Introduction: Allowing more of God’s presence and participation in our lives is such a big topic that I am only going to focus on several main points that I see as critical in increasing our ability to be aware of God’s presence with us in a tangible, experiential way. Some other day it would be interesting to explore things like what it means to allow more connection with God, more influence from God, and more space for God to act among us. But for now, I will focus on allowing more awareness of God.
Key points regarding allowing more awareness of God’s presence with us:
- God gives us freedom to say no to being aware of God’s presence with us
- God gives us freedom to say no to recognizing God as the source of thoughts/communication/guidance that are coming to us from God.
- God gives us freedom to limit our awareness of God’s presence and guidance.
- We may or may not be consciously aware that some part of us is blocking or limiting our awareness of God.
- Deliberately blocking awareness of God’s awareness of God is not always the reason it is difficult for someone to perceive God’s presence.
- Some blocking concerns can be resolved very simply, others may be more complex.
- Getting help directly from God and/or people can really help with identifying and addressing things that may be blocking or limiting our awareness of him.
I will attempt to briefly explore each of these points in turn.
God gives us freedom to say no to being aware of God’s presence with us: For a much more in depth exploration of why and how God does this, I would recommend looking at the previous readings on the Foundation of Love and on Welcoming More. In short, it seems that the reason God gives us freedom to say no to or limit our awareness of him is that God loves us. Love is very powerful but it does not force itself on anyone who is unwilling. Dallas Willard has suggested that God could quickly resolve pretty much every problem in the world simply by revealing himself clearly. Yet, God seems reluctant to do this because God wants us to choose to relate to him and interact with him*.
God gives us freedom to say no to recognizing God as the source of thoughts/communication/guidance that are coming to us from God: The reasoning for this is essentially the same as that mentioned in the paragraph above. One way to look at the world is that we are all being engaged by and interacting with God all the time. The fact that we have any good thing including breath, sunlight, rain, life flowing through our bodies,a steady flow of thoughts in our minds, experiences of joy, rest, etc. could all be considered as things that come indirectly from God and are sustained by God who created it all. However, humans seem to be free to attribute the source of good things to other sources besides God. Perhaps like thanking the postal man for a Care Package that was actually prepared and sent along by a loved one.
One area that I think is a worth exploring more closely is the flow of thoughts moving through our minds. I do not believe that every thought is from God, but I believe some of them are, and probably more than we would think. Often we have a good idea that comes to us, like something thoughtful we could do for someone, or the idea that we should pray for someone, or we get the sense of a quiet assurance that we are loved and going to be ok. These thoughts tend to come in a soft, gentle way that feel like our own mind, but my guess is that many of them are either straight from God or some combination of God and our own spirit coming up with them. Either way, we are free choose to attribute these thoughts to something besides God.
God gives us freedom to limit our awareness of God’s presence and guidance: This ability to limit our awareness of God stems from a healthy aspect of our identity. We need the ability to limit how far we allow others into our lives so that we can set healthy boundaries farther out for people who are less safe and can allow safer people to come closer in. Unlike immature people who will often push on these boundaries, God is completely mature and always respects them. Therefore, we seem to be able to perceive God to the extent that we feel safe, open, and ready to do so. For example, in prayer ministry sessions, people will often report seeing Jesus in their mind’s eye, but he looks very far away. When asked if they would like him to be closer they will often say, “No I’m not sure if I can trust him.” With some help and time to observe him and see how safe he seems people will often choose to allow him to come closer and Jesus always seems to respect their wishes and not cross over the boundary of what feels safe to the person.
I should also clarify that seeing Jesus is not the only way that people perceive God’s presence. There are many many ways to perceive/sense God’s presence either directly or indirectly from fleeting thoughts to images, to a sense, or a sense of knowing. Examples include a feeling like God is smiling at me, feeling a warmth from God, having a sense that God is all around even though I don’t have a specific image to go with it, or having the sense that Jesus is behind me kindly supporting me. I focus on seeing in this reading because it provides a good clear illustration of the concepts, but the same principles apply to any channel/sense through which we are capable of perceiving God’s presence.
We may or may not be consciously aware that some part of us is blocking or limiting our awareness of God: Often when I do prayer ministry with people they will say something like, I just really really want to perceive God’s presence but I can’t seem to get a sense of him. In these cases I will usually take some time to establish a personal connection with the person, and see if they are able to connect to states like peace, rest, and appreciation especially in the context of a positive memory. If they can do this, that is a good sign that they are able to get their relational connection circuits online which rules out a major obstacle to connecting with God. (more details below.) Once the person is adequately relaxed and connected to a positive memory I may say, “We could welcome Jesus to help you perceive his presence here, but I wanted to check and see how that idea feels to you?” They may pause and think for a minute and say something about it feeling a little anxiety provoking. I will then ask, “Is there any concern inside about the possibility of inviting his presence?” At this point they will generally be able to recognize some concern such as a fear that he will judge them, be angry with them, not show up, disappoint them, or a myriad of other possible concerns. Concerns like this tend to be held right alongside a genuine desire to connect with God which can be very confusing, especially if we are not immediately aware of the underlying fears or concerns about what sensing God directly might mean. Even if we are not aware of these concerns, God is aware of them and God respects them and honors the fact that certain parts of us are essentially saying, “Hold your horses God, I’m not ready to sense you that clearly yet.” Fortunately there are lots of creative ways to address these concerns that tend to resolve the blockage, the most basic strategies for this I outline below.
Deliberately blocking awareness of God’s awareness of God is not always the reason it is difficult for someone to perceive God’s presence. A conscious or subconscious refusal to allow ourselves to be aware of God’s presence is not always the reason people have difficulty perceiving God’s presence. One of the most common blocks is that our brain’s relational connection circuits are temporarily offline which makes it hard to connect with anyone including God. Dr Karl Lehman writes extensively about recognizing when our relational connection circuits are off and how to get them back on both online on both his website and in his books see www.immanuelapproach.com for more information. I also talk some about them in the reading for the Foundation of Peace Workshop where I consider peace as being a state where everything (in our brain, etc) is running in right relationship/balance/smoothly. This includes our relational connection circuits. For now I will list just a couple of reasons our relational circuits may go offline and how to get them back online.
Reasons our relational circuits may be offline:
- We don’t feel safe (enough) in the moment to relax and connect. This may be either physically safe or emotionally safe in the moment.
- Something feels urgent or important to focus on. Our brain is in task mode or figure it out mode and is not very interested in relational connection at the moment.
What can help get them back online?
- Being in an environment where a lot of the Foundations for Connecting with God we explored in the last series are present. Things like Joy, Rest, Love, Patience, Hope, Understanding, and Life, especially Love.
- Addressing underlying safety concerns. This may be as simple as being genuinely listened to by someone, turning on a noise maker so no one can overhear your prayer session, etc. or as complex as resolving the underlying memories causing triggers and over-reactions in the current environment.
- Dr Lehman in his book Outsmarting Yourself goes much more into things like Calming, Deliberate Appreciation, and Attunement that help us regain access to our Relational Circuits.
Some blocking concerns can be resolved very simply, others may be more complex. When the issue is actually that a part of us that is not allowing awareness of God’s presence, there are several simple things that may address it. The first is to simply ask, “What am I concerned might happen if I became aware of God in this moment/memory?” Once the concern is identified, the person is often comfortable naming the concern to God or having the facilitator name the concern to God and noticing any thoughts that come in response. I learned this intervention in Dr Lehman’s writings on troubleshooting (see the relevant chapters in his draft book here). I have found it works amazingly well and in my experience more often than not, within a 3 to 5 minute interaction with God about the blocking concern the person starts becoming aware of God’s presence. You can read my own example of this in the Foundation of Love post under the section heading, “Personal example of sharing anger with God”.
Other times it takes a significant amount of time over some or many sessions to gradually untangle and resolve various blockages to our connection with God. I do not have time to go into all of the other details, but this simple intervention remains a foundational resource along with various other ways of addressing these blocks through things like maintaining a caring personal human connection, attunement, and patiently seeking the help of the Holy Spirit.
Getting help directly from God and/or people can really help with identifying and addressing things that may be blocking or limiting our awareness of him. To the extent that it feels safe enough to a person to share things with God and listen/notice thoughts that come in response, it can be extremely helpful to include God in the work of both understanding and resolving blocks to a greater awareness of God’s presence. We can be sure that God wants these resolved even more than we do and yet God is also infinitely patient and gentle in the way God goes about helping us. If there are high levels of fear as sometimes happens, it may help for the facilitator to name the concerns to God while the person praying simply notices what thoughts are coming in response. If even this seems like too much, then the facilitator can rely on the fact that God is still inspiring thoughts both in themselves and in the person who is fearful throughout the course of the conversation, and satisfying solutions can often be reached just through caring conversation about the block.
Dr Lehman tells a story which illustrates this point. Dr Lehman was facilitating an Immanuel Approach prayer ministry session with a person. The person eventually reported that they could perceive Jesus but that Jesus was so far away they could not make out any details about him. After some conversation, it became clear that the person simply did not feel safe enough to invite Jesus to come any closer. After some conversation, Karl had the inspiration of suggesting she might look through a telescope. This felt safe enough to the person to try and allowed her to get a better look at Jesus without him coming any closer. As she focused on him, she began to see that he looked safer than she expected and she gradually allowed him closer a little bit at a time, each time learning a little more about him and reaching a point where she felt safe enough to invite him still closer. The full story according to Dr Lehman can be found in chapter 26 in the draft version of his Book on the Immanuel Approach. Here is the link. http://immanuelapproach.com/pdf/Chapters24-27(Draft)ImmanuelBook.pdf
Conclusion: Dr Lehman’s story about the telescope above is, I believe, a very clear and helpful illustration of exactly what all of us experience in our walk with God. I think all of us put limits and boundaries on how close we want to allow God to be to with us and God respects our boundaries. Yet, I am also convinced that our triune God Jesus, Father, and Holy Spirit are ultimately the safest most loving beings in existence and if we are willing to allow our attention to dwell on this God who is with us, we will gradually learn more about who God really versus who we feared or expected might be. And as we get to know God more we start to trust God a little more and let him a little closer. This process of allowing God deeper and deeper into our awareness and eventually deeper into our hearts, minds, spirits, and lives won’t get completed in this lifetime, but it is sure worth the journey.
Footnotes: *I have put some thought into whether to refer to God as him simply as God. This is somewhat of a complex topic for a lot of reasons. At some point I hope to explore it further, but I want to write a quick note about my reasoning on behalf of people who have had negative experiences with strong male figures in the past who may have a hard time calling God him because of the ways it can feel like it limits who God is. My intention is certainly not to limit God, but to emphasize God’s personal nature. Since English does not have a good pronoun that can be both male and female like the word “su” in Spanish, replacing all the hims with repeating the word God over and over can get sort of an impersonal feel. I’ve also chosen to refer to God as him because often I am referring to Jesus who did come as a man, and because Jesus referred to God the creator as his Abba (Father). I also realize that God is not limited to our human conceptions and stereotypes about gender and I honor that Genesis says both male and female are created in the image of God. And as I mentioned before I also understand that the word “him” carries a lot of different associations and connotations for each of us, many of which may be negative and domineering. I do not at all want to imply that God is like the broken human males throughout human history who bear the same pronoun. For now I am alternating back and forth between using God and using him to refer to God in order to emphasize God’s personal nature. I’d also be happy to hear any input others would have about this topic.