Saturday, February 23, 2008

Coming into the Presence of God?

This is a case study of what I wrote yesterday about conservative / charismatic arguments.

What happens

One aspect of corporate worship which is very important to a lot of charismatics is spending quite a while singing and praising God, for example following John Wimber's pattern of call to worship, engagement, expression, visitation, giving. When done best, the "worship time" also often has prayers, silence and space for individual responses, as well as the opportunity to pray with others.

People find that when they do this, they often feel much closer to God, and are often challenged to live their lives for him to a greater extent, to the point where it can become the dominant element in what Christians do when they meet together.

How it is described

Because people feel much closer to God during this, it is often described in terms of us "coming into God's presence" or God "coming and visiting his people" or "the Holy Spirit coming".

Conservatives tend to hear these descriptions and point out that actually the person's status before God hasn't changed. Because they are often still reacting against medieval Catholicism, saying that performing certain actions gets us closer to God or God closer to us is completely anathema. And to an extent, they're right to say that (but it's worth noting Hebrews 10:15-25, which could plausibly be used in this debate but I've never seen used by either side. I don't think either Heb 10:22 or James 4:8 is talking about contemporary charismatic practice.) So from the conservative point of view, all that changes in such "worship times" is our feelings, not any reality, and hence there's no point to it.

Why it is actually a good thing

But that misses the point, and what is actually going on in "times of worship". Yes, sometimes there is manipulation of affections and induced ecstatic states and so on. But often there is something very important and valuable going on. I'm going to try to give a tentative account in more conservative language of what is going on.

It is good to spend time thinking about God and praising him. It is good to sing to him, and to sing to others about him. Yet our thoughts about God should not be dry and academic - if we think about God accurately, we should be excited about him and delighted in him. If we love God, we should love him, and that is not a merely emotional response, but neither is it less than an emotional response.

Music is a powerful way of thinking about God, because it uses more of us than just saying words does. Good songs should use our minds and our feelings, and our spirits. That means that if we sing about God or to God, we give more attention to him than we would do if we were just saying the same words, so it becomes easier to shut everything else out and focus on him. If we just sing one song then sit down, it is very easy to get distracted by the chairs or the person in front of us or something. So singing several songs in a row can be more helpful. In the same way, spending one minute studying the Bible is usually less helpful than spending 20 minutes, because our train of thought has more opportunity to think about what is being said.

So spending extended times singing about God can help us think about God more fully than having five songs split up by notices or sermons or whatever.

And it is good to prepare ourselves before studying the Bible, or before driving or swimming or anything else. So it makes sense to prepare ourselves before spending time thinking about God (call to worship). Id we are to praise God, it is good to be reminded and to remind each other of what God is like - that is the standard pattern in the Bible (engagement). On considering what God is like, the natural expression of that is to praise him (expression). And it is only to be expected if when praising God and aware of what he is like and his holiness yet nearness to us, we feel that nearness more consciously than when we are distracted by everything else around us.

To my mind it is a shame that those who spend time using extended times of music and prayer to contemplate and praise God do not describe the experience correctly, which leads others to avoid doing it altogether.


bcg said...

Like you, I am frequently annoyed by sloppy language, which I hear a lot of, and which on balance comes more from 'charismatics' than 'conservatives'. I don't know what I am, a 'conservamatic' perhaps, but here I want to defend the charismatic language a bit more.

Is a time of worship simply us being more aware of God's presence with us and love for us?

Because, in one sense God is present to me all the time. But in another sense he is not. When I am with other Christians, when I take Communion, God is somehow present to me through these people, through these physical realities.

God does not leave us to be 'super-spiritual' - we are physical beings, and he is present to us through physical things by the power of the Holy Spirit. This includes reading Scripture, but it also includes meeting and worshipping with other Christians.

'Conservatives... are often still reacting against medieval Catholicism, saying that performing certain actions gets us closer to God or God closer to us is completely anathema.'

My understanding of this is not quite what I hear you say there. What I think the Reformers said, is that those actions themselves do not bring us 'closer' to God, or give us any more grace. However, they never denied that God can and does use certain actions for the express purpose of 'drawing close' to us (for example, the two dominical sacraments, the command to praise, etc).

What the 'conservative' stereotype lacks is a developed theology of the sacraments, which is why they don't understand charismatic language about worship. (I don't think the charismatic stereotype understands sacraments either, but they undoubtedly, and rightly, use sacramental language when they talk about 'worship'.) They are guilty of one extreme, which is back-door gnosticism, focusing too much on 'spiritual' or 'transcendent' things, and failing to do any sort of justice to the incarnation, to God actually working in and using history, physical creatures and things, to reveal himself, to work out his purposes. There is an equal danger of the opposite extreme, which is where liberation theology falls down, which identifies God too closely with 'things', and forgets that he is also transcendent, and totally other.

The upshot of all this is that I think when we worship - like when we celebrate a baptism or the Lord's Supper - God actually does 'draw near' to us. It is not simply that we are aware of it more, but that God in his mercy uses our pathetic attempts at worship to pour out his Holy Spirit on us. That is not to say he doesn't at other times, but that in a special way when we come together - like the sacraments - God is present to us.

Daniel Hill said...

His name is `Wimber', by the way.

John said...

Dan - d'oh; thanks; corrected.

bcg - I agree that God is present in a different way in a gathering of Christians than in just an individual Christian with a worship CD.

I also agree that conservative evangelicalism often ends up as crypto-gnostic.

I think if we discuss what you mean by God actually "drawing near" is, we'd probably agree.

Unknown said...

Yet Custardy, perhaps the Charismatic language is not that Biblically incorrect regarding God being closer to them

What do you make of the Scriptures where God did appear to walk with Adam in the garden...

Times of refreshing where the Holy Spirit did move more intensely?

And the Scripture that says if we draw close to God he draws close to us?

RichardH said...

I think you are probably right about sloppy terminology here!

I have been mulling this over for a couple of days and am not sure what I want to say here because I have ended up with more questions than answers so far. Feel free to shoot me down - these are just some rambling thoughts...

What really is God’s presence?

What does the bible mean by presence in this context?

Can we truly be in God’s presence?

From what I can see the bible does seem to refer to God’s presence as a kind of authority of God (possibly judgement even), maybe a state of blessing and a sense of communion with God. The presence is often referred to in the same sentence as some form of sacrifice.

There also seems to me to be an implication that the presence in itself seems to have a personage (is this therefore referring to the Holy Spirit?) as distinct from the LORD here.

It is clear from scripture that people can be in the presence of the LORD and also expelled from the presence of the LORD, as there are many instances when people do things specifically in the presence and many places also where people are force to leave the presence.

So it probably isn’t wrong for us to use the words “enter into the presence of God”. However the bible seems to imply to be in the presence of God you need to be under authority and therefore I suppose also judgement (that’s the best way I can think of putting it). I suppose then that to be in this place to some degree must be an act of confession of your sins, and acceptance of God’s forgiveness and there to have been an act of sacrifice (in our case through Jesus death).

Music (which I think is what you are referring to as worship here) can help to (as many other "acts" do) enable us to recognise our sin, our need to confess, our need for Jesus death and forgiveness.

Worship (in whatever form) also naturally comes from our hearts when we then come into a right relationship with God because it is a "love song" to Him for what he has done for us. In songs and hymns of praise we can allow ourselves more freely to express this than we can in normal language because maybe we are less inhibited by what others may think (especially if they are singing too!) and also because our minds can be more focused on God as the music may guide us.

The consequence of this is during a time of true worship we often become more in love with God, for what he has done for us, and therefore we feel closer to the thing we were created to do - live in communion with Him.

Surely we should strive for this even if we don’t want to strive for a state of sweaty exuberance which often comes at the same time if we get excited about something?

Music should be seen as a tool to enable us to worship. It should obviously be used with caution just as everything else should. How we use it should be judged against its fruits just as expository preaching should be judged in the same way. Yes let’s be "self controlled" as the bible calls us to be but let’s not be controlled by a self imposed straight jacket - lets be controlled by what God wants our lives to be like, full of enthusiasm and excitement for what he has done for us and let’s praise Him at all times in all places especially when we are gathering with others for this purpose!

John said...

Yes (and this might be correcting what I've already written as well as clarifying) - I think that there is such a thing as coming into the presence of God, and as drawing near to God, and as him drawing near to us.

But I don't think feelings are a reliable guide to any of that. It's quite possible for someone with huge mounds of unconfessed and unrepented-of sin or even a non-Christian to go to a charismatic service and feel close to God. That doesn't mean they are.

bcg said...

I would agree - feelings are not really a reliable guide to anything on their own.

But equally, feelings are not a totally unreliable guide to anything.

ClergyMum-to-Be said...

Custard I am sure you know this but the Hebrew word for 'worship' literally means 'to come close in order to kiss'. It's be an empty kiss that had no feelings of love behind it!

When you are married you are married all the time. However there are times of special initimacy; of coming near to kiss, if you like, which both symbolise that marriage and bring it into being afresh (an effective sign, if you like). Your status as a married person is the same in or out of bed; your inimacy with your spouse isn't.

Isn't this the crux of it?

John said...

I've heard it wisely said that sex is the covenant seal of marriage in the same way that communion is the covenant seal of Christianity.

I think on the marriage analogy, "worship times" (in the charismatic sense) would be more like time spent complimenting and listening to the other person. More like a relational chat that a kiss...