others).
All of these activities have value, but if intimacy with God is found it is more likely because God, who desires such intimacy far more than we do, read the desire in the heart of the individual and sovereignly introduced himself despite all of the clutter and distraction of our religious activity.
This approach also places a premium on human effort to maintain the relationship. It also too often neglects one important characteristic of God – God is a Spirit. All who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth. The modern approach to truth treats it in terms of ‘right and wrong’. Perhaps if we were, as Brian McLaren says in A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, to instead consider it in the older form of ‘good and bad’ we might realise that the mind, with its emphasis on words and ideas, cannot alone approach God – it takes Word and Spirit!
Our next section outlines one historic approach to this problem.
Charismatic Worship and Prophetic Ministry Approach
During the beginning and then the middle of the 20th Century, the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements reintroduced to the church the possibility of knowing and experiencing God by more subjective and intuitive means. While Bible study, prayer, and service remain important, there is an increased recognition of the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer to bring us into contact with the tangible presence of God.
Again, human effort is considered important, sometimes, paradoxically, in the form of striving to keep out of God’s way – “Let go and let God!”
A good example of what God has been doing to break through the reserve of the church was seen in the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’, a remarkable move of God that spread rapidly from Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship to most parts of the world. Many Christians experienced for the first time the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. It happened in a way that offended conservative minds, which meant that it was not easily understood, nor explained away. Neither was it able to be easily controlled. Yes, there were excesses, and sometimes flesh and demons were indulged instead of Holy Spirit, but as the presence of these among believers also needed to be exposed, this was not a valid reason to reject the phenomena.
The ‘laughing revival’, as it was also called, was only for a time. Though such things still occur, God is drawing his people forward out of the baby stages into the deeper walk of maturity. Not necessarily back into seriousness, but certainly into a more natural reality.
Another result of this time has been the further release of the exercise of spiritual gifts, and the re-establishing of the prophetic and apostolic ministries.
Unfortunately, there has also been a downside to all of this. There has developed a tendency to rely on the ‘spiritual authority’ of others, rather like the Eastern dependence on gurus, instead of finding one’s own place in God’s presence. Rather than expecting God to deal directly with them, too many now go from meeting to meeting wanting a ‘word’ from the ‘anointed’ prophet or minister. On the other hand, a great number of ‘ordinary’ people were also released into prophetic and supernatural ministry.
Also, charismatic forms of worship have enabled the discovery that coming into God’s presence can be a collective experience rather than the private experience of the mystic or the evangelical. But on the other hand, the ease with which one can be swept up in a group experience has overshadowed the importance of being able to come, on one’s own, at any time, right into God’s presence.
One very positive result of the charismatic renewal has been the recognition of the value of the gift of tongues. Not only is it a crucial tool for ministry, and useful, in conjunction with interpretation and prophecy, for bringing revelation from God, its greatest value is in bringing a person quickly into an awareness of the presence of God.
A more recent extension of the charismatic approach is the “Living Supernaturally” movement that is presently sweeping through segments of the church, as indicated by the many conferences and the books being written by people like Bill Johnson, Cindy Jacobs, James and Michal Goll, Mark and Patti Virkler, Kris Vallotton, and others. As God revives the use of prophetic and supernatural gifts and abilities to his people, and as they encounter the counterfeit use of such abilities from the kingdom of darkness, there comes a need to be able to not only hear God’s voice clearly and accurately, but to discern the true from the false, and to remain close to Jesus. We need to be alert to his call and ready to act. This, as with any soldier in an army, requires an intimate acquaintance with the ways of our Captain.
Natural Intimate Relationship
While many of the above approaches encourage a special time, place or attitude to achieve knowledge of God’s presence, they are only a step towards true intimacy.
Interestingly, and generalising fearlessly, of the above approaches the one least likely to produce a supernatural experience of God’s presence – the contemplative approach – is probably the most likely to bring about lasting intimacy, provided intimacy is reached at all. On the other hand, someone only seeking an experience, and not ongoing intimacy, will most likely find it through a more charismatic stream. This is a matter of desire and intention. The contemplative approach has the advantage of building into a life the habits and disciplines necessary for an ongoing change of behaviour, while the charismatic approach is all too likely to produce a quick thrill.
If we consider the intimacy involved between husband and wife, it is immediately clear that if intimacy could only be achieved in special places and during particular activities, then the marriage would be somewhat deficient. Rather, while special times are important, intimacy itself is constant, even when the couple are apart. Intimacy involves a knowing of each other, a trust of each other, and a deep settledness in the relationship, which is not reliant merely on a legal contract but a joining of spirit to spirit. In this is our clue to intimacy with God.
True intimacy must be available anywhere and everywhere. Consider the prophet Elijah. He called down fire on the false prophets of Baal. How did he know it would happen? Was it just a shot in the dark, the thought that if he put God’s reputation far enough on the line God would have to act to protect his name? I don’t think so. I believe that Elijah knew God so well – was so intimately in touch with him – that the idea of the fire came from God himself! Elijah couldn’t fail as long as he stayed closely in touch. The Spirit of God was so strongly present within Elijah’s own spirit that the two were as one.
What is the role of human effort in this approach? Admittedly, a certain amount of dedication is required to maintain any relationship, but when the union is founded on love, and the weaker partner is being transformed into the likeness of the stronger, this becomes far less significant. The desire of God for relationship is so strong, and so based entirely on his infinite love, that he will not easily let go of us, even though we falter. It would take a definite renunciation on our part to break the covenant, but even then I don’t believe God would give up.
There is a tendency for humans to separate the spiritual from the mundane and secular. We expect that because we think God is so omniscient, transcendent, and all of those other Greek categories, and so thoroughly ‘other’, that any way we relate to him must be somewhat different and special. We too quickly forget that he is the first cause, and therefore the ‘ordinary’ things we see around us are in fact from him. Natural human relationships are not dissimilar to the Divine-human relationship simply because the natural is an expression, a mirror, of the spiritual.
Francis of Assisi illustrated a more natural response when he was willing, in the absence of a human congregation, to practice his preaching to the birds and animals in the fields. Brother Lawrence found intimacy with Jesus while washing the pots and pans in the monastery kitchen. I meet easiest with Jesus while literally walking with him, hand in hand, in the street.
Such things are not new. The apostles John and Paul seemed to have such a close relationship with the risen Jesus.
Natural human marriage is often used as a model for spiritual intimacy, following from the Bible’s frequent use of human marriage as an analogy for the relationship between Christ and the church. In the Old Testament God is represented as the Husband. Israel are the wife; sometimes faithful, sometimes not.
“For your Maker is your husband; the Lord of hosts is His Name, and your Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; the God of the whole earth shall He be called.” (Isaiah 54:5)
“And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:5)
God represents Himself as being married to His people:
“Turn, O backsliding children, says the LORD; for I am married to you.” (Jeremiah 3:14)
In the New Testament, Jesus is the Bridegroom and Husband. The individual Christian, and the collective body of believers, are His bride, then wife.
In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus likens the kingdom of Heaven to a marriage.
In Matthew 25:1-13, man’s expectancy of salvation is compared to the wisdom or foolishness of virgins who wait for the bridegroom.
John the Baptist, when announcing the coming of Jesus, calls himself the friend of the bridegroom, but insists that he is not the Christ. John declares “he that has the bride is the bridegroom” (John 3:29) implying that Jesus and not he himself is the Messiah.
Paul calls the Church the bride of Christ:
In 2 Corinthians 11:2 Paul reminded the church in Corinth that they were married to Jesus. “For I am jealous over you with Godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one Husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”
He also makes the connection between human marriage and spiritual marriage with Jesus:
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it. … 27 That He might present it to Himself a glorious church. … 29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord does the Church: 30 For we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. 31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. 32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” (Ephesians 5:25,27,29-32)
“Wherefore, my brothers, you also have become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that you should be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.” (Romans 7:4)
“Let us be glad and rejoice and give honor to Him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. And he said to me, Write, Blessed are they which are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:7-9)
The most vivid example of bridal theology in the Old Testament is found in the Song of Solomon. Its inclusion in the Jewish scriptures was agreed upon, after debate, in the first century BC. According to Rabbi Akiva: “No one in Israel disputes that the Song of Songs is a divine book. All the world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
Christian theologians have long discussed whether the Song of Solomon should be taken as a literal love poem or as an analogy of relationship of God with His Bride. Origen (3rd century AD) wrote three commentaries on the Song of Songs in Greek. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), said that the goal of the Song of Songs is the union of the soul with God. Early church father, Ambrose, spoke of the individual’s soul conubii foedere copulatur, “joined in bonds of matrimony” to God. He wrote of the believer’s soul kissing Jesus, his Divine Lover, calling to him and waiting eagerly for his caresses, asking to be awakened from his sleep to be filled with his presence. The wedding night was the culmination of the believer’s individual spiritual union with his Lord.
Many mystics described what became known as mystical marriage, equating the intimacy of a mystical relationship, as between a Christian mystic and God, with the natural intimacy between marital partners. Aside from a number of mystics who recount mystical marriage experiences that seem almost literal, there is a more general sense, as used by Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross to designate that mystical union with God which is the most exalted condition attainable by the soul in this life. It is sometimes referred to as a ‘transforming union’, ‘consummate union’ and ‘deification’.
This state is Teresa’s ‘seventh resting-place’ of the ‘interior castle’. It has three elements:
an almost continual sense of the presence of God, even in the midst of external occupations. a transformation of the higher faculties. The soul is conscious that in its supernatural acts of intellect and of will, it participates in the Divine life and the analogous acts in God. To understand what is meant by this, it must be remembered that in heaven we are not only to enjoy the vision of God, but to feel our participation in His nature. frequent visions of the Trinity or of some attribute of God.
In the Middle Ages Richard of St. Victor, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the English mystic Richard Rolle (d. 1349) wrote commentaries on it. A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul And the Bridegroom Christ of John of the Cross is inspired by the Song of Songs, and Teresa of Avila’s book on “Concepts of the Love of God” is based it. Madame Guyon published an interpretation in 1685 – The Song of Songs: Commentary, and Song of the Bride. .
Toward the end of his life Bernard wrote:
“You ask, then, how I knew that He was present, since His ways are past finding out? Because the Word is living and effective, and as soon as ever He entered into me, He has aroused my sleeping soul, and stirred and softened and pricked my heart, that hitherto was sick and hard as stone. He has begun to pluck up and destroy, to build and to plant, to water the dry places and shed light upon the dark, to open what was shut, to warm the chill, to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain; so that my soul has blessed the Lord and all that is within me praised His Holy Name. Thus has the Bridegroom entered into me.”
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who saw visions when she was young, said,
“Creation is allowed in intimate love to speak to the Creator as if to a lover. As the Creator loves the creation, so the creation loves the Creator. The whole world has been embraced by this kiss.”
Listen to the words of John of the Cross, in “A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul And the Bridegroom Christ“:
“O you soul, then, most beautiful of creatures, who so long to know the place where your Beloved is, that you may seek Him, and be united to Him, you know now that you are yourself that very tabernacle where He dwells, the secret chamber of His retreat where He is hidden. Rejoice, therefore, and exult, because all your good and all your hope is so near you as to be within you; or, to speak more accurately, that you can not be without it, “for lo, the kingdom of God is within you.” So says the Bridegroom Himself, and His servant, St. Paul, adds: “You are the temple of the living God.” What joy for the soul to learn that God never abandons it, even in mortal sin; how much less in a state of grace! … Courage, then, O soul most beautiful, you know now that your Beloved, Whom you desire, dwells hidden within your breast; strive, therefore, to be truly hidden with Him, and then you shall embrace Him, and be conscious of His presence with loving affection.”