Karl Barth was onto Something Profound
“As Jesus Christ calls us and is heard by us He gives us His Holy Spirit in order that His own relationship to His Father may be repeated in us” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, italics my own).1 These words from the German theologian Karl Barth capture what’s at the heart of the doctrine of participation in Christ: in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made able to experience the peace, life, and joy of Jesus’ own relationship to the Father. What is at the heart of the doctrine of participation in Christ? In the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made able to experience the peace, life, and joy of Jesus’ own relationship to the Father. Click To Tweet
As someone who has personally struggled with mental illness, I have found this theological truth to be a uniquely therapeutic salve for this pain. Mental illness is no doubt multifaceted, as are the treatments required for addressing it. However, in the pursuit of living a fully-integrated life, I have often sought to bring together such varied worlds as theology and mental health in an effort to heal our equally complex lives.
In a particularly unrelenting season of spiritual drought, I recall sitting on our back porch and bemoaning a complete inability to experience any sort of contentment or satisfaction. I knew well enough as a Pastor that I should find these things in God. But when it came to spiritual disciplines, it always seemed like the satisfaction vanished the moment I resumed my daily routine. As I pressed in to read another Psalm, I came to the end of Psalm 17:15, where David concludes, “I will be satisfied in your presence.”
Given my coinciding contemplation of satisfaction, I was struck by this word’s appearance in the psalm. In particular, my mind was captured by the psalmist’s connection between our satisfaction and God’s presence. This wasn’t a satisfaction that we could get from God and then go on about our business. It was a satisfaction that could only be found in God’s presence.
This moment of illumination brought Brother Lawrence’s profound 17th century work, Practicing the Presence of God, quickly to mind. Unfortunately, on my first reading of Brother Lawrence years prior, I had found his thoughts naive, simplistic, and out of touch with the existence of suffering in the world. It seemed a romanticized notion of faith, a perspective on faith I wanted nothing to do with.
But suddenly, in a different season, Brother Lawrence’s notion of life in God’s presence did not seem so trite. Maybe he was on to something. Perhaps it wasn’t that Brother Lawrence was naive and sheltered. Had he too had been on a difficult journey, come to the end of himself, and discovered satisfaction could only be found and fulfilled in God’s presence? Maybe that’s why he talked so much about it!
Brother Lawrence writes, “If I were a preacher, I would preach nothing but practicing the presence of God…I would urge everyone to be aware of God’s constant presence, if for no other reason than because his presence is a delight to our souls and spirit.” (Practicing the Presence of God, p. 30).2
What if the sense of contentment and satisfaction I so desperately desired and wore myself out in pursuit of was already available to me in God’s presence?
Equally critically, what if the good news that the people sitting in my pews on Sunday morning most desperately needed to hear was how this satisfaction has been made widely available to us in Christ? What if the sense of contentment I so desperately desired was already available to me in God’s presence? What if the good news that people desperately need to hear was how this satisfaction is widely available to us in Christ? Click To Tweet
The Gospel and How we Preach It
The debate over what is at the core of the Gospel rages as camps vie for its coveted territory. For some it is a particular theory of atonement. For others, it’s a vision of God’s Kingdom made manifest on earth. Still others, it is a general notion of freedom. It is a heated debate with some focusing intently on the life hereafter, others more narrowly on life here now.
But there is a reason that the four accounts of Jesus’ life in scripture are called ‘Gospels.’ The life of Jesus itself is good news. Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy that the coming of God’s Kingdom was not new with Jesus. What was new was the expansive accessibility that Jesus made available to us.3 The life of Jesus itself is good news. The coming of God’s Kingdom was not new with Jesus. What was new was the expansive accessibility that Jesus made available to us. Click To Tweet
The doors that were once locked except to the children of Abraham have now swung widely open in the life of Jesus. The good news of the Kingdom is that it is now available to all of us, freely. We can come and live in it if we would like.4
But even in this, life in the Kingdom is not good news simply because it’s here in our midst. We are still waiting on the justice of God’s Kingdom to be fully realized. Life in God’s Kingdom is also not good news solely because we are declared righteous. Though this is deeply true, we still live with the pain that sin continues to induce in our lives, and the world we inhabit.
Life in this Kingdom is good news because we live in this Kingdom with God.
Don’t rush past this. Don’t hear this as a religious platitude. Let the imagination of what intimate life with God looks like wash over you. Soak for a moment in its refreshment. This is not wishful thinking, nor merely warm and fuzzy words.
This is a definitive shift in your reality and where God is present within it. God is not way out there somewhere far off from our reality. Rather, when we enter the Kingdom, we are entering the very reality in which we now live with God.
Life and Peace in God’s Presence
When it comes down to it, what we all want is life. Life eternal? Yes, of course. But what we are truly desperate for is life right now. What we are up against manifests itself as despair, disunity, disappointment, discouragement, discontentment, dissatisfaction, insignificance, injustice, unrest, and uncertainty. But all of this is the outworking of a death that has invaded our reality.
For some, this death is existential; for some, it’s economic; and for others, it’s deeply relational, emotionally devastating in its finality. Death touches us all. But at its core, death is life not being as it should be. In our brokenness, we hurt one another, and are hurt by one another. In the midst of all of this pain however is the God who created life itself, and is bent on you and I having it. In our pain or in our pride, we often resist his efforts. We resist his invitation. But we do so to our own undoing.
God is inviting you again to life. There is peace here because there is peace in his presence. We are not talking about God’s presence as we would standing close by a friend. We are talking about the delight, the lightness, and the equipping for life that comes from heart-focused, conscious awareness that the eternal God who created us is also constantly available to us. And not only is he available to us, but he delights in our dependence on him.
Back to the Pulpit
This means when it comes to Gospel proclamation, at the core of our good news is life with God. The gospel is the good news that we get to participate in Jesus’ own relationship to the father. We are enabled to experience it by the Holy Spirit. It’s an engagement in God’s own life that involves all three persons of the Trinity.
Let me be clear. I believe that the atonement is essential to the question of how we enter life with God. And I believe that the Kingdom of God is crucial to what it means to live life with God. But neither addresses the aching of our souls for life now. I believe the reality of participation in God’s own life bridges the chasm between the individualistic leaning of atonement theories, and the collectivistic tendency of Kingdom visions. I believe the reality of participation in God’s own life bridges the chasm between the individualistic leaning of atonement theories, and the collectivistic tendency of Kingdom visions. Click To Tweet
The experience of the Gospel we long for is the peace and satisfaction that only comes from being in God’s presence. This is not a peace and satisfaction we possesses. It is the peace of Christ, and we experience it in our own life when we fully and intentionally do life with God. The invitation of the Gospel is not to believe the minimum requirements necessary for entering heaven.5 It is an invitation to receive life from God today, and tomorrow, and every day to come.
Ike Miller (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the author of Seeing By the Light: Illumination in Augustine and Barth’s Readings of John, and the forthcoming, Good Baggage: How Your Difficult Childhood Prepared You for Exceptional Relationships. He and his wife, Sharon, Co-lead Bright City Church in Durham, NC where they live with their three children.
1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. Geoffrey William Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, vol. II/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), 780.
2 A free PDF download of Brother Lawrence’s 17th century spiritual classic can be found here: https://churchleaders.com/pastors/free-resources-pastors/145403-brother-lawrence-free-ebook-the-practice-of-the-presence-of-god.html.
3 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 16–17, 26.
4 John Ortberg and Dallas Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 52.
5 Ortberg and Willard, 54.