If you grew up evangelical, it’s likely you experienced the phenomenon known as the “camp high.” This experience would occur when your youth group or church made it’s way to a retreat center, or perhaps your parents sent you off to a summer camp. A few days into the week, when you were tired, hadn’t stopped sweating in 96 hours, and were certain that the friends by your side would be your best buds forever, the evening program would happen. A campfire, perhaps, or a stirring message from a stage, and before you knew it, every emotion you’d ever known was rising up within you, a symphony of feelings that you were sure could only mean one thing—this is what it feels like to be near God.
I have many memories associated with this kind of experience, most of them occurring at camps or retreats or on mission trips, moments sweet and safe and removed from the every day normalcy of life. Sometimes I would access those emotions in a smaller dose on Wednesday nights at youth group, or during a Sunday morning service, a certain song or message conjuring up a fiery commitment to God and His ways. How could I want anything else?, I would think. Surely, if He can make me feel this way, He must be the One to follow.
While experiences like this were peppered throughout my teenage years, when college and young adulthood arrived, they seemed to slip away quietly. I wondered, worried even, if I was doing something wrong when I could no longer access the emotional highs I had once known and associated with God’s goodness and presence. As I made my first decisions of adulthood—a degree plan, marriage, my first job, two summers on the mission field—I wondered where God was. I was quite sure factually, logically, rationally, that He was pleased with the road I was walking. But emotionally, I wrestled. Why couldn’t I feel Him? And what did it mean that I couldn’t?
In Psalm 139, David writes, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heave, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
As I have continued in adulthood without a great deal of experiences of “feeling” God, I have begun to find a deeper, more sustained peace than I was able to find in my younger years. When I meditate on Scripture like Psalm 139, the Spirit testifies to my soul that I am in fact always in God’s presence, that I cannot be plucked from His hand, that His grip around me is more unrelenting than I can imagine and entirely independent of my ability to feel it. This doesn’t mean that I stop longing for an emotional experience of Him, nor do I think it is wrong to have one. But the Scriptures remind me that my relationship with God is not merely emotional, nor dependent on my ability to understand or decipher my emotions, and in that I take great comfort.
And as the Scriptures bear witness to God’s goodness and presence, the body of Christ makes it manifest. Adulthood has pressed and pulled at me in a host of ways brought about by realities of ministry, marriage, and motherhood, and in the times when I have questioned whether or not God has forgotten me, the presence of those who love Him has helped me believe He still sees, still knows, still cares.
I may not feel His presence rising up within me in an ethereal way, but I have seen it in the eyes of my friends who have watched my children when I was desperate for reprieve. I have held it in my hands when letters and gifts arrived in the mail when my family was in crisis. I have smelled it in flowers and candles left on my doorstep when loved ones knew depression was orbiting around me. I have tasted it in delivered dinners and heard it in prayers spoken over me when I could not pray for myself.
The day is coming when all who have trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins will be brought into the presence of God, a moment which we cannot even imagine, much less begin to guess how it will feel, what it will really be like. Yet, as Amy Sherman states, Jesus brought to earth “a foretaste of the Kingdom of God,” and “we are to follow His example and be ‘foretaste bringers.’” As we immerse our minds in the knowledge of Scripture and character of God, and serve, love, and allow ourselves to be served and loved, the feeling of God’s presence may or may not wash over us, but the Spirit will testify to us Whose we are, and in Whose presence we dwell in every moment.
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Abby Perry has written for The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, Upwrite Magazine, and The Influence Network. She is the communications coordinator for a nonprofit organization and co-facilitates two community efforts—one promoting bridge-building racial reconciliation conversations and one supporting area foster and adoptive families. Abby graduated from Texas A&M University and currently attends Dallas Theological Seminary. She and her family live in College Station, Texas. Find her on Twitter.