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Aching For Intimacy.
What if the answer to your ache for deeper intimacy with God, isn't just getting more of God, but giving God more of you?
To be human is to ache.
We ache physically, emotionally, mentally, relationally, and even spiritually. One ache shared by all people — in all places, at every point in history — is the ache of physical hunger. We all know that feeling in our stomach that says, “I need to eat something right now.” The ache of hunger is so constant it can only be satiated temporarily.
I remember one Thanksgiving when I ate to the point I could barely move by bedtime. I’m not even exaggerating. I was so full, I started having severe chest pains, bad enough that I was bent over beside my bed wondering if I needed to go the ER. I was in the kind of pain that results in making deals with God. Have you ever been there? You’re making statements like, “Lord, I really don’t want to die tonight lying next to my bed due to drinking gravy like it was the very source of life. If you help me feel better, I promise I will never eat again.” I understand how ridiculous this sounds, but that’s how full I was and how much pain I was in. It wasn’t pretty. I remember climbing into bed and genuinely thinking there was no way I would ever be hungry again. But then the strangest thing happened. When I woke up the next morning, the all too familiar ache had returned - I was hungry again.
To be human is to ache.
An Ache of a Different Kind.
A couple of years back I started to experience an ache of a different kind that I couldn’t seem to satisfy. It was an ache that started when I was young, but became impossible to ignore as I got older. So let me back up to my beginning and explain the origin of this particular ache.
My early years were marked by what I’ve come to understand as, immense trauma. My biological dad abandoned our family to go start a new one when I was just three years old. As a result, we moved from Oregon to Northern California to be closer to my grandfather. Sadly, just two years later, after decades of deep depression that would not relent, my grandfather took his own life, becoming now the second father figure to leave a hole in my heart I feel to this day.
One bright spot in all that trauma was that my mom remarried and I was adopted by her new husband and my now dad. While that was an amazing gift to all of us, we were still a new blended family that had to deal with all the challenges that come with that. Thankfully my parents were exceptionally faithful at getting us to church each Sunday. I came to faith young and I’ve walked with God for most of my 42 years.
I tell you all this for three reasons.
1) I’ve been through my fair share of pain.
These few painful events of my early years barely scratch the surface of what was a rich, but traumatic childhood. I’ve experienced loss, abandonment, deep disappointment, and abuse. I’m familiar with suffering. My life hasn’t been all CareBears and sunny days. I’ve been through a lot and my guess is, you have too. The specifics of our past trauma may differ, but when it comes to the presence of pain, you and I have that in common.
2) I’ve been walking with Jesus for quite some time.
I share all this backstory because I want you to know that I’m not new to faith. I’ve walked with Jesus a long time. I’ve also been serving in vocational ministry in various ways for almost 20 years. I’ve been a worship pastor, an associate pastor, and a lead pastor. I’ve planted two churches and pastored a large existing one. My point is just to say, I’m serious about my relationship with Jesus and I’ve put considerable effort into it. That’s what makes this third point so confusing to me personally.
3) I’ve learned that you can follow Jesus sincerely for a long time and still lack anything feeling like deep intimacy with Him.
In early 2019 I started to experience a different kind of “ache”, as I mentioned at the start. This ache was not a physical hunger, but a deeply spiritual one. I began to ache for deeper intimacy with God.
I know sometimes the word “intimacy” makes us uncomfortable, but I simply mean that I felt an ache to know Him more. I wanted to see His face more clearly, hear His voice more unmistakably, and feel His love more profoundly. Somewhere along the way in life, I began comparing my own experience with God to the experience of Biblical giants like Moses, Hannah, David, and Mary, that I’d been hearing and reading about for so long.
As I read about the experience of these giants of our faith, I started to notice an ocean of difference between their experience with God and my own. I’ve been reading my Bible since I was young, so these stories were not new to me, but for some reason, after all these years, I was struck for the first time by how close these people seemed to God.
They talked to Him in a way I did not.
They heard from Him in ways I did not.
If I’m honest, they seemed to love Him in a way I did not.
Just take Exodus 33:11 for instance. It says, “The LORD would speak with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend…” Listen, I understand I’m not Moses. Moses had a unique relationship with God. I’m just saying, I was in a season when I couldn’t even recall the last time God felt genuinely near to me, much less anything that resembled an authentic friendship.
In response to this ache, I did what many of us do in this situation - I doubled down on my devotional life.
I read my Bible more.
I tried to pray more.
I brushed the dust off my journal and started to write more.
But even these attempts to rekindle what once felt like a furious flame just seemed like going through the motions. It was in the angst of this that I started to feel the ache. In that season of aching one specific question surfaced over and over again:
What do I have to do to get more of God?
This longing specifically showed up in my prayer life.
Like many people, my prayer time largely consisted of me informing God of my perceived needs. So each day, I’d pray my list. I’d pray for myself, my wife, my kids, my family, my friends, and our church. Yet, no matter how much I prayed, I kept hitting a sizable wall. I had a few days after those times of prayer when I truly thought, “If I never did that again, I’d be ok.” Prayer has never felt easy to me, but I’d never experienced a season when the pull not to pray felt so strong. This prompted two thoughts simultaneously:
First I thought, “I can’t keep doing this.” Following Jesus had ceased feeling like a relationship and was becoming little more than religious motions I was performing out of mere obligation. I disdained the way that felt and knew it was not sustainable.
Second I thought, “There must be more than this.” Because I saw an expression of relationship with God in the Scriptures that was so different from my own, I had a sense of curiosity and hope that things could be different. As I would come to find out, there was more. There was a depth of intimacy with God I had never experienced and He was already gently directing me down that path. It just turned out that the path was different than I would have ever predicted.
See, in addition to that ache I was feeling for deeper intimacy with God, my inner life (specifically, my emotional life) that I’d spent a lifetime learning to suppress and block, began to leak out beyond my control.
It really peaked one evening during family movie night, a weekly ritual in our house.
On this particular night, I decided to introduce my kids to “The Parent Trap”. If you’re not familiar with the plot of this movie, it’s the story of twin sisters whose parents divorced when the girls were babies. They were then raised separately, but just happened to end up at the same summer camp as teenagers where they discover the truth of their sisterhood. They concoct a crazy scheme that involves switching places and going home to the parent they’d lived without, all in hopes of reigniting the fire of romance between their parents, redeeming the failed marriage, and once again being the family they were meant to be. Having experienced the pain of divorced parents, this story held deep, albeit unconscious resonance for me.
I don’t think we were 20 minutes into this movie before it started to happen. I started to experience what I can only describe as a full-scale emotional breakdown. As I watched this movie I so vividly remembered, I started to cry uncontrollably. I’m not exaggerating. I wasn’t “teary-eyed,” I was totally melting down. I had to pull the hood of my sweatshirt over my head and turn away from my kids so they didn’t have to watch in confusion and concern as their dad unraveled in front of them. Thankfully, I was able to compose myself and make it through the rest of the movie, but that night I went to bed clear on at least one thing: something was happening inside me I could no longer control.
Now I’m not a psychologist, but I think it’s safe to say that when Lindsay Lohan movies provoke an emotional breakdown in a grown man, he probably has some problems lurking below the surface. One of my closest friends who is in fact a psychologist confirmed as much the next day when I recounted the prior night’s experience. Together we agreed it was probably time for me to get some therapy and dig into both what was happening in me now, as well as all that had happened to me when I was young. I’m not going to get into all the details of that right now, but I want to jump ahead to two significant lessons God taught me through it: First…
The unprocessed pain of the past will eventually invade the present.
Often when we experience severe loss or endure traumatic seasons of suffering, we survive by learning to block out the pain in various ways, which we’re going to talk more about next week.
Much of this is mission critical in life, especially when we experience any degree of trauma as children. As kids we don’t have the cognition to fully process what we experience, so we learn to block the difficult parts in a way that enables us to move forward. Part of this is grace. God has given humans an incredible degree of resilience. We can endure immense difficulty and continue to function. The problem is, blocking pain is not the same as processing it. The pain we block doesn’t disappear, it simply goes dormant for a season. Then one night it all comes spilling out during a Disney movie with your kids. You may not be there yet but I promise you, it’s coming. And even if you don’t begin to unravel in the same way I did, I guarantee that unprocessed pain has produced unhealthy patterns in your emotional stewardship and relationships with others.
Any pain of the past we don’t properly process will eventually invade the present. The second, and far more unexpected lesson God is still teaching me, is this:
The pain we’re avoiding is the very path to intimacy with God.
Don’t get me wrong, we certainly will not experience anything resembling intimacy with God apart from spending quality time with Him. Prayer, Scripture, repentance, worship, fasting, and the host of other spiritual practices are critical components to one’s pursuit of God. But the truth is, you can practice spiritual disciplines and still not experience deep communion with God.
In addition to these important practices, we also have to learn to invite God into the things we feel - specifically the hard and hurtful parts of our lives. We have to learn to ask God to invade our pain. Having spent the better part of my life reading and studying the Bible, you’d think I would have caught on to the importance of this much sooner, because emotions are everywhere. Think of the array of difficult emotions described, or displayed just in the Psalms alone:
ANGER: “Be angry and do not sin…” (Psalm 4:4).
SADNESS: “I am weary from my groaning; with my tears I dampen my bed and drench my couch every night. My eyes are swollen from grief…” (Psalm 6:6-7 )
LONELINESS: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am alone and afflicted.” (Psalm 25:16).
BROKENHEARTED: “The LORD is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18).
ANXIETY: “So I confess my iniquity; I am anxious because of my sin.” (Psalm 38:18).
DISCOURAGEMENT: “Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil?” (Psalm 42:5).
EMBARRASSMENT: “My disgrace is before me all day long, and shame has covered my face…” (Psalm 44:15).
PAIN: “But as for me - poor and in pain - let your salvation protect me, God.” (Psalm 69:29)
Emotions are certainly not isolated to the Psalms. Consider even a brief survey of Jesus’ earthly life. He was no stranger to emotion, including those we prefer to shy away from. As we’d expect, Jesus felt joy (John 15:10-11), compassion (Matthew 9:20-22), and love (Mark 10:21). Yet, He also felt anger (Matthew 21:12-13; 23:33), frustration (Matthew 17:14-20), sorrow (John 11:35), and overwhelming stress (Luke 22:42). Emotions fill the Scriptures, they filled the life of Jesus, and emotions fill my life and yours.
So, the question is never, “Will I feel emotions?” The question is, “What will I do with the emotions I do feel?”
Broadly speaking, I think we have three options:
1) We can block them (which is the subject of our study next week).
2) We can allow them to run our lives.
3) We can invite God into them.
This third option is where true intimacy with God is formed. Asking God to invade our emotional life invites Him into the most deeply felt parts of who we are. This explains why cutting Him out of our emotions, particularly the difficult ones, has such a stunting effect on the growth of our relationship with Him.
Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.”
This means there is nothing we feel that Jesus has not felt. Not only has He felt everything we’ve ever felt, but He also felt it perfectly. His sadness never devolved into hopelessness. His anger never resulted in seeking personal revenge. His stress didn’t lead Him to seek destructive coping mechanisms. Jesus felt everything we feel and He felt it all perfectly.
The writer of Hebrews teaches us that this experience in Jesus’ life poses a life-changing invitation to you and me. Verse 16 says, “Therefore [meaning because Jesus is our great high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, having been tempted in every way as we have], let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.” Did you catch that? We’re invited to boldly storm the throne of Jesus in search of help because He understands what we’re going through. He has been where we’ve been. He has felt what we’ve felt. Jesus has been abandoned, betrayed, lied about, disappointed, abused, and rejected. Jesus has felt misunderstood, alone, and overwhelmed.
Jesus is no stranger to pain and He wants to meet you and me in ours. The question is, will we step out with the courage necessary to meet Him there?
If you’re reading this, my assumption is that at some point you also have found yourself thinking, “There must be more…” The circumstances God has used to create that ache in you are most likely different than the ones He has used in me. What we share in common is the ache - the desire for more of God. But here’s something I really want you to stop and consider:
What if the answer to the ache isn’t just getting more of God, but giving God more of you?
What if the difference between those who experience uncommon intimacy with God and those who don’t, isn’t God’s desire to give more of Himself to some than others? What if the difference is that those who experience uncommon intimacy are those who are willing to give the heaviest and hardest parts of themselves to God? What if the very pain you’re avoiding is the path to deeper intimacy with God? That’s been my story and I have a hunch that it might be yours as well. So as we stand at the start of this journey together, I want to promise you three things:
PROMISE #1. This journey will be uncomfortable.
Growth is rarely comfortable. It requires straining, stretching, and sometimes even breaking specific strongholds that have kept us stuck where we are. When you feel that discomfort, don’t assume it means something is wrong. God is working. Old ways are dying and a new season is coming alive in you. But before resurrection, there has to be death. So embrace the discomfort. It won’t kill you. Don’t resist it or fight against it. Acknowledge it, ask God for strength in the midst of it, and simply let it be.
PROMISE #2. You are not alone.
Reading this may have triggered some hard emotions inside you. You may feel anxious and overwhelmed. You may feel isolated and alone. If that is the case, then don’t forget, God’s very Spirit is the One who has drawn you to this place and orchestrated this ache inside you. He won’t leave you for one moment of this uncomfortable journey.
PROMISE #3. Deeper intimacy with God awaits you.
In the midst of this disruptive process, you are going to realize something amazing: there is a deeper experience of God’s very presence than you knew possible. The very presence of this ache for more of God implies that it’s possible to satisfy. I’m here to tell you from experience, that it very much is. God loves you far more than you know. He is closer than you can imagine. He is more trustworthy than you’ve given Him credit . He has no desire to shame you or shun you. He isn’t playing hard to get or asking you to prove yourself. Instead, He’s with you now. His arms are open and He’s smiling over you. He’s smiling because He knows what is on the other side of what feels to you like this great obstacle. Listen to His loving voice in your ache for more. You won’t regret it.