Praying with your Senses
In spiritual direction, I often ask people a variation of the same question whenever it’s clear they are touching on something important. It goes something like this:
“Do you have a sense for how the LORD might respond to you if you were to ask Him about this directly?”
The point of this question is to take the meaningful thing and bring it into conversation with God. This can be difficult to do. Frequently, it’s not immediately clear how God responds to the questions we have for Him. Sometimes, when we do have a sense for God’s response, it can be hard to put it into words. How are we to describe a mysterious encounter that happens in the spiritual realm? Or, how do we put words to an interaction with the LORD who comes to us in the Spirit? The only language we have for these encounters are rooted in our spiritual senses.
Our spiritual senses are the non-physical means by which we access the spiritual realm. In the same way the physical world is mediate to us through our senses of taste, touch, smell, etc., we experience the spiritual world through analogous spiritual senses. God cannot be literally seen or touched, and his voice is not audible to our ears. We may notice God’s presence, but we can’t literally feel Him touch us. Yet, we do experience the LORD coming to us in some mysterious way. And we describe our encounters with the LORD using sensory language. We articulate what it “feels” like to notice God’s presence using the language of heard, felt, tasted, etc. We don’t mean this literally. These sensory experiences are born of our spiritual senses.
These experiences are by nature mysterious and difficult to describe, but there is a texture to them. Here are some of the aspects of our spiritual senses as I experience them.
Smelling is that sort of non-distinct noticing. It’s an encounter with God’s presence but it is distant and hard to define. You can smell before you see and you don’t always know where the smell is coming from. Think about the smell of sautéing onions wafting through the entire house. Similarly, I can notice God from a distance before I can see with clarity what God is doing. Smelling also has a motivational element. Sweet smells evoke attraction. Repugnant smells repel me. The LORD’s presence draws me in like a sweet aroma.
Seeing with spiritual eyes gives me the capacity to understand the everyday details of my life from a kingdom perspective. The world is turned upside down through spiritual vision. Hardship is transformed by God’s presence so that I can experience it as something with a greater purpose. I see God’s hand in situations that seem desolate and God-forsaken so that I have hope. I also see the vanity in so much that tempts me, which gives me strength to turn away from sin.
Hearing is the experience of being led. It’s the voice of call. It’s the thing I seek in discernment. When I hear God, I feel compelled to respond to God’s presence with concrete action like repentance, service, humility, or gratitude. Hearing God can lead me to say something I otherwise might have been too timid to speak. It can also come to me as a restraining warning not to make a rash reply. God’s voice feels like conviction and call. It is that voice of wisdom and truth.
Tasting is that satisfying experience of being with the LORD and then feeling content. It’s the experience that comes after prayer that feels like all will be well even though no circumstances have changed. It’s being filled and satisfied by the LORD in the same way a meal satiates my appetite. When I taste of the LORD I feel nourished and fed so I can say: I have all that I need in Christ, and I’m not worried about the future. When I taste of God, I usually feel a deep sense of joy.
Feeling God’s touch is the experience of consolation. Feeling the LORD touch me often mirrors the experience of being held by someone I love. It feels like embrace, acceptance and forgiveness. Feeling is that mystical experience of God wrapping his arms around you in all-encompassing love.
Tend to Your Senses
This is not an exhaustive description of our senses, but rather a personal reflection of some of the ways I’ve been noticing God coming to me. I want to pay attention to these encounters because Jesus urges us to tend to our senses. He indicates that our spiritual senses can go awry, and that we must be careful to tend to them. In one passage he warns us about how we see:
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.” Luke 11:33-36, ESV
This passage is about spiritual sight. The way we see the world shapes our soul like a lamp impacts the light in a room. We can look at our life and let shame, frustration, and failure define us, which will darken our souls. Or, we can see with our spiritual eyes as we turn towards the LORD in trust. He promises to transform even the worst of situations. When we do this our whole body will be full of light. The way we see the world forms our soul into either darkness or light.
In another place, Jesus warns us about how we hear. This is clear throughout Luke 8 as he tells the parable of the sower, but he makes it explicit at the end:
“Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” Luke 8:18, ESV
In this passage, the way we hear shapes how our life turns out. God speaks to us in abundance – he scatters the seed everywhere – and yet, there are so many obstacles that get in the way of our hearing Him. We must be careful how we hear if we want to receive the seed and bear good, abundant fruit in our lives.
Jesus not only acknowledges that we have spiritual senses, but he warns us that we must tend to them. We must be careful how we see and how we hear. I think by extension, we must also be careful how we taste, smell, and feel. We must tend to our spiritual senses. If we don’t, we can miss out on God’s presence and action in our lives. We can miss out on the gifts God is giving us. We can miss out on light filling our soul and abundant fruit filling our lives.
As I sit and pray with people in spiritual direction, I experience deep delight as I listen to people talk about the way they are encountering God’s presence. I am especially attuned to the sensory language they use to describe these encounters. This is a sweet space of tending to our spiritual senses.
What practices help you tend to what you are noticing with your spiritual senses?