Drawing Near to God
This morning, I want to show you a Psalm about drawing near to God—coming into God’s presence to commune with Him. It is another Psalm by one of the sons of Korah, a guild of poets and song-writers who led Israel in their worship of God. Read Ps.84. This Psalm tells us why drawing near to God is so important and shows us how we can do this. The “why” comes before the “how”...
What’s so good about drawing near to God?
The Psalmist tells us three reasons why he loves to draw near to God (note “blessed are” in each of the three sections).
The first reason is the most abstract, but it is also the most important and the foundation for the other two reasons: God’s presence is our heart’s true home (84:3,4). Just as the sparrow and the swallow have nests—homes where they live and can raise their young, so our souls were created in such a way that we are “at home” only in God’s presence.
Augustine begins his Confessions (the testimony of his conversion to Christ) with these profound words: “...You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” He goes on to describe all of his romantic relationships and career achievements in this context—as false “homes” that did not cure his restlessness. Many of us have powerful memories of “home” when we were young—vacation spots, family holiday dinners, etc. These memories produce powerful longing (nostalgia) because we seemed to be where we fit, where we belonged. But what we actually long for is not those places or times, but for what they signify—our heart’s real home. The Psalmist says that our true home is in God’s presence—the One who made us to commune with Him and experience his love and beauty. “If you have made your home this world and whatever you can possess in it, you are always in danger of being plunged into insecurities, fears, and losses (and disappointments). But make God your dwelling place and you have an unlosable treasure—and a deeper kind of happiness.”
Second, because God’s presence is our true home, drawing near to God strengthens us to live redemptively in this life (84:5-7). The Psalmist describes the long journey of their regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem as a metaphor of their lives. Even though the journey was long and much of it was uphill, the anticipation of being in God’s presence energized them so that they went “from strength to strength.” Even though this journey took them through dry places like the valley of Baca (literally, “the place of weeping”), somehow their presence turned it into an oasis filled for those who came after them.
This life is a long and difficult journey, filled with adversity and disappointment. Only drawing near to God is able to provide us with true strength to keep going forward, and to be strengthened through these difficult times. Only communion with God (partially in this life; perfectly in the next life) is able to redeem the dry and painful periods of our lives into a blessing for us and others. Drawing near to God is not a way to escape from this “real life;” it is what enables us to face “real life” and flourish in the midst of it, and to be a redemptive influence on others.
Thirdly, because God’s presence is our true home, enjoying God’s presence is what expels the power of sinful temptations (84:10,11). Why is this man uninterested in spending time away from God’s house (in pagan temples)? Why does he stay far from “the tents of wickedness” (houses of prostitution?)? Mis-read 84:10,11 with duty/threat wording. God does say they are wrong, but bare moral will-power is not the motivational reason why he avoids them. It is because he has experienced the goodness and beauty of communion with God, and because compared to this the appeal of all other sinful temptations is like a cheap, glitter-covered counterfeit (which is what all sin really is).
Almost 200 years ago, a Christian named Thomas Chalmers published a sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” In it, he argued that no one gets freed from a sinful habit merely by applying moral will-power or by critiquing the sin. Rather, he said, our hearts lose their taste for an inferior or false treasure by discovering a superior or true treasure (TEEN ADDICTED TO HIS MOTORBIKE & “LIBERATED” BY A GIRLFRIEND). Therefore, the key to a life of true moral freedom is discovering and enjoying God as your true Treasure. This is exactly what the Psalmist is saying. And this is what you will discover if you learn to draw near to God. Yes, you will still need to say “No” to temptation and flee it. Yes, you will need the help of moral accountability with others. But the main way you get free from the desire for a sinful practice is not by resisting and fleeing from it, but by cultivating your taste for relating to God.
How can we draw near to God?
So much for why it is worth it to draw near to God. How can we actually do this? What practical steps can we take down this path? The author gives us several steps (not the only ones)—some obvious and others not so obvious...
The first step is not obvious, but the most important: Approach God through His appointed Sacrifice. Why does the Psalmist emphasize the preciousness of “Your altars?” In the Old Testament, the presence of God was symbolically localized in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple’s location and beauty signified God’s invitation to people to draw near to Him. But its walls and curtains signified their unfitness to do this by their own righteousness. This is where the altars came in. All worshipers approached God through the offering of a prescribed animal sacrifice (offered on the altars), whose death symbolically atoned for their sins. In this way, God taught that He is a morally perfect God who must punish all sin with death—but that He is also a loving God who would one day provide a perfect Substitute whose death would pay for our sins. He is saying: “I am thankful that the way home to God’s presence is not something I earn by my good works for God, but rather a gift that God’s sacrifice earns for me.”
The Temple and its sacrificial system were pictures of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. He alone is the true Temple of God—God incarnate (Jn.1:14). His death is the true Sacrifice for human sin which alone bears our guilt away (Jn.1:35).
This is why you have to draw near to God initially through His Son Jesus, humbly asking Him to forgive you through Jesus’ death. When you do this, God will come to live personally in your heart through His Spirit, and you will begin to experience His personal presence in a variety of ways. Have you done this?
This is why, once you become a Christian, you continue to draw near to God not through your good works for Him, but only through Jesus’ finished work for you (Heb.10:19,22). Even on your best days, you are never worthy to draw near to God based on your works for Him; but even on your worst days, you are welcome into His presence if you come based on Jesus’ work for you.
Second, ask God to reveal Himself to you. This is the substance of the Psalmist request in 84:8 (“Hear my prayer”)—he is asking God to draw near to him so that he may enjoy His presence. God is not an object that we uncover through our skill and determination (e.g., OIL DEPOSIT). God is a Person who decides to disclose Himself to us in the time and way He chooses (e.g., disturbing; ecstatic; “still small voice”). But he says: “Draw near to Me and I will draw near to You” (Jas.4:8)—and drawing near to God means calling out to Him, telling Him that you want to be with Him, and asking Him to help you “see” Him more clearly.
Third, ponder the beauty of God’s attributes. Notice how many times the Psalmist describes God in various ways, using various biblical metaphors: “Lord of hosts” (all-powerful); “living God” (personal & immanent); “my King” (just Ruler); “God of Jacob” (utterly faithful to His promises); “my sun (full of life and glory) and shield (Protector).” He is recalling what the true God is like, and being re-impressed with Him!
The main way to do this is by meditating on biblical passages that reveal God and His promises. Otherwise, you will inevitably begin to distort God in some way—usually making Him smaller and less beautiful than He is, or (even worse) attributing flaws to Him that He does not have. How much do you ponder God’s attributes by meditating on His Word? There will be a connection between your answer and how much you enjoy God’s presence.
Fourth, praise God for who He is. 84:4 connects those who are ever praising God with those who live in His house. We ponder in order to praise (SUNSET; MOUNTAIN RANGE). If you only thank God for what He gives you, God can still be just an instrument to get you what you really want. But when you praise God for who He is, he becomes more precious to you, your true Treasure. And “God inhabits the praises of His people.” His presence is “attracted” to those who displace themselves as the Center and willingly orbit around Him.
One of the best ways to praise God is through songs with biblical content (84:2), because the lyrics engage your mind with truth about God and the melody engages your heart with the beauty of God. How much do you praise God? There will be a connection between your answer and how much you enjoy God’s presence.
Fifth, cultivate habits of doing the above three. The Psalmist speaks of his heart having “highways to Zion” (Jerusalem). His heart knows how to get to Jerusalem because he has gone there so often. Likewise, we need to be regular and disciplined in drawing near to God. In our culture, discipline and authentic are dichotomized (EXAMPLE). But this is a false dichotomy for two reasons:
Any sophisticated ability takes practice (e.g., LEARNING LANGUAGE; PLAYING MUSICAL INSTRUMENT). Drawing near to God is the same way. You get familiar with God’s attributes by regularly reading His Word and hearing it taught. You learn to talk to God by regularly praying. You learn to enjoy praising Him by regularly praising Him. He will meet you in your fumbling attempts, and He will help you to grow in your ability to draw near to Him!
Our sinful natures are highly allergic to God’s presence. Therefore, we should not be surprised when we feel highly aversive to drawing near to God. If you wait until you feel like it to draw near to God, this aversion will grow. But if you choose to draw near by faith, God will help you to look forward to meeting with Him.
Lastly, do all of the above with other Christians, not just by yourself. The Psalmist is on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and this was something always done with other pilgrims. They travelled together, they sang while they travelled, they encouraged each other when weary, etc. This fellowship was a crucial part of the whole experience of drawing near.
If you draw near to God only with others, your communion with Him probably lacks the deep intimacy that develops only from being alone with Him. But if you draw near to God only alone, your communion is probably sporadic and/or distorted because you need the motivation and balance that other Christians provide. How much do you ask God to reveal Himself with others, ponder God’s attributes with others, praise God with others, etc.?
SUMMARIZE: What step is God calling you to take?
“If you have a house of your own, you are poor; if you have the house of God, you are rich. In your own house you will fear thieves; in God’s house God Himself is the wall. Blessed, then, are those who dwell in Your house. They possess the heavenly Jerusalem, without distress, without pressure, without diverse and divided boundaries. All possess it; and each singly possess the whole.”