Practicing the Wrong Presence

Ask most charismatic church-goers what the focus of their worship service is and they will invariably say something about the presence of God.

"We just want God to show up."

"We want to make room for God to move."

"It's all about experiencing the presence of God."

It sounds so good, so spiritual, so other-wordly that we don't easily recognize how misguided it is.

Think about it: is there any doubt that God will be present?

First, we know from Psalm 139 that God is omnipresent. But secondly, through the promise Jesus gave in Matthew 18:20, we know that whenever believers gather– whenever, not just when they sing– God will be there in a special, more manifest way.

The focus of the Baal-worshippers at Carmel was to get Baal to do something, to act on their behalf. The Baal worshippers danced, chanted, cut themselves, cried out in loud voices, all to coax their god to make his presence felt. The scary thing is, if you take away the whole cutting bit, it sounds like a good revival service!

Contrast that scene to the one that follows with Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh. He simply speaks the word of God. God responds at Carmel with fire. But later, when Elijah is hiding in the cave, God speaks not in dramatic fashion, but with a still, small voice. God is present in both scenes but in very different ways. When we make the focus of our singing and dancing and worship the attempt to "experience God's presence", we fall in the trap of thinking God is present only when we "feel Him". But He is already there.

So, why do we sing and dance? Not to coax God into acting. Not to make ourselves feel His presence. We sing and dance– and all the other physical activities– to make ourselves more present to God, to engage God with our whole being. In a sense, the focus of the worship is not on whether God is present, but whether we are.

Are we really present to God? Our minds, our thoughts, our plans, our desires, our fears– are all those things hidden and withheld from Him, or laid bare before Him? Are we presenting our whole lives to God? In Romans 12:1, Paul writes, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship."

The word Paul chose here for "worship" is latreia. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, that is the word chosen to describe the priestly functions of worship…and it's the word Paul used earlier in his letter describing Jewish Temple worship. Paul is saying that for New Testament believers, our worship is the presenting of our selves before God.

So, the next time you're in a worship service, stop worrying about whether God will show up or not. He will. God is present whether we feel Him or not. The only question that remains is whether we will be present to Him.

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16 thoughts on “Practicing the Wrong Presence

  1. Hey Glenn,
    I have been around worship experiences for twenty years and just had to tell you how much I appreciate your the thoughts you have released on this blog. This is the first time I have ever responded to anything like this, but I was compelled to encourage you and thank you for the revelation you have released here.
    It IS about our hearts turned to a Holy God just to focus on loving Him and gazing into His beauty. Not looking for His hand to move but expressing our love and gratitude to the Maker.
    Blessings to you, your family and to those you fellowship with.
    In Christ,
    Stephen
    http://caringbridge.org/visit/stephenjones1

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  2. Excellent, Glenn. John Piper explored a subtle aspect of this ( http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1997/1017_The_Inner_Essence_of_Worship/ ). In addition to trying to *earn* the Lord’s presence, we can sometimes make our singing a *gift* to the Lord. And even *that* can be self-centered, taking our eyes off the Object of our affection and putting them on the objects we offer Him:
    “If the focus shifts onto our giving to God, one result I have seen again and again is that subtly it is not God that remains at the center but the quality of our giving. Are we singing worthily of the Lord? Are our instrumentalists playing with quality fitting a gift to the Lord? Is the preaching a suitable offering to the Lord? And little by little the focus shifts off the utter indispensability of the Lord himself onto the quality of our performances. And we even start to define excellence and power in worship in terms of the technical distinction of our artistic acts.”
    As I concluded here ( http://www.boundlessline.org/2008/08/worship-music-f.html ), worship — reflecting on our Lord’s character, reflecting on the overwhelmingly merciful things He’s done for us, engaging with Him, resonating with Him — is a gift *to us*. It moves our hearts toward His, which is heavenly joy. We should neither try to *earn* his presence or think too much of the *way* we communicate our affection toward Him.

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  3. YESSSSS!! (said in Napoleon Dynamite fashion..) πŸ˜‰
    How spoiled we have become! We have discovered that God responds to “hungry hearts”. However, we don’t develop and maintain hungry hearts by hungering after a manifestation of His presence! We maintain hungry hearts by hungering after God’s character, righteousnes, and HIS exaltation! True worship is the RESPONSE for all of those who realize the genuine beauty and majesty of God.
    We must seek His face not His hand!
    He graciously shares His nearness with those who approach with the right intentions. I think because He’s SO big, it just so happens to spill out onto the entire congregation. And even if we don’t feel Him, we worship anyway…because HE’s worthy! And that’s what worship is about- HIM and HIS glory. not us and ours.
    Ultimately it all comes back around to the individual sacrifice of praise and obedience of worship. As priests in the house of God (which we are ALL called to be – not just the worship leaders!) we each have responsibility to bring an acceptable sacrifice of worship. This is what makes His House a place of His true habitation.
    Our roadmap to an appropriate sacrifice:
    “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise” (Ps. 100:4)
    Thanks for sharing these great thoughts, Glenn! Its time to refocus the Body of Christ on the true sacrifice of worship, and veer us away from the misguided gluttonous indulgence of His manifest presence.

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  4. I think you could have got the same if not a better point across without comparing, generalizing and contrasting charismatic worship to baal worship. It sounds a little judgmental.

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  5. Jonathan…I sincerely apologize if I came off as judgmental. Please know that was not at all the tone I meant…nor the feeling in my heart. If it is a judgment it is a judgment against myself: I am a charismatic worship leader…and have been as long as I’ve been a worship leader. I have been guilty of trying to drum up God’s presence in a service..when what I’ve meant is that I’ve wanted to “feel Him”…and it’s missing the mark. So, I’m writing to myself and out of my journey. Sorry if that didn’t come through the first time.
    Peace.

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  6. Thanks for sharing your heart, Glenn. What a great reminder to us to make sure that WE are present in worship. We so easily become distracted with life that it is easy to go through the motions and expect to “feel” something, completely forgetting that God is always there, always present. Too often, we make worship strictly an emotional experience–what we feel about worship, what we feel during worship, etc.–instead of remembering that we are in the presence of God Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
    Thank you so much! I, for one, needed this reminder.

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  7. hey Glenn, great post!
    You definitely bring up good points about how we view worship. I also agree with Marcia’s comments.
    In defense of us “misguided Charismatics”…
    I think part of it is just our in-house Christianese lingo, rather than misguided beliefs about God.
    Maybe I’m a bit biased (OK I’m definitely biased) because the tagline of our church, as long as I can remember, has been “Experience Jesus”! But when we say we want “God to show up” and we want to “experience his presence”, we do know that God is omnipresent. We know that He is with us.
    Yet, knowing that He is with us is not enough. We want to commune with him. We want to have an intimate relationship with Him, and so we seek Him.
    I would argue that Jesus regularly spent time “seeking” the presence, even though He was in constant communion with the Father.
    You used the phrase “to engage God with our whole being”. To me that indicates a 2-way relationship. We are not coaxing Him (that would be the misguided attitude that you’re writing about), but He chooses to respond.
    You’re more of a scholar than me, but I think the Bible illustrates there is a difference between the omnipresence of God, and His manifest presence which takes different forms. In the example of Elijah at Mt Carmel, God was there with Elijah the whole time. But when His fire fell… everyone in the vicinity had no choice but to fall on their faces. They experienced His presence in a powerful way.
    God still pours out his “fire” and his “presence” in various ways, and when it happens, it is life-changing. However, even if I never FELT His presence again, I hope I would walk by faith all the days of my life, worshiping him in spirit and truth.
    We are blessed to live in a time when God is pouring out His spirit in a special way. We CAN experience His presence, and for those who have experienced it… we know there is nothing better in life. This is why I seek His presence in corporate worship, and why I try to “practice His presence” in my everyday life.
    When Mary sat at the feet of Jesus she was experiencing His presence, and she was commended for it. Likewise, we seek Him now because we can.
    As your article seems to concur, I think where we err is when we slip into seeking the experience rather than the giver of the experience.
    Just my thoughts… thanks for making me think!

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  8. eric! always good to see or hear from you, my old roomie!
    first off, you know that when i chide charismatics, i include myself in that group…i write as one on the inside not as one on the outside making critiques. i know you know that, but i suppose others may not!
    secondly, you make an excellent observation that much of the confusion is the result of poor semantics. of course we believe God is always with us, but you are right, there times of becoming extraordinarily aware of that. if i failed to make it clear that i believe in both omnipresence and manifest presence, the failure is a result of my haste in writing not any lack of conviction.
    i think we can and do “experience Jesus”….but it doesn’t always look the same way…it isn’t only different from person to person, it is different even with us from situation to situation….as in elijah’s case…once with fire, next in the non-dramatic voice. the trap of focusing on experiencing God’s presence is how do you know when you’re “there”? elijah saw fire on carmel, but a small voice outside the cave. what if elijah hear the voice but “pressed on” waiting for more fire instead?
    or what happens in a worship service when “contending” only takes 3 songs for me, but requires 5 songs for someone else to say they “met God”?
    my point is simply to say that while i agree that we can and should experience God– and i certainly have in small and dramatic ways– i think it is tricky in corporate worship settings because God interacts with us in deeply personal– and somewhat relatively different– ways. so, while the distinction of a “manifest presence” is true, it may not be very useful.
    oh…i don’t think i more of a scholar than you! πŸ™‚
    much love.

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  9. oh eric…a few more thoughts…
    i love your conclusion to worship the same way whether we feel Him or not…that is the crux of my blog…that our focus ought to be on whether we are present to God and presenting ourselves to Him not whether we feel His presence or not…
    as to the Jesus examples…I’m not sure it’s clear that Jesus “sought after God’s presence”. We know he consistently spent time in prayer…we know He only did what he “saw the Father doing”. None of this means that He was after a sort of special experience of God’s manifest presence, only that He set aside time to be with God….as should we. I am not in any way implying that quiet time or specific times of worship are unnecessary because we are “always with God”. Quite the contrary. We should have times with God set aside…as even Jesus did…but our focus should be the following, the surrendering of our will to God’s…as it was in Jesus’ prayer time. (“…nevertheless not my will but yours…”)…not the experience of God’s presence.
    so, with the mary example, you could just as easily say that mary was commended for listening to the words of Jesus as you could that she was praised for taking time to “experience Him.” perhaps here again our meanings are the same but our semantics have gotten us tangled.

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  10. Hey G… I’m glad I stopped back to see your reply πŸ™‚
    Good ol’ semantics.
    Well said, thanks. And more good points you bring up…
    “how do you know when you’re “there”?”
    I think our spirits can recognize when the Holy Spirit is interacting with us in a special way. But the tendency of us charismatics is to say, “more… more… press in… deeper…”
    Of course we’re talking to ourselves… telling ourselves to surrender more and go deeper with God. But again it easily slips into us telling God what to do.

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  11. Great blog, Glenn! I loved it. I think too much focus on wanting that experience, now, the way we want it, leads many people to frustration and feelings of guilt, and even wondering if God is irritated with us about something! And with all that baggage drawing our attention, it’s no wonder we don’t “experience” him. Realizing it’s so NOT about us and just coming to him empty-handed as we are, focusing on who he is and what he’s done, is infinitely better.

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  12. Glenn, I thought you brought up an interesting point about whether Jesus sought the presence of God. Jesus very specifically claimed to be the Temple; through that claim he was claiming to be the presence of God (N.T. Wright discusses this at length). I wonder how that might play into this notion of “seeking the presence” when we are called to follow in Jesus steps – he *was* the presence. I wonder how far we can take this? Charismatics will probably all agree that we are to carry the presence with us, but could it also mean that in some way we are to “be” the presence of God – that we are to embody heaven meeting earth?

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