Imagine walking up a mountain alone. But it’s no ordinary mountain. The ground beneath you is shaking, and the entire mountain is covered in smoke. At its peak is a thick cloud with lightning and thunder. God descends onto the mountain in fire, and each time you speak to him, he responds in thunder. This is what Moses experienced in Exodus 19.
Now compare that experience to your last time in prayer.
Distracted, obligatory, ordinary — I doubt any such words came across Moses’s mind as he ascended the mountain. But some three thousand years later, we rarely marvel that God permits imperfect humans into his presence.
How did the shocking become so ordinary to us? Is it even possible for our experiences with God to be that fascinating?
Going Up the Mountain
A mentor of mine lives in India. Last year, he called me on the phone crying, distraught over the state of the church in America. “It seems like the people in America would be content to take a selfie with Moses. Don’t they know they can go up the mountain themselves? Why don’t they want to go up the mountain?”
When was the last time you enjoyed meaningful time alone with God? Time so good that you didn’t want to leave. It was just you, reading God’s words, in his holy presence.
I was fifteen years old when my youth pastor taught me how to pray and read the Bible alone. Now, more than thirty years later, I still can’t find a better way to start my days. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t refocus daily by going up the mountain.
It is alone with him that I empty myself of pride, lies, and stress.
- Pride: standing before a Person clothed in unapproachable light has a way of humbling you (1 Timothy 6:16).
- Lies: speaking to an All-Knowing Judge tends to induce honesty (Hebrews 4:13).
- Stress: kneeling before the God who causes men to fail or succeed replaces our anxiety with peace (Psalm 127:1).
We often spend a lot of time and effort gathering believers together. We’ve become experts at gathering Christians around great bands, speakers, and events. Where we have failed is in teaching believers how to be alone with God. When is the last time you heard someone rave about their time alone with Jesus in his word? Gathering believers who don’t spend time alone with God can be a dangerous thing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together:
Whoever cannot be alone should be aware of community. Such people will only do harm to themselves and to the community. Alone you stood before God when God called you. Alone you had to obey God’s voice. Alone you had to take up your cross, struggle, and pray, and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot avoid yourself, for it is precisely God who has called you out. If you do not want to be alone, you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.
The word community is thrown around quite a bit in Christian circles today. But our gatherings can be toxic if we do not spend time alone with God. I’ve been in many groups where people share their insights. The problem is not only that our insights are not as profound as we think they are, but that we’re so eager to share thoughts originating in our own minds, when we have a God who says,
My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9)
I want to know the thoughts of God. I want to gather with people who have been reading God’s words, people who have prayed and interacted with him. I want to fellowship with those who fellowship with God. I couldn’t care less if you have a doctorate in theology or sixty years of life experience. I would rather talk with a fifteen-year-old who has been in the presence of God.
Can You Love Sermons Too Much?
There is so much discussion around books, sermons, and conferences. I’m not against those. After all, I’ve given a significant portion of my life to preaching sermons and writing books and going to conferences. But sometimes I wonder if it’s time to shift our focus.
We have to look at the facts. American Christians consume more sermons and books than any other group in the history of the world, but consider the state of the church. Has the increase in resources led to greater holiness? Greater intimacy with Jesus?
You could argue that the state of our churches would be even worse without the resources. Maybe that’s the case. Or could it be that these resources (and even this article) has the potential of distracting people from the Source itself? Maybe all of these books and sermons about Jesus have actually kept people from directly interacting with him. It may sound blasphemous to suggest our prayer lives may be weakened by all of the consumption of Christian material. Nonetheless, I want to throw it out there.
We live in a time when most people have a difficult time concentrating on anything. We are constantly looking for the quick fix and for faster solutions. So the thought of sitting quietly to meditate on Scripture and praying deeply in silence can be eagerly replaced by listening to a sermon while driving to work. While it’s definitely better than nothing (considering all of the other messages we are bombarded with daily), the point of this article is to say that there is no substitute for being alone with God.
We must learn to be still again.
Something Has to Go
It was simple for Paul. He loved being with Jesus. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Knowing Christ deeply consumed him (Philippians 3:8). There is no substitute for being alone with God. If you don’t have time, you need to quit something to make room. Skip a meal. Cancel a meeting. End some regular commitment. There is literally nothing more important you could do today.
God literally determines whether or not you take another breath. “He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). Could anything be more important than meeting with the One who decides if you live through this day? Could anything be better? How can we not make time to be with the Maker of time?
What plans do you have today that you think so important that you would race past the Creator to get to them?