by Jim Auer
At many junctures in our life, God can seem far away. We may wonder where God is in time of tragedy. We strain to hear God’s voice when we’re looking for direction in our lives. We feel distant from God if it’s been a long time since we’ve had an uplifting prayer experience. Or sometimes we feel alienated simply because of the limitations of being in an intimate relationship with Someone we cannot encounter in our usual human ways.
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” St. Augustine so wisely said.
We all have a spiritual hunger. And we search for fullness in different ways. Some ways seem more likely to succeed; some are blind alleys. But St. Augustine was still right: In the end, it’s intimacy with God that we’re looking for.
Working Your Way Through
Centuries of testimony from holy women and men show that the path to intimacy with God is, in many ways, unique for each person. Not that we are utterly alone. We can and do learn from the wisdom and experience of others. And most of us have (or can find if we wish) the companionship of others making the same journey.
Nevertheless, there is a room in the mansion of our Self, so to speak, where we approach God one-on-one. The following ideas may help you to find that room and enter it with trusting love.
Check your standards of measurement.
It’s easy to be discouraged about growing closer to God when you don’t feel particularly close to God—perhaps even after a number of years of trying. Feelings are wonderful things, but they’re not infallible indicators of your spiritual condition.
What are you using to measure your distance from God? A lack of visions or other extraordinary experiences? The absence of a warm, golden glow each time you attend a religious service? If you’re looking for such things and not finding them, you may feel that your relationship with God is at a low point—and that may not be the case at all.
In the short film Packy, God talks with Packy Rowe, a gruff, good-hearted man who has died thinking he didn’t amount to much spiritually. God tells him otherwise. “You spread me around like butter,” God says. “You might have been happier with yourself if you had known how very happy I was with you.”
If you care enough about God to be reading this at all, chances are you’re a person like Packy—someone who has done more good and is closer to God than you realize or feel at the moment.
Be patient. We grow up in a culture of instant credit and instant mashed potatoes. It’s easy to expect our relationship with God to follow the same script. It won’t.
Even stories of holy people can be misleading. Seemingly, after an initial period of searching, these people simply floated through their lives in a nonstop buddy-buddy relationship with God. The stories may underemphasize the years of confusion, of discouragement, of wanting and trying to be closer to God and apparently not succeeding—the same feelings you may have at times.
It’s also easy to think that closeness to God means having a total distaste for sin, being above and beyond attraction to anything wrong. But the two do not necessarily go together. Some saints reported having vicious temptations, even sexual temptations, actually during prayer! Does that mean they were not on the path to God at the time? Obviously not.
Remember, too, that holiness is not all black-and-white. People striving toward holiness still have to deal with a lot of “gray”—situations that seem to be a far cry from purity, piety, and perfection. I need to remind myself of this every Sunday morning when I come home from an inspirational worship service to face the real world of messiness and loudness and normal family chaos.
“Be patient, therefore, my brothers, until the coming of the Lord,” James tells us in his epistle. “See how the farmer awaits the precious yield of the soil. He looks forward to it patiently while the soil receives the winter and the spring rains.”
During winter rains especially, the soil doesn’t look very promising. If the soil of your relation- ship with God looks like a muddy field during a winter rain, be a farmer. Be patient. Trust.
Develop your own spiritual style.
This is not arrogance; this is an affirmation of your uniqueness—a uniqueness God so fell in love with that God created you. It makes no sense to honor your uniqueness in other areas but disregard it when developing a relationship with God. “Be yourself” applies to cultivating friendship with God, too.
Human beings love to find “systems.” People look for (and often think they’ve found) fool- proof systems for increasing sales, developing a positive mental attitude, betting on horse races, maintaining a beautiful lawn, conditioning the body. You name it, and someone will proclaim (and often sell) a system for doing it flawlessly.
It’s tempting to think there must be a system for coming close to God. It’s especially tempting when we hear or read of a “way” which “worked” for someone else, especially someone very holy.
But the same practices which brought St. Francis close to God might drive you up a spiritual wall and away from God. The same type of meditation which ignites a spiritual bonfire in someone else’s heart may leave yours rather cold.
So read, listen, learn, search, explore. Give new ideas or practices a fair chance; don’t discard them simply because they’re difficult. But remember that you may need to adapt them; God made you you, not someone else.
As you change, you may find yourself outgrowing some of the prayers and practices that formerly were very important—or returning to some that you had put aside long ago. That’s all right too. God also made you a uniquely changing, growing person—not a stationary lump to be shaped by applying the same systematic motions year after year.
Share everything with God.
The key to developing intimacy is increasing self-revelation— sharing more and more and finally all of oneself. Relationship with God is no exception.
In your time and your conversations with God, hold nothing of yourself back. Share the trivial and the mundane of your life along with the major and the momentous. Exult with God over your triumphs, large and small. But include your failures, too—even (perhaps especially) those things which bring a sense of shame and regret.
Can you remember back to your adolescent years…maybe to a time when you first saw a certain attractive person, perhaps in the corridor between classes or at a mixer after a football game? For a few moments, you blocked out nearly everything else. Maybe you even dropped what you were carrying or bumped into people around you.
A sensation best described with fumbling words like “Oh, wow!” overcame you, followed by a silent but strong desire: “I would love to have a relationship with that person!” It made no difference at the time whether or not that other person was even aware of your presence.
That’s how God feels about you. True, God is not an adolescent. God doesn’t drop things or bump into people. God is infinitely more mature. And that makes it even better. Take the intensity of that moment, multiply it trillions of times, add an infinite amount of divine maturity, wisdom, and true love, not just attraction…and you have a picture of how God feels about you—right now.
The fact that you’ve even bothered to read this CareNote shows that you want to come closer to God. God wants that closeness infinitely more than you do. Since God feels that intensely, you can indeed take heart and hope—know—that a closer relationship with God will happen just as swiftly as you are ready for it. Moreover, you are not alone in the task of making yourself ready. God will freely give help for the asking.
By wanting to feel closer to God, you already are!