How do we experience the love of God? I think a better question is to ask how we can become aware of the unceasing and unfailing love of God which is always being poured out upon us. It is not that God does not love us and so we do not experience his love rather it is that we are not always aware of his love and have not learnt to respond to the love which is always given to us.
When we begin to seek the experience of God it is easy to expect that we will be led by our feelings. If we do not have warm feelings, then we imagine that God is absent from us. But our feelings are always a poor guide. Rather it is necessary for us to begin to think and act in accordance with our faith and beliefs, whatever our feelings. Feelings will come perhaps, especially increasing peace, but we should not wait before acting. When we act in accordance with what we believe then things change for us, and eventually our feelings catch up.
In the book of Jeremiah, God says,
I will plan a plan of peace for you, and not to give you these evils. And pray to me, and I will listen to you. And seek me out, and you will find me, because you will seek me with your whole heart, and I will appear to you.
We can say that what is required of us is a commitment to seek God, and he promises that we will find him. But it is not always clear to us whether or not we are seeking God for himself, or for things and feelings which we hope to receive from him. If we were trying to be in a relationship with another human person, but our intention, whether obvious to us or not, was to receive things from that person, then we would discover that it was not possible to enter into a deep relationship at all. What we would have would be more like a business relationship. And when we no longer received what we expected, we would seek another relationship to satisfy our wants and desires, as if we were choosing to stop using one shop in town and were choosing to use another.
This doesn’t produce fruitfulness in human relationships and leads to the epidemic of divorce, and the idea of falling out of love. But in the Christian perspective and understanding, love is not a feeling we fall out of, but a commitment that we make and hold on to. Fruitfulness in relationships only really becomes possible with such a commitment, rather than when it is based on feelings.
What does this mean in relation to our experience of God? It does not mean that our feelings are never engaged in this relationship, but it does mean that as with all relationships, it is a personal commitment to act and think in a particular way which leads to fruitfulness, and which is coloured by feelings, rather than basing our relationship on changing feelings.
It is a lot like wanting to get physically fit. To a great extent our feelings don’t matter so much, and they may remain difficult even when we have started the process and commitment necessary to becoming fit. Indeed, we might have worse feelings than we had before, if we are very unfit, and then begin to exercise in an unaccustomed manner. Our muscles will ache, and we will feel sore and even in pain, and it will not seem that we have achieved anything for all of our effort and the cost of our discomfort. But it will be impossible to become physically fit unless we are willing to go through a stage where it is only our commitment that keeps us going. Even when we start to see results, we will often be required to rely on our commitment when things get difficult again. Without a commitment to act in a certain way according to our beliefs and understanding, and guided only by feelings, we will abandon the effort required to become fit.
It is the same in the spiritual life and in the effort required to experience the love and life of God. It is not that this experience is not always possible for us and that the love and life of God are not always present to us. But we are not spiritually prepared and equipped to experience the life of God in a manifest way without also engaging in a life-long process of becoming spiritually fit. Of becoming spiritual men and women. This process may begin in early childhood. It is not a matter of human maturity and intelligence or knowledge. It may begin in the years of youth, or early adulthood. But it may not begin to be realised until late in life if we fail to understand that the experience of God is not a matter of religious practice but of interior spiritual transformation through the grace of God, and with the commitment of our whole heart and mind and soul.
To begin to experience God requires this commitment to a process of spiritual development. It requires a commitment to act and think in a particular way. It requires a realisation that feelings do not measure our progress. At the very beginning it requires a few practical things be made part of our daily routine. There is no guarantee that we will have warm feelings or numinous experiences. But this is what is required, whether we find it easy or difficult, if we want to start finding the spiritual health and fitness that allows us to experience God.
#1. Every morning we need to thank God for all of the blessings we have received and enjoy. This should not be seen as an extra to our life, something that is certainly commendable but not really necessary. If we do not thank God for what he has already given us, then we will not discover that insight that allows us to experience the grace and gift of God in any other way. It is not enough to simply thank God for everything all at once in a single phrase. But we need to make a real effort to list all of those things we enjoy, and which we believe we have received from the hand of God.
The more of an effort we will make in giving thanks in detail, the more we will become aware of what God is already doing in us and for us. If we will not give thanks then the eyes of our spirit will remain closed, and we will not see God or experience God, even if he stands before us, and within us. Get a piece of paper. Take a pen in your hand. Begin to pray and to write down all the things that have been given to you by God and give thanks for them. The more things that you give thanks for, the better. Our feelings might not change. It might seem like a lot of work for nothing. But if we wish to come to an experience of God, this work is required of us, in a commitment to seek and find God.
#2. It is not enough just to give thanks in this way once, or even every morning. But we must also begin to give thanks to God for all that we receive every day, every hour, and at every moment. We must begin to make a habit of thanking God at the same time in which we thank someone else for some kindness or blessing or service.
This is not easy. We have to change our way of thinking. We will find mental and spiritual muscles resisting and objecting. But we need to make a commitment if we wish to change our perception of life and begin to see God and experience his presence. At first, we will probably miss many opportunities to thank God for his blessing every day. But little by little this should, indeed must, become a habit we have gained. Every time we thank God through the day, we are training ourselves and being trained to become more spiritually perceptive. This is necessary to our spiritual growth and to our increasing experience of life with God.
#3. More is required, even as a beginning. Take up the Bible every day. God will speak to us if we read the Gospels carefully and prayerfully. We are not so much, in this seeking after God, trying to gain an intellectual knowledge of all the events recorded there, but we are wanting to make it possible for God to communicate with us.
Take some time to be quiet and on your own. Find the Gospel for the day in online or in the Coptic Reader App. Pray the Lord’s Prayer slowly to settle your mind and quieten your thoughts. Now find the passage in your Bible and read it slowly, trying to understand what is being described. Then read it once more and try to notice what words or phrases stand out, or what ideas come to your mind, that are speaking to your own life and situation and problems and circumstances. Write down these ideas and reflections in this booklet. They do not need to be long. But they are a record of what God is saying to you by the Holy Spirit. Say a prayer of thanks to God, for making these reflections and thoughts come alive to you. Keep thinking about what you have learned and try to apply it to your life in the rest of the day.
This will require commitment and an effort. The sense of fruitfulness may not come immediately but the work is still required if we want to encounter God. In all of these things we are not expecting to make God become present to us, rather we are trying to do what is required on our part to prepare and be prepared or the encounter with God.
#4. Finally, as a beginning, and of course there are other aspects of the spiritual life we will expect to continue to participate in, such as the Eucharist, we need to make a commitment to praying the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is a short prayer that does not require a great mental activity. It is a prayer that we can pray at all times and we can and must make it a habit of our spiritual life.
The prayer is Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy. Or we can pray the form that we use in Midnight Praises… My Lord Jesus Christ, help me. We can also use it as an intercession for others, and pray… Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on X or Y. What is necessary is that we pray this prayer at the beginning as often as possible so that it becomes a habit. This is important because when we pray we enter into the presence of God, and the essence of the Christian life is the unceasing experience of God in constant prayer. Not the mental prayer of the Agpeya, which is useful to us of course, but the prayer of the Heart, which does not require great thought but does require the effort of turning our attention and the warmth of our heart towards God.
Pray this prayer in the morning, and the evening. Pray it when you are travelling. Pray it when you are shopping. At the beginning it is necessary to force ourselves to offer this prayer. The Bible says…
From the time of John the Baptizer until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful people have been seizing it.
What does this mean? It means that the Kingdom of God requires effort on our part. We have to exercise force and effort. At the beginning, our spiritual growth requires effort in these things I have suggested must be done. These are not all by any means. But they are a beginning. And practicing the Jesus Prayer will require effort and commitment, even if it seems that there are no immediate results, and it becomes tiring, or we would rather be doing other things.
But just as we cannot become physically fit unless we make a commitment and an effort, so we cannot become spiritually alive unless we play our part in the grace and mercy of God, and make every effort, with our whole heart and mind and soul. Because we will find God when we seek him with our whole heart, and we will discover that he was always with us, but it was the eyes of our own soul and spirit which were dim, and lacked the fitness to see.
Nor is this all that is required of us. But it is the beginning.