A personal relationship with God, like all relationships, is full of ups and downs. No matter how strong our faith, there are times when we feel closer to Him and times when we feel further away. And I am not only referring to difficult times when our faith is challenged. Even in the best of times we do not always relate to God as though He is standing right in front of us.
Of course, the reality is that the Lord is with us at every moment. There is no place absent of His presence. He is always here. But we don’t relate to Him that way. The truth is, that we can’t relate to God that way. We wouldn’t be able to function. Imagine if the creator of heaven and earth were visibly in the room with you. Would you be able to have a conversation with your kids? Would you be able to get any work done?
Just think about what you are reading right now. We are talking about God. But if He is right here in the room with us, isn’t it rude for us to speak of Him in the third person as if He isn’t here? The answer is, no. God allows us room to live our lives. While we need to be aware of Him at all times, He does not expect us to be so conscious of His presence that we always treat Him as though He is standing beside us.
Just like a parent who welcomes the independence of their child as they mature, the Lord allows us space to develop our own identities and to live our lives. He wants us to have relationships with other people and to be productive in His world. As I mentioned, if we felt His presence right before us at all times, we would not be able to grow.
So how do we make the transition from speaking about God to speaking to Him? The answer is: prayer. The Lord allows us to invite Him in to our lives through our worship of Him. Think about this. We could be having a very faith centered discussion about God; speaking of Him in the third person. Then, we decide to worship Him. Suddenly, at our own choosing, we begin to address Him in the second person, speaking directly to Him. What brought about that change? We did. We chose to enter in to a more intimate and direct relationship and He allows us to do this.
You may be thinking that speaking about God in the third person is a step down in our relationship to Him, but this would be incorrect. There is really nothing wrong with relating to God in the third person. In fact, these two different ways of relating to the Lord are expressed throughout the Book of Psalms. There are psalms that speak about God. There are psalms that address God directly in the second person.
As I mentioned, in worship we choose to feel God’s presence more directly, but there are other times when the circumstances of life force us to feel His intimate presence even if we didn’t choose it. Have you ever been thrust into a moment of extreme danger or extreme joy and instinctively spoken directly to God? At that moment, did you choose to feel His presence around you, or did the extreme situation simply make you aware that He is there; that He is with you?
An example of this transition from speaking about God to speaking to Him is found in Psalm 23.
A psalm of David: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. In the beautiful pastures He lays me down; towards waters of tranquility He leads me. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
For the first three verses of Psalm 23 the Lord was referred to in the third person, He. Now, in verse 4, a sudden and dramatic change takes place. The Psalm shifts to the second person. Instead of speaking about the Lord, we are speaking to Him.
Even as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff; they comfort me.
Why the change? What happened?
The answer is right there in the opening words of this verse.
Even as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
Remember what I wrote above about times of trouble and danger? When the circumstances of life bring us to the point of crisis; when we feel darkness and mortality – the shadow of death – closing in on us, people of faith turn to God in prayer.
When times are good, and we feel that we are grazing in green pastures and drinking tranquil waters, it is easier to speak about our faith in God. We don’t feel the urgent need to turn to Him. But when times get tough, just as we pick up the phone and call Mom and Dad – as people of faith, we yearn to speak to our Father.
For many people, difficult and painful times in life cause them to feel even more distant from God. They feel that He has forsaken them. The message of Psalm 23 is that a life of faith produces the exact opposite effect. Ironic as it may seem, it is just those times of crisis that provide opportunities to truly feel God’s presence and love in our lives. Life has its painful moments. There are going to be difficult times. God never promised us a problem free existence. Just as our parents love for us comes rushing to the fore when we need them most, our relationship to God has the opportunity to grow closer in suffering, not more distant.
It is in those dark times of life that we need to feel His closeness and protection. It is no longer enough to talk about Him. We need a closer relationship. We need to feel His presence right there with us. We need to speak to Him.
I fear no evil for You are with me.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Associate Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding & Cooperation in Jerusalem www.CJCUC.com. He is the author of Cup of Salvation: A Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise www.cupofsalvation.com and co-Founder of Blessing Bethlehem, a program that assists the struggling Christian community of Bethlehem www.blessingbethlehem.com.