When I saw Jeffrey Archer’s play Beyond Reasonable Doubt on the London stage, I surprised myself by weeping. Admittedly, the play is a little melodramatic. The main character, a lawyer named David Metcalfe, has been accused of murdering his wife and successfully defends himself in court.
Then, in flashbacks, we learn that his wife actually died of an overdose of medication which he administered, at her request, to save her from excruciating pain in the final weeks of death by cancer. It is during these flashbacks that we see the extraordinary intimacy and tenderness between the two of them, the absence of which makes David’s life without her almost unbearable.
It was the amazing intimacy, I think, that caused me to weep. I could not bear to think of a human being experiencing and then being deprived of it.
Francine Klagsbrun, in her book Married People, discusses the nature of intimacy and enumerates several key factors present in it. First, intimacy requires a complete acceptance of the other person just as he or she is, so that each person is unafraid to be open and honest with the other. Second, it implies that each person feels important to the other. Third, it means the creation of an environment in which secrets can be shared with complete confidence.
Fourth, it accepts the fact that there will be periods of distancing as well as closeness, and that the distancing will not destroy the relationship. Finally, intimacy means truly communicating, listening with sensitivity, and assuring the other that he or she is safe in the exchange.
Every human being longs to have intimacy with someone else — to be open and loving and safe together.
But what about with God?
Is it possible to be intimate with God as well, to have this open, sensitive, creative relationship with the eternal One who presides over our destinies?
The Bible suggests that it is.
Oh, we’re not to forget that there is always what Kierkegaard called “an infinite qualitative distance” between us and the Almighty. We must not assume too much.
But intimacy, communication, a sense of well-being together — yes, that is entirely possible. The psalms often breathe an air of intimacy. The Song of Solomon 2:8-17, read at a spiritual level, suggests it. The prophet Hosea glories in it. Jesus obviously experienced it — and Paul and John and other New Testament figures.
How can we achieve a sense of intimacy with God?
Let me offer some suggestions.
- Get to Know God’s Story.
This is always a first step toward intimacy, isn’t it? In any romantic encounter, in the beginning of any friendship, there is the sharing of information, getting to know the other person’s history.
“Tell me all about yourself.”
Isn’t that the lover’s plea?
God does have a story. His history is in the Bible, and in the books of church history and the books about other people’s experiences with Him. In fact, God’s story is probably better documented than that of any other figure we know. It is woven in and out of all the history books, all the philosophy books, all the books of religious experience ever written.
It amazes and frightens me to think how few people today seem to be interested in discovering as much of God’s story as they can. They are busy reading and talking about everything else in the world, from computers to music to sports, but they don’t seem to be motivated to learn about God. The New York
Times best-seller list seldom contains a book about God.
It’s almost as if we lived in the “brave new world” described by Aldous Huxley, in which the Bible and Shakespeare and all the books about God are locked up in a safe so people can’t read them; only in our society they don’t have to be locked up because most people don’t want to read them anyway.
How can we be intimate with a God whose history we don’t know? We should all be constantly reading and listening and learning about God; then we will have taken the first step toward intimacy with Him.
- Spend Time With God.
You can’t have intimacy with anyone you don’t spend time with.
You can even lose intimacy, after you’ve had it, with someone you have stopped spending time with.
I have seen it often with married couples. They come to the counselor, complaining that they don’t feel good about each other anymore. Pretty soon, it comes out in the open. “You’re hardly ever home anymore,” she says, “and when you are you’ve got your eyes glued to the TV set!”
“Oh, yeah?” he says. “Well, you’re always on the phone to our daughter or you’re running off to some meeting at the church!” In the end, they realize that if they want their marriage to work, if they want intimacy to return, they have to give it time to do so. They literally have to make time for it.
People often remark on the closeness my wife and I enjoy. I will tell you the secret of it. Twenty-two years ago, when I was a young professor busy with teaching, writing, and speaking, I received a sabbatical year. We decided to spend it in Paris. For the first time in my life, I had big chunks of unprogrammed time to use in any way I chose. Our children were both in school for the first time.
My wife and I often spent half-days together walking through the beautiful city or sitting on a wall along the river Seine. We had been married fifteen years, but it was as if we had just discovered one another. Ever since then, we have valued the time we have together. We have struggled to create time when our schedules denied it. Being together has produced intimacy.
It is the same with God.
Study the life of any great saint, from Augustine to Mother Teresa. The story never varies. They are people who have time for God, who make time for God. Mother Teresa, as busy as she is, working fifteen-hour days, always begins her day with Mass. She begins with God. Then everything she does becomes sacramental.
When you have learned to do this, you miss God if you have to skip a time with Him.
Who was it, Paderewski, who said, “If I don’t practice for a month, my audiences notice it. If I don’t practice for a week, my friends notice it. If I don’t practice for a day, I notice it.”
That is the way it is with spending time with God. When we miss doing it, if we are accustomed to it, we know it.
Get to know God’s story.
Spend time with God.
III. Seek to Please God.
That’s what we would do next in a human relationship, isn’t it? We would try to do something that would give the other person pleasure.
This person buys another flowers. This one brings candy. This one prepares a special meal. This one gets tickets to a play.
This one arranges a moonlight cruise.
And it doesn’t stop when two people get married. It is an essential ingredient of intimacy throughout the relationship.
A few months ago, one of our friends arranged a special birthday celebration for her husband. She took him on a trip that was a series of surprises for him. They drove to a lovely bed-and-breakfast home in the desert. They had a special dinner. After an early breakfast the next morning, she took him on a little drive into the desert and drove up to a colorful hot-air balloon waiting to bear them aloft. They had a wonderful sail out over the coast, stopping enroute to pick lemons off a fruit tree.
The husband has not ceased talking about this fantastic trip.
You can understand that it has contributed to the intimacy he shares with his wife.
Now, what can you do to please God?
There are many things.
You can undertake a program of personal change and reform.
You can make a pilgrimage to some special place of faith.
You can make a significant donation to a church or charity.
You can establish a relationship with a needy person and help that person back to solid ground in his or her life.
You can offer your services to a church or a charitable agency.
There are countless things.
But, as in the case with the woman who arranged the balloon trip for her husband, the best gifts you can give God will be designed in your own imagination. You will think, “What can I give the Creator of the world who has shown His love to me in Jesus Christ?”
You may even try to think of a new thing each week, and make the devising and bestowal of some new gift the pattern of your life.
I promise you, it will carry you along the road to intimacy.
- Reflect on What Your Life is Becoming With God
Finally, when you have learned God’s story and spent time with God and tried regularly to please God, I recommend that you pause occasionally to reflect on what your life is becoming with God — on how being related to God is changing your existence — and then surrender to the flow of this alteration.
We do this with any new discipline or influence in our lives. When we are undertaking an exercise program, we reassess our progress and adjust the strenuousness of the exercises. When we engage in a course of study, we pause to think about what we have learned and how that impinges upon everything else we know.
When we consider our relationship to God and what it is doing in our lives, we can only give thanks and receive inspiration to intensify the relationship.
I think about a friend in this congregation who has been a Christian for only a few years. It has been exciting, in the last couple of years, to hear him speak self-consciously of what is occurring on his pilgrimage. Some time ago, he was visiting with a former partner in business. She observed that he seemed always to be going to church these days. He said he took the opportunity to tell her about what a difference God has made in his life. She replied that she would like to go to church sometime. Afterward, he reflected on the conversation and realized that he was now witnessing to his faith. He could see his own growth occurring. It was an exciting moment.
I don’t mean that we should spend our time feeling our pulses to see how we’re doing. But there should be times of introspection when we think about the journey we’re making, how far we’ve come, and what we ought to do to facilitate our future progress.
When I taught courses on prayer in the divinity school, I asked my students to keep journals of their experiences during the semester. Each day, they would write about their prayer lives and other things that impinged upon their spiritual formation. In the years since, I have often had a former student say to me, either in a letter or in person, “I am so glad you had us keep a journal. It began a practice I have never given up, and it still rewards me when I look back and see the distance I have come.”
May I summarize for you? First, learn God’s story. Second, spend time with God. Third, seek to please God. And, fourth, reflect on what your life is becoming with God.
Do these things and you will find yourself growing in intimacy with God.
Maybe you saw the movie A Field of Dreams. It is a beautiful, whimsical story about a young farmer who hears a voice in the cornfield say to him, “If you will build it, he will come.” Build what, he wants to know. A ball park, he learns. Who will come? Shoeless Joe Jackson, the great star of the Chicago White Sox. So the farmer plows under his corn and builds a ball diamond. And sure enough, one day Shoeless Joe Jackson walks out of the cornfield and begins to play ball. So do seven other White Sox players, and then some old New York Giants. It is a lilting, tender story, and it probably sounds crazy if you haven’t seen it, but it almost invariably gives people’s spirits a lift.
“If you will build it, he will come.”
That’s the promise we are dealing with too, isn’t it? If we will create the right conditions in our lives, God will come and dwell in them. God doesn’t make the intimacy. We do. But God never fails to reveal Himself intimately to those who make the overtures, those who take the simple steps of preparing for His presence.
Build your life in these ways and He will come.