…when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. Luke 15:20
Lord, You are my Father (and a consuming fire).
To draw near to You is to encounter the warmth of Your love, and the intense heat of Your wrath towards sin. I cannot draw near to You without retreating from sin in my heart. This is the delightful and deadly journey into Your presence, and any personal purity I experience is only a consequence of that journey… a continual casting away of the worthless and temporal in exchange for that timeless place before You.
It is an illusion and a lie to believe that intimacy with You is costly, when nothing compares to the unspeakable joy of being lost and found by my Father the King (who is also a consuming fire).
Thank you for rejoicing and running… towards me.
– a grateful son
One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple. ~ Psalm 27:4
If you could ask for one thing from God, what would it be? How long would you think about that question before submitting your request? Most of us have immediate needs… money for a car repair, or direction for a big decision, or relief from a broken marriage. Those are serious needs, but is that the one thing you want the most?
Let me reframe that question in a way that helps me: if there was one thing I could ask from God that would fulfill and satisfy my heart every day for the remainder of my life, what would it be?
Isn’t that the kind of thing you ask for when you can only ask for one thing?
In Psalm 27:4, David exposes the deepest longing of his heart when he writes, “One thing I have desired of the Lord.” There is something he wants from God… a single desire. He hasn’t said yet what it is, but to get the one thing it seems clear I must want just one thing.
But desire is not enough. He writes, “that will I seek.” Some people will go all their lives wanting God, but will never seriously seek God. David is different. He throws himself into the effort, seeking God by faith with determination and intentionality.
What is he seeking? To dwell in the presence of God “all the days of my life.” Every day. He does not want to merely “visit,” but David wants to live there… in His Presence.
What does he want to do? Two things…
(1) He wants to “behold” Him. He wants to see God, but not with his physical eyes. Walking into the deepest recesses of the Temple complex, David would have only seen the Ark of the Covenant with the eyes in his head, but with the eyes of his heart he knows he can gaze on the “beauty of the Lord.” No speaking is involved, just seeing… simple, childlike wonder at who He is… contentment in His love… deep satisfaction. David’s soul thirst becomes soul rest.
The apostle Paul later describes how the daily practice of “looking” at Jesus was changing him, even in the midst of destructive circumstances. He writes,
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
(2) In the presence of God, David also wants “to inquire.” David stands out from most of the men in his generation because he regularly asked God for direction. He understands that God is sovereign over all creation, and he wants to be personally subject to the rule of God. Throughout most of his life, he rarely made a move without consulting God. For example…
- 1 Samuel 23:1-3 David inquired of the LORD, saying…
- 1 Samuel 23:4-5, 10-11, 12-14 David inquired of the LORD once again.
- 1 Samuel 30:8-9 David inquired of the LORD, saying…
- 2 Samuel 2:1-2; 5:17-21 David inquired of the LORD, saying…
- 2 Samuel 5:22-25 23 David inquired of the LORD…
- 2 Samuel 21:1 …and David inquired of the LORD.
David’s one desire is to live his life within the confines of an intimate relationship with God.
He wants to know God…
He wants to please God in every decision… and
He shares his desire in order to influence the generations that would follow.
As college freshmen, a friend and I spent some evenings handing out booklets about Jesus. Walking up and down Guadalupe Street next to the University of Texas campus, the reactions we encountered ranged from genuine interest (rare) to open hostility (common). We were ignored. Called names. Threatened. Some self-designated “Satanists” even tried to hex us.
So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Luke 16:22-26
Carved into the side of the iconic UT Tower in Austin, John 8:32 is clearly visible. Every day hundreds of students pass by these words of Jesus: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” As a way of launching a conversation, we often posed the question, “Do you know what’s inscribed on the Tower and who said it?” Some said Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt. A few said Gandhi or Buddha. On discovering it was Jesus, most were surprised, and a few would stop and talk with us awhile.
As one guy exited a bar, clearly having had too much to drink, I walked with him for a few steps and gave him a booklet. As he staggered away, I said “Hey, do you know what will happen to you after you die?”
The man hollered back over his shoulder, “I haven’t planned on that yet. I’ll decide when the time comes.”
A few weeks earlier in the Jester Center cafeteria, I was washing dishes side-by-side with a Buddhist co-worker from Taiwan. When I mentioned the possibility of spending eternity in heaven, he said, “Eternity? That’s living forever and ever in heaven?”
“Yes! Heaven is a place where there is no more death, only life,” I replied.
“Sounds very boring to me,” he said flatly. Well, that was not what I expected to hear, but I realized later he was right. I had left Jesus out of my description of heaven! A heaven without Jesus would be boring.
Two conversations with two very different young men were causing me to think more deeply about my relationship with Jesus. My Buddhist buddy made me realize that it is the presence of God that makes heaven amazing. The guy out on Guadalupe Street assumed he could maintain his personal autonomy after death. As I thought about that, I realized he was right. You can do this life — and eternity — without Jesus. You can. But you’ll regret it. It is the absence of God that creates hell.
If I asked you to describe what life is like with someone who loves you, you would probably describe your relationship in terms of a series of experiences and effects. He makes me feel safe. She makes me laugh. He makes me happy. She makes me want to do my best. You can live without that person, but your life wouldn’t be the same.
When you have a relationship with Jesus, He impacts your life in the same way. He said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Knowing Him intimately and personally dramatically affects your life, and because the relationship is eternal, so is the quality of life Jesus described. A relationship with a friend or spouse may falter and fail, causing you to lose the life you enjoyed with that person. Not so with Jesus.
God is an infinite Being, perfect and measureless in all that He is. To have a relationship means that any experience with Him — the byproducts of being in communion with Him — will also be infinite. Infinite meaning… and joy… and completion… and satisfaction. It is impossible to enter into an open and intimate exchange with God, and not experience eternity as an endless succession of these things. This is heaven.But what if you do NOT have a relationship with Him? Instead of infinite intimacy with God, you are exposing yourself to the effects of an infinite “non-intimacy.” Your sense of loss and isolation will never be erased by His nearness. Your pain and sorrow will never be eliminated by His healing and comfort. Your sin and selfishness will never meet His grace and the transforming presence of His Holy Spirit. Your anger and resentment will never be melted away by the unceasing revelation of His justice and mercy.
Before you die, you can know something of the love and goodness of God that He has hardwired into creation, without having any connection to Him. But if you die like that — never entering into a relationship with Him by placing your faith in His Son — you will discover that those earthly hints of God’s presence are all gone. The god you served in life will be the only god you have in eternity… just you. The only resources available to you will be those you are able to provide for yourself, like a drifting soul in a limitless ocean with no relief in sight. This is hell.
The great gulf between heaven and hell is the eternal gap between experiencing or not experiencing an infinitely abundant relationship with God — the difference between life in His kingdom, and life within the boundaries of your own kingdom. Hell is a place of your choosing. A soul fortress composed of walls you construct… a place where you can call the shots… a kingdom with exactly one citizen, one companion, one preoccupation, and one sovereign: self.
Want to know more about how to have a relationship with God? Start here: How Jesus Changed My Life
“…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” ~ Hebrews 12:2-3
When your heart is dry, and life seems to hold little promise of joy, and your passion is burning low, what is happening and what can you do?
The causes of your spiritual and emotional malaise may be complex, but the effect is the same… your inner world becomes a mess. The entire vision of your soul is filled with the immediate demands of the latest wave of distress. You see no way forward. You can’t see beyond this moment. Darkness settles in.
Jesus faced the very worst circumstances and people. He was criticized and betrayed. He was attacked and falsely accused. He was insulted and threatened.
Yet, even in the moments before His death, He had a way of looking past the hurt and pain. The writer of Hebrews says it this way: “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” He preoccupied Himself with the joy that lay just ahead… a joy so great that it flooded his present existence with meaning. He kept on. Not out of duty or discipline, but from a controlling vision of reality — the truth about His life and identity and His relationship to the Father — that became a vast reservoir of hope in His soul.
What you “see” in your heart controls your inner thoughts and emotions. When the “eyes” of your heart are distracted from Jesus, you will “grow weary or fainthearted” within your soul (Heb. 12:3). That’s why the writer calls us to look to Jesus… to “consider Him.” The options are clear: look at everything but Jesus, and grow weary in soul, or look to Him only and gain a new vision.
He wants you to stop and turn to Him with your weary and overloaded life. He invites you to come now… with your very real and imperfect self (Matthew 11:28-29; Psalm 27:8). He is not a set of religious beliefs and practices; He is a Person. And knowing Him personally is the only way that any life gets real and dense with meaning (John 17:3).
Where can you see Him? Pick up a New Testament and read the historical accounts of those who walked with Him (found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Rediscover the language of His heart by reading His Words. Watch how He moved among people then… He has not changed. Hear His words and place yourself into the stories. Lose yourself at His feet. Allow Him to invade every moment of this day. Discover the reality of His presence with you and in you. Abandon yourself to His authority and mission. Yield to the gentle pressure of His Spirit. Then you’ll see.
Seeing Him changes everything.
Behold, I will do a new thing, Now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19
God does a “new thing” when He comes into our lives. We are cleansed and changed from within, immersed into His body (the church), and led into a life of mission and purpose.
How do I respond to or cooperate with His Presence?
As a young college student I attended Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin Texas, where I was befriended by a deacon. He was a big man, a single adult, and an African-American serving in a predominantly Anglo congregation.
He often drove by the campus to pick me up for church, peppering our conversation with valued advice and quotations that echo in my mind to this day. One of his favorites was “Donovan, if can do your best, why settle for less?” I took his words to heart.
However, I have found that pursuing God’s direction often involves mopping up problems as they surface, then moving forward again. God’s will is rarely experienced as a sequence of error-free decisions or attempts. I must stay sensitive to His voice.
Let me encourage you to pursue God’s will — experiencing the “new thing” of God’s mighty work in your life– but be very forgiving of yourself and those around you when failure rears its head. Create an environment where failures and mistakes are okay: they are simply part of the price paid for taking new ground!
Things happen. People change. God’s presence accomplishes something in our lives. For example:
- You will have a sense of awe (Revelation 1:17). John fell on his face in the presence of God.
- You will have a sense of His love (Ephesians 3:17-19). His love is not only a fact; it is also experiential and defies verbal description.
- You will have a crushing awareness of your own sinfulness (Isaiah 6:1-5). Like raising the lights in a darkened room, God’s holiness will highlight all the impurities in our lives.
- You will have a deep desire to confess your sin and make things right with others (Luke 3:8-14). Under John the Baptist’s anointed message of repentance, the people, tax collectors and the soldiers all asked, “What shall we do then?”
- You will begin to share His heart for a broken and lost world (Luke 9:36-38). If His heart is moved with compassion, how can ours beat in any other way?
In 2003 my wife and I made a run down to Yazoo City, Miss. for the funeral of her grandmother. A wonderful believer born in 1916, she lived her entire life in the hills just above the Delta cotton fields with a simple faith and an unconditional love for people.
Conducting her funeral in a little Methodist church near her home, I was reminded of something often lost to congregants of newer church buildings: the cemetery next door.
When the old timers built their churches they didn’t worry about parking or a premium location. They didn’t have a website with streaming audio of the most recent sermons. Nor did they have projected images for sermon outlines or song lyrics.
But the old timers who built their churches with the cemeteries next door lived with a stunning, weekly reminder that death was near and life was short. Each time they entered and exited the church building, the markers of the dead stood before them as silent messengers of a very real eternity awaiting all of us.
As I stood before family and friends and reminded them that “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54), I looked out and saw that cemetery. To emphasize Christ’s victory over death in the face of a constant reminder of death was a little easier there–with a cemetery next door.
You may not have a cemetery next door anymore, but the need for that weekly reminder remains–as much as ever.