How often do we equate an experience of God with good feelings? I regularly hear my students make this association. From time to time I ask them how God is at work in their lives. Their answers are telling: “My relationships with friends are really good” or “I did really well on my mid-term exam” or “My spring break trip was awesome!”
I don’t doubt their experience, but I do see in their answers a reflection of the feel-good culture in which we live. In North America, “experience” is often associated with the thrilling, successful, entertaining, or romantic. We look for “experience” at the IMAX theater, on roller coasters or romantic getaways, or through extreme sports. In contrast, we tend to avoid uncomfortable encounters, and we question experiences that leave us troubled or sorrowful.
Fred Edie, a youth ministry specialist, has observed this in his work with youth. He fears that because of cultural expectations youth may not be experiencing God to the fullest. He is concerned, moreover, that “equating experience with good feelings . . . threatens to distort authentic Christian experience of God’s living presence.”
Edie observes this most directly in worship. While we rightly enjoy God’s presence in enthusiastic praise and hear his voice in intimate devotion, we may fail to look for an experience of God in the prick of a guilty conscience, in the sorrow or brokenness of an intercession, or in the assurance of a baptism or the reverence of communion.
Authentic experiences like these are echoed in the psalms. The psalmists experience God when praising him for his abundant blessings. But at the same time, they testify to his presence in the midst of doubt (Ps. 13). They feel the conviction of God’s Spirit before confessing their sins (Ps. 32). They know God’s comfort and peace in the midst of pain and brokenness (Ps. 71). They experience holy fear in the presence of an Almighty God (Ps. 22:23).
Fred Edie calls these experiences a “real encounter with God.” In God’s presence we experience the “easy ecstasies of praise.” But God’s presence also “invokes awe, holy fear, lament, and cries for mercy.”
These experiences are countercultural. Yet they constitute an authentic Christian encounter with God. One of the blessings of Christian worship is that we have the opportunity to experience God fully. In worship we can know God in the “ecstasies of praise” but we can also experience God in the midst of confession, in prayers of lament and intercession, and in holy moments of awe and reverence.