God and Goosebumps
“I really experienced the presence of God at that revival service!”
“As the worship band was playing that song I really felt God touch my soul.”
“God’s presence was so thick at that service that people were just falling over in the aisles!”
From what I have observed, statements like the above are extremely common among Christians today, especially in our American context. They reflect a view of God’s presence with His people which is deeply rooted in mysticism and in a heresy that the Protestant Reformers identified as “enthusiasm” (literally, “God within-ism”). It is the view that the manifestation of God’s special presence with His people can be measured by what I would call “the goosebump meter”. The idea seems to be that the more goosebumps you get as a result of a religious experience, the more God is making His presence known to you. Many contemporary churches implicitly buy into or promote the spirituality of the goosebump meter by re-labelling their worship service “the worship experience“. (After all, in the man-centered, narcissistic, self-absorbed context of American Pop Christianity, worship is all about me and my experience rather than about God and His grace & glory manifested in the cross of Christ.)
Is this view of God’s presence biblical? Is the “goosebump meter” a valid biblical way of knowing God’s presence and blessing? Or does God’s Word point us to a better, more certain way of knowing and being assured of God’s presence?
Let me start by making a few important clarifications. First of all, when talking about God’s presence and how we know or experience His presence, we must distinguish between God’s omnipresence (on the one hand), and His special, saving presence with His people (on the other hand).
The Bible teaches that the true and living God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is omnipresent. This means that all of God is present everywhere, at all times. God is the infinite, transcendent Creator and Providential Lord over heaven and earth. Among other things, this means that He is not bound by creaturely limits, such as time, space, matter or any other creational factors. In fact, it is impossible for God not to be present everywhere, for by definition God is everywhere present. All people, even hardened atheists and skeptics who vigorously deny the existence of God, live and move and have their being in the God whose existence they deny (Acts 17:28), for God’s presence is inescapable in view of His attribute of omnipresence. The Scriptures abundantly testify to the omnipresence of God, both by direct statement and by implication (for example, see First Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7-10; Psalm 145:3; Psalm 14:2; Matthew 28:20; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:3; etc.).
On the other hand, the Scriptures also indicate that God is with His people in a special way, in a way that goes beyond His simple omnipresence. God’s Word indicates that God is present with His believing people in a way that He is not present with unbelievers – namely, God is with His people in saving grace and covenant blessing.
The goal of God’s covenant of grace is God coming to dwell – to be present! – amongst His people in abiding grace, peace and blessing (see, for example, Genesis 17:7; Revelation 21:3-4, 22, etc.). And God’s covenantal presence means shalom – God’s peace, grace and blessing, and the wholeness that results!
The Garden of Eden was the first temple of God, where Adam and Eve used to fellowship with their Creator before mankind’s fall into sin, a fellowship of life that was symbolized by the tree of life (Genesis 2:9). After the fall, the first couple was cast out of the garden-temple, barred from the gracious presence of God (Genesis 3:22-24). The rest of redemptive history is an inspired record of God’s plan in history to restore His gracious dwelling among mankind, initially through the covenant nation of Israel, and ultimately through the Person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament tabernacle and temple were pictures of God’s coming to dwell in the midst of His people. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who came to dwell among us (John 1:1-3, 14), is the ultimate fulfillment of the temple symbolism, for He is the Living Temple, and in Him the church has become a dwelling place of God by His Spirit (Ephesians 2:22; see also First Peter 2:4-5, 9-10).
The point of all of this is that, if you are a Christian (i.e., if Jesus Christ is truly your Lord and Savior), then God’s special, gracious presence is always with you, whether or not you “feel” His presence in your personal goosebump meter. Not only does God by His Spirit dwell in and with the believer; more significantly He dwells with His church corporate, for where two or more are gathered in the Name of Christ, He is there in their midst (Matthew 18:20, the context of which deals with the church’s exercise of church discipline, though I believe the principle taught in this passage can be applied beyond the matter of church discipline).
So how and where do we personally experience Gods’ presence, and what are the signs of God’s presence in our midst as His people? Popular Christianity today would seem to teach that things like goosebumps arising from a powerful, emotional religious experience, often brought on by the emotional manipulation of hyper-repetitious worship songs, are to be understood as indicators of God’s presence with His people (i.e., the “goosebump meter” view I wrote about above). But I would assert that the Bible nowhere teaches the “goosebump meter” view of God’s presence. In fact, goosebumps and other subjectively induced factors can be deceptive, since Satan and our own sinful flesh can manufacture powerful religious experiences, as can time-tested techniques of crowd manipulation as practiced by many of today’s television evangelists and “vision casting” pastors (see the warning of Second Corinthians 11:12-15). Instead, God’s Word indicates that God’s special presence with His people is known and experienced through objective, external means – namely, the Word and the sacraments, received with personal trust in Christ and His gospel promises.
Where do we today find signs of God’s dwelling among His people? Wherever the Word of God is faithfully preached and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered according to Christ’s command, and in the Christian community of a faithful church gathered around the gospel word and sacraments, there God comes to dwell in the midst of His people in grace and blessing (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42-47; Romans 6:3-4; 10:17; First Corinthians 10:16-22; Hebrews 10:24-25; etc.)!
Believer, if you are looking for a sign that God is present with you, you need not strive after a mountaintop emotional experience produced by hyped-up revivalistic fervor. You simply need to open up the Bible sitting on your bookshelf. God’s special presence comes to us in His word-revelation. His Law exposes your sin and shows you your need for Christ. His gospel reveals that all your sins have been forgiven through Christ, and that He will never leave you nor forsake you! What more do you need than His Word to assure you of His presence?
But God knows that we are weak creatures of flesh, and that we need as much assurance as we can get of His shalom and presence. So He has also given us the ministry of the Word and sacraments, which He has entrusted to the community of God’s people, the visible, organized church. So, even more important than personal Bible reading and prayer, the public means of grace serve as powerful signs of God’s presence and Christ’s kingdom. Christ is really present in word and sacraments, not in a physical and carnal manner, but by His Spirit. However you might feel subjectively on a given Lord’s Day, when you gather with God’s people in the community of the church around God’s word and sacraments, God assures you of His peace and presence, even in the absence of goosebumps. God’s Word is objective, unchanging and reliable, not subjective, ever-changing and unreliable (like our emotions), so we can bank on that word. And to us believers that word is a word of grace!
How do I know God is present with me in grace and blessing? Not because my goosebump meter is reading high and I constantly experience an emotional-religious high, but because the Bible, God’s objective, outside-of-me Word, tells me so! Because God has promised in His gospel that Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead to earn for me the gift of eternal life, and therefore that all my sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake! Because in my baptism God has pledged that Jesus has washed me clean from my sins and renewed me by his Holy Spirit. Because in the Lord’s Supper Jesus assures me that His body was broken “for you” (even me!) and His blood was shed “for you” (even me!). All of these promises of grace are most certainly true, whether or not they happen to produce goosebumps. What more could I want? What more could I or anyone else need?
I’ll admit that sometimes the wonder of God’s Word does produce in me goosebumps, especially when I think about His amazing grace to me, an unworthy sinner. The good news of salvation in Jesus does indeed bring joy and excitement to my soul when I consider it! But I’ll take God’s objective, reliable Word any day over the subjective, unreliable “goosebump meter” approach to spirituality, especially on those “bummer” down days of life that we all inevitably face. I encourage you, dear reader, to do the same.