How can I feel closer to God?

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When considering this question, I’ll be honest, I have flashbacks to high school. Frustrating flashbacks. It seemed like everyone had their own way to feel closer to God, and I tried them. They were good things. Great things. The right things. I did the steps, I did the things. So why was I frustrated and confused, feeling like I was just following some sort of a set pattern rather than a growing relationship?

Looking back, I realize why I was so frustrated – my feelings change… my feelings are different from yours. And this is what makes a cookie cutter approach to this question so frustrating.

So, it’s important to remember that our feelings come from our hearts. If we’re going to answer our question truthfully, we must look at how the Bible addresses the content of our hearts. Interestingly enough the Bible doesn’t specifically address how I feel – it addresses:

  • What I need to understand about my heart:
    • The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it? Isaiah 17:9
  • That apart from Christ I can do nothing good:
    • I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5
  • How I should respond/act as a believer:
    • Set your mind on things above, not on things of this earth. Colossians 3:2
    • 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4: 4-8

We can gather several conclusions from these passages:

  1. My feelings, though real, flow out of a heart that is naturally deceptive. This means that my circumstances, frustrations, insecurities, fears, desires for anything, are going to influence how I feel… therefore, I must keep my heart focused on what I know is consistent and true even though the world shifts around me.
  2. My ability to do good and to be “good” are rooted in whether or not I’m abiding (finding my source of life, purpose, and truth in) Jesus Christ. We can therefore assume this also relates to our feelings. Apart from Christ, I’m going to struggle to “be okay” as we like to say.
  3. God calls me to respond and equips me to respond (through the Holy Spirit) in a way that reflects my allegiance to His kingdom and my new nature through Christ… Always.

Interestingly though, the Bible does not leave us with a to-do list or “5 Steps to Success” for how to feel closer to God. It DOES, however, spend an immense quantity of time describing God’s character to us. One of the places where we see feelings expressed AND God’s character on display is in the book of Psalms. As you read through verses Psalm 42 below, pay attention to the writer’s emotions and the way he chooses to respond. He has reasons for WHY he chooses a particular attitude despite the feelings he has about his circumstances. These are just a few selected verses, but if you have time to go read the whole Psalm, I would highly recommend you do so.

…When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul… Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you… I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me?… Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

Psalm 42

Quite often, we find ourselves feeling this way, even when we know we love God, and even though we’ve been pursuing our relationship with Him. When life gets difficult, and loneliness creeps in during those times, it’s important to look at passages like Psalm 42 to help us find encouragement and to refocus on what we know.

Here are some things we need to understand about God for this passage to make better sense to us. Because, I’ll be honest, until I understood these things about God’s character, this was just a nice passage. But this is a deep passage, full of feelings, and full of truth about the nearness of God.

  • He is good.
    • He didn’t withhold His own son from us, His enemies, when we needed saving:
      • For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Romans 5:10
    • The psalmist says:
      • You are good and you do good; teach me your statutes. Psalm 119:68
  • He is unchanging.
    • Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17
  • He is called The Rock.
    • What does this imply? Well, think of a rock. A rock symbolizes and is strength, stability, and security. When you find a rock that is all those things, it’s also a good place to rest. All of this is what the Bible means when it calls God our Rock.
  • He is called The Water.
    • When we look throughout the Bible we find multiple references referring to water. In Psalm 1, it is wise to plant oneself near the water. In the book of John, Jesus refers to himself as the Living Water. When a tree is planted by water there is growth. When a person rests by the water, drinks good water, there is satisfaction, refreshment, and health. By drinking of the Living Water, the founts of God, we are filling ourselves with the goodness of God, relying on him for life, and satisfying our souls with Him.

Notice the references to water and thirsting in verses 1,2 and 7, 8.
The author of this Psalm says he pants for the water like a tired deer pants for streams of water, (vs 1,2) and that

“Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”

Psalm 42:7-8

Remember what we just talked about with the Water reference? This is a waterfall of goodness, waves of goodness.

The writer’s soul is “cast down” – clearly, he’s in a rough patch. Look back at vs 3, “My tears have been my food day and night…” he’s been crying and people are mocking his belief in God and doubting God’s power. In vs 9, he asks God why He has forgotten him! He’s not feeling close to God at all.

BUT he remembers WHO God is. He reflects on his circumstances, which are pretty tough, and yet takes time in the midst of it all to focus (like in Philippians 4) on what is good – God – and what is true: God’s character and His love.

Remembering WHO God is, even in the midst of these circumstances, gives him hope.

Later in the New Testament, we hear these ideas of closeness expressed in terms of “knowing,” “keeping,” and “abiding.”

  • 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  John 15:10-12
  • Draw near to God and He will draw near to you… James 4:8
  • Abide in me… John 15:5

God calls us to remain close to him: when we stay in his word, we develop and cultivate the type of relational “closeness” we long to feel, just like the writer did.

What can we conclude based on what Scripture says about our hearts/feelings, the character of God, and in light of the original author’s situation/testimony?

  • My feelings and my circumstances do not change the character of God.
  • So regardless of how I feel, God’s character and closeness are consistent.
  • It’s not that He is far away; it’s that I’m out of focus.
  • My focus is trained and developed by abiding in and knowing Jesus.
  • God’s character gives us confidence in our relationship with him, regardless of how we feel in the moment of our particular circumstances.

Practical application points:

  • Focus on God’s character through staying in the Word.
  • Focus on cultivating a thankful heart that sees and praises him for who He is and what He is doing – spend time in prayer.
  • Remember that your circumstances and feelings don’t determine what is true, so practice speaking the truth of God’s heart (the Bible) to yourself.

My prayer for you, dear reader, is that as you abide in God’s word and learn to know His heart, that you will find confidence and peace by resting in the unchanging character of our Rock and drinking deep of His good, life-giving Water.

If you are His, He is always near.

Be still long enough to rest, enough to drink, enough to see.