James 4:8 tells us to “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” As I said on Sunday morning, this may be the hardest aspect of repentance. It is difficult to draw near to God when one is so close to sin. For the believer, we know sin is wrong and deadly, and it causes us to feel dirty, unclean, impure. It’s hard enough to turn away from the sin, but then to draw near to God. How can we? Why would he want us? “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1:13a, ESV) would not want to look upon my filth. We take our cues from Adam and Eve. “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden,” (Gen. 3:8, ESV). Eyes have been opened to the fact that what once enticed us was our undoing. It brought shame. And in the moment we feel more disgraced than grace.
Yet repentance draws us near to God. It not only turns us to God, but draws us near to Him. Like the prodigal son,
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your servants.’” And he arose… (Luke 15.17-20a, ESV).
It did the son no good to say those words and then stand there and not draw near.
But remember that as he drew near, so did the Father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him,” (Luke 15.20c, ESV). This is exactly what we see from James. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you,” (James 4.8a, ESV).
How then do we draw near? It is clear that we cannot physically draw near to God. So what does it mean to draw near spiritually? The ways of drawing near are not new. We all know them, most likely. The difficulty is in putting them into practice when everything inside of you tells you not to bother. In fact, when that is the case–when you feel what’s the use?–that is the moment to drop everything, and draw near. That’s the devil’s attack upon your soul, and the way to resist is draw near to God.
Prayer is drawing near. Draw near in prayer, even when you don’t feel like you can pray. Even when the words don’t seem to come. Start by giving one line of prayer, even if that line is “Father, I don’t even know what to pray at this moment; I am ashamed (angry, saddened, frustrated…).” Isn’t it great to know that we are not alone in our prayers? “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words,” (Romans 8:26, ESV). That doesn’t mean that we can neglect prayer since the Spirit intercedes. It means that the Spirit helps the fragility of our prayers. We are nearly too weak to pray, and the Spirit strengthens us and He strengthens our prayers. That’s why I say to just start with one line. It’s amazing how our crawling prayers soon become sprinting prayers drawing ever closer to God.
Bible reading/study is drawing near. This can be difficult since we feel like one of two types of reading are needed. We either feel like we need to find a passage dealing with the sin, thus making us feel worse. Or we simply read arbitrarily or continue in our reading/study plan, and we feel like it says nothing to us. Understand that God’s Word will not return void. So if you even arbitrarily pick it up–playing Bible roulette as I call it–God’s Word will work an effect according to God’s will even though this may not necessarily should be the standard. However, while God’s Word is sharper than any two-edged sword laying us bare, we do not need to help in that. He will do the work to cleanse us. His Word is what lays us bare with surgical precision. We are not the surgeons here. Let God be the surgeon and we be the patient. Read/Study God’s Word to remind yourself who God is, and let the Holy Spirit work that word into your soul.
As the Psalmist said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments,” (119:9-10, ESV). Notice that the way is pure by guarding (keeping watch over) according to the Word. The way to keep the way pure is not to kill it with the Word but to guard it with the Word. Also notice that the Psalmist sought the Lord with all his heart, asking to not wander from the commandments. The way to draw close is to stay close to God’s Word as difficult as that may be.
Fasting is drawing near, though not everyone is able to fast for health reasons. Don Whitney explained it well:
Christians have fasted because of grief for their sins. We are not required to pay for our sins, because we cannot and because Christ has done that once for all (1 Peter 3:18). God has promised that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). But that does not mean that confession is a light and easy thing, a simple mouthing of words, a verbal ritual. Mere admission is not confession. Christ is dishonored by a frivolous view of confession that does not appreciate how much our sin cost Him. Although it is not a spiritual self-flagellation, biblical confession does involve at least some degree of grief for the sin committed. And inasmuch as fasting can be an expression of grief, it is never inappropriate for fasting to be a voluntary, heartfelt part of confession. There have been a few occasions when I grieved so deeply over my sin that words alone seemed powerless to say to God what I wanted. And though it made me no more worthy of forgiveness, fasting communicated the grief and confession my words could not. (Disciplines for the Christian Life, NavPress, 1991)
Writing God’s Word is drawing near. Since fasting went hand in hand with prayer, let me give one last one that goes hand in hand with Bible reading/study. Write out God’s Word in your own handwriting. When a new king was installed in Israel, they were to write out a copy of the Law.
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests.
And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel, (Deut. 17:18-20, ESV, italics mine).
We are no king, but that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from this practice. Writing out God’s Word slows us down, and we have a greater chance of meditating upon those words. As we write we see catch phrases, synonymous wording, or same wording that normally we gloss over. The Word becomes alive and sticks in our memories and hearts so much better. The goal for doing this was to teach the king fear for the LORD his God–not terror, but respect and awe–knowing that he (the king) is not the “end all, be all” of the kingdom, but God is over him and he is to remain in and with Him.
Don’t forget, as we draw near, He draws near. May we never just turn away from sin and turn toward God, but let us draw near to God that we distance ourselves from our sin.