O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
Intimacy. We live in an age where intimacy is in high demand, but it seems to be in low supply. Where we have been taught to see ourselves primarily in terms of our individuality and relationships are increasingly being mediated through electronic communication, close connections with people is harder to come by, but yet, at the same time, neurotypical humans are all wired to seek some form of close connections with other persons. Where personal contact is in lower supply, we witness a corresponding reaction to seek it more intensely than before.
In the pains of loneliness and feeling distanced from others, it has become common for Christians to talk about intimacy with God. Yet, if we pay attention to the Scriptures, the Bible doesn’t talk much about the idea of intimacy, at least in the way we understand it in our Western culture. Nevertheless, the Bible is not unfamiliar with the longing to draw near to God. Psalm 63 is an excellent example, where the Psalmist expresses their desperation to find and draw near to God. Such desperation finds itself located in the middle of the psalmist’s fear for life and well-being, where the psalmist sees threats on the horizon. While this is not the exact same circumstance as our modern-day struggle with social disconnection, the difference between the psalmist and modern praise songwriters calling out for a closeness with God is less significant than the common way the worshipper longs to come into God’s presence as God is the focus of their constant thoughts and meditation. One might say that there is an obsession with God, much like we can see obsessions develop in the most intimate type of relationships in our day: romantic partnerships.
Yet, why is it that we seek intimacy with God? To listen to some speak, it is almost as if it is the end goal of the Christian life. However, I have always been a bit concerned about saying such, as the Scriptures nowhere suggest that the person’s experience with God is the goal of the life of the worshipper. God created us in His image, and so it is our ultimate purpose to live in God’s creation with the purpose God has bestowed upon us. While that necessarily puts our relationship to God as centrally important in living our purposes, there is no much indication that we are created to long for only an experience with God, with intimacy with God. Instead, we see a consistent hope through the Scriptures for righteousness and shalom, which ultimately are the lived-out experience of right relationships with God. each other, and the world around us that brings about sustained well-being and thriving.
We do see the psalmist in 73rd Psalm profess he desires only God (Psalm 73.25), but this is expressed as the psalmist sees the wicked prospering: the psalmist, in the end, resolves to seek after God rather than to continue to envy the life of the proud (Psalm 73.3) as a commitment to retain his innocence rather than risk giving into the lifestyle of the wicked (Psalm 73.12-14). In the face of in-your-face evil and wickedness, to have one’s heart set on the world is to direct one’s life to the wicked pursuit of thinks and to walk away from the will of God, or as James say: friendship with the world is hostility with God (Jam. 4.4). At the heart of the Psalmist’s sole desire for God is to retain one’s faithfulness, as they became wounded and acting like a fool in the midst of their envy (Psalm 73.21-22). To long after God is to long for God’s hand to continue to guide and direct the psalmist, with the hope of receiving honor in the end (Psalm 73.23.24). In looking at this psalm, we might understand the sole desire for God not as a normative expression for believers at all times and seasons, but how believers need to think to receive God’s guidance and strength in the midst of wicked, evil times.
One pattern that we might suggest is expressed in Psalm 63 and 73 is the therapeutic hope of longing for intimacy with God. As the psalmists express their weakness as they see evil lurking and threatening, their desire for God is tightly intertwined with relieving them of their weakness and fragile state (Psa. 63.1, 5; 73.26). In a similar vein, the apostle Paul hears from the Lord that in the midst of his weakness with the thorn fo the flesh, God’s grace is perfecting him (2 Cor. 12.7-10). As God draws near, there is healing from what ails and has wounded. Intimacy with God is a source of healing for our lives and souls with all the burdens we carry.
This is one of the primary motivations for intimacy in the first place. While there is something good in and of itself with various forms of social relationships such as close friendship, marriage and family, etc., the desire for close social connections is primarily rooted in our need to protect ourselves through our bonds with others. To be alone, to be disconnected, to have few close relationships means that one is in danger if one experiences hardship and threats, as we rely upon others to help us when we are weak. The experience of intimacy, then, is the formation of a bond with another person that unconsciously signals to us that there is someone who will be there for us in our time of need. It harkens back to our infant relationship with our mother and other caretakers, whose presence and care soothed us when we could do nothing for ourselves. At the heart of the desire for intimacy is the desire to create, maintain, and remember those relationships that can sustain us in the future, if the need arises.
For instance, due to struggles with loneliness and isolation over the years, for a time I experienced a heightened, lingering anxiety that I will be alone when my parents pass away which instilled a deep desire to be close to someone so that I can have someone I trust cares for me and will be there for me. In addition, having been the recipient of multiple wounds and traumas from people that made me feel like I was unworthy of affection, attention and made me fearful fo romantic and sexual relationships, the desire for intimacy was only strengthened as I desired the experience of intimacy that would heal me of those wounds by showing them they were wrong and that someone who will have a respect for me as a person. The desire for a close bond and intimacy was ultimately a hope for an experience that would heal me from those wounds and assuage those fears. The basic human instinct for connection and intimacy for a basic sense of connection was then burdened by multiple traumas that would create unrealistic if not unhealthy dynamics for a bond (I instinctively understood this that I readily accepted because I had ambivalent feelings about intimacy). Yet so many unhealthy relationships have been created because of this instinctive drive to heal through intimacy. While intimacy can be a good source of growth and healing, unrealistic desires for intimacy often put undue burdens on the other person.
This is why, in the end, seeking God as the source of intimacy is sorely needed in our society and time. As my experience seeking after God and discovering God’s response over these past few months has brought me to a place of contentment from the ravaging memories of mistreatment and trauma, I came to a healthier desire for intimacy. I discovered God’s care and provision in stark, unmistakeable ways as I had to face head-on the fears and anxieties that lurked underneath the surface from years of pain, bringing me to a place where wholeness was much nearer, even as I still feel a basic longing for marriage and a family. As I felt like the world was hopelessly set against me much like Psalms 63 and 73, I came to experience the healing of God to encourage and strengthen me. Seeking intimacy with God is a therapeutic engagement by God to restore us so that we can move towards fulfilling our image-bearing purpose within God’s creation, enabling us to also lived in the right relationships with others also created with this image-bearing purpose and the world God created. Intimacy with God restores our capacity to be the people God longs for us to be.
Yet, just like desiring intimacy with other people can take on an unhealthy and unrealistic form, so too the desire for intimacy with God may take on a form that can actually mislead us. God can respond to us in the midst of our insecurities in a way that others can not effectively or healthily do, but yet we may still place expectations about God and even transgress boundaries and become presumptuous in seeking intimacy with God. When we feel close and intimate with someone, there is oftentimes a feeling of personal knowing and understanding that is available to others. When this desire gets directed towards God, it may manifest in the idea that God is making secrets known to the person that he hasn’t revealed elsewhere.
For instance, take the example of the “translator” of the Passion translation of the Bible, Brian Simmons. One can watch a video interview of Tremper Longman, Old Testament scholar, by Mike Winger on the problems with Winger’s translation, particularly in the Sons of Songs here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBC2z0URxYE&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR2NdmZ6d9fIGxg4l-Moz_pjsFgUsqNWRqAsw6c3gMx7puhpHvhLjkvIg1I&ab_channel=MikeWinger. If one looks at 0:32-1:00 in the video. one can see the mindset of Winger. He believes that he has an intimate relationship with God where he has received revelation to speak to the Church. Seeking intimacy with God is taken to go beyond God’s help in our time a need, a very Scriptural idea, to a belief that he has a special relationship with God that enables him to speak revelatory words to others. If one takes the idea of intimacy with God too far, one may come to the place where one projects onto God one’s idealized pictures of intimacy and risk misunderstanding or entirely missing God as He is.
We do not see what the Bible would categorize or call revelation being made through intimacy. In fact, the recipients of intimacy are often unaware and surprised by God, with God being far from the thoughts of the recipients of revelation at the time of revelation. Moses was surprised by God at the burning bush. Samuel has no idea God was calling to him when he first heard his name. Isaiah was unclean with his sin before he was healed and prepared to be a prophet. Saul was on the way to persecute Christians when Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus. This is not to suggest that revelation is only made to those who are unprepared and evidence no sense of intimate experience with God, the point to be gleaned is this: God choosing to make revelation know to a person isn’t about one’s intimacy with God. It is about God’s choice to do so for larger purposes than simply providing knowledge and insight. Moses was to lead Israel out of the Exodus. Samuel was call to lead as a judge and eventually appoint the kings of Israel. Isaiah was to proclaim a message that would hinder the mind of the people of Israel. Paul brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. While they each enjoyed a closer relationship with God that gave them further inspiration as they deepened into their ministry, revelation was not about receiving an intimate word from God, but about dramatically and surprisingly making Himself known to someone for a deeper purpose.
Furthermore, while Jesus enjoyed the deepest, closest, most intimately possible relationship with the heavenly Father was given words to speak by God, what Jesus made known wasn’t unambiguously clear from what He directly expressed. Rather, one had to continue in Jesus’ word, much like the Psalmist extols the one who meditates on God’s instruction (Psalm 1.23). God’s disclosure through His Son Jesus did not provide a direct, unambiguous sense of truth, but his disciples only began to understand through events of the cross and resurrection and the leading of the Spirit of truth. Disclosure through intimacy doesn’t just convey secret thoughts, but it is given in a way that only those who also have come to seek and know God deeply can understand. Intimacy does not beget ‘revelation’ that is comprehensible to others upon a first hearing or reading. Much like a lover’s poetry alludes to but does not give a direct description of their experience of the beloved, the disclosure that comes through intimacy with God is something deeply personal and not readily consumed by any and all hearers or readers.
The danger of putting a large emphasis on seeking intimacy with God is that we may begin to have a motivation to see ourselves getting special, secret knowledge that isn’t available to others that we then get to be the ones to transmit it. The feeling of intimacy can emerge from our memories of closeness and how our own thinking modifies our own bodily states into a place of peace, much like how thinking about a close, loved one can bring peace over one’s heart. Yet, when we think about the loved one, most of us recognize that the person is not there in that moment. Yet when it comes to a God we do not see with our own eyes, we may treat this sense of closeness and warmth as due to God’s presence and word and overlook the role that our own memories and minds have in how we perceive and make sense of God. If God is deeply engaged with us genuinely, then God will guide us in the midst of it, but if we impress so much onto the idea of intimacy with God that we are manufacturing our sense of God from our own memories, then we can convince ourselves we are receiving revelation from God when in fact we may simply be receiving stuff from our own inner, unconscious self, some of which may not be true or so good. The risk of overemphasizing seeking intimacy is that we may end up in an intense navel-gazing and then label it God. When our desire for intimacy is then connected to our deep, instinctive desire to be safe, cared for, healed, etc., what may come out in those moments may reflect more our own brokenness and what we want God to be. Hence, we need to rely on external confirmations along the way, especially when it comes to the translation of the Scriptures needing the benefits of careful, critical study and attention.
Intimacy with God who responds to us is available and can bring about healing in our lives so that we can live our God-given purposes to be image-bearers. Yet, if we make it the end goal of our relationship with God, if we exalt it to levels that the Scriptures do not do, then we risk projecting our own selves onto God, and with it, speaking “truths” that are really just a reflection of our own pains and longings. God heals us through the pains and uses them to testify to His love and glory to the world as our weakness is a place where a loving God will make Himself known, but expressions from our own woundedness that intimacy seeks to heal does not provide a reliable word from God.