Our desire is to know God and to be known by God, to love God and to be loved by God. We long for intimacy. We were made for intimacy. But the pursuit of intimacy has often led people into unbiblical and dangerous waters and the possibility of drowning in a sea of subjectivity is very real. What are the dangers in pursuing intimacy with God? And how can we avoid them? I have identified seven mistakes in the pursuit of intimacy with God. The fact that mistakes have been made, however, should not in any way diminish our passion for a love relationship with the Triune God of heaven and earth. It simply means that we must pursue God within the parameters set forth in Scripture.
1. It is possible, in our pursuit of intimacy with God, to allow our familiarity to degenerate into flippancy.
Job certainly came close to making this mistake. In his zeal to defend himself before God and vindicate his name, he came perilously close to speaking to God in a careless and flippant way with little regard for His majesty and glory. Observe God's response to Job in 38:1-2; 40:1-5; and Job's recognition of what he had done and his quick repentance in 42:1-6. Holy familiarity with God should lead to affection, adoration, confidence, trust, peace, and joy, but never to disregard for the fact that "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29).
Three ways in which flippancy may appear is in:
1) Our attitude to the Lord's supper (cf. 1 Cor. 11:20-34). We must be careful lest we treat as common that which is sacred; to treat the elements with indifference or to partake in a spirit of frivolity is to pour contempt on that, or rather on Him, to which they point.
2) Our worship. Certainly joy and celebration are appropriate responses to the grace of God revealed in the gospel. But no less essential is the fear of God rooted in the recognition of His majesty and holiness. We must be careful that our emotions and physical displays in times of worship are conscious expressions of gratitude, awe, love, and devotion, rather than an unconscious reaction to the mood or rhythm of the music.
3) The terminology we use to describe God. Terms of endearment such as "Abba" are certainly appropriate. But we must be careful lest our intimacy with the Lord causes us to violate the boundaries of propriety (as seen, for example, in the "good-old-boy" and "God-is-my-buddy" language of many in the church today).
2. It is possible, in our pursuit of intimacy with God, to fail to remember His transcendence by placing extreme emphasis on His immanence.
By transcendence I have in mind God's absolute and supreme greatness, His exalted loftiness. Transcendence points to the infinite distance that separates God from His creation. For God's transcendence, see especially Isa. 55:8-9; 66:1-2; and Acts 7:46-50. For the proper balancing of transcendence with immanence, see Isa. 57:15.
3. It is possible, in our pursuit of intimacy with God, to lose sight of His holiness.
The holiness of God only secondarily refers to His moral purity, His righteousness of character. It primarily points to His infinite otherness. To say that God is holy is to say that He is transcendentally separate. Holiness is not one attribute among many. It is not like grace or power or knowledge or wrath. Everything about God is holy. Each attribute partakes of divine holiness. Two texts especially illustrate this truth:
· Isaiah 6:1-8
Isaiah's experience can be assessed in terms of what he saw, hear, felt, and did.
(1) What he saw: He "saw" a vision of God enthroned (cf. Ex. 33:19-23; 1 John 3:2; Rev. 22:4)
(2) What he heard: He "heard" the voice of the seraphim in exalted praise of God. When someone, anyone, whether angel or human, is in the presence of God, there are not theological debates or arguments over who is greatest in the kingdom. There is unqualified, unending praise.
(3) What he felt: He "felt" the emotional, spiritual, and physical agony of his own sin. As long as he only had to compare himself with his fellow-man, his anguish was minimal. But in the presence of the infinitely holy God whose glory fills the earth, this otherwise "holy" man cries out: "Woe is me, for I am ruined!" To be ruined or undone means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled. Isaiah tries his best to describe an experience of personal disintegration.
But the God of holiness is also the God of grace! As Isaiah is groveling on the floor, every fibre of his being trembling with an overwhelming sense of guilt and moral corruption, God immediately takes steps to cleanse and restore his soul. With the touch upon his lips of a burning coal he hears the words of release: "your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven" (v. 7).
(4) He did something: He surrendered himself to God's service. Being in God's presence is always transforming. It is never merely an experience; it is also a commissioning.
· Luke 5:1-11
4. It is possible, in our pursuit of intimacy with God, to overemphasize the subjective fruit to the exclusion of the objective foundation.
We must be careful lest we become so infatuated with the internal experience of nearness to God that we forget the external work of the cross on which it is ultimately based. Our nearness to God is free to us, but it cost God everything: His only-begotten Son. Our focus is first and fundamentally outward, towards Calvary. Observe Paul's words:
"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me" (Phil. 2:20).
Clearly, the basis for Christ living within us is His act of self-sacrifice for us. Paul's gratitude is first for what Jesus did for him on the cross and then, only after that, for what Jesus is doing in him through His indwelling presence.
This can also reveal itself in the tendency to grant revelatory authority to our experience. Those experiences recorded in Scripture are authoritative, not because they are experiences, but because they are recorded in Scripture. All experience must be interpreted. All subjective states of mind and emotion must be brought under the searchlight of the objective principles of God's written Word.
Illustration: Suppose you have been outside in extremely cold temperatures, only then to enter the home of a friend who offers you a glass of brandy. A few minutes after drinking it, you become conscious of a feeling of warmth and attribute it to the alcohol. The fact is, the alcohol will actually make you colder. It has for the moment caused your blood vessels to dilate giving you the impression that your body is producing heat. In point of fact, it is losing heat. You may feel you are warming up, but in reality you are cooling down. Your feelings have led you astray. An observer knowledgeable about the effects of alcohol could tell you what was really happening. But if you are relying on your feelings you would reject his conclusions. So, too, in the spiritual realm, feelings can often deceive us as to the true state of affairs. We must have an external reference point or standard of objective truth by which feelings may be evaluated and judged.
Tragically, though, many have become so enamored by their intimacy with God that they interpret their subjective states of mind and emotion as infallible indicators of truth. Worse still, some have concluded that because of the depths of intimacy they experience with God that objective revelation is no longer essential; it can be discarded in favor of immediacy of communion and communication with God.
5. It is possible, in our pursuit of intimacy with God, to fail to come to Him on His terms.
Perhaps the best example of this is the tragic incident involving Moses' nephews and Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, as described in Leviticus 10:1-3. Nadab and Abihu were the two eldest of Aaron's four sons (Ex. 6:23). They had accompanied Moses and Aaron up Mt. Sinai (Ex.24:1), and along with their two younger brothers, Eleazar and Ithamar, had been ordained as priests (Lev. 8:30). Undoubtedly Aaron must have experienced tremendous pride as he watched his sons follow him in ministry.
But scarcely had the heavenly fire descended in mercy to consume the sacrifice (9:24) when it again descended, this time in wrath, to consume those who made the sacrifice (10:1-3)! They are said to have offered up "strange fire" (10:1). What made it strange? Incense was produced by mixing aromatic spices together which were then vaporized by putting them in a censer containing glowing lumps of charcoal. Leviticus 16:12 says these coals had to be taken from the altar. Had Nadab and Abihu taken them from somewhere else? Perhaps. All that is said, all that matters, is that they sought to offer strange fire "which the Lord had not commanded them."
· They arrogantly presumed upon their relationship with God and their position as priests, thinking that it gave them the freedom to approach God on their terms rather than His. God invites us to draw near, but on His terms, according to conditions He has established, in conformity with the pattern set forth in Holy Scripture. It is dangerous, perhaps even lethal, to think that "anything goes" when it comes to drawing near unto God.
· See also the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.
6. It is possible, in our pursuit of intimacy with God, to lose sight of the distinction between Creator and creature.
This is perhaps the greatest error among the mystics, whether they be from the medieval period of church history or our own day. Many of the mystics emphasized "oneness" or "union" with God to such a degree that they blurred the fundamental distinction between man and God. Our "oneness" with God is of a moral, not a metaphysical, nature. In other words, we are not destined to "become God" but to "become like God" in terms of moral character and thought and behavior. In our desire to get close to God we must never lose sight of the fact that He is God and we are not!
7. It is possible, in our pursuit of intimacy with God, to presume upon His grace.
We know that our "familiarity" with God has gone too far when we find ourselves thinking that we deserve such a relationship. Intimacy with God is the fruit of divine mercy. Our attitude in relationship with God is one that must always be governed by the realization that we deserve only hell.
Two biblical illustrations may prove helpful:
(1) The story of Uzzah and David (2 Samuel 6:1-19)
PT: There is a time for reverent distance as well as festive nearness!
(2) John the apostle both leaned on Jesus' breast (Jn. 13:23) and fell at his feet as a dead man (Rev. 1:9-20).