God Is Closer Than You Think
By John Ortberg
Publisher: Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Ortberg begins this book by recalling his visit to the Sistine Chapel to see the mural painted by Michelangelo on its ceiling. The mural portrays, he says, “God’s great desire to be with the human beings he has made in his own image.”
The figure of God is extended toward the man with great vigour.… His head is turned toward the man, and his gaze is fixed on him. God’s arm is stretched out, his index finger extended straight forward; every muscle is taut.… It is as if even in the midst of all creation God’s entire being is wrapped up in his impatient desire to close the gap between himself and this man. He can’t wait. His hand comes within a hairbreadth of the man’s hand.… But having come that close, he allows just a little space, so that Adam can choose. He waits for Adam to make his move.
Ortberg is a Christian minister, so he refers often to the Christian scriptures and the example of Jesus. He tells us that in the Bible the most frequent promise God makes is not “I will forgive you” or “I will protect you,” but simply “I will be with you.” Relating various Bible stories where this simple promise of God’s presence is reiterated, Ortberg concludes that here and now, in the midst of the most ordinary moments of our lives, God is always present, waiting for us to turn to him. With the image from the Sistine Chapel ceiling as a metaphor for the human condition, he writes:
Adam is more difficult to interpret. His arm is partially extended toward God but his body reclines in a lazy pose, leaning backwards as if he has no interest at all in making a connection. Maybe he assumes that God, having come this far, will close the gap. Maybe he is indifferent to the possibility of touching his creator. Maybe he lacks the strength. All he would have to do is lift a finger.
Metaphorically, the effort a human being needs to make to touch God, to be fully aware of his closeness, is tiny: just lifting a finger. Yet most of us go through our days unaware of him. Why does God choose to make his presence so subtle? Ortberg says,
It allows creatures as small and frail as human beings the capacity for choice that we would never have in the obvious presence of infinite power.… God wants to be known, but not in a way that overwhelms us, that takes away the possibility of love freely chosen.
How do we choose that love? What do we need to do if we want to “receive each moment” of the day as “a God-charged sliver of grace”?
This is what we need to remember at the outset: Spending the day with God does not usually involve doing different things from what we already do. Mostly it involves learning to do what we already do in a new way – with God.
Ortberg offers some practical, concrete advice about various aspects of the daily routine. For example, how do we begin the day? As he puts it, how can we “wake up with God?” He suggests taking just a few moments to “acknowledge your dependence on God,” saying something like “I won’t live through this day banking on my own strength and power.” Ask for his help and “renew your invitation for God to spend the day with you.” Although God is present with us, regardless of whether we are aware or not, we still have an active role in inviting him to be with us. Ortberg continues with practical advice for a variety of situations we go through every day – such as eating, working, dealing with interruptions.
Ortberg lays out what he calls “foundational truths” for the lifelong struggle to become more aware of God’s closeness and suggests that we review and remind ourselves of these. Some are:
- Coming to recognize and experience God’s presence is learned behaviour; I can cultivate it.
- My task is to meet God in this moment.
- Whenever I fail I can always start again right away. My desire for God ebbs and flows, but his desire for me is constant.
- Every thought carries a “spiritual charge” that moves me a little closer to or a little farther from God.
He notes that some thoughts “move us toward love and joy and peace and patience.” He suggests that thoughts that move us in this direction might be considered as “God-breathed,” as if they come from God. He cites psychological studies showing that the natural tendency of the mind is negative, veering automatically toward fear, anger, unhappy memories, and other forms of self-centred imprisonment. Our work is to recognize thoughts that lead into spiritual darkness, choosing to follow instead the impulses that us lead us toward God’s presence. “For instance, nowhere in the Bible does it say, ‘And then God worried.’ So I can be quite confident that thoughts that move me toward paralyzed anxiety are not from God.”
He writes, “The mind is an instrument of staggering potential.… For it is in our minds that we live in conscious awareness of and interaction with God.” In other words, “being with God is something that takes place primarily in our thoughts, our mind.” This requires what he calls “interactive awareness.”
If you have ever had a relationship with someone who worships at the cult of the Remote Control, you know the difference between “being in the same room as” and “being with.” Being with another person requires what might be called interactive awareness. I am aware that you are with me, and the things that you do and say are influencing the stream of thoughts and feelings going on inside me. We interact.
He stresses that God is closer to us than we think, only a hairbreadth away as depicted in the painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He is never more than a thought away. Some people feel they would have to become very good, or very accomplished in spiritual discipline, for God to want to be close to them. Ortberg disagrees:
The story of the Bible isn’t primarily about the desire of people to be with God; it is the desire of God to be with people. One day I was sitting on a plane next to a businessman. The screen saver on his computer was the picture of a little boy taking what looked like his first shaky steps. “Is that your son?” I asked. Big mistake.… He had a whole string of pictures of Adam doing things that pretty much all children do, and he displayed them one at a time. With commentary.… “I can’t wait to get home to him,” the man said. “In the meantime, I could look at these pictures a hundred times a day. They never get old to me.” (They were already getting pretty tiresome to everybody else in our section of the plane.)
Ortberg found himself getting annoyed with the man. He suppressed the urge to say that his own children had done all the same things, earlier and better. The only reason this very ordinary child fascinated the man was that he looked at him through the eyes of a father.
And then it hit me.… I am the child on God’s screen saver. And so are you. The tiniest details of our lives never grow old to him.… God shows our pictures to the angels until even the angels get a little tired of looking.