I stood by the Light Rail tracks waiting for my train into downtown Denver, wondering if I still believed in God. I remember the sound of the Pentecostal preacher’s voice crackling through my earbuds as my train pulled up and I boarded. He was giving a message on why it’s important to ‘win souls’, as he put it. I wondered why any of it mattered.
I was a handful of months out of my first YWAM trip around the world. When sharing my story, I typically tell people that trip is the reason I’m a Christian today. Because of what I saw God do. But this winter day nearly a year afterward, I was wondering if there even was a God. And if there was, why would he care about us? About me?
I lived in this place for months, wrestling.
It wasn’t until I left Colorado and went through two of the worst months of my life in Boston that something shifted. I was backpacking from Boston to New York City, and found myself in a tiny mountain town in Connecticut, sleeping in a stranger’s guest bedroom. He and his girlfriend were gone for the night, so he lent me his bike to explore the pit of a town. I saw an abandoned convent and religious amusement park, saw three white cops beating a black guy, and when I returned to his apartment, accidentally watched the most disturbing film I’d ever seen. After, I staggered back to the guest bedroom in the quiet apartment, began reading a new book I had just bought on my journey, and met God.
It’s not something I can explain or even fully understand.
That night I experienced the intersection of so many loose cords I had been tripping over for months. The Lord spoke to me with some language deeper than words. The only way I knew how to respond was to put in my earbuds and play the most spiritual music I could find on my iPod. And that night, in the middle of nowhere, Connecticut, I worshipped for the first time.
I had always sung the words on the church screen and prayed the proper words when the time was right. But I don’t think I had ever worshipped from my heart until that night.
You might say I had never felt God before.
I went on from there to Pennsylvania to NYC to Nigeria. After the night in Connecticut, it was as if a light switch had been turned on for the first time in my life. The remainder of the trip was perpetually riddled with Spirit-driven conversation and me sharing my faith, as well as things the Lord had been teaching me throughout that season. People cried when we prayed together. God moved.
Today I was bathing in Chicago when something hit me. More lines intersected.
It starts with Genesis 32 where, like I was, Jacob is wandering around looking for some unknown utopia. He is attacked by a nameless man and they wrestle all night long. The man saw that he was overpowered by Jacob, so he touched his hip so that it was wrenched. After some spotty dialogue, Jacob wrests a blessing from the man. The man changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means he struggles with God.
I often point to this text as an image of the Christian life. As we approach the Almighty God, there is struggle. There is difficulty in letting go of the things of this world. Of the things our flesh desire. There is pain in transformation into the image of a Holy God. These are the things I had always seen in this passage.
But tonight as I washed myself, I understood something I had been missing.
Now, my soteriology is anything but solidified, but I’d argue that most people in our generation long to wrestle with God; to feel His flesh against ours as we struggle against His strength, whether they admit it or not. Tendon against tendon and muscle and bone. The reality is, most of us wrestle with ghosts while longing for a visible, tangible god. The secular age has raised a society of humans declaring themselves enemies of an absent god. As I stood on the train tracks outside Denver, I would have killed for God to come to me, that I may wrestle Him and try my strength against His.
But I, like most humans on the planet, was left with silence.
As he traveled on his path, Jacob was encountered by God in the most unlikely place. This is why I resonate with His story so much. He is the homeless wanderer, seeking God in the unknown and unscheduled wild. In all of his years of wandering, it is not he who stumbles upon God, but God who comes to him. The encounter so moved Jacob that he named that place Peniel, which means face of God, “because I saw God face to face,” he says. When he least expected it, God came to Jacob and allowed him to struggle against Him; to test the merit of His sinews.
Our struggle is more often finding a God to wrestle with.
In a culture where only the visible is consequential and the immediate is contemplated, it is very hard to connect with an invisible God. As I said in the previous posts, distraction is a central factor in our feeling distant from God. We have a trillion bits of media and advertisement vying for our attention, making it exponentially more difficult to reach out and touch God. So we choose instead to settle for the hollow and empty cavern of secular religiosity. It fulfills our dues to the god who needs our attention, and allows us to go on calling ourselves Christians.
However, what God wants from us could not look more opposite. In 1 Chronicles 17, God says He does not want a temple to be constructed because He prefers to move with and be with His people. In Matthew 22, Jesus states that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
He wants relationship with His people.
He loves us deeply.
And sometimes, intimacy means you wrestle with the one you love. It may look like sitting in silence, beholding the beauty of the Lord, or it may look like yelling at a God who is more often silent than present. Whatever the emotion is, do not bar it from your relationship with the Lord. He is big enough to take it. He can handle your humanity, fraught with anger and fear.
I want to go on for another 18 pages about being loved by God, but I’ll wrap up with a word from Rich Mullins that has helped me over the years: (Or watch him say it in his poetic discourse here)
I’m always being asked by people, ‘how do you feel closer to God?’ And I always want to say, ‘I don’t know.’ When I read the lives of most of the great saints, they didn’t necessarily feel very close to God. When I read the Psalms, I get the feeling that David and the other psalmists felt quite far away from God for most of the time. Closeness to God is not about feelings; closeness to God is about obedience. . .I don’t know how you feel close to God. And no one I know that seems to be close to God knows anything about those feelings either. I know if we obey, occasionally the feeling follows. Not always. I know if we disobey, we don’t have a shot at it.
Continue reaching for the invisible God.
Yell, if necessary.