4. Apprehending God
"O taste and see." (Psalm 34:8)
Let's Do It Again, Daddy!
Mom's hands cover her mouth and nose in a prayerful pose. Uncle Dave pumps the air with a clenched fist and chants out the rhythmic big dog sound. Older brother Michael, unable to make up his mind as to whether he is going to look or not, peers tentatively through the open fingers of the hands that cover his eyes. Little sister Amy, unable to contain her excitement, is jumping up and down as if on a pogo stick, squealing at such a high pitch that the dog runs for cover. The rest of the assembled crowd of family and friends are all focused on the action at the edge of the pool. By the behavior of the audience, you'd think it was a gold medal event in the Summer Olympics. And at this moment, it might as well be.
In fact, it is little Kristin's first jump into the deep end of the big pool without her water wings. She stands at the lip of what appears to be a vast ocean to her, shivering in the 96-degree sunshine. The little pink bathing suit with the ruffles around the waist cannot hide the fear that twitches throughout her little 4œ year old body. At her age, she's certainly used to being in water, having mastered all the challenges of the kiddy pool months before.
But she draws no comfort from that history, nor from the fact that she's been in this pool several times. Being a 3-time veteran does not count today, for those voyages were made with her inflatable water wings securely attached and with her daddy's neck within easy reach. This is something very new — no safety equipment, nothing to hang on to. Her mind begins to race, fast forwarding through all the possible disasters that could occur: she might trip and hit her head on the edge of the pool, she might fall into the pool head first and get water up her nose, she might sink to the bottom, she might die and never have the chance to go to big-girl school, she might . . . .
But through her anxiety-blurred vision, she spies her daddy. He stands waist deep in the pool with arms outstretched toward her, a comforting smile on his face. Over the chaos all around, she hears him quietly and confidently say, "Jump into my arms, sweetheart. Daddy will catch you." Her fear has not diminished one bit, but his words remind her that he always keeps his promises. In the end, it is not the encouragement from the adoring fans, it is not the cookie bribe from Aunt Rita, and it is certainly not the silent scream that blares in her mind. It is the simple trust of a child in the word of her father.
So, she closes her eyes, holds her nose, and jumps. It is not a thing of beauty. It looks as if one leg decided to obey her will and the other leg chickened out at the last minute. It is more of a lunging stumble than a confident leap. Nevertheless, into the water she goes. As expected, the splash is big and it is scary. As soon as she feels the water, her little arms and legs begin flailing wildly, in a awkward attempt to mimic the way big people swim, just in case daddy isn't paying attention. But miracle of miracles, no sooner does she hit the water and feel herself going under, when she feels two strong hands catch her under her arms and lift her up. She instinctively gulps fresh air, wipes the water from her face, and turns to hear everyone going wild. At that point, the only thing bigger than her eyes is the high-pitched sound that comes from her happy lungs, shouting out for all to hear, "I did it!"
Raucous cheers continue to rise from the audience. Adults, caught up in the jubilant moment, spontaneously jump into the pool, caring not that they look ridiculous with their sunglasses on and their cups of ice tea still in hand. They wade over and crowd around Kristin to celebrate her victory. After she regales them with the details of her aquatic performance, she turns around to the man proudly holding her and says, "Let's do it again, daddy!"
In this chapter of A. W. Tozer's masterful work, The Pursuit of God, you will encounter a fourth question: "How do you actually go about laying hold of a Person who is Spirit?" Having decided to pursue God as your prime love (chapter 1), and having decided to give your life in exchange for him (chapter 2), and having given permission for him to remove anything that separates you from him (chapter 3), it is time for you to face the question of how you apprehend Someone who is not available to you through your five sensory organs. Tozer titled this chapter "Apprehending God," but our question is "How?" It is a chapter about faith and reality — a faith that works equally well in the reality of the material and immaterial worlds, and particularly a faith that brings you face to face with a God who is more real than anything you can see.
We want to explore the simple mystery by which a little child is able to block out all of the internal and external noises begging her not to jump, and obey the quiet voice of her daddy and jump into his arms. Her ultimate act of trust was not accomplished without doubt or fear. In fact, her leap of faith is clearly done in spite of them. Were her decision based on reason alone, she would most likely conclude that it is not a sane thing for a little girl to do. After all, who would take care of her dollies, instruct her younger sister in the ways of the world, and protect the dog from the cruel teasing of her older brother if she had died? Yet she jumped, tentatively to be sure, but she jumped. And after she pushed through her doubts and fears, she couldn't wait to exercise her new-forged confidence and do it again.
This chapter brings you to the edge of a decision. Your choice is clear: either stay on the firm, familiar ground that you've come to trust through your senses, or jump toward the invisible God who really is waiting for you with open arms. As you begin to exercise those muscles of faith, you will strengthen your spiritual sensory organs and increase your ability to experience God in a way more tangible than anything in this world.
Seeing and Observing/Hearing and Listening
Quoting Canon Holmes, of India, Tozer writes, "To most people God is an inference, not a reality." That is, they come to know him through some second-hand means. Perhaps they have heard about him from others, or have deduced him from evidence, or consider his name as a euphemism for some lofty concept or ideal, such as beauty or truth. With prophetic insight, Tozer anticipates our many "new age philosophers" that religiously worship the impersonal gods of manmade creation. But one cannot have a meaningful relationship with an impersonal 'it,' no matter how much anthropomorphic make-up we apply. It requires a person and another person for there to be a personal relationship.
But even more troubling to Tozer is that Christians, who certainly ought to know better, are also guilty of worshipping an impersonal God. He says, ". . . for millions of Christians, nevertheless, God is no more real than he is to the non-Christian. They go through life trying to love an ideal and be loyal to a mere principal." In fact, people preparing for the professional ministry are frequently lured away by just such a temptation. I have personally witnessed people entering seminary with a strong, vibrant, and warm love of Christ, only to come out more in love with their carefully engineered philosophical and theological models of Christ. It is supremely tragic to witness Christians and their leaders being teased away from the rich manifest Presence by some poor counterfeit model of that Presence. From a distance they may look the same, but up close they are as different as a living, breathing person is next to a museum wax figure that has no life, no warmth, and offers no relationship.
To quote another Holmes, referring this time to the mythical character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's imagination, Sherlock Holmes, "Elementary my dear Watson, you see, but you do not observe." Or as our Lord states, using another sensory organ, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear." That is, our physical hearing is fine when it comes to knowledge concerning the nature and attributes of the Almighty, but we are not spiritually receptive, not actively listening for the voice of the Shepherd of our soul.
By way of illustration, every second you are being bombarded by a multitude of radio and television waves. All manner of frequencies, channels, and signals are being beamed your way. But, you can't feel them, you can't see them, and you can't hear them, even though they are all around you. How then, if you can't feel, see, or hear them, do you know that they exist? Simple. Just turn on your radio or television set. We "prove" the existence of those waves of high frequency energy by possessing a corresponding receiver, and by having it tuned to the proper frequency. That is, what seems to be nonexistent to our naked senses, becomes very real if we have the capacity to receive the signal and the willingness to tune it in. In similar fashion, we are able to "pick up" the presence of God by means of faith — the God-given capacity to receive him and tune in to his love for us.
"The Bible assumes as a self-evident fact that men can know God with at least the same degree of immediacy as they know any another person or thing that comes within the field of their experience. The same terms are used to express the knowledge of God as are used to express knowledge of physical things. 'O taste and see that the Lord is good' (Psalm 34:8), emphasis added). 'All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces' (Psalm 45:8, emphasis added). 'My sheep hear my voice' (John 10:27, emphasis added). 'Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God' (Matthew 5:8, emphasis added)."
When God redeemed us, he quickened our spiritual nature, bringing it to life. What we were once incapable of receiving due to a spirit that was dead in trespasses and sin, we are now freely able to pick up on. So that, just as we apprehend the physical world by means of our five natural senses, we are also able to apprehend the spiritual world by means of our supernatural senses. God has re-created our hearts in such a way that they can function as a spiritual receiver with the capacity to apprehend the reality of the divine realm. Now we are both able to see creation with the eyes of our body as well as observe the Creator with the eyes of faith, able to hear the sounds of life with the ears of our body as well as listen to the voice of the Father of life.
Practicing the Presence of Christ
Exactly how do we "turn on" our receivers and "tune in" to God? The answer is what the ancients, and specifically Brother Lawrence, referred to as "practicing the presence of Christ." That is, developing a conscious and habitual communion with the person of Christ in such a way that we slowly drop the habit of merely talking to him and slowly embrace the habit of being with him. Over time our relationship with him begins to take on the dynamic language of intimacy: we share a meal at a table for just two, we exchange glances and secret expressions of love, we return each embrace with one of our own, we dance the night away in each others' arms, we take turns playing the roles of pursuer and pursued, for we both love to find the other and to be found by the other.
I'm convinced that it is possible to practice the presence of God in all facets of life, even in the most routine and mundane moments. Once our spiritual sense organs begin to function in a robust manner, everything we encounter becomes spiritual. No longer is there a sacred-secular dichotomy. Christ is present with us when we pull an all-nighter preparing for an important presentation, or when we clean our kitchen floors for the third time that day, or when we cool down from our physical workout, or when we throw our graduation caps in the air, or when we cut our wedding cake, or when we cut the umbilical chord in the delivery room, or when we pace the floor through a sleepless night, or when we grimace at the number of grey hairs going down the shower drain, or when we exhale our final breath. The merely secular becomes the profoundly spiritual when the focus of our heart becomes essentially eternal. Tozer sums it up nicely, "A spiritual kingdom lies all about us, enclosing us, embracing us, altogether within reach of our inner selves, waiting for us to recognize it. God Himself is here waiting for our response to His presence."
He gets practical about practicing the presence of Christ when he says that, "This eternal world will come alive to us the moment we begin to reckon upon its reality." But first he wants us to understand what he means by reckon and reality. He begins with the word reality. Reality as Tozer defines it is "that which has existence apart from any idea any mind may have of it, and which would exist if there were no mind anywhere to entertain a thought of it. That which is real has being in itself. It does not depend upon the observer for its validity."
It is obvious that in this day and age, that definition has become the minority view. We can observe the denial of objective reality in the Pantheistic foundations of Buddhism, or in the philosophical underpinnings of the Enlightenment, or in the various New Age pseudo-religions, as well as in the current postmodern trends. It no longer elicits a raised eyebrow when someone declares that something is real only as it exists in the mind of someone. Having removed all the absolute points in the universe, the relativists are free to arbitrarily pick any point from which to start, and from which the relative truth of anything can be determined.
And what do these relativists think of us Christians? Tozer describes them as those who, ". . . smile down upon us from their lofty intellectual peaks and settle us to their own satisfaction by fastening upon us the reproachful term 'absolutist.'" By that term they mean to convey contempt toward our naïve commitment to something that doesn't change. They loathe our prehistoric view that truth claims must be either right or wrong. But the ultimate insult for them is not just that we believe that something is absolute, but that we believe that Someone is absolute — that God is the unchanging center of all that is real and from which everything and everyone derives meaning and reality.
Ultimately for the Christian, all things that we see are anchored in the unchanging character and nature of God. He is not relative to us (i.e., open to being defined any way we choose), and he is not a relativist (i.e., arbitrarily defining his universe anyway he chooses). That which God is, he is absolutely. He is absolutely good. He is absolutely beautiful. He is absolutely holy. And therefore, what God created is absolutely defined by him. That is, because he is absolutely good, that which he creates derives its goodness from him. And because he is absolutely beautiful, that which he creates derives its beauty from him. And because he is absolutely holy, that which he creates must derive its standard of right and wrong behavior from him.
In fact, the absolute nature of reality is so deeply built into the universe that no one can consistently live without acknowledging it. To hold a view which says, "What is true for you is not true for me" may sound appealing in the abstract, but when your banker tells you that your checking account is overdrawn by thirty thousand dollars, try convincing her that, "That's true for you but not for me." The patent absurdity of the view becomes obvious to all. The God of the universe does not change and therefore has ordered reality in such a way that no one can escape its gravitational pull. Therefore, in God's world we find that every heart seeking to worship him does not begin by creating the object of its worship. Rather God begins by creating us as objects of his affection and then seeks us out and bids us come and worship him. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the present past and present future of this moment. And only when we submit to that reality do we discover the truth concerning ourselves, our world, and him.
After nailing down the meaning of reality, Tozer proceeds to define the word reckon. The word comes from the field of accounting and means to "regard something as true." Having laid a foundation that sees reality as absolute, you are ready to begin ordering your behavior around that reality. In Romans 6, the Apostle Paul uses the word reckon in telling every Christian to, " . . . reckon yourself to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus." That is, you begin to order your mind around the fact that you are no longer held captive by sin, but are now free to pursue God and his righteousness. The act of reckoning is totally independent of how you feel, or what your immediate or past circumstances tell you, or what you hope will become true for you if you just act. Thus we see that its meaning is light-years away from the notion of pretending as if something were true so that you can make it true for you. Rather, it is intentionally embracing a truth that you know to be actually true. Reckoning is related to faith in that faith creates nothing; it simply reckons upon that which is already there.
The Parable of the Married Bachelor
"Our trouble," says Tozer, "is that we have established bad thought habits. We habitually think of the visible world as real and doubt the reality of any other world." Later, he writes that, "The visible becomes the enemy of the invisible, the temporal, of the eternal." He concludes that the fundamental problem is "our uncorrected thinking, influenced by the blindness of our natural hearts and the intrusive ubiquity of visible things." We have erected an imaginary wall between the spiritual world and the real world. So that what we perceive as being real has nothing to do with what we consider spiritual, and what we believe to be spiritual has nothing to do with the world of reality. Thus the world of faith becomes nothing more than an irrational and unrealistic leap into the unknown while the world of verifiable facts is irrelevant to faith. In fact, no such wall exists. Rather the opposite is true. The world of the spirit is far more "real" than the world of the physical, which is not always what it seems. The Bible tells us that, ". . . the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18). Our minds have again been polluted with relativism so that we falsely assume that if we want something to be spiritually true, such as being dead to sin, we must imagine it is true and hope that it actually becomes true.
But you may ask, "If my spiritual blindness has been removed at the moment of regeneration, why then can't I immediately apprehend God with the eyes of my new heart?" Scripture answers by teaching that even though you have been freed from the captivity by sin, you have not yet been freed from your capacity for sin. That is, while the penalty for sin has been paid, and you are no longer a slave who is unable to break free from its domination, you still retain the capacity to sin if you choose to do so. Only now that you're a Christian, it is totally inconsistent with the person you have become in Christ. Your power to choose is at the core of your God-given design, reflective of his image, and is therefore still operational. And while that power is now free to pursue God, it still has the option of being employed by the old self to sin.
To illustrate the point, consider this parable: Once upon a time there was a bachelor who lived a commitment-free lifestyle, never building any lasting relationships, preferring instead to aimlessly roam from one female to another in an endless search for selfish pleasure. One day, exhausted by the emptiness, he found a woman like none other and decided to settle down in marriage. They exchanged vows before family, friends, and God, symbolized with rings. One night during the honeymoon, the new bridegroom decided to "take a night off" from his wife and hit the singles bars in search of someone willing to share their affections. Not wanting to be a hypocrite, he took off his wedding ring and placed it on the nightstand. As he left for the evening, he silently convinced himself that by removing the ring he was once again a bachelor, free to return to his former habits as a single man.
The next day, upon his return his worried wife asked where he had been. He told her the truth, explaining that his bizarre behavior was permissible since he had taken the time to remove his wedding ring. He said that a man wearing a wedding ring should act like a married man, but a man without a wedding ring has every right to act as a single man. After all, for years he had worn no ring and developed certain culturally acceptable habits characteristic of a single man. And anyway, don't old habits die hard?
His wife folds her arms, taps her left foot, and takes a deep breath before informing him that his old habits had better die immediately or she would pawn that ring and take a singles cruise to Bermuda with her girlfriends. He's stunned. Why in the world can't she understand that if the ring made him married, the removal of the ring should make him single again? Where did he go wrong?
The answer is obvious, is it not? Wearing or not wearing a ring is not the issue. The issue involves a vow of commitment; the ring is only a symbol of that commitment. Therefore when he said, "I do," that vow transformed him into a different person, and everyone, especially his new bride, expected him to act like the new person he has become. Therefore, how he feels in a given moment, or what lifestyle habits he finds difficult to control, or whether or not he wore a ring is completely irrelevant. The only way forward for our "married bachelor" is for him to begin to reckon himself dead to bachelorhood and alive to marriage. Then based on that reckoning, he must consistently live in that truth and live out that truth.
Upon becoming a Christian you have undergone a total transformation into a new creation. That means that, ". . . the old things have passed away, behold, new things have come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). But before you can begin acting like the new creation you are, you must first change your mental picture to correspond to your new identity. You must reckon that which is true, to actually be true. You must begin seeing yourself as a beloved child of a Holy Father, as one who is dead to sin and alive to God.
But, unlike the bachelor in the parable, you can count on more than just your own disciplined efforts, for there is another power in you that is greater than personal willpower. It is the power of the Holy Spirit, who has taken up residence within you and who is able to supernaturally strengthen your confidence in your new identity. Paul indicates as much when he write, "For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption . . . the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God" (Romans 8:15-16). Having first reckoned yourself alive to God and dead to sin, you can begin living out that truth in the power of the Spirit.
Walking in the Power of the Spirit
So, let's connect the two: your power to choose and the Spirit's power to change. Your will (power to reckon) can be connected to the Spirit's will (power to strengthen). And as you improve your skill of reckoning upon God's truth, you will begin to see the life of Christ being re-formed in your behavior. Thus you learn to walk in the Spirit. The first foot relies on the truth of the Spirit and the second foot relies on the power of the Spirit. To you Paul says, " . . . for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).
Obviously this way of walking isn't developed overnight is it? It's only accomplished by making wise choices over an extended period of time. That includes your choices of avoidance: carefully monitoring the things you see or hear, staying away from environments that trigger old habits, and withdrawing from relationships that tempt you back into sin. You must constantly be on guard against the world's efforts to derail your spiritual progress. As Tozer writes,
"The world intrudes upon our attention day and night for the whole of our lifetime. It is clamorous, insistent, and self-demonstrating. It does not appeal to our faith; it is here, assaulting our five senses, demanding to be accepted as real and final. But sin has so clouded the lenses of our hearts that we cannot see that other reality, the City of God, shining around us. The world of sense triumphs. The visible becomes the enemy of the invisible, the temporal, of the eternal. That is the curse inherited by every member of Adam's tragic race."
And it also includes your choices of engagement: making it a point to watch and listen to that which is pleasing to the Spirit, spending time in environments that nourish your soul, and developing healthy relationships with other brothers and sisters in Christ. Each of those small choices will eventually have a cumulative effect. As Tozer says,
"As we begin to focus upon God, the things of the Spirit will take shape before our inner eyes. Obedience to the word of Christ will bring an inward revelation of the Godhead (John 14:21-23). It will give acute perception enabling us to see God even as is promised to the pure in heart. A new God-consciousness will seize upon us and we shall begin to taste and hear inwardly feel the God who is our life and our all."
Tozer says that, "Every man must choose his world." At the end of the day each of you must choose which world you want to live in. You either choose to embrace and treasure those things that the world declares important, or you choose to embrace and treasure those things that the Word declares important. You cannot have it both ways. You must choose. And it is true that it takes a great deal of faith to choose the unseen over the seen, and the "not yet" over the "right now." But Tozer warns that, "We must avoid the common fault of pushing the other world into the future. It is not future but present. It parallels our familiar physical world, and the doors between the two worlds are open." As we practice the presence of Christ, we are increasingly able to turn the secular world we see into the spiritual world where the Kingdom of God actually spreads out into an invisible panorama that can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched by those who regard him to be their deepest treasure, their source of glory, and their greatest wonder. To the one who reckons it to be true, this treasure exists in the present tense; it is right in front of you, right now.
Mount Sinai and Mount Zion
Referring to Mount Sinai, the writer of Hebrews 12:18 tells us,
"You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them. For they could not bear the command, 'If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.' So terrible was the sight, that Moses said, 'I am trembling with fear.'"
That is a description of the majestic manifest presence of God. The Israelites were overwhelmed. They did not want God to speak directly to them and they did not want to speak directly with God. They preferred that Moses be the intermediary. But suddenly the author of Hebrews switches from speaking about a physical mountain to speaking about a spiritual mountain.
"But you have come to Mt. Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel."
Tozer asks, "May we not safely conclude that, as the realities of Mount Sinai were apprehended by the senses, so are the realities of Mount Zion are to be grasped by the soul?" The primary instrument God has given us for comprehending his celestial city is obedience — simple obedience. This is the secret by which the invisible becomes more visible to us. "More and more, as our faculties grow sharper and more sure, God will become to us the great All, and his presence the glory and wonder of our lives."
Go back and imagine that you are little Kristin, or Chris, or just a childlike Christian. You are standing at the edge of a major decision regarding your Heavenly Father — to jump or not to jump. Before you he waits, arms outstretched, gently inviting you to jump into his arms and the wonderful world of apprehending him. All around you swirl the dire warnings of this fallen world, pleading with you to do the sensible thing: stay on solid ground, don't jump. What will you choose? It doesn't take a lot of faith, just enough to take the first step. And when you do, it won't be long before you too turn and say to him, "Let's do it again, daddy!"
Let this prayer be your prayer of liberation.
"O God, quicken to life every power within me, that I may lay hold on eternal things. Open my eyes that I may see; give me acute spiritual perception; enable me to taste Thee and know Thou art good. Make heaven more real to me then any earthly thing has ever been. Amen."
Related Topics: Spiritual Formation