The other day I observed two women standing side by side receiving prayer for the ministry they jointly led. One was immediately physically impacted, bending almost double and clearly touched emotionally. The second woman stood virtually stock still and did not appear to be affected at all. What was going on? Why the difference?
In circumstances like these, it can be quite easy to make our own judgements. In polar opposites, we may see the first woman as being overly emotional and easily influenced, or that the other woman is hardened, not open to what God is doing. Either way, it is likely we are coming to our conclusions by making each person responsible for what God may or may not do in their life.
The topic of physical or bodily manifestations from God can produce different reactions in us depending on our own experience. For some, there is perhaps cynicism and even doubt about whether they are Godly or otherwise. For others there can be a tension because they rarely or never experience these personally. For yet others, the presence (or lack) of such manifestations are used as a measure of how close they feel to God.
For myself, I have grappled with the concept of physical, bodily manifestations of God’s presence from time to time over decades. It probably started when some kids in the youth group I was leading had an encounter with the Holy Spirit that literally left them shaking. Having virtually no previous experience of anything like this myself, the fact that they started competing to see who would shake the most did not help at all!
The struggle has continued over time, particularly because it is not something I experience much myself. More recently, I read a book about this phenomenon, trying to understand more about it. I had wondered, again, whether I was the problem. At times when others were rolling around laughing, couldn’t walk, or were just flat out on the ground, I have felt almost like an observer. It was with some interest that about halfway through the book, I read that the author was in a similar position to myself.
As I have wrestled with developing a theology around this, having numbers of friends who have had experiences that they have in no way sought, I was not finding answers in a hurry. And I do have to admit, there have been times where I also have wondered whether some of these manifestations are actually from God. We have seemingly little direct evidence from the Bible, although the descriptor in Acts of the disciples appearing drunk is certainly probably similar, and we know God used the voice of a donkey, manifested superhuman strength in a broken man (see Samson), spoke from a burning bush, and burnt up offerings soaked in water, just to mention a few other incidences of His physical manifestations. It is possible, and who are we to limit or define what is acceptable?
At a recent event, I found myself confronted by this situation again. The worship in music and song was polished but heartfelt. Many people were in the “zone”. But I was struggling to even find much energy to worship. I felt as though I was working hard to feel anything or even participate.
In the middle, I kind of gave up on the corporate worship and sat down to have my own conversation with God. And I found myself back with a picture I had had a few times lately.
It was a picture of a hedge maze or similar - a bit like a movie scene, where it is all misty. As I was moving through the maze, I would catch a glimpse of the edge of a garment or just the sense of movement, which I realised was Jesus.
Even as I saw this picture, I felt frustration and tiredness welling up in me:
Why? Why can’t you just sit with me? I am tired of playing this game, of having to chase You. Why can’t you come to me?
When I started to write down what I was seeing (because it helps me to hear what God is saying sometimes), I realised that Jesus was actually calling to me:
“Come on, come with Me, come in deeper!”
There was a sense of excitement and joy in His voice. At the point of my weariness, He was automatically by my side, but there was still this pull, this encouragement that He wanted me to come further into the maze. In that place, I started to feel, “Ok, if you really want me to, I will trust You, I will accept Your call to me.” It was invitational, and as such, became intimate between Jesus and myself.
Shortly after unpacking this vision, I picked up a book someone had given me to read. In the first few pages was a section titled, “Hiddenness and Manifestation” (In “Prophetic Wisdom”, by Graham Cooke). Here Cooke explores this whole issue, particularly from the view of the judgements we make about each other around this. I realised, afresh, that these manifestations have very little to do with us - they are up to God. He decides who to and how He will manifest Himself. We can’t position ourselves or even make God “show up” in this way. (As soon as we try to make God do anything, we are entering the dangerous zone of manipulation and control - scarily similar attributes to witchcraft!)
In addition, as Cooke pointed out, the times of God’s hiddenness, far from Him withdrawing Himself from us, are actually about Him drawing us in deeper to Himself, just like my maze picture. While we may receive blessings from the times He chooses to manifest Himself, when He doesn’t, when we don’t sense Him, He is still there, but simply wanting to teach us about Himself in a different way. The message I clearly got from God was that His times of hiddenness are times when He wants to increase our intimacy with Him and our faith in Him. He wants to show us other aspects of Himself.
In all, it reminds me a little of what Paul wrote in Phil 4:12:
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation”.
Even though this is in a slightly different context, it is simply another reminder to me to let God be God - He will turn up in whatever form He wants, when He wants, and I can be secure in the knowledge that He will never leave or forsake me, and that He is near. I walk the journey with Him whether my senses agree or not.
And, back to the place I seem to keep landing: it is all about rest. We don’t need to work so hard, but simply rest in Him, in the truth of His word, such as “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb13:5), and “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8). We may not get a physical sense, or even an emotional one, but this is a true faith that is pleasing to God (Heb 11:6). Jesus Himself said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). After all, we are called to follow Him, not to create our own agenda or cast Him in the image and form we would like!