'Following The Peace'
One person's journey toward intimacy with God

Harold N. Miller

This morning God again in grace gave me an astounding choice: I can throughout my day grow more intimate with God or I can choose acts that ignore him.

Each time I sense God by his Spirit nudging me toward an action or attitude (through a Bible passage, a Christian friend, through a circumstance or a thought) I am experiencing the reality of God interacting with me.

I want this intimacy with God out of selfishness—I want to tap God's counsel, power, goodness. I want a friend who will never leave me. But, incredibly, having it delivers me from selfishness because I'm communing with someone who loves the whole world, and that love for everybody and this planet rubs off on me.

I first became aware of walking with God during my first semester at Bible school. I was seventeen, shy, and had two socially embarrassing personal problems which I fervently wanted to overcome. I spent much time in a prayer room, crying my heart out to God, using all the techniques of prayer I knew, including weekly fasts. While in the prayer room a sense of God's presence would settle over me: deep peace and joy, a sense that my very being was in harmony with the universe. On leaving the room, the sense would remain until, at some thought or action—which I now believe typically fell in the areas of anxiety or pride—it would evaporate almost instantly. Slowly I learned which actions are of the spirit of God and which are not.

Another significant segment of my journey toward intimacy with God was the Saturdays I spent as a rural mail carrier the first several years of my pastorate. While driving between mailboxes, plagued with insecurity and lack of self-confidence about the next day's sermon, I was often asking God for help as I prepared to minister to people's needs. I chose not to look on the mailings that use sex to sell and chose to keep the popular radio turned off because those mediums filled me with thoughts and feelings that crowded out my sense of God's Spirit. And I needed to hear God for the next day. Those times on the mail route became very fertile spiritually. I seemed to find a knack for wisdom—still of a stumbling variety, but more than before.

Soon I yearned for yet more: if I could be taught by God and flow with him one day a week, why not seven? At the end of one of my days on the mail route, I wrote this: "I was asking him, 'what thoughts keep me from you on Sunday—no, all week?' All of a sudden I experienced it: an inner surge, goose bumps, a deep rearranging of my priorities and orientation. And I saw myself in all of life having unusually intense love. I never want to lose that vision."

When I yearn for intimacy with God more than for immediate pleasures, I begin to obey God consistently enough to have a more constant sense of his presence.

Each time we obey God's prompting, we increase the opportunity of further communion between us. It's a principle in life that whenever we respond to something, we become more aware of it. (If the young father rolls over when the newborn cries but the mother gets up, soon he no longer hears the baby but she will hear its faintest whimper!) As I respond to God, my sensitivity grows stronger to his words in my mind and heart, on the pages of Scripture, or in the voice of my brother and sister. And our intimacy deepens.

All children of God experience this communion to some extent (Rom. 8:14; John 10:27; Heb 8:10), though not all would name it as God speaking to them. This inner witness of the Spirit's leading is admittedly mystical and hard to pin down. Even so—or perhaps because this is so—the church in Acts took steps that new believers experience the Spirit (Acts 8:4-17; 19:1- 7). For me a sense of the Spirit in my life has been the source of the deepest experience of intimacy with God, the divine embrace (Rom. 5:5), the means of assuring me that I am his child (Rom. 8:16). Because of it, my knowledge of God's presence is more than blind faith.

I can summarize my experience of being led by the Spirit in a phrase given to me through the Jesuit uncle of a friend: 'following the peace.' The signature of God's voice is an accompanying atmosphere of peace. Outwardly everything may be in turmoil and I may have to be moving quickly, but inside there is quietness and confidence. God's voice may be telling me to make a change that will upset everything, but inside there is peace and harmony. Sometimes I breathe fast and my heart pounds as the Spirit prompts me to do something, but yet I sense peace. So I follow it. If I feel rushed or pushed, I'm probably filled with something other than God. Evil powers can give knowledge or inspire behavior, but they cannot counterfeit the peace of God.

This peace is the sensation that settles over us in the gathered congregation as we offer full-hearted worship for twenty minutes, turning our gaze toward God and his grace and glory with no distractions. On Monday morning as I am able to follow the Spirit's prompting for an extended time, I know the same sensation. Each time I obey there is this surge of peace.

Sometimes in my journey of walking with God I know what God is saying to me but genuinely do not know how to begin obeying. How do I develop my intimacy with God the times I seem unable to respond as he calls? What shape does friendship with God take then?

Here is the answer God is beginning to show me: when I am unable to obey him, I am to tell him that, remembering he wants intimacy even more than I do.

During a summer sabbatical, one of my most profitable blocks of time was three days at a monastery. While there, one part of Richard Foster's latest book Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home prodded me: the ability to pray all the time everywhere is strengthened when we set a regular time for prayer some time somewhere. Making a consistent time for 'devotions' is a constant struggle for me.

At the monastery I was in the midst of those who believe in the need for this regular prayer—the Benedictines have a rhythm of work and prayer (at this particular community they join for prayer at 4:45am, 7am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 6:30pm, and 8:15pm each day). The evening of my second day there, I wrote this in my journal:

The refrain going through my mind this evening is the phrase the abbot sings to open each service: 'O God, come to my assistance.' I am as a little child, dependent for rest, for guidance, for strength. And for the ability to pray. Like a little child I'm stumbling and inept in this life of prayer. But I'm growing. My heart is warmed as I write these words. I sense God will continually draw me, to cause me in my love for him to choose to be with him. 'O God, come to my assistance.' I do not have to achieve this life of prayer on my own. He will teach me and help me. As I yield to him—even when I cannot see why to obey—he will help me win the battle for setting aside regular prayer time.
I returned home with the sense that when I do not know what I can be doing next in my walk with God, I am to tell him that, and he will show me what to do. God is doing so in the area for which I called out to him at the monastery. He has helped me move toward a more fulfilling devotional life—one that happens more regularly and that is part of a love relationship, not a religious duty. God meets me in a way unique and fitting to who I am and how I am made.

Does our ability to follow the peace, to discern which way God is leading, ever reach the point of infallibility? No. Even in the moments when I am sure of what God is leading, I can be mistaken. I have stepped out in areas, certain that I heard from God, only to have it soon be obvious that my actions were not of God. My ability to deceive myself and rationalize away the truth is legendary. (By hindsight I almost always see how God was trying to stop me, and also how I pushed ahead because I wanted by own way so badly.)

That does not mean there is questionable value in paying attention to the Spirit within me. Fallibility is part of all human communication; yet, fortunately, communication does reliably occur, and on a regular basis. So rather than giving up when I fail to hear God accurately, I respond with renewed desire to spend more time with God and heighten my ability to know his voice.

There is one thing my fallibility does mean: humility. I must continually test my perception of God's will with the Scriptures and with other believers who also walk with God and read the Bible. I am not to always be off alone, just me and my own private hotline to God. I make no significant decisions without the prayer and counsel of my sisters and brothers in the church. Often the way God helps me obey him is through their encouragement and, more, their accountability. Those without strong, committed relationships with fellow believers will soon be prompted by God to establish them.

But in avoiding the 'just me and Jesus' syndrome, I do not want to miss out on the relationship between Jesus and me. My greatest treasure in life is this experience of intimacy with God, having his words in my mind and heart, being his hands and feet and voice of love for this world.

Among the acts that God has prompted in my relationship with him:
- Deal with hidden sin. Until I confess secret sin and turn from it, I am going to be resisting getting close to God...because he may remind me to make my sin right.
- Choose to trust his love. To keep me from bailing out of the relationship in times of suffering or anxiety, God asks me to trust him.
- Work on broken relationships. God is love and I cannot be attuned to him when I do not have love. Love is at the heart of all God's promptings.
- Avoid addictions. God brings many physical pleasures to me, but he asks me not to seek them but to enjoy them and seek to love. Desires for physical pleasure are such loud voices swirling inside that they quickly drown out God's voice.

a form of this article was printed in May 28, 1996 Gospel Herald, weekly Mennonite magazine