Lately, through conversations with some folks, I've had cause to think about how I came to be able to feel and recognize God's presence. It's important because this is a big question, one of the major hurdles some people need to get over before they can find God: how do I know someone is real when I can't see, hear, or touch them? If I do accept God is real, how do I talk to him and know he's talking back?
I wouldn't be surprised if this happens in different ways for different people. I can tell you some things about how it happened for me.
I wasn't always able to hear or feel God's presence -- far from it. Prayer was an empty exercise, because I didn't have any actual sense there was someone to talk to. Just a vague questioning.
The main thing that changed this was learning how to be honest. I had to recognize that until I was really, deeply honest, I couldn't even hear myself, let alone hear God.
My journals were my vital tool for recognizing this. Once upon a time, I would sit and mentally edit what I was going to say before I wrote it down, because I didn't want to write down the WRONG things. I didn't want to think or feel in wrong ways. If I caught something that didn't look or feel correct, like a person OUGHT to think or feel, I fixed it. I wrote down what I OUGHT TO, not what was real.
These were my own private books which no one else reads, and I was editing them. I couldn't even be honest when I was talking to myself. This self-protective action destroyed my ability to know myself, and it shut out God's voice completely. You can't find God in lies. He doesn't live there.
Over time, and with God's subtle help, I started to notice. I started to recognize when I was doing mental pre-editing, catching myself about to write an OUGHT TO and writing down what I really thought instead. It took time to learn how to do this, but more and more often, my journals filled up with honest ideas, honest feelings, not fake ones.
That's when God showed up. Those honest pages in my journal often made me cry, because for once I was feeling real things -- real sadness, frustration, anger, fear. Those pages hurt, which is part of what I had tried to protect myself from. But they also brought help. I wasn't crying alone. When I was honest, even when that honesty required scratching out ugly, nasty, selfish, vicious words, God's presence became real -- undeniably, indescribably, tangibly real. That's when I learned how to know what he was telling me, not because my ears heard him, but because I knew in both mind and heart what he was saying. I never found condemnation for my ugly words. I found love, acceptance, forgiveness, counseling. I found honest help.
Prayer is not an empty exercise anymore -- or at least, if it is, I know what's probably wrong. When I'm honest in my thoughts and feelings, I find Jesus waiting for me, ready to talk over whatever I have in mind. If I can't find Jesus, it's because I'm not being really honest.
I'm not scared to cry on my journal pages anymore. I don't always, but if I need to, I know it's the fastest way to cope with whatever I'm fighting with -- and I know I'm not coping with it alone.
More than anything else, this has been my tool for personal change over the past four years, this period when I have grown more than at any other time in my life. Having honest conversations with myself, and honest conversations with God, with a nice pen in hand and a basic notebook open on my desk.
I don't think everyone needs to write journals in order to meet God. But I do think becoming really honest with yourself is critical.
God doesn't live in lies. Including the ones we tell ourselves.