Intimacy with God can happen right now if you want it. A closeness you can feel, a goodness you can taste, a reality you can experience for yourself. That's what the Bible promises, so why settle for less? God is closer than you think, and connecting with him isn't just for monks and ascetics. It's for business people, high school students, busy moms, single men, single women . . . and most important, it's for YOU.
God Is Closer Than You Think shows how you can enjoy a vibrant, moment-by-moment relationship with your heavenly Father. Bestselling author John Ortberg reveals the face of God waiting to be discovered in the complex mosaic of your life. He shows you God's hand stretching toward you. And, with his gift for storytelling, Ortberg illustrates the ways you can reach toward God and complete the connectionto your joy and his.
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God Is Closer Than You Think
By John Ortberg
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2005 John Ortberg
All rights reserved.
GOD'S GREAT DESIRE
For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living....
During the first year of our marriage, Nancy and I spent two months traveling around Europe. We lived on a budget of $13.50 per day for food, lodging, and entertainment. We breakfasted every morning on bread and cheese. We lodged in accommodations compared with which the Bates Motel in the movie Psycho would be an upgrade. Entertainment on that budget consisted of buying Time magazine once a week and ripping it in half so we could both read it at the same time.
We splurged in Italy, where we blew one whole day's allowance on a single meal and spent money we could not afford to look at the treasures of Western art. The highlight of the day came after standing in line for hours at the Vatican to view Michelangelo Buonarroti's brilliant painting of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His masterpiece is one of two works of art that serve as touchstones for this book. (I'm saving the other one for the next chapter.) If you look carefully at the painting, you notice that the figure of God is extended toward the man with great vigor. He twists his body to move it as close to the man as possible. His head is turned toward the man, and his gaze is fixed on him. God's arm is stretched out, his index finger extended straight forward; every muscle is taut.
Before Michelangelo, art scholars say, the standard paintings of creation showed God standing on the ground, in effect helping Adam to his feet. Not here. This God is rushing toward Adam on a cloud, one of the "chariots of heaven," propelled by the angels. (In our day they don't look quite aerobicized enough to move really fast, but in Michelangelo's day the angels suggested power and swiftness.) It is as if even in the midst of the splendor of all creation, God's entire being is wrapped up in his impatient desire to close the gap between himself and this man. He can't wait. His hand comes within a hairbreadth of the man's hand.
The painting is traditionally called The Creation of Adam, but some scholars say it should be called The Endowment of Adam. Adam has already been given physical life — his eyes are open, and he is conscious. What is happening is that he is being offered life with God. "All of man's potential, physical and spiritual, is contained in this one timeless moment," writes one art critic.
Apparently one of the messages that Michelangelo wanted to convey is God's implacable determination to reach out to and be with the person he has created. God is as close as he can be. But having come that close, he allows just a little space, so that Adam can choose. He waits for Adam to make his move.
Adam is more difficult to interpret. His arm is partially extended toward God, but his body reclines in a lazy pose, leaning backward as if he has no interest at all in making a connection. Maybe he assumes that God, having come this far, will close the gap. Maybe he is indifferent to the possibility of touching his creator. Maybe he lacks the strength. All he would have to do is lift a finger.
The fresco took Michelangelo four years of intense labor. The physical demands of standing on a scaffold painting above his head were torture. ("I have my beard turned to the ceiling, my head bent back on my shoulders, my chest arched like that of a Harpy; my brush drips on to my face and makes me look like a decorated pavement.... I am bent taut like a Syrian bow.") Because he was forced to look upwards for hours while painting, he eventually could only read a letter if he held it at arm's length above his head. One night, exhausted by his work, alone with his doubts, discouraged by a project that was too great for him, he wrote in his journal a single sentence: "I am no painter."
Yet for nearly half a millennium this picture has spoken of God's great desire to be with the human beings he has made in his own image. Perhaps Michelangelo was not alone in his work after all. Perhaps the God who was so near to Adam was near to Michelangelo as well —at work in his mind and his eye and his brushes.
THE "EVERYWHERENESS" OF GOD
This picture reminds us: God is closer than we think. He is never farther than a prayer away. All it takes is the barest effort, the lift of a finger. Every moment —this moment right now, as you read these words —is the "one timeless moment" of divine endowment, of life with God.
"This is my Father's world," an old song says. "He shines in all that's fair.... In the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere." The Scriptures are full of what might be called the everywhereness of God's speaking. "The heavens are telling the glory of God; ... day to day pours forth speech."
He talks through burning bushes and braying donkeys; he sends messages through storms and rainbows and earthquakes and dreams, he whispers in a still small voice. He speaks (in the words of Garrison Keillor) in "ordinary things like cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music, and books, raising kids —all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through."
GOD'S GREAT DESIRE
The story of the Bible isn't primarily about the desire of people to be with God; it's the desire of God to be with people.
One day I was sitting on a plane next to a businessman. The screen saver on his computer was the picture of a towheaded little boy taking what looked like his first shaky step. "Is that your son?" I asked. Big mistake.
Yes, that was the man's son, his only child. Let's say his name was Adam. The picture on the computer was taken three months earlier, when Adam was eleven months old. The man told me about his son's first step and first word with a sense of wonder, as if Adam had invented locomotion and speech. There was a more recent picture of Adam on the man's palm pilot. The man showed it to me. The same picture could be viewed more clearly on the computer. The man showed me that. He had a whole string of pictures of Adam doing things that pretty much all children do, and he displayed them one at a time. With commentary. I and my seatmates got a graduate course in Adamology.
"I can't wait to get home to him," the man said. "In the meantime, I could look at these pictures a hundred times a day. They never get old to me." (They were already getting pretty tiresome to everybody else in our section of the plane.)
Why was the man so preoccupied with Adam? Was it because the boy's achievements were so impressive? No. Millions of children learn to do the same thing every day. My own children (I wanted to tell him) had done the same things at an earlier age with superior skill.
The man was preoccupied with Adam because he looked at him through the eyes of a father. Everything Adam did was cloaked with wonder. It didn't matter that other children do them as well.
"You obviously miss your son," I said. "How long ago did you leave home?"
One day away from his son is one too many. So he was rushing through the skies, taking a chariot through the clouds, implacably determined to be at home with his child. He didn't simply want to love his son from a distance. He wanted to be with him.
And then it hit me. I am the child on God's screen saver. And so are you. The tiniest details of our lives never grow old to him. God himself is filled with wonder at our faltering steps and stammering words —not because we do them better than anyone else, but because he views them through the eyes of a loving Father. God shows our pictures to the angels until even the angels get a little tired of looking. And the story of the Bible is first of all God's story —the story of a father rushing through the clouds to be at home with you. One day apart is one day too many.
THE PRIMARY PROMISE: I WILL BE WITH YOU
The central promise in the Bible is not "I will forgive you," although of course that promise is there. It is not the promise of life after death, although we are offered that as well. The most frequent promise in the Bible is "I will be with you."
Before Adam and Eve ever sinned or needed forgiveness, they were promised God's presence. He would walk with them in the cool of the day.
The promise came to Enoch, who "walked with God." It was made to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah, to Jacob and Joseph and Moses and David and Amos and Mary and Paul and too many others to list. It is the reason for courage: "Do not be terrified; ... for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." It kept them going in darkness: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me."
God gave Israel the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant and manna and the temple and a pillar of cloud and another one of fire, like so many Post-It notes saying, "Don't forget. I am with you."
When God himself came to earth, his The central promise redemptive name was Immanuel—God in the Bible is not with us. When Jesus left, his promise was "I will forgive you." to send the Spirit so that "I am with you The most frequent always, even to the end of the age." promise is "I will
At the end of time, when sin is a distant be with you." and defeated memory and forgiveness is as obsolete as buggy whips, it will be sung, "God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God."
"The unity of the Bible is discovered in the development of life-with-God as a reality on earth, centered in the person of Jesus," write Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. God is determined that you should be in every respect his friend, his companion, his dwelling place.
"I CAN FEEL HIM WALKING AROUND ..."
"Find a place in your heart," said an ancient sage named Theophan the Recluse, "and speak there with the Lord. It is the Lord's reception room." Some people seem to find this room easily. Friends of ours have a daughter who said when she was five years old, "I know Jesus lives in my heart, because when I put my hand on it I can feel him walking around in there."
Sofia Cavalletti is a researcher who has pioneered the study of spirituality in young children. She finds that children often have an amazing perception that far surpasses what they've already been taught. One three-year-old girl, raised in an atheistic family with no church contact and no Bible in the home, asked her father, "Where did the world come from?" He answered her in strictly naturalistic, scientific terms. Then he added, "There are some people who say that all this comes from a very powerful being, and they call him God."
At this, the little girl started dancing around the room with joy: "I knew what you told me wasn't true —it's him, it's him!"
Writer Anne Lamott was raised by her dad to be a devout atheist. She and her siblings all had to agree to a contract to that effect when they were two or three years old. But Anne started backsliding into faith at an early age. "Even when I was a child I knew that when I said Hello, someone heard."
Some people seem to have a kind of inner radar for detecting the presence of God. Just as certain musicians have perfect pitch, these people have an ear for discerning God's voice. They seem to be as aware of God as they are of gravity. Telling them how to look for God would be like telling a fish how to look for water —where else could they live?
But I am Adam. I believe my life hinges on the presence of God. I know that courage and guidance and hope all reside with him. But I am aware of the gap —even if it is only a hairbreadth. And in the midst of all my ambiguity — my weakness and occasional spiritual indifference —I long for the touch that will close the gap.
Dallas Willard (who lost his mother as a young child) writes of a little boy whose mom had died. He was especially sad and lonely at night. He would come into his father's room and ask if he could sleep with him. Even then he could not rest until he knew not only that he was with his father but that his father's face was turned toward him. "Father, is your face turned toward me now?" Yes, his father would say. You are not alone. I'm with you. My face is turned toward you. When at last he was assured of this, he could rest. Dallas goes on: "How I'm aware of the lonely life is! Oh, we can get by in life with gap— even if it is a God who does not speak. Many at least only a hairbreadth. think they do so. But it is not much of a And I long for the life, and it is certainly not the life God touch that will intends for us or the abundance of life Jesus close the gap. came to make available."
I want to live with God's face toward me. I want to experience —in the dark of night as well as the light of day —the reality that Moses prayed for: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you."
GOD WITH JACOB
Who is a candidate for such a life? Saints and mystics, of course; the devoted and the wise. But not just them. The candidates also include people who are chronically unsatisfied. Restless people and demanding people; whiners and complainers; the impossible to please.
Consider what happened to Jacob. He was no spiritual giant. His dad never cared for him much because, according to Meyers-Briggs, he had an INFP temperament and liked to hang around indoors. His dad preferred his other son, Esau, who, while not the brightest bulb on the chandelier and having a serious body hair problem, was a jock with hunter-gatherer potential.
One night Jacob was running away from Esau, who was trying to kill him because Jacob had cheated him and deceived their father. Jacob stopped for the night at "a certain place." That's a Hebrew way of saying no place in particular. Cleveland, maybe. It could have been anywhere. Some spot by the side of the road with nothing special about it.
Jacob had done nothing to merit what was about to happen to him. He had been a passive codependent of his mother's schemes, a jealous rival to his brother, and a brazen liar to his father.
But that night Jacob had a dream. He saw a ladder "resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." God said to him:
"I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.... I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go...."
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.... This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven."
There is more than one form of sleep. Sometimes we are awakened by blessing: the birth of a baby, an unexplained healing; a marriage that was headed for divorce getting turned around. Sometimes we are awakened by suffering: God would later reveal himself again to Jacob by wrestling with him and dislocating his hip. The soul is pierced by beauty and suffering. But each moment that we live outside the awareness of God's presence is a kind of sleepwalking, which is why Paul wrote, "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." Somebody's eyes get opened to the fact that God is right here in this ordinary place, with this ordinary person.
The striking phrase of Jacob is "and I was not aware of it." Somehow he was looking in the wrong direction. Apparently it is possible for God to be present without the person recognizing that he is there. Apparently it is possible that God is closer than you think.
This is Jacob's discovery.
Jacob calls this place where he had the dream "Beth-el," that is, "the house of God, the place where God is present." It is transformed for him from "a certain place" — nowhere special — to the place inhabited by God himself.
WE AREN'T CLIMBING JACOB'S LADDER
We used to sing a song about this story in the church where I grew up: "We are climbing Jacob's ladder.... Every round goes higher, higher...." But the song gets the story wrong. It's not a ladder for human beings to climb up. It's a ladder for God to come down. All the way down to where we live.
This is the story of the God of the Sistine Chapel. God is still in the business of coming down to earth: to this cubicle, this email, this room, this house, this job, this hospital room, this car, this bed, this vacation. Any place can become Bethel, the house of God. Cleveland, maybe. Or the chair you're sitting in as you read these words.
Jacob's life starts to change, but not all at once. God's presence does not mean he is exempt from problems or character flaws. Yet his journey has begun. Eventually he decides to take the enormous risk of reconciling with his brother; instead of ripping him off, he wants to give back to him. He sends on ahead extravagant gifts: 220 goats, 220 ewes and rams, 30 camels, 50 cows and bulls, 30 donkeys, and a cat. (Actually, there is no cat in the story. The cat is not a biblical animal. Apparently even God doesn't like cats.)
Jacob sees his brother after two decades of separation and hatred. We wait to see whether Esau will kill him. "But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept."
Excerpted from God Is Closer Than You Think by John Ortberg. Copyright © 2005 John Ortberg. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. God's Great Desire, 11,
2. Where's Waldo?, 27,
3. Life with God, 45,
4. The Greatest Moment of Your Life, 61,
5. A Beautiful Mind, 77,
6. Waldo Junior, 95,
7. Spiritual Pathways, 109,
8. "As You Wish", 125,
9. When God Seems Absent, 139,
10. The Hedge, 155,
Scripture Versions, 169,