Come near to God and God will come near to you. (James 4.8)
My mom recently mentioned an innocent question I once asked that taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. I was four and my younger brother and I were playing, waiting for Mom to wrap up her afternoon prayer time. Now, my mother is what Pentecostals call a “prayer warrior.” When she goes to God, she’s not leaving before she covers everything she wants to discuss. She says what she feels and feels what she says. Psalm 34.18 epitomizes her prayer life: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” It’s not at all unusual for her to weep while seeking God’s guidance for herself and those whose burdens she carries.
A four-year-old can’t understand this, which is why I asked Mom why she cried when she prayed. She replied, “I cry because it helps me get close to God.” What does “get close to God” mean? She led me to the kitchen, picked up an ice cube with a pair of tongs, and turned on our stove’s front burner. “Watch carefully,” she said. At first, she held the ice away from the fire. Nothing happened. Then she inched it forward. The closer the ice got to the flame, the quicker it melted and the less there was until it disappeared. “Getting close to God means we get smaller and smaller so God can get bigger and help us with problems we can’t fix on our own,” she explained. “Sometimes these problems make us cry. But that’s okay, because when God hears us, God pulls us closer to help us better.”
Less for More
John the Baptist explains the same principle after his disciples grumble about Jesus attracting larger crowds. In response, John compares himself to the best man at a wedding. “The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.” (John 3.29) John’s attitude shouldn’t surprise his disciples. He told them, “This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (John 1.30) Yet it apparently rankles them to see Jesus succeed so quickly and raises concerns about where they’ll land after John’s ministry fades. But, like it or not, John is eager to give Jesus full rein to fulfill His mission. “He must become greater; I must become less,” he says. Why didn’t his followers get this? Although the Bible doesn’t say, one suspects the closest they got to Jesus was witnessing His baptism from the riverbank. John looked God in the face and felt the warmth of His actual presence. With that, any preconceptions, ambitions, or expectations he had melted away. Having less of himself to contend with availed him to more of God’s wisdom and power.
A Reciprocal Arrangement
Our relationship with God is a reciprocal arrangement. In James’s words, when we come near to God, God comes near to us. How close God comes solely depends on how close we get to God. If we want to narrow the distance between us, it’s up to us to step forward. On the other hand, if we’re content to remain where we are, we’ll remain as we are. God will most assuredly honor the promise to come to our aid when we need God, but keeping God on call at a distance severely limits benefits we gain by establishing a close relationship with God. We gain more from God by losing more of us and we lose more of us by getting closer to God.
It’s a mystery that’s not so hard to understand. God will always be with us. Psalm 46.1 says God is an ever-present help in trouble. And Hebrews 13.5 reminds us God promised “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” We can leave it at that, stay aloof, and God will still take good care of us. In doing so, however, we take lousy care of ourselves. We all lug around more baggage than we can carry. Our backs ache. We lose things. We’d move ahead much faster if there weren’t so much of us to deal with. When we come near to God and He reciprocates, we start dropping what we don’t need and can’t use to free up space for God. God must become greater, so we become less.
Originally posted February 27, 2009.
Getting close to God means we get smaller so God can get bigger and help us with problems we can’t fix on our own.