Note: This is one of a series of 8 workshops called Foundations For Connecting With God. (Click here to see the full series overview)
Nov 30, 10-11:30am US Central Time (Chicago Time)
This interactive online workshop is the third in a series of 8 workshops which explore key elements/foundations that seem to help people more easily perceive and interact with God’s presence. Please see additional reading below.
1 John 4:7-11. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God’s love was revealed among us: God sent His one and only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. And love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Pre Workshop Reading:
Note this reading is not required but it will add additional benefit to the workshop experience.
Introduction: There are so many things that could and should be said about love but I will try to limit my sharing to some of the aspects of love that are particularly relevant for helping us create spaces and lay foundations that help people more easily sense and interact with God’s presence. Out of the 8 foundations for connecting with God this workshop series explores, love is the most important, and all of the other foundations are essentially different ways of expressing or receiving love or results of feeling loved.
Here are some of the questions this reading will explore:
- What is Love?
- Where does love come from?
- How does God love us?
- What about all of the terrible things in the world?
- How do we love God?
- Loving God directly.
- Loving God by loving others.
- How does love help people more easily sense God’s presence?
- How do we increase love in corporate worship, small groups, and prayer ministry settings?
- How might Love, Joy, and Rest fit together?
What is Love?: The best definition of love that I know is, “Being like God,” because as 1 John 4:8 reminds us, God is love. However, since that definition is so expansive and goes beyond our ability to comprehend, I will propose a more limited definition that captures one aspect of God’s love for us. When used as a description love could mean, “Being a person to whom other’s truly matter” or, as a verb, it could mean, “relating to people in a way which expresses the reality that they truly matter.” Someone who loves according to this definition might say to others, “You don’t just matter to me for how you can benefit me or further my agenda. You truly matter to me in that I truly want the best for you regardless of what benefits come to me.” This, I believe, is the way that God loves us and the way that God would like us to love in response.
Note there are others who define love somewhat differently. For example, Dallas Willard defines love as “The will for the good of others.” see source. However, I think his definition and many others end up in a similar place of valuing the other person and working for their good even at times when they don’t appreciate it, or we don’t feel like it. God no doubt understands this because God too is working for our good and valuing us even when we don’t realize it or appreciate it.
Love and Freedom:
Love is never forceful: One of the defining characteristics of love is that it is never forceful and can’t be forced. You can’t command someone to love you, love doesn’t work like that. This goes a long way in explaining why it can feel difficult to perceive God’s presence more clearly. God wants us to be free to choose to draw near to God, to choose to allow God and our relationship with God to matter in our everyday lives. If God were to reveal God’s presence and glory and goodness right off the bat so fully that we had no choice but to say, “God you do truly matter I can’t deny it,” we would not have the opportunity to develop the same depth of love for God as the lifelong journey of pursuing and being pursued by God. It seems rather that God is very active in our lives in ways that always leave room for us to choose not to believe God is present or involved. In general, God seems to wait to be invited and focused on before giving people a stronger and more clear sense of God’s presence. And even in those times when we experience a strong sense of God’s presence, God always leaves room for us to look back later and say, “was that just my own mind?” Maybe so, or maybe it was just God refusing to force you to believe.
As we learn and relearn how to really trust in God and allow God to matter in our lives, the ways God works can be quite dramatic including miracles of physical, emotional, or spiritual healing, restored relationships, and even raising the dead as still happens regularly in churches around the world (look up pastor Supressa Sithole from Mozambique for example). These miracles inspire faith, but ultimately God still leaves room for people to look at such miracles and choose to doubt whether it was God behind the miracle. Love for God must be chosen, it is never forced, and it often seems to grow over time as we press in for a deeper relationship with God.
The Cost of Freedom: Because of the freedom God gives people all humans (and maybe even nature) to choose not to love, we all tend to get banged up throughout our lives by people who acted in unloving ways and these experiences can make us wonder whether God cares, why God allows certain things, or perhaps whether God is even real. These are important obstacles which can be worked through with God but which tend to need the gentle understanding of others and a gradual opening into directly engaging with God about these experiences. In the meantime, as we are all working out these blocks, and learning to grow into the people God has designed us to be, I believe that some of the most significant acts of love in God’s eyes are the simple ways in which we choose to love others, God, and ourselves even when we don’t feel like it; even when our sense of God’s presence or activity is very blurry or unclear. More will be said on this topic below but for now let us turn to the nature of God’s love for us.
Where does love come from? And where is it going?: 1 John 4:7-11 says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love comes from God.” What does it mean that all true love ultimately flows from God? I believe our triune God is a great deal like the mighty ocean only infinitely wider and deeper. Like the clouds pick water up from the ocean and shower it it onto the land, so God showers love upon the earth. All of God’s creatures, and perhaps especially human beings, must have this love to live. We drink it, cook with it, clean with it, and draw on it to water our plants, animals, and our thirsty guests. We live because of the love that we receive from God in a million forms including our very existence, our bodies, the air we breathe, the food we eat, other people, the trees, the plants, the animals, and every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Though the water may flow around the land for a time, eventually water flows back to the ocean. So it is with God’s love. It showers down on us and flows around our lives and our world giving life, cleansing, and sustaining but eventually it cannot help but return to God. Many of us don’t even realize the ways our love is actually returning back to God. For example, in the story Jesus tells about his return and final judgment in Matthew 25, he tells the people on his right, I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me, a stranger and you invited me in. They are confused because they don’t remember serving him in this way and he says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” (Matthew 25:40) What might it mean that all true acts of love for people are also ways of loving God?
What about All of the terrible things in the world? A very understandable concern that many people wrestle with is the question, ‘How can God be loving and let so many terrible things happen in the world?’ A lot has been written about this question, but for this short reading I will only say three things which I will unpack one at a time.
- Love must be free to choose.
- Earth is a battleground.
- God is very pleased to talk/work through every one of our concerns with us.
Love must be free to choose: It must have been terribly painful for God to know when he was creating the world that the only way for people to be totally free to love God was that they also be totally free to choose not to love God. Ever since humans first began choosing something other than loving God, what we call sin and evil along with every kind of brokenness and suffering have been present on the earth. The consequences and patterns of evil have often become very engrained in our cultures and systems, and gotten passed down from generation to generation. Thus we are born into a world where there exist both dramatic and seemingly ordinary acts of love pouring new life and hope into the world alongside both dramatic and seemingly small acts of sin and rebellion against God that add pain and suffering to the world.
God has been actively at work to help people choose love which is ultimately to choose life but God who is pure love remains true to his nature and refuses to force people back into loving relationship with him. It should be noted however, that, while God’s love is not forceful, it is very powerful, and ultimately does triumph over evil, sin, and death. God clearly demonstrated his love for us, and the power of his love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus death must have looked at the time like weakness, but somehow through his death and subsequent resurrection by the Father’s power he destroyed death forever, paid for every evil that has ever been done, and made a way for all to enter into God’s kingdom. So what looked like weakness turned out to be immensely powerful.
Earth is a battleground. It seems that the freedom to choose not to love God has also been given to the angels and the creatures of heaven and that many of them have chosen not to love God. This opens up the whole topic of satan and evil spiritual forces that are actively opposed to God and God’s loving purposes. While I don’t have a lot of time to go into this topic I will briefly mention several points which are relevant to our topic of increasing people’s awareness of God’s presence in our community life. First, it seems that God has allowed satan and these rebellious spiritual forces to have some influence upon the Earth for the time being. While I do not pretend to understand all of the reasons why a loving God would allow this, my guess is that it has something to do with the importance of really giving humans the freedom to choose God by allowing us to have a very real alternative to God. Thus the earth is a place where both heavenly and hell-bent creatures are at work to influence human choices and lives. This is why our life on Earth seems to have aspects of both heaven and hell. Worship, prayer, and loving fellowship are things that the enemy seems to greatly fear and attempt to interfere with. When we notice unusual blockages to doing good and loving things it may be that malignant spiritual forces are attempting to put obstacles in the way of these activities. In Christ we have authority to command anything opposed to God to go directly to Jesus feet for him to deal with directly, sometimes we just need to remember to enforce our authority in Christ. (Note there are some instances where deeper work is needed to clear things out, I recommend reading Dr Karl Lehman’s essays at www.kclehman.com on dealing with the demonic including his essay titled: “Understanding and Dealing with Demonic Oppression and Interference: Common Concerns.” is a good place to start.)
God is very pleased to talk/work through every one of our concerns with us: While understanding the ideas that love must be free to choose and that Earth is a battle ground can be very helpful, when it comes down to our life experience it can still be extremely hard to believe that God could actually be loving in the face of some of the things we may suffer in our lives. I have found that God is always glad to talk with people about their feelings and questions in the face of confusing and bad things that happen in the world and particularly in their own lives. Often the first thing people need is a safe person to share with and then they need a safe space to share directly with God about their confusion, anger, etc for what God has allowed. A good place do this is with an experienced prayer minister or mental health professional who can help hold a safe space for you and guide you along. (Our workshops and exercises are too brief and simple for this deeper level of work but our 6 week training groups, especially intermediate or advanced groups may be an adequate setting.)
Personal example of sharing anger with God: I remember in one of my early Immanuel Prayer ministry sessions the memory of a friend who had had an accident came up. When I tried to perceive Jesus presence in the memory was not able to sense his presence. My facilitator coached me to ask God what was in the way. I realized how angry I felt that God had allowed this accident and the anger seemed to be blocking my awareness of his presence. The person facilitating my session suggested a number of options of how I might start expressing my feelings to God. I chose to write them down in imagination. As I envisioned myself as a kid in the memory sitting down at a table and writing a long list of all the things that made me angry about the situation I suddenly had a sense that Jesus was standing just a little bit behind me quietly watching as I wrote my list. He looked on patiently until I finished and when I was done he motioned, inviting me to sit down beside him and I had the very clear sense that he wanted to read through the entire list together to make sure that he fully understood each item. My anger melted. I couldn’t believe his gentleness and how clearly he genuinely cared about every frustration I had about this experience. It took more work over a number of sessions to resolve that experience but an important change happened in that I was now able to perceive God’s presence in the memory and I now realized how much God cared. It seemed that the anger no longer blocked my awareness of God’s presence.
In the many sessions I have facilitated for others helping them engage directly with God about their anger and confusion I’ve always seen God respond with similar care and concern. I have found that when people are willing to stay with the conversation/interaction, honestly sharing their hearts, and genuinely paying attention to God’s response, they begin to feel increasingly peaceful at an emotional and relational level regarding their concerns even if their logical brain cannot make full sense of all the reasons why.
Our Love For God: Just as God expresses love toward us in millions of different ways, so we can express love back to God in all kinds of ways. Perhaps it is helpful to organize them into four main categories:
- Expressing love to God directly.
- Expressing love to God by loving other people.
- Expressing love for God by loving ourselves.
- Expressing love to God by loving other creatures and the world God has given us.
Direct expressions include things like telling God we love him in prayer or worship or through actions like fasting, reading God’s word, doing things God has asked us to do, etc. A lot of what we teach in these interactive prayer workshops are essentially ways to expand the possibilities of how we express love directly to God and receive love from God. Many people don’t realize it is possible to have deep conversations with God or to see Jesus with the eyes of our hearts and engage with him in a very personal way.
Loving God by loving people is clearly laid out in Matthew 25:40 where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” To love people of course involves giving them the message that they truly matter. Any good parent can tell you that having people show genuine love and care for their children feels like being loved yourself. The question is perhaps how far we we are willing to extend our circle of love and to what extent we are open to following Jesus words and example to extend love even to our enemies. Note this does not necessarily mean agreeing with them, or allowing every behavior, but living in a way that honors that they too are created by God and matter to God.
Expressing love for God by loving ourselves: Sometimes we forget that we too matter to God who created us so intricately and carefully and God feels loved when we appropriately show love to ourselves. When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and the second is like it ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Matt 22:37-39). It can be easy to overlook that this includes loving ourselves. Often in my work as a counselor I help people work with parts of themselves that they really dislike such as angry, ashamed, or people pleasing aspects of themselves. I have found that rejecting and hating these parts never seems to loose them from the roles they are stuck in, but relating to these parts of ourselves with curiosity and compassion tend to allow new freedom and possibilities to emerge. I have also found that it helps us to experience God or a caring person loving the parts of ourselves we dislike first to help model for us how we too can love these parts of ourselves.
Expressing love for God by loving other creatures and the world God has given us: One father described walking along the sidewalk with his 7 year old son on a rainy day. Suddenly, the son stopped and picked up an earth worm who was helplessly wiggling at the bottom of a small puddle. The boy gently set the earth worm safely on the grass where it could wiggle to safely into the dirt. I have no doubt that God was smiling even bigger than that father to watch the little boy’s expression of love for this small creature. Loving the little plants and creatures and world God has created for us is certainly a way of expressing love to God from the time God put the garden of Eden in Adam’s care until now.
Promoting Love in Our Faith Communities:
So much good teaching is out there about love in our churches, but hopefully these thoughts will add some helpful insights. As we look at how love can be increased in our corporate worship, small group gatherings, and prayer ministry, two key questions to ask ourselves are:
- How well do our gatherings honor just how much God matters to us?
- How well do our gatherings honor just how much each person present matters to God?
Corporate Worship: In corporate worship services, there are often beautiful expressions of love from us toward God in the form of worship, prayer, the offering of various gifts, and other elements of the service. Worship is one way in which we express to God that God truly matters to us. Worship seems to be an important avenue God has provided us to have something to offer back to a God who does not need anything from us, but dearly wants our love and affection. One major expression of worship comes in the form of song and music. Whether with hymns, Gospel songs, contemporary or whatever other style, corporate song and music can be a time where together we pour forth expressions of love and praise in order to express to God just how much God matters to us. Other elements of the service such as Eucharist, scripture reading, etc. Continuing to create space for heartfelt, corporate, and personal expressions of love to God is very important.
A harder question, perhaps, is how we incorporate the significance of each person in the gathered community. Despite some of the criticism seeker friendly churches get for not challenging people enough and for watering down the Gospel message, there is perhaps something positive about the ways they quickly make people feel that they truly matter. Perhaps there are ways to meet newcomers such that they feel seen and valued and to gradually invite them along with everyone in the community into deeper levels of discipleship. This is done from a loving motive that each person matters to Jesus and Jesus has a calling on each of us that is far higher than the fluff offered by our consumer culture. It should also be noted that the Spirit seems to lead each of us in our own unique journeys of growth as Jesus apprentices which sometimes are a bit different from what most of the community is doing. There should be space for this kind of freedom to be guided in a unique way by the Holy Spirit.
Small Group and Community Life: Small groups and community activities like potlucks, and more than usual these days, various online gatherings provide spaces for love to flow in every direction: from God to us, from us to God, and most obviously back and forth between people. These gatherings are opportunities for us to give one another the message, ‘you matter to me and I care about you.’ Let’s do that. The previous workshop readings on joy and rest offer additional thoughts about good ways to express love to people through showing we are glad to be with them and giving them space to disengage as needed. But stress about getting it perfect, it’s really important to just have fun and enjoy fellowship with one another.
Prayer Ministry: In prayer ministry settings love often flows very strongly and obviously from God to the prayer recipient and from the recipient back to God as the person is able to experience deeper and more tangible awareness of God than normal. Much more will be said about this in coming workshops so for now I would like to focus instead on the way that love flows from a prayer minister to the prayer receiver and how this is a critical foundation that can help the prayer receiver feel safe enough to open up to God’s presence.
What happens when a prayer minister is adequately operating from a state of love? When prayer ministers are adequately ministering from the reality that the person they are working with truly matters and with the goal of working for what is truly good for the person, there is an environment of safety and great opportunity for the person to be blessed. When love is kept at the center of the encounter ministry recipients are kept safe from large and small misuses of power and treated with utmost respect and honor. An environment where one is safe and appropriately honored tends to promote the kind of conditions that make it easier to connect with God, but even if a ministry recipient has difficulty recognizing God’s presence or guidance, they will still be blessed by love that flows from God, through the prayer minister to the person.
What happens if the foundation of love is weak or lacking? When the foundation of love is weak or absent in prayer ministry, or any kind of ministry or couseling setting for that matter, there is great danger of things moving from the way God wants them to go to some other way. When people are not treated as though they truly matter, and prayer ministers don’t operate with their good in mind, danger of various large and small misuses of power can occur. The steady stream of church leaders crashing because of inappropriate (aka unloving) ways of relating to people is a sad reminder of how easily this can happen.
Big misuses of power and how to avoid them is a hugely important conversation but this is probably not the right context to dive into it. Instead, the small ways in which prayer ministers often lose track of how much people matter, generally accidentally, and with the best of intentions, is what I would like to say a few words about here. “People first, processes second” is a very important motto to keep in mind if you are facilitating any kind of prayer ministry or leading any kind of worship or experiential workshop. If people begin to feel that the leader or facilitator does not really care about them and is just trying to move them through a process they will tend to start disconnecting emotionally and relationally because they don’t feel seen and valued. People may still go through the motions but their heart will probably not really be in it and the depth of joy and peace experienced will likely be much less. On the other hand, if people feel like their presence, hopes, and concerns matter to the person facilitating the prayer time, it is much easier for them to really engage the process and stay relationally connected.
A good illustration would be a prayer ministry session where a person has fears and concerns that make things like talking to God or hearing from God feel scary. Fears like, “God is probably going to be very mad at me so it’s better just not to focus on what he might do or say,” are commonplace. In order to feel safe enough to start addressing this fear, the person needs a facilitator who is tracking with them enough to notices the subtle cues that they are having hesitations about talking to God and can explore together with them what might feel like a safe ways to address their concerns. In contrast, a facilitator who just barrels forward trying to keep the process going and not noticing or addressing the person’s fears is probably going to cause the prayer recipient to feel on guard, uneasy, and even less open to relational connection with God. The facilitator’s care and curiosity is of course an act of love which communicates to the receiver that they truly matter to the facilitator.
Summary: A Few Thoughts on How Love, Joy and Rest Fit Together:
A couple of years ago as I was getting visions for starting these online Immanuel Prayer trainings, I asked Jesus to show me what he sees as the process that a prayer ministry session flows through. I saw an image of him taking out a blank scroll and opening it up. He began to write in a list down down the whole page the following words:
Over and over in a sequence. I shared this vision with Michael Schaefer who was exploring with me how to conceptualize our training work. He really liked the vision and it resonated with his spirit, though neither of us fully understood it. As time goes on, I am getting more ideas about the meaning but I am sure my understanding is still quite incomplete. Here is my current guess. Joy (the experience of being glad to be together) and rest (the freedom to disengage as needed) are foundational rhythms of all healthy relationships. Love (relating to people according to the reality that they truly matter) includes joy and rest but goes beyond them to include everything involved in either increasing the amount of joy and rest, or getting back to the rhythm of joy and rest when we fall into ‘joy-less’ and ‘rest-less’/non-relational modes of operating. Perhaps life and our connections with God and one another is created to flow in this ongoing rhythm of love, joy, and rest. We simply need to keep practicing with the help of God and one another how to keep getting better at staying in this rhythm. Joining with the angels and the elders around the throne may we express our love to the God who loves us and is always glad to be with us. You matter to us God, and thanks that we matter to you!
Primary skill focus for this workshop:
1)HELPING PEOPLE FEEL MORE SAFE AND CONNECTED.
Additional relevant skills we will include:
2) Welcoming God’s presence and guidance
3) Pausing to notice what is coming into awareness, even if subtle.
4) Sharing with others what is coming to us.**
- Welcome and opening prayer
- Simple introductions either in main group or break out groups of 3-4 to help everyone feel a little more connected.
- Back to the main group for a brief check in and prayer asking God to remind us of a time when we felt at rest.
- Same Break out groups for sharing about the memory that came to mind.
- Back to the main group for a brief check in and prayer asking if there is anything else God would like us to notice about this memory.
- Same break out groups to share what has come to mind.
- Conclusion, debrief, and closing prayer.
- Everything is optional: to promote a sense of safety all exercises are optional and voluntary.
- Respect confidentiality: unless someone is in danger of harm we ask group members to hold personal sharing by others confidential.
- Lean in lean out: If you tend to talk a lot, try to hold space for those who are more quiet, and if you tend to be more quiet you may try to share a little more.
- Please be caring: People tend to do really well with this one.
Facilitator: Andy Ross
Format: 90 minute one time workshops combining both full group teaching and debrief and smaller break out groups of 3 or 4 people for practice times.
Participants can register for one, multiple, or all sessions.
Cost: Free/Suggested $15 voluntary donation per workshop. Please feel no obligation to give but if you would like to make a contribution your gifts are helpful for freeing up our time to do these free workshops, create training material, and subsidize training groups for those who can’t afford the normal rates. You will see an option to make a gift when you register or you can always access the donate page.
Prerequisites: No previous experience needed. Please invite your friends.