Why can't I feel God's presence?
While some Christians – certainly worship songwriters - seem to bask in a constant and glorious glow of God's love and joy, for others it's more of an occasional glimpse, or an unknown quantity. New Christians who've "prayed the prayer" of repentance and faith may feel disappointed if "nothing happened".
My early journey to Christ was peppered with tantalising tastes of the Holy Spirit, to be crowned with an amazing experience of God's love. However since then, it's been a rollercoaster. There have been long periods where I've not felt God's presence, times of prayer-driven glorious joy, plus relaxed times when there was no 'feeling' but a very real sense that God is there.
All this chopping and changing has meant that I've read a lot of books on this subject, listened to many Christian testimonies, and wrestled with God about it. I don't have 'the answer', but here are some ideas.
1. There may be nothing 'wrong'
The Psalms are full of the emotional ups and downs of a relationship with God. Admirable Christians, such as Mother Teresa and Todd White, have said they rarely experience a 'feeling' of God's presence. Faith isn't the same as feelings.
Thomas's encounter with the risen Christ must have been amazing, yet Jesus said others are blessed: "those who believe without seeing me," (John 20:29, NLT).
In searching to know God's presence, it's tempting to follow rules. But generating a checklist in our head of "Pray 30 mins, read three chapters of the Bible, sing a song and I'll get what we want" isn't going to help. We love to try to find ways to control God, but we can't. There is no magical formula. We are all individuals and God relates to us each in a unique way.
Having said that, I think there are some avenues that can be explored – as well as talking to your church leader.
2. Letting go
In the West we are so used to being in charge and having control. We decide most aspects of our lives, and there are few societal boundaries to limit us. But Jesus says, "If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it." (Matthew 16:25, NLT). Full surrender requires a great deal of trust, and can be an alien experience, but it's worth pursuing.
3. Common blocks to feeling God's presence
If you have experienced trauma, or feel shame and anxiety, it can be hard to feel loved by God and trust Him. Jeannie Morgan's book, "Let the healing begin" explores some of these difficulties, or a good Christian counsellor may be able to help.
Then there are some other barriers that could be put under the heading of "sin": the most obvious, but also some of the 'hidden' sins of criticism and judgment, resentment and pride. Recently I've had some amazing releases of God's presence when I've just stopped criticising something. The "Freedom in Christ" course is one way to get a thorough spiritual health check – or try the many books written by the course author, Neil T Anderson.
4. Trust in God's love & focus on Him
The problem with concentrating on our own feelings is that it can distract us from God Himself. There are so many wonderful aspects of God to occupy our minds: Jesus's life on earth, His teaching, what he has done in our own lives or the lives of people we know, Jesus' taking of all our sins on the Cross. God's love isn't proven by our feelings, but what He has done, continues to do, and who He truly is.
5. Try different approaches
Different Christian 'tribes' and theological frameworks have very different ways of dealing with this issue. Some churches would discourage 'seeking God's presence' at all, others could make you guilty if you don't. It's worth listening to alternative points of view. Try something different: reading Christian classics such as 'The Cloud of Unknowing' or Brother Lawrence, the Bethel movement led by Bill Johnson; retreats, great worship music and different styles of prayer can help. Spend time meditating on relevant Bible passages, such as Ephesians 3:14-21, which includes the wonderful words, "May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully."
All of the above involves 'seeking' after God. Jesus promised that seekers would be rewarded: "Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you," (Luke 11:9, NLT) followed by a promise that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. Whatever our feelings, we can still trust that Jesus is there, as He said He will be with us forever (Matt 28:20).
May the desire to know God more intimately and closely, and to feel His love, be a blessing to you, as it encourages you to go deeper in your relationship with God.