If you've been a Christian for a while, you've inevitably heard someone say, "Christianity isn't a religion; it's a relationship." The point is that walking with Jesus isn't about following a whole bunch of religious rules. It's about leaning into the Lord and learning to respond to His leading. But if we're honest, sometimes it doesn't feel like much of a relationship, either.
Whether you're a brand-new believer or someone who's walked with Jesus for decades, you've likely had moments where you wished that relationship felt more authentic. Maybe your prayers feel like they never make it past your ceiling. Or it could be that you don't feel the presence of God like you used to, and you’re not sure what changed.
What does it mean to be close to God?
One of the first questions we need to address is "what does it mean to be close to God?" If we're not clear about our expectations, we can end up frustrated and worn out.
If a husband told a marriage counselor that he wanted to get closer to his wife, he's probably not talking about proximity. He's around his wife a lot. What he wants is to feel closer to her. He wants to experience some level of enthusiasm that he had when their relationship first began. When they can't be together, he wants them to miss one another and long for each other's presence.
These kinds of desires are similar to what the typical Christian is talking about when they say they want to feel closer to God. They want an emotional response. They want to experience that closeness tangibly. Like the husband working on his marriage, we don't want to maintain this relationship through willpower alone. We want to feel its impact on our lives.
Is closeness to God a realistic expectation?
At this point, some might say that we're too reliant upon our emotions, and the idea that walking with God should feel a certain way is the problem. They might remind us that we live by faith and not by sight. And we set ourselves up for frustration when we anticipate that walking with God should affect us.
The truth is that we’re all different. Some of us are a lot more cerebral and less reliant upon our feelings. Others are more relational and need to feel that sense of connection. God is big enough to meet all of our needs, so we should be cautious not to expect others to flourish in the same kinds of emotional environments that we do.
Recognizing our differences
Our personality differences have a significant impact on how we experience God. There's no skeleton key that unlocks that door for everyone. One person might feel closer to God by serving in a soup kitchen, but another has the same response to a long hike in the woods.
No two people have the same relationship with God. And part of the beauty of learning to walk with Him is developing an awareness of what makes our unique relationship tick. We all have certain spiritual disciplines in common: Bible reading, prayer, worship, etc. But even the ways that we practice those disciplines can differ based on how we're wired.
For instance, one person might feel connected to God as they sit at their office desk with their journal and array of highlighters. Someone else might prefer to read Scripture in a room with a couple of candles lit and classical music playing on the stereo. Or maybe you prefer to listen to the Bible as you take your morning walk.
The point is that there isn't a single prescription that works for everyone. Part of the joy of walking with Jesus is developing our own distinctive relationship. One of the ways that dissatisfaction creeps in is when we struggle to copy what works for others.
Every season is unique
When you ask people what they mean by "getting closer to God," they often point back to a time when they felt the presence of God the most. Maybe it was back in college, when they were on staff with their first church, or on a mission trip in South America.
We will surely be disappointed if we're trying to recreate past experiences. Every relationship goes through seasons, and we should expect the same thing with the Lord. A young couple with a family has a lot of pressures and responsibilities. It doesn't make a lot of sense to romanticize a time in their life when they might have had more time to pursue Jesus or were surrounded by a lot of passionate, youthful energy from peer groups.
Quite often, we have profound experiences when we first become Christians or at distinct points in our lives. In retrospect, it might feel like we didn't even have to work at feeling that close to God—and that might be true. But there are times when He seems to remove that effortless sense of His Spirit. But that's to encourage us to continue to pursue Him in faith.
Throughout the Bible, we read laments of people who don't understand God's apparent silence. In Psalm 13, David says:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me (Psalm 13:1–2)?
Here David's criteria for judging the nearness of the Lord is based on how he feels and the fact that his enemies seem to have the upper hand at the moment. It's not wrong to use our emotions to gauge the closeness of God, but we need to recognize that there are so many variables at play. We inevitably compare this moment to others when we felt that God was closer, and we don't always entirely remember it accurately.
A young mother has many demands on her time, and she can't expect to recreate the feelings she had during other seasons of her life. That said, she can discover God's closeness in deeper and more profound ways as she pursues the Lord.
Tips for getting closer to Jesus
Before jumping into tips for drawing closer to God, there are a couple of things we shouldn't leave unspoken. These two points provide a critical starting point for dealing with the topic of deepening our relationship with God:
- Don't neglect spiritual disciplines
Spiritual disciplines include things like Scripture reading, serving others, community, financial giving, prayer, etc. There are things that every believer needs to be involved in. You can examine different ways of practicing these disciplines, but you shouldn't abandon them because they don't seem to be "working." They help to train, inform, and mature us.
- Deal with unconfessed sin
Not feeling close to God doesn't mean that you have hidden sin in your life, but hidden sin can put distance between you and God (or at least make it more difficult to recognize His voice). If you don't feel close to God, make sure you're not involved in behavior you need to confess and deal with.
With that out of the way, let's examine some simple things we can do to not only draw near to God but to be more aware of His presence.
1. Make room to be quiet
If we went back in time 100 years, one of the first things we'd notice is how quiet the world was. Our ancestors went about their day in a silence that we’d have a difficult time comprehending. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, we're bombarded with noise. From television, social media, podcasts, streaming services, we never have to take a moment to be quiet if we don't want to.
One of the crises of modern humanity is that even if God was speaking to us, we might not be able to hear it over the din of our postmodern life. So as much as we're able, we should be intentional about creating space for quiet. That might be a little more difficult for some people than others, so you might need to get creative. But probably God isn't going to scream over your lifestyle, so try to make some room so that you can recognize His voice.
2. Journal your prayers
People often struggle with distractions in prayer. Their mind wanders, and they end up frustrated with themselves for not being spiritual enough to have a rich, rewarding prayer life. The truth is that certain personality types flourish kneeling beside their bed in prayer, and others don't. And their frustration with prayer isn't the act itself but in finding meaning in practices that don't mesh with who they are.
If you're someone whose mind wanders, it's OK to sit down and write your prayers out in a journal. Many people find this to be a powerful way to commune with the Lord because it keeps them focused and present. And the nice thing is that they also have a record of their prayers and can come back to document the ways that the Lord has responded.
3. Get active with prayer
Sometimes the problem folks have with prayer is the formal and stationary aspects of it. If you were raised in the church, you probably grew up on real traditional and ceremonial sounding prayers—that might even include speaking to God in King James-sounding language. You might have internalized the idea that this is what prayer is supposed to sound like, but it keeps God at arm's length.
If this is an issue for you, try getting outside and going for a walk and speaking to God like you would a close friend. Sometimes changing our vernacular and setting can give our prayer life the jumpstart it needs to feel like honest communication instead of a pro forma activity.
4. Meditate on Scripture
Reading Scripture is important. Studying Scripture is important. But we cannot overlook how essential it is to meditate on it. After the passing of Moses, God gives explicit instructions to Joshua, and one of those instructions is: "Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful" (Joshua 1:8).
This is about taking small sections of Scripture and spending the day contemplating them. As we focus on specific passages during our day, we'll notice ways that it intersects with our daily life. Meditating on Scripture gets God's Word inside of us, and allows Him to speak to us through it.
5. Practice fasting
The act of self-denial used to be a big part of many Christians' spiritual lives, but it has fallen out of vogue. Many Christians like John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer made fasting a regular part of their lives.
You probably think of fasting in terms of food, and that has definite merits. Fasting for a meal or for an entire day (or longer) communicates a hunger for God above everything else. Wesley fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until three o'clock. But you can fast other things, too: sweets, social media, video games, secular music. Basically, fasting is setting aside distractions so that you can focus wholly on God.
Here's what Bill Bright had to say about fasting:
"Fasting with a pure heart and motives, I have discovered, brings personal revival and adds power to our prayers. Personal revival occurs because fasting is an act of humility. Fasting gives opportunity for deeper humility as we recognize our sins, repent, receive God's forgiveness, and experience His cleansing of our soul and spirit. Fasting also demonstrates our love for God and our full confidence in His faithfulness."
Drawing close to God
Sometimes it feels like we're going through the motions. Don't worry; that's completely normal. There's no relationship in our life that we can put on autopilot and expect it to grow deeper. Why would our relationship with God be any different?
But James makes us this promise, "Come near to God and he will come near to you" (James 4:8a). When we don't feel particularly close to the Lord, we need to trust in His character and continue to press in. But that doesn't mean we should spin our wheels doing things the same way we’ve always done them. It might be time to think of creative ways to press in. When we seek the Lord, He promises you will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13).
Looking for more inspiration? Check out this powerful brief teaching on walking in the Spirit.