Come near to God and he will come near to you.James 4:8
God’s presence is sometimes a tricky thing to talk about. For much of my life, talk of His presence stayed in the realm of theology. I affirmed that His presence was everywhere; He is omnipresent. But then I would have an occasional moment when I felt His presence. I didn’t know much about God’s tangible presence (or sometimes called his “manifest presence”), but I knew it was a different category than just His omnipresence.
Then, in 2014, I began to have increasing encounters with God’s tangible presence, increasing both in frequency and intensity. I began to understand that God’s tangible presence could directly impact not only our emotions but also our physical body. There is something different that happens when a measure of God’s presence steps through the thin veil that separates the natural realm from the spirit realm. This is what the priests experienced when they brought the ark of the covenant into Solomon’s Temple for the first time:
When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.1 Kings 8:10-11
In my own life this looked like encounters with the Holy Spirit that would completely interrupt my normal functioning. At first, these encounters would simply be me weeping uncontrollably as the presence of God seemed to intensify. These weeping sessions wouldn’t just happen in church services. They would happen when I was alone in prayer or reading a book at Starbucks. This was not emotionalism. These encounters would happen at very unemotional times and in very unemotional places. This was God putting his finger on my heart, and my emotions would respond accordingly.
In 2016, after receiving impartation prayer, I began to have physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit. If you’re not familiar with the term “physical manifestation of the Spirit,” it just means that my body would react involuntarily to the increased presence of God.
These manifestations started with shaking and trembling in the presence of God. Then I started getting side crunches. My oblique muscle on my right side would contract on its own outside of my control. Imagine how your oblique muscles contract when someone pokes you with their finger in your side. But imagine it happening involuntarily in response to the Holy Spirit rather than to a poke. Then a few weeks later, it started happening on my left side.
A few weeks after that the Lord added another manifestation. My right hand started to curl up when the presence of God would intensify. Imagine the muscles in the middle of your palm contracting on their own apart from your control, like your hand was trying to grip something using only the muscles in your palm and not your fingers. Or imagine how your hand would respond if someone drove a spike through the center of your palm. That muscle contraction (minus the pain) is what it feels like when it happens. Then, a few weeks later, this started happening on my left hand.
A few months after that I was given another one. I was at Starbucks, and my right hip flexor contracted on its own while I was in the middle of reading a book on the miraculous. This one has even happened to me a few times while I was driving and singing worship songs. The presence of God would increase as I worshiped and my leg would get pulled off the accelerator as my hip flexor pulled up on its own. It’s a wild experience to have your body react to the Holy Spirit in such a way that your foot gets pulled off the gas pedal while you’re driving down the highway.
All of these physical manifestations of the Spirit continue to this day, and I experience them daily. The only reason I describe these in detail is because they have become a sort of “array of sensors” that can pick up on the increased presence of God or move of the Holy Spirit. They often act like a Geiger counter picking up on the radioactivity of the Spirit. The more tangible God’s presence, the more they go off.
We usually assume when someone picks up on the presence of God, they are having a subjective experience that is not quantifiable. And while that is mostly true, these physical manifestations of the Spirit have made picking up on the increase of God’s presence a more objective, measurable experience for me. The unexpected result of all of of this is that God has given me the ability to sense His increased presence anywhere that I am, and it’s not always in a church service.
There have been a few places that I picked up on the increased, tangible presence of God at moments and in places that I wouldn’t have expected. I’ll just mention two here:
Middle school choral performance: Last year, as a family, we went to watch my oldest son’s band performance. I wasn’t particularly interested in listening to the middle school chorus perform, but they were a part of the concert. As the kids sang, they did fine for a middle school, but my son wasn’t in the chorus so I was only mildly engaged.
But then I began to feel that familiar feeling of God’s increased presence. It totally caught me off guard. Multiple manifestations of the Spirit began to happen to me, and as they did, I took notice. I began to ask the Lord what was happening. He began to give me mental pictures of angels singing along with the kids and a sense of His pleasure when children sing. They weren’t singing worship songs. This was a public middle school performance. It was just the fact that children were singing, and angels with them, that drew in the increased presence of God.
This wasn’t me feeling proud of my kid as a dad. My son wasn’t up there. I didn’t know any of these kids. This was the increased presence of God descending right in the middle of that auditorium. The Lord began to show me how much He loved each of these kids, regardless of whether they knew anything about Him.
Children’s ballet dance performance at an outdoor festival: This one just happened the other day, and it really caught me by surprise. As a family we attended a local outdoor festival so that we could watch my middle son do a taekwondo demonstration with the Demo Team that he is a part of.
Before the taekwondo demonstration, a local ballet studio performed a dance routine for the audience of mostly parents. There was no stage. They had to perform their routine in a grass field. The girls ranged in age from what looked like 6 to 14 years old. They did great, but they were only kids in tennis shoes and tutus. This wasn’t a professional artistic masterpiece. These were little girls doing their best, which is why it surprised me to have the presence of God come like a freight train in the middle of their dance routine.
I was just standing there, again only half interested, when tears began welling up in my eyes. My side started crunching and my hand started to curl up. I began to feel the intense presence of God as they danced. I couldn’t believe it! They were dancing to the soundtrack of The Greatest Showman, which I love, but could hardly be mistaken for worship music.
I asked God about it as it was happening. Again, like the middle school chorus moment, I got the impression that angels were joining these girls in their dance movements. I could feel God’s pleasure. I could sense His smile. He loves it when children dance. Any children. Any kind of dancing. But especially the beauty of ballet. I’m not really a “dance” kinda guy, so it was really eye-opening to sense that God absolutely loves it when children dance. God was like one of the proud parents looking on, maybe the proudest of parents, and His presence was palpable.
If I hadn’t been given this “array of Holy Spirit sensors” in the form of physical manifestations of the Spirit, I’m not sure I would have picked up on the increase of God’s presence in these unassuming places. In fact, I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t have. I’m too oblivious. But with these tools, these sensors, I find that God’s increased presence happens in some unlikely places.
Conversely, I’ve been a part of quite a few worship services where His tangible presence doesn’t increase at all. Maybe it’s the distracted, disinterested congregation, or the unyielded worship leaders, or the pastor’s need to control the service. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, many church services often leave the Holy Spirit unwelcome and uninvited.
All of this is a good reminder to me that God delights in drawing near to people. He loves it. He’ll draw near at unlikely times and in unlikely places. But He’s not always welcome to do so in church. The Holy Spirit’s tangible presence is not always invited. And in those times, He will not increase His tangible presence. Unfortunately, He is often willing to do exactly what we’ve asked Him to do. And too often (with our actions, words, or heart-posture) we’ve asked Him to stay quiet, stay on the sidelines, and let us manage on our own.