“Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not,” reads Genesis 28:16.
Where do you experience God? When have you encountered something deeper than yourself? It is no great secret that much of what we call “spiritual experience” occurs outside of formal religious settings and activities. Watching the sunset over the lake, taking in the panorama from atop a mountain, pressed in on all sides by fellow concert goers, sitting in on your first 12-Step meeting, or alone on your couch finishing the Harry Potter series – maybe in one of these moments we encountered something more than ourselves.
In the story of the Bible, God encounters humanity in unexpected and strange ways. The quote above comes from the story of Jacob, who wrestled a dark figure in the middle of the night only to discover that he was wrestling with God. Moses, the great liberator of Israel, meets God in a burning bush while tending sheep in the wilderness. In the stories of Jesus, people meet God in the flesh as they go about their normal lives. Some encounter him while they are busy at work, others encounter him while they are looking for help, and still others meet Jesus when they are in the middle of doing things they should not be doing.
When these men and women were encountered by the Lord, many were unexpecting and unprepared. And it was not immediately apparent just whom they were encountering. Jacob knew it not. Moses asked the flaming shrub for a name. A man healed by Jesus said, “I don’t know who that guy was, but I was blind and now I see.” A common theme in these stories is that God encountered people outside of where one might expect.
Yet, in each of these stories, the experience was not an end to itself. Spiritual experiences are like vapor. We cannot hold on to them, and we cannot recreate them. You may witness a hundred more sunsets, re-watch the movie, or hike back to the spot where you saw a “burning bush,” but chances are that your experience will not be the same.
Rather than being ends in themselves, the spiritual encounters told about in the Bible were meant to wake people up to the reality of the God who is always there. When Jacob awoke, he did not go from place to place looking for his next experience. Instead, he built a little earthen alter and then went on his way trusting that the God of his ancestors was truly God.
Not every spiritual experience will lead us to God, and not every spiritual experience is even positive. However, the story of the Bible tells us of a God who encounters us in many ways to wake us up to a deeper and truer reality. Where have you experienced God? Where have you encountered something deeper than yourself? Maybe, the Lord was there and you knew it not.
This column was written on behalf of the Moses Lake Christian Ministerial Association.