I’ll confess that my life isn’t always characterised by the Deep Joy and Peace of the Lord™. I’m sure it will come as a surprise to hear that I don’t float around on a Christian cloud, enjoying unbroken fellowship with God and experiencing his glorious presence.
On the contrary, I seem to spend quite a lot of my time feeling slightly anxious, guilty and burdened; riddled with self-doubt and unsure of whether I can really even call myself a Christian. Much of the time I feel fairly distant from God, unable to hear his voice or feel anything of his presence.
I pray, but my prayers so often feel like a one-sided conversation and I wonder if I’m only talking to myself. I feel like I’m walking in a spiritual fog, or at least under a heavily clouded sky.
But just occasionally the fog lifts, the clouds part and for a brief space the sunshine pours through. For me these times come as rare but immensely important experiences of grace. They come unbidden, unexpected, unlooked-for, and for no particularly apparent reason. They can’t be controlled, contained or clung on to. They just come – sometimes for five minutes, sometimes half an hour; rarely longer. And then it’s back to normality for weeks, months or maybe years.
Admittedly, these times do seem to come more often when I’m in the midst of prayer or worship. But I might pray or worship in exactly the same way on a hundred other occasions, and experience nothing extraordinary. And even if they do come when I’m praying, on these occasions it feels somehow as though my prayer is almost coming from beyond me; that by grace, my mundane, earthbound prayer is suddenly caught by some spiritual thermal beyond my control or seeking.
A walk transformed
My most recent example came a couple of weeks ago as I was taking a lunchtime walk in the park by my workplace. I tend to pray on these walks, mainly because I’m on my own and want someone to talk to – and God’s a good listener if not a great talker. So I let him listen in on my interminable internal monologues and call it prayer.
On this occasion I was prayer-rambling about the future – what I should do with my life, how God might want to use my strengths and redeem my weaknesses, stuff like that. I was feeling that I hadn’t really done or seen or achieved much of note in my 40 years – the usual self-doubt.
And suddenly I found myself feeling and expressing thoughts that didn’t seem to come from me. I found myself feeling genuinely and deeply grateful for my life and all that I’d been given, regardless of whatever might happen in the future.
I found myself saying – and at least for that moment meaning – that even if I were to be struck with some debilitating condition that very night and so never be able to travel the world, never see or do or experience or achieve all I’d hoped to, what I’d been given so far was enough. That even if God never answered any more of my prayers and never blessed me again, what I’d already had would have been enough and more than enough.
I even went so far as to say – and at the time mean – that if (God forbid) something should happen to my family or my children, having been allowed to know them and be part of their lives for this time would have been enough.
And as I expressed those feelings and ideas, I felt things that can only sound terribly cheesy when written down. I felt close to God, I felt blessed, I felt lifted, I felt loved and accepted. My heart was suddenly light within me. I wanted to run and dance and skip and sing as though I’d suddenly become a character in The Sound of Music. Had I met another human being along the way I might have had to restrain myself from hugging them and telling them they were wonderful.
And even as I write this down, some of those feelings briefly return again (albeit alongside a more dominant feeling of embarrassment).
I didn’t actually hear God speaking to me (I’m not sure I ever have, not directly). But I did feel his closeness, his presence; and that was enough.
And then I had to go back to work, and of course everything returned to normal.
Reflecting on the experience
I said that I felt incredibly grateful. Gratitude and grace are linked, both linguistically and really. But it’s not that my gratitude brought God’s grace (though it may have helped enable me to experience it more fully), but rather I think that God’s grace brought about my gratitude.
Of course, I expect the beautiful surroundings and unlooked-for winter sunshine contributed to the experience; but then that felt like grace too. And I’ve also had similar experiences of grace in far less promising settings – driving home from work through depressing urban streets for example.
And do I still mean those things I said in that time and place? I don’t know. Will I still mean them if ever push comes to shove? I don’t know (and I intend to look at this more closely next time). But I do know that grace may well enable me to mean them again, should I ever be brought to the place where I have to speak them in earnest. Which I hope and pray I never am.
So ultimately, what does it all mean or prove? Nothing much, perhaps. Certainly not that I’m especially good or worthy – or it wouldn’t be grace. Nor has it prevented me from behaving in my usual not-very-Christlike ways subsequently.
And of course, though it was as real to me as meeting with a flesh-and-blood friend, there’s nothing in what I experienced that could convince any sceptic. You could easily put the whole thing down to the effects of emotion and environment, or else my digestive system. All I know is that to me it was real and (though ephemeral) of enormous importance.
Now it may be that God will meet with you in a similar way. But it seems more likely that he has something entirely different for you, according to your personality and needs and situation. So I write all this not to prescribe, nor to boast (I hope). I just wanted to share the experience. If God’s grace can touch a sinful, cynical semi-liberal like me, it can touch anyone.