At the start of this series, I identified nine indicators of the presence of The Lord in a church service and I acknowledge that these nine are also ways in which we respond to His sensed presence. So far, I have examined reverent and adoring worship, passionate prayer, and serious attention to biblical preaching. This article is about the fourth indicator, an attitude of faith.
The first problem confronting us when we try to get to grips with this topic is the different ways that some people understand and use the word ‘faith’.
Understandings and use of the word Faith
Some folk believe that faith equates to ‘standing on the promises of God’, usually meaning all the general promises of scripture irrespective of when or to whom they were originally given. Some take this even further by constantly reminding God of what He has ‘promised’ in the Bible. Others even claim these promises as their right and confess that God is bound by His Word to fulfil them all. Still others believe that faith is a force they can use to achieve what they want. On the other hand, those on the conservative side of the theological spectrum understand faith more as a mental process or as a shorthand word for the Christian Faith in general. However, I don’t think that any of these understandings are biblically sustainable and they certainly don’t help us to comprehend how ‘faith’ can help us to perceive the presence of God.
A biblical definition of Faith
In the Old Testament, faith is defined as resting, trusting and hoping in God, with the idea that we should trust in and commit ourselves to Him. The primary definition of faith in the New Testament is, ‘being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ (Hebrews 11:1). However, biblical faith should never be separated from the one in whom we have faith, the Lord Jesus Christ.
If we want to experience His presence in a church service then we need to first believe that He exists. Of course, no true Christian would deny that Jesus exists, but I doubt that too many believe that He is able and willing to presence himself in some tangible way in the midst of the gathered church. They don’t have ‘faith’ for this, but a better way of putting it is that they don’t expect this to happen.
Expectation and reality
There has been a theory around for decades that we only see what we expect to see. I mentioned this briefly here, and in my book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation, but until recently this idea has not been embraced by modern science. However, very recently Thomas Metzinger and Wanja Wiese of the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität have launched a website debating this subject. The latest research suggests that we create reality inside our brains based on our prior knowledge and experiences, and that this then ‘influences’ how we see the world. Subconsciously, we make predictions about what we should be seeing that are based on a range of factors, including our individual experiences and emotional state. In other words, much of our reality is what we expect it to be.
One of the implications for this idea is that we are unlikely to perceive as reality anything we do not expect to be part of our reality.
A good Old Testament example of this is when the sight of enemy soldiers surrounding the city terrified Elisha’s servant, and Elisha said to him; “Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “O LORD, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:16-17)
Something similar occurred when the disciples left Mary alone at the empty tomb. ‘Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”’ (John 20:10-16). Now, there could be a number of reasons why Mary did not recognise Jesus before he addressed her by name, but I think a major factor was that she didn’t expect to see him alive and well.
Now, let’s apply this idea to our experience of church services.
How we express Faith and Expectation in a church service
To experience the presence of God in a church service we need firstly to believe (have faith in) that He is present with us and is pleased to reveal himself to us. Secondly, we need to expect that this will happen with enough passionate conviction that our brains will be able to accept this as a new part of our present reality.
We express our faith in the reality of The Lord’s presence by:
- Speaking to Him personally and directly (prayer)
- Purposefully seeking signs of His presence in the environment around us, and
- Acting on any genuine glimpses we might have of Him. By acting on these insights, I mean expressing the inner reality in some physical way such as falling down on our knees, standing with arms raised high, declaring aloud His wonderful presence, and so on.
At the risk of being presumptuous (possibly not for the first time in this series), I would think that the Lord Jesus would be very happy to be among people who believe He is with them and expect to encounter him in a meaningful way.
In my next article, I will be covering the hugely important subject of ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit.