The following is an excerpt from the new ESV Men’s Devotional Bible (Crossway, 2015).
Does the idea of communion with God draw you in or push you away? There is much in our lives that distracts and prevents us from experiencing genuine communion with God. Living in a fast-paced society with endless demands and countless opportunities can mean that slowing down to commune with God can seem indulgent if not outright impossible. Amid our busyness, we can even find ourselves feeling guilty when we are not constantly accomplishing things.
But interpersonal relationships are not “things” to be accomplished. They are more about “being” than “doing,” and they need attentiveness, mutual exchange, and care to flourish. Relationships cannot be life-giving sources of strength if we are not present in and to them. Communion with God is a deep need for every human, whether we acknowledge the need or not. Communion with God is how we were made to function, and it is ultimately about a loving and very present relationship with the triune Creator.
As Christians, we are called to cultivate loving concern for other people, but this must always be understood in light of how we are drawn into a life-giving relationship with God himself (e.g., Deut. 6:4–5; 7:7–9; Lev. 19:34; 1 John 4:19). We are commanded to love and obey God, not because God is a tyrannical dictator but because he created human beings to be lovers and he knows what makes for human flourishing. His is the way of “life and good” as opposed to the way of “death and evil” (Deut. 30:15–20). We were made to enjoy our Creator, to bask in his faithful presence. He knows how life-giving communion with him works, and he grieves over how sin threatens to distort our fellowship with him. Love, even with the Creator, is meant to be mutual, not simply unidirectional: we are to listen and speak, to receive and give. Being in communion with God and with others is the key to human flourishing (Eph. 4:32–5:1).
So why is communion with God so challenging? Our sin and the sin in the world destroy communion and drive us to flee from God. But we were designed to delight in our Creator, to find his presence and power as our great comfort and strength. As believers we not only have been rescued from the damning consequences of sin but also have been invited into restored fellowship with God. The world is still broken, and so are we. This brokenness affects every part of us, including and especially our relationship with God. Once we discover forgiveness and the promise of communion with the God of the universe, we are ushered into a holy sanctuary. In his divine presence we inevitably see our sin, but we also discover the depth of his grace and the incredible truth that he desires to be with us. He desires communion with us so much that he died in order to make it possible (Rom. 5:6–8).
Once we have been embraced by Christ, our vision should focus much less on our sin and much more on the riches of God’s mercy and love. But how do we get to this place of restored vision and hope? It is in and through our renewed communion with the triune Creator that we experience genuine security, the intimacy of being a child of God, and the transforming power that comes through fellowship with him. This side of glory, we have only tastes of such unhindered communion, but these tastes point forward to what is to come and give us strength for ourselves and strength for those around us.
Because of our daily struggle with sin, it can be easy to wonder how our relationship with God can have any stability or growth. Christians sometimes wonder if their actions are significant in light of God’s sovereignty and grace. Does it make a difference if I pray or not? Do my attempts at faithful living matter to my relationship with God, or does his grace mean my actions are irrelevant? If Christ died for my sins and all I need to do is believe in him, why should I meditate on Scripture or help the poor? These thoughts can hang dark question marks around our time with God, but God is not afraid of hard questions.
We need to take note of a classic theological distinction between “union” and “communion.” In order to delight in the promise of communion with God, we must first come to rest in our established union with Christ. These two must be distinguished and yet kept together if we are to appreciate the fullness of Christian living.
First, Christians are those who, by the Spirit, are united to Christ. Employing organic imagery such as a vine and its branches (John 15:1–17), Jesus makes it clear that his people are meant to have their identity and life in him alone. Similarly Paul reminds his readers that Christ is in us (e.g., Eph. 3:17; Col. 1:27), and we are in Christ (e.g., Rom. 16:7, 9–10; 1 Cor. 1:2, 30–31; 2 Cor. 12:2). This is why Paul can say that we have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), that we have been raised with him (Eph. 2:6–7), and that he is now our life (1 Cor. 15:22). Thus we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11). By the Spirit we are born again, with our new identity secure in the risen Lord (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Pet. 1:3–5). Because of this strong union, Christians can be confident and secure in God’s love for them (Rom 8:1, 37–39). Our union is not based on our ability to keep the commandments: our obedience does not make God love us more or less. We are secure in God’s love as we are found in Christ (Gal. 2:16–17; 3:26). Union is all about Christ’s finished work and not about what we might feel or do on a given day.
Second, Christians are those who, because they are united to Christ, are able to enjoy communion with God. Whereas our union with Christ neither grows nor diminishes, our experience of communion can and does. So while our prayers or lack of prayers do not make us more or less united to Christ, they do make a real difference to our enjoyment of and fellowship with God. Union establishes the relationship; communion is the mutual communication and experience that happens within that relationship. A negligent husband may still be united to his wife in marriage, but that does not mean their relationship is flourishing. Their legal union does not mean that life-giving communion is taking place. The benefits meant to be experienced out of that union are not fully enjoyed when such disregard is occurring. Husbands who neglect communication with, attentiveness to, and care of their wives do not only hurt their spouses; they hurt themselves as well. Believers who are careless in their communion with God are like spouses who ignore the one they claim to love. God invites us not only to be secure in our salvation but to flourish in our relationship with him. We call this communion with God.
We don’t need to go on a three-day retreat or read extensive theological treatises in order to enjoy communion with God. What we do need is to learn to savor the love, grace, and fellowship of our triune God (2 Cor. 13:14). As we meditate on the mercy of God in Christ, we are slowly soaked in the life-giving love of the Father and the transforming grace of the Son. All of this occurs in and through the presence and power of the Spirit, who secures us in our fellowship with God.
Here are a few practical suggestions. First, cultivate a hunger for the Scriptures. Meditate on them, for here we can be confident that we discover the truth about our God and what it means to be in relationship with him (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2). Second, partake of the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis, for this is a normal means of God’s grace to us (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Third, seek opportunities to care for the needy and vulnerable. Biblically, there is a strong connection between loving widows, orphans, and the poor, and loving Jesus (Matt. 25:35–40; James 1:27). As God’s love moves through us to others, we ourselves often grow in our love for him (1 John 4:16–21). Fourth, seek refuge in God through times of prayer. Adopted by God, we confidently approach the Father because he has “sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6; see also Eph. 1:3–6).
Think of a healthy relationship that you have been in or one that you have observed between others. The things that mark that strong relationship likely include care and attentiveness, time together, communication, mutual understanding, and shared joy. Human beings were created for such life-giving relationships, and they are the fuel of our souls. As a Christian, you are secure in your union with Christ, and this union makes communion with God a joyful possibility. Be assured of your union with Christ and go flourish and gain strength in communion with him.