“And seeing great signs and miracles performed, he was amazed.” Acts 8:13
Our students want an immanent experience, a felt encounter with God. They want to feel amazed at God’s goodness and power, not just know that God is good and powerful. Too often however, I think all of us, and young people especially, sacrifice too much in our search for this “experience” with God.
Scripture is full of people just like us – people who want Jesus primarily for what he can do, the miracles he can perform, or the bread and fish he provides. Acts 8 introduces us to a man who made that same mistake. Simon was a magician who, after seeing God’s power to cast out demons, wanted to experience that same thing in his own life. There was a problem though.
To a hammer, everything is a nail, and to a magician, power is always for sale. Simon converted after living a life steeped in magic. He had lived his life in search of “signs,” “miracles,” and great acts of power. He was a charlatan, a man who spent his life buying and trading to get the newest experiences and encounters to dazzle his customers. When Simon was confronted with God’s Holy Spirit power, he really only had one framework by which to understand it – “I can buy that.”
As far removed from magicians and the occult as we might be, we are just like Simon. While not explicitly practicing the dark arts, we “spend” a lot trying to purchase what the disciples a few verses later call the free “gift of God.” We want God to show up powerfully and so we, like magicians, perform our Christian incantations – mindlessly repeating choruses. We, like charlatans, ritualistically contort our bodies; we close our eyes tighter, lift our hands higher, and dance (sway) more vigorously to convince ourselves that if we get lost the in the music enough, God’s power will be released. After all, we bought the conference ticket, we paid the camp fees. Isn’t this where we experience God? Didn’t we purchase God’s blessing with our registration? Aren’t we owed the gift of God’s power?
Peter offers Simon (like us) no kind words: “May your silver perish with you because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money” (Acts 8:20).
The experience of God’s power cannot be purchased with silver. It is free. It is given by grace. I meet too many students, have heard too many pastors, and have spent many years thinking like Simon. I’ve been convinced the right atmosphere, style/volume/tempo of music, or the right location (like summer camp, or a retreat, or a particular church) is where I will “meet God.” Christ’s power is not promised to those who can pay for it – whether in cash or with conviction-laden gestures. It is given to all who exalt Jesus as their treasure. The Holy Spirit is poured out in power onto all without distinction, because the gospel is the power of God (Rom 1:16).
I don’t mean to suggest that the desire to experience God is wrong. Far from it, that desire is good. What I am saying is that we often go about it the wrong way. We all want to feel God’s presence, and know He is in the room. But the way we do that is not necessarily by a ginning up emotion, repeating a particular chorus, visiting a special location, or listening to an “anointed” preacher. It occurs when Jesus Christ is lifted up as our supreme treasure, and the only solution to our sin. It starts when we realize that we have already been given God’s power and his presence, and then asking in hopeful expectation that he would be gracious to pour himself out as we sing, preach, and remember the gospel that guarantees his continued grace.
The good news is, how we feel God’s manifest presence isn’t a question of style, but of substance.
As I write this, I am already thinking of many unanswered questions like: Exactly how do you seek immanent experiences with God? What precise role should emotion play in our services? Where is the line between gospel affections, and emotionalism? If God does grace us with a taste of his manifest presence, how do we judge it? What’s the right way to want to “feel” God? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. God willing, I will address these questions in a forthcoming article.