The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.
In 1985, after seven years of marriage, my husband, Duncan, had become a full-blown alcoholic. Then my world exploded when I discovered he was also having an affair. Pregnant with our second daughter, I was already emotionally volatile. But now, day after day, I secretly wept in the shower of our newly built home that overlooked the Gallatin Valley.
Although Duncan eventually quit drinking, ended the affair, and started attending Alcoholics Anonymous, our marriage remained fragile. Sobriety was tough, but adding a baby to the turmoil stretched our sanity paper thin.
The tension grew unbearable. I felt stung by his betrayal and reacted with hot flashes of anger. I started checking his whereabouts, the phone bill, and his wallet. Trust was shattered, and the deep hole of sorrow sucked me into its gloominess. My wrestling mind asked all the whys and what ifs that follow a loss. In time, I grew weary of the pain. I longed to overcome my emotions and return to some semblance of normalcy.
Duncan experienced increasing hopelessness about his life as well. He’d tried counseling and treatment programs. He faithfully attended AA meetings and worked the twelve steps with a sponsor. But he didn’t feel better.
Finally, one average weekday morning turned into an unforgettable day. Duncan came downstairs in his stockbroker suit and tie, ready for another eight hours of high-energy appointments and urgent phone calls.
He entered the kitchen to say good-bye, his neatly combed hair still wet from the shower. We exchanged a perfunctory kiss on the cheek, and he drove off in his pickup. But less than a mile from home, overwhelming despair forced him to pull over. Later, he explained what happened.
The motor idled, but his thoughts raced. On a hillside with a bird’seye view of our town, he took account…my wife, the kids, a brand-new house, nice cars, recreation whenever I want, and plenty of money…why am I so unhappy? I don’t drink anymore. The affair is over. So why don’t I feel better? I’ve made such a mess of things with Susan. He looked out the windshield at the beautiful valley on a spring morning. I don’t even enjoy this. Everything is ruined. What’s the use? As hard as he tried, he couldn’t shake the feeling of futility. It was the darkest void he’d ever been in.
Now he understood why people shot themselves. In agony he yelled, “God help me! God! Please help me,” and stretched out his palms in the cab of his truck, reaching for something unseen.
A calming, powerful presence entered the truck and surrounded him. The presence was magnificent and stunning, yet somehow as real as anything, and even intimate. He knew instantly that it was God. There was no denying it. A serene voice inside his head said, Everything is going to be okay. He sensed God telling him that recovery and healing would take time. A perceptible peace flowed over him like soothing water, and his anguish subsided.
Later that day when we met with our counselor at an alcohol treatment program, Duncan felt the same presence come into the room, as intense as it had been before. As the counselor spoke, Duncan wept a stream of tears. I’m not exactly sure what was said, but it was all about Jesus, and in those moments, my husband became a follower of Christ.
A heavenly transaction had taken place, and nothing else mattered. Duncan is a passionate person, and his experience of God was no different. His primordial cry wouldn’t have been satisfied with a pastoral platitude. He needed nothing short of an authentic encounter with the God who knew his deepest need. And from that day on, he understood that God was profoundly relational.
From the beginning, he didn’t worry about regular church attendance or maintaining a perfect-behavior scorecard. He wasn’t compelled to earn a degree in systematic theology. And although helping orphans has become his life’s work, he didn’t initially run out and start programs for the poor. His initial and lasting expression of faith was a hunger and thirst to know the God who had visited him in his truck. This alone brought deep satisfaction. With guitar in hand, he spent many early mornings singing to his newfound love.
It was just the beginning, but he’d encountered something authentic, and he knew it.
In stark contrast, I grew up in a churched family, but the idea of having a relationship with God was little more than Christian rhetoric.
I knew God existed in a general, transcendental sort of way, but I didn’t know I was missing something. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty for anything.
My spiritual experience was all coloring inside the lines. One day Duncan said, “If you don’t have a living, moving, breathing relationship with God, you have nothing.” I nodded, agreeing theoretically but wondering, What does that really mean? Relationship implied connection, contact. Sure it had happened to him, but was that possible for me? Talking to other Christians, I realized my queries were not unique. Everywhere I raised the question, others seemed to share my ignorance. If I mentioned the idea of hearing God’s voice or connecting with him in a real way, I’d get the fisheye, or at best, pensive stares. If you actually believe God can speak to people, you risk getting put in the category of crackpots and fanatics.
Actual contact sounds far-fetched, ludicrous, and presumptuous. People envision Jim Jones the Kool-Aid leader, David Koresh, and glassy-eyed smiley people.
Nevertheless, as I looked in my Bible, it was hard to miss that God got up close and personal with more than a few people. Moses and Abraham, for instance. But of course, they were uniquely chosen by God. Maybe I was just a twentieth-century housewife with an overactive imagination. He’d spoken to my husband, but I had been raised in the church and was reluctant to believe in spiritual hocus-pocus. Call it what you will, but I was loyal to the Way-We’ve-Always-Done-Things type of church.
Then one summer, I decided to study the book of Acts. To my surprise, I found a living, moving, breathing kind of God. The Holy Spirit supernaturally interacted with those first followers as they started building the kingdom of heaven on earth. Something stirred me.
I wanted that. I longed for real contact with God. Living in a different time, under different circumstances, shouldn’t exclude me from that sort of relationship. I didn’t buy “that was then; this is now.” Yet when I looked at all our Christian literature, tapes, sermons, college curricula, and camp programs, the relational aspect of our faith seemed sorely underdeveloped. We give it lip service, telling others our faith is not a religion but a relationship with God, yet we fail to unpack the cliché. True seekers are left hanging. People yearn for a genuine connection with God to the point where they accept substitute gods they can see and touch.
It’s nothing new. The Israelites grew tired of waiting for Moses’s God and had a golden cow. Lacking the hope of something more tangible and satisfying, are we any different? If Christianity is a story about restoring relationship with God, there must be more to it.
I didn’t set out to write a technical how-to manual on experiencing God. Neither is this a theological case for hearing God’s voice today. Other authors have ably laid that foundation.1 I don’t pretend to be an authority. These are just some notes I’ve taken along the way. My hope is that through them you might find something beyond the familiar and the formulaic, and see the possibilities for knowing God yourself. What you’re about to read is how I discovered that God was interacting with me all throughout my life, beginning in my childhood. As I grew up, several obstacles kept me from knowing him. These were gradually overcome. Then I learned to slow down, listen, wait, and notice things that were more than simple coincidence. Hearing God’s voice was like learning a new language. I started with the basics and gradually picked up more nuances.
The Bible says, “God speaks once, or twice, yet no one notices it.” Most people have no template for intimacy with him, yet it isn’t enough to simply believe in God. You need more than a religious paradigm. You have to experience him.
I found that God not only spoke in the crises but also in the mundane events of my life. Soon intimacy with God was no longer a myth. He was available, responsive, and interested in making contact. I only had to ask and believe it was possible in the first place. After all, God himself said:
And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. And I will be found by you.
God is knowable.
1. CHAPTER ONE – FOLLOWING ALICE
Have you ever sensed a “sneeze” moment with God? See what you can remember and share some of these experiences with your group. You might want to start a “book of remembrance” to log your spiritual sneeze moments with God.
2. CHAPTER TWO – BASIC TRUST
Picture yourself in a large room with God. What would he say to you? What would you say to him? How far or close are you? Do you want to embrace him or run? What parallels do you see to your experience of your earthly father?
3. CHAPTER 3 – POINTS OF CONTACT
What helps you feel God’s presence? How do you make time for those things? Are there other ways you’d like to try to experience his presence? You might consider reading some inspirational biographies (see www.closerthanyourskin.com for ideas).
4. CHAPTER FOUR – LOVE CAME DOWN
Take time to think about how you first came to God. Share your thoughts with your group. If you’re not sure, share what you’ve experienced so far. Write out your faith journey to tell your story in your own way.
5. CHAPTER 5 – GOT RELIGION?
Are your prayers ritualistic? Are you trying to do everything right spiritually? When you miss church, do you feel bad about yourself? Do you keep a scorecard on your spiritual activity? Do you do things to be noticed at church? Share your responses and check out Susan’s website for the complete Religiosity Self-assessment.
6. CHAPTER 6 – NEVER GOOD ENOUGH
Have you experienced God in a personal way? Do you struggle with ongoing sin? Are you likely to give up something for Lent or make a New Year’s resolution? Do you accept blame often? Do you apologize a lot? Share answers with your group and see the website for more.
7. CHAPTER SEVEN – EXPOSING MARTHA
Have you ever made an “inner vow?” Talk about a few of these in your group. Do you know how to rest? Is this problem worse for women than men? Discuss how this issue affects your own life, then read Luke 10:38- 42 and discuss it together.
8. CHAPTER EIGHT – AMBUSHED BY LIFE
Why do bad things happen to good people? Have you put God on trial for causing you pain? A crisis can open doors for God to speak, or rather, for us to hear. Share an experience where you sensed God’s comfort in a time of crisis.
9. CHAPTER NINE – INKLINGS
Do you believe you can know God intimately? Keep a journal to log special verses, dreams, coincidences, or impressions, and plan to share about any message God confirmed through two or more experiences the next time your group meets.
10. CHAPTER TEN – PUZZLES
Discuss a Biblical parable or metaphor that’s significant to you (for example, gardening involves planting, pulling weeds, watering, pruning). Take turns interpreting how the metaphor relates to your lives and explain its meaning for your group.
11. CHAPTER ELEVEN – THANKSGIVING.COM
Do you tend to be optimistic or pessimistic? How has this shaped your view of God? Make a list of things you are thankful for, adding to it every time you think of it. Discuss any changes in your outlook the next time your group meets.
12. CHAPTER TWELVE – UNWINDING
Do you have a religious agenda–something you’re doing for God? How do you think recognizing our “bankruptcy before God” changes one’s faith? For the next week, start your day by asking God, what He’s doing today, and report to your group what happened.
13. CHAPTER THIRTEEN – THOUGHTS ON DESTINY
Desiring to help others and fix a broken world is natural and good. But if God’s not in it, our labor is in vain. When you consider the specific purpose God created you for, is anything blocking you from that? Often, the supernatural, mysterious side of God can make us uncomfortable and cause us to struggle with trying to fix things on our own. Discuss.
14. CHAPTER FOURTEEN – ANCHORED
Do you understand the term “silent divorce”? Share your views on some of the inherent spiritual challenges of marriage. Where do you feel most fulfilled? Does God factor in? Why is vulnerability so important in close relationships? Discuss with your group.
15. CHAPTER FIFTEEN – REPAIRING DESOLATIONS
Do you recognize any patterns of behavior in your life that echo an original wound? Have you seen others living out of their wounds? Share your observations. Read Matthew 18: 23-35 as a group and discuss practicing intentional forgiveness with those who have hurt you.
16. CHAPTER SIXTEEN – NO STONES OR SNAKES
Does raising a child in today’s world scare you? Discuss the struggle of ensuring they’ll adopt your values. How does one set an example of authentic faith in hard times? In what ways can we teach them how God works through events in our lives?
17. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN – STEADFAST LOVE
How does one balance between an invasive, godless culture and an overprotective Christian bubble? Should we be honest with children about our own process of spiritual growth? Describe the ways we can share with children about how God answers and guides us.
18. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN – THREE HAMMERS
Have you experienced two-way conversation with God? Do specific prayers test God or are general prayers weak and less effective? Discuss with your group. Try reflexive prayer over the next week and pray about whatever comes up. Listen and let God lead you, then share your experiences with your group.
19. CHAPTER NINETEEN – A BALD MAN IN PLAID
How can we tell the difference between heavenly and earthly wisdom? Read James 3:13-18 and discuss your responses. Patiently listen for what God says about you first, then ask him to reveal things about members of your group, consulting Scripture together (see website for more).
20. CHAPTER TWENTY – PSYCHIC CHRISTIANS?
Do you fear the enemy’s power to deceive you? Discuss the safeguards in the chapter. Are there others you would add? The Holy Spirit always speaks in unison with Scripture, with love and hope, so read the Bible for yourself (and check out www.closerthanyourskin.com for more).
21. CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE – BELOVED
Do you sense a gap between knowing about God and actually knowing him? Is it hard to trust? If our stories are often short and tragic, how does that square with the larger story God is telling? Share about ways God has proven his love to you–maybe through a dream, a painting, or a Scripture–weaving the message into numerous experiences.