I can remember my initial awakenings to God like they were yesterday. Born and raised in a Christian home, I lived most of my life with a general awareness of God. I would even say that I had a relationship with God. I believed in and trusted in Jesus. But there comes a time in your life when God “breaks through” in a way that marks you forever, when God makes himself not just intellectually or theoretically real to you, but, well, really real—in a way that leaves no doubt.
That moment for me happened when I was a junior in high school. In the midst of a season full of doubts and questions and a great deal of spiritual hunger, I found God. Or better, God found me. Or even better yet, I found myself found by God.
However you describe it (words are pretty limiting sometimes), what I can say for sure is that one morning before school, in my devotions, God crashed in, and I knew him to be the God the Bible speaks of when one of Jesus’ best friends, John, writes that “God is love.”[i]
It was an experience unlike any I had had up to that point, and it totally altered my way of seeing the world. Suddenly, every conversation, every interaction, every experience of corporate worship, every private devotion was for me a profound encounter with the living God. I saw him everywhere, in everything, effortlessly. For months.
And then just like that, as suddenly as it came, the lights went out. God vanished.
Or, that’s how I felt. Whatever the case, this divine vanishing act caught me completely off guard. Much of my upbringing had conditioned me to think that the “awakening” I had experienced months earlier was the beginning of a process that would take me—to use the words of Paul—from one experiential “degree of glory” to the next[ii] until I died or the Lord Jesus himself returned. In my tradition, as in many, the experiential dimension of faith was prized. If your faith is working right—so we thought—you will experience more of God’s presence, have more and greater revelation, and will know more and deeper dimensions of intimacy with God. An unbroken, upward, experiential spiritual ascent. What else could “glory to glory” possibly mean? We simply had no language for making sense of experiences of God’s seeming absence. When you no longer see the Artist in his works, when you no longer hear the Singer in the song, when you no longer sense the Lover in the love, what then? What do you do when all consolation has evaporated, and your soul and senses are barren, arid, and dry? Where is the God that you have come to know as Father (if anywhere) in that, and how do you make sense of it?
[i] 1 John 4:8.
[ii] This would obviously be a misapplication of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3:18, CEB.