The popular idea among Christians is that the closer to God we get, the more wonderful it feels. Some speak of experiencing ecstasy in the presence of God. I am not discounting the possibility of it, but I don’t see it from a biblical perspective. And I don’t see it from personal experience. The reason I don’t think it is true is based on one simple fact, we are not holy and God is. There is a difference in being declared holy and being intrinsically holy. The Holy terrifies us and it should. How can a finite, sinful, person stand in the presence of a holy, just, and righteous God and not feel overcome and condemned?
There is not lot of feel-good when you think about it. Not one person in Scripture, who found themselves in God’s presence, experienced anything other than the dread and awe-filled moment of being undone before God.
Those who serve in ministry know a lot about this. Those who do ministry may find that they are the most satisfied. But those same people are the ones who struggle the most with their relationship to God. And in fact, they are probably the loneliest.
I have a friend of mine who is having a tough time as a minister precisely because he is close to God. It is a tough time right now because of the things he is called upon to do. It is like his face is pressed to a grinding stone and the sparks are flying as if it were steel on the grinding rock.
I know that this is counterintuitive. You would think that getting closer to God would make us feel good, it would be pleasing. But when we think like that, we do not understand God or his nature. We need a breakthrough in our thinking about holiness. We cannot imagine the nature of a pure and pristine holy God. Our real experiences of God quickly remind us that God is different from us.
I like going to pastor conferences because, while they all are smiling, even happy people, just under the surface, they are struggling, hurting, and often very lonely. Pastor meetings are a gathering of the lonely. Our loneliness is all connected because we are called to handle holy things, do holy things, and live in a holy presence. We are a brotherhood of crying men who cry for their church and for their own failings and brokenness which longs for God, the very one who makes them feel lonely.
When I meet with our pastors, I am meeting with real men. They may be young and enthusiastic or older and leery of the world around them, but they are real men. Pastors are broken and fractured men, totally inadequate to dwell in the presence of a holy God. They gather and hold each other up because, by faith, they are men of the future. All of it is about the future. What we are promised as our eternal reward keeps us from quitting, draws us forward like a magnet in spite of all that may befall us.
You may wonder what I mean by this. There is no perfection in this world. This world is destined to be extinguished. Every soul feels this in their deepest parts even if they mentally don’t believe it. We are a fallen world where people do fallen things. Even the most radically saved person sins and sins greatly. The person who has come to faith in Christ, who is now in a relationship with God, knows the reality of our fallen nature. As we mature in Christ, we become acutely aware of our sin, our nature before God. Our salvation is a down payment, so to speak, on that day when we will be made holy. Our salvation is only a taste of the future. While we live in fear of the holy, we long for that day when God will change us. First Thessalonians says that we will be transformed. We strain toward the future with John’s vision in mind: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1Jo 3:2 ESV)
I think Paul knew this struggle. In Romans seven, Paul opens up about the struggle we have with sin and he does it from a personal perspective. Paul had all the trappings of a righteous man, but he gave it all up to pursue the upward call of Christ:
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ
9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–
10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phi 3:7-11 ESV)
Paul was well aware of our struggle. He does not write about ecstatic experiences or beatific visions. He tells us about his struggles, hardships, and even his fears. And he gladly identifies with the death of Jesus so that he might know his resurrection. His final great confession:
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.
7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2Ti 4:6-8 ESV)
We tremble and mourn in the holy presence of God. We do not understand those who have the happy clappies and are rightly suspicious of them. We know that those who claim to be close to God, who claim to get direct knowledge from God, who claim to be so happy with God are not close to the source of all holiness and righteousness and justice. What they are close to, is an idea of God that is not biblical.
I appreciate my fellow pastors, who day in and day out, deal with holy things. They often tremble before God as the high priest did on the Day of Atonement when he stood before God and offered the sacrifice for the sins of the nation of Israel. My brothers cry with joy before a holy God because his grace shields us from the awful furnace of his burning glory. We limp on toward the future because God has promised us that we will be changed, transformed in the blink of an eye and we will be made fit for the presence of our holy God. It is why pastors suffer the indignity routinely imposed on us and often pure oppression from church member and non-church members who don’t care to understand the call that God has placed upon us. We bear up because we belong to God.
Paul wrote, 17 “From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal 6:17 ESV) The word here is “stima” a brand mark or scars that identify one as belonging to God or the marks that come from serving God. All pastors have those marks. They may not stand out visually but they are in the souls of every pastor who has served for any length of time. It is the injustice that comes from serving others and serving God. But rather than it being the ugliness of disfigurement, it becomes for us the badges of honor bestowed on us by our suffering God. When we bear the scars of ministry, we most resemble the one who was crucified.
So, I express deep appreciation to my brothers in the ministry. Lean on each other. March to the call of God with all the strength you can muster and let God carry us in our failures and in our weakness. As idealistic as it may sound, we continually lay aside our encumbrances and we run the race, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Thank you for your eternal service.