Spiritual Intimacy: A Historic Voice

The western world is preoccupied with relationships.  Look over this culture for a moment. As one observes, it becomes clear that people are inundated with techniques to improve friendships, broaden communication skills, increase entrée to new customers, or add passion to one’s marriage. Each day men and women slide thousands of glossy magazines from supermarket racks because the covers promise a new way to entice, intensify, expand, or perfect the human relationship.   Wander through a Barnes and Nobel bookstore.  From a wide list of thousands, bestselling books carry titles like:

  • Relationships 101
  • How to Make Anyone Fall in Love With You
  • How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends
  • Love, Sex, and Lasting Relationships
  • The Relationship Cure
  • A Practical Guide for Improving Communications and Getting What You Want in Your Relationship
  • Relationship Rescue

Publishers are churning out books and articles on relationships for one reason–they sell. They sell because people yearn to understand and experience healthy relationships.

One might ask, “Why are these relationships so important to us?” One obvious answer, at an admittedly symptomatic rather than root plane, is that people feel disconnected. Psychologist John Townsend offers this simple conclusion: “Disconnectedness…is the deepest and most fundamental problem we can experience…The problem: our need for attachment.  The solution: find intimate relationships.[1]

C. S. Lewis writes about this longing to find the deepest level of connection:

The books or the music in which we thought ‘the beauty’ was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited…Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.[2]

Lewis obviously knows that there is something more than our desire for interpersonal love. Our spiritual relationships reflect a sense of disconnection and the resultant hunger, too. A recent Google search found over 223,700 websites which offer strategies or contentions leading toward “intimacy with God or a “deeper relationship with God.” Amazon.com has almost 3,700 book titles under the heading “Intimacy with God.”  In these web sites and books, a wide variety of spiritual orientations and methodologies promise help on one’s search for supernatural connection. Like flamboyant boxes of breakfast cereals lining row upon row of shelves, they seek to catch one’s eye. Some examples: “Have the abundant life that Jesus promised!” “How to have a powerful and effective prayer life!” “Taste heaven now!” Researcher Robert Wuthnow observes, “One thing is clear: the search for community and the sacred will continue to characterize the American people. These quests will animate our values and the ways we relate to our friends and neighbors.”[3]

Admit it. We are consumed with intimacy, especially a deep intimacy with a God who transcends us. This struggle for a connectional intimacy with God is not a modern one. Throughout history, many Christians have wrestled with the same issues. The list of petitioners is august and broad of tradition, including many champions of the faith: Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Francois Fenelon, Ulrich Zwingli, John Newton, John Owen, C. S. Lewis, Henry Nouwen, John Calvin, Thomas Merton, Dallas Willard, A.W. Tozer, Mother Teresa, R. C. Sproul, and Henry Blackaby. In almost one voice, these Christians seem to agree that what is needed, holistically, is a deeper experience with the very person of God.[4] This seeking of a deeper experience of God has been one of the defining thrusts of Christian Mysticism. Might I offer some examples to give our own hunger for intimacy a bigger perspective?

What does the historic Christian voice have to say about our hunger for spiritual connection? In the 1950’s, A. W. Tozer looked over this historical pursuit of intimacy with God and wrote:

To have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too-easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart….Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God. They mourned for Him, they prayed and wrestled and sought for Him day and night, in season and out…[5]

Christians desire a relationship with God because it is the only thing which can really fill our hearts. Augustine understands, writing the famous phrase, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you.”[6] Some other examples from across the ages are helpful in sensing this common passion for spiritual intimacy. For example, in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury writes:

Lord, you are my Lord and my God, and I have never seen you. You have made me and nurtured me, given me every good thing I have ever received, and I still do not know you. I was created for the purpose of seeing you, and I still have not done the thing I was made to do. Come on then, my Lord God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you. Lord, if you are not here, where shall I find you?[7]

John of Ruysbroeck (1293-1381) agrees:

Each morning I awake, and pray that the Lord will come.  He will come in the breaking of my fast, and in my walk.  He will come in the sounds of nature.  He will come in the voices of those I know.  He will come in the needs of a stranger, or an opportunity to be empty.  This is the other coming of Christ our Bridegroom, which is present with us every day. We should consider it with a desiring heart, lest it should not take place within us; for it is needful, if we are to remain steadfast and to go forward in eternal life…Come, Lord Jesus, come. I am in desperate need of you.[8]

Blaise Pascal (d. 1662) writes in Pensees,

The Christian’s God is a God who makes the soul aware that He is its sole good: that in Him alone it can find peace; that only in loving Him can it find joy…[9]

Puritan pastor John Owen (d. 1683 ), in the language of his day, writes:

Communion consists of giving and receiving. Until the love of the Father be received, we have no communion with him therein…But this is that I say—When by and through Christ we have an access unto the Father, we then behold his glory also, and see his love that he peculiarly bears unto us, and act faith thereon. We are then, I say, to eye it, to believe it, to receive it! This is that [goal] which is aimed at![10]

John Stott, in 1958, writes simply,

“Father” and “Son” are the distinctive titles which Jesus gave to God and to himself. By union with him we are permitted to share something of his own intimate relation to the Father…The great privilege of the child of God is relationship; his great responsibility is growth.[11]

Brenning Manning, in Abba’s Child, writes,

The deepest desire of our hearts is for union with God.  From the first moment of our existence our most powerful yearning is to fulfill the original purpose of our lives – ‘to see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, follow Him more nearly.’  We are made for God, and nothing less will satisfy.[12]

Reflecting on his own spiritual life and those of other Christians, Charles Swindoll writes,

Lonely, hollow, shallow, and enslaved to a schedule…those words have haunted me for months.  I wonder how many who read these pages feel the same.  Perhaps you have not expressed your world in those words, but they describe why you feel so frustrated, so frayed…Thankfully, I have had the time to let those thoughts linger and spawn other thoughts until I arrived at the heart of the issue – a lack of intimacy.  Pure and simple, that best defines the problem: an absence of intimacy with the Almighty.  Involvements, yes, but not intimacy.  Activities and programs aplenty, but not intimacy.[13]

John Piper speaks of the persistent “ homesickness” for God which is in the human heart:

The only weapon that will triumph is a deeper hunger for God…What is at stake here is not just the good of our souls, but also the glory of God. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. The fight of faith is a fight to feast on all that God is for us in Christ. What we hunger for most, we worship.[14]

Joseph Stowell adds with hope,

While we have life and breath, God will not cease to pursue a rewarding, deepening intimacy with us. He is not content to leave us alone. His unconditional love for each of us compels Him. He wants to meet us at the intersection of every dream, every desire, every choice, every thought, and He urges us to turn toward Him and actualize the finished work of His Son, the gift of the Spirit, and the resource of His Word. He welcomes us to begin a pilgrimage that puts our back toward the aloneness of our souls and turns our faces toward the spectacular glow of intimacy with Him—toward life the way it was meant to be.[15]

It seems clear that Christians since the earliest times have experienced a spiritual awareness of an emptiness, perhaps one that is birthed in divine influence. Christianity seeks a God who has created in us a desire to connect with himself; a deep thirst which, “can only be quenched in one way—in a more intimate relationship with God…”[16] C. S. Lewis writes, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”[17]

[1] John Townsend, Hiding from Love (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991) 173.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, Theology (1941) 3-4.

[3] Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community (New York: The Free Press, 1994) 21.

[4] Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000).

[5] A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications Inc, 1948)

[6] Saint Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Frank Sheed (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1943) 1.

[7] Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, trans. M. J. Charlesworth, 2 ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979)??

[8] Saint John of Ruysbroeck, The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage: The Sparking Stone, the Book of Supreme Truth, trans. C. A. Wynschenck (London: J. M. Kent Publishers, 1916).

[9] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Peguin Books, 1966) 544.[6] Richard Foster, The Great Omission (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006) 18.

[10] John Owen, Communion with God (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1970 ) 23.

[11] John Stott, Basic Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1958) 166.

[12] Brenning Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1994) 271.

[13]Swindoll, Charles R. Intimacy with the Almighty: Encountering Christ in the Secret Places of Your Lives. Dallas: Word, 1996.   8-9.

[14] John Piper, A Hunger for God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997) 10.

[15] Joseph M. Stowell, Coming Home: The Soul’s Search for Intimacy with God (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1998) 24.

[16] Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice 222.

[17] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s