In October 2022, through a variety of circumstances, my world shifted on its axis. That’s a polite and perhaps abstract way of saying that a lot of something hit the fan in a really big way. Without going into detail, I found myself in the midst of what I now suspect is/was an emotional breakdown. I was suddenly drowning, when only a few weeks prior I hadn’t even realised I was anywhere other than dry land.
Almost immediately, I felt my close connection with God dwindle to become something like a long-distance friendship, sustained only by occasional, haphazard conversations about the weather. It was profoundly unsettling. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing a genuine crisis, and the God who markets Himself as our refuge and strong tower was alarmingly absent. Or so I thought.
I’ve been profoundly grateful for my New Wine whānau during this season. New Wine Festival in January was especially timely and refreshing, and I benefitted greatly from times of prayer and many encouraging conversations. One in particular stands out. A good friend shared with me some of his own story. At a similar time of crisis in his life, he’d come to understand that the Lord wanted him to get back to a place of finding identity, purpose, and value only in his relationship with God, apart from ministry, and specifically as a beloved son of the Father. This immediately resonated with me, and I knew that God was using my friend’s story to get my attention.
I had been closing-in on 13 years in ministry and was abruptly awoken to the fact that I had been operating with a faulty foundation. I have always understood at some level that my worth is found in my relationship with Jesus, but for reasons I have only realised in recent months, I had largely functioned in ministry with performance, production, and profile as my primary goals.
Earlier this year, the Lord caught my attention with a small, seemingly insignificant word. Suddenly, I began to see it everywhere throughout the Scriptures.
The word is ‘with’. As I have traced this word through the Scriptures and meditated in prayer on its beautiful meaning, my relationship with God has been revived, restored and reinforced. I have come to a fresh understanding that above all else – above all of my good and Godly goals, plans, hopes and intentions – God simply wants to be with me, and have me with Him. God has never been interested in my performance, production, and profile – rather, proximity is His priority.
From the very beginning, God created us for relationship with Him, and every other aspect of the Good News flows both from and to this glorious truth.
We find the word with scattered liberally throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. In Genesis 3:8, we’re surprised to read that immediately prior to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, God had been walking in the garden in the cool of the day. The way the narrative flows, we’re not led to see this as a one-off event either. In fact, Adam and Eve didn’t seem surprised by His walking with them in the garden, rather ashamed that for the first time, they were aware of their nakedness before Him. In Matthew West’s book, The God Who Stays, he writes, “Something about that image of God walking with Adam and Eve in the garden helped me understand how powerful it is that God actually likes to be with us.”
In Revelation 21, as John waxes lyrical about the glorious New Heavens and Earth, we read, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3) Three times in one verse, the word ‘with’ is emphasised as an undoubtedly critical aspect of our eternal home. He was with us in creation; He’ll be with us in the recreation. Proximity really is His priority!
Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Enoch, and others are said to have walked with God. As David marvelled at God’s attentiveness, he exclaimed, “When I wake, I am still with You!” (Psalm 139:18) And in his most famous of Psalms, he revelled in the security afforded by God’s closeness, writing, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…” (Psalm 23:4)
In God’s well-known charge through the prophet Micah, we are called to “…do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8) Then, in the first chapter of Matthew, the Incarnate Christ is introduced to us as Emmanuel, “… which means, God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
But my favourite ‘with’ in all of Scripture appears in the most unlikely of circumstances. As Jesus was nailed to the cross, He found Himself crucified between two thieves, meeting the same fate. One of the thieves mocked Jesus and blasphemed, whereas the other experienced something of an epiphany. He turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Jesus’ response contains the most astounding and beautiful ‘with’ in the whole Bible. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)
Why is this my favourite ‘with’? Because it vividly demonstrates that a relationship with Jesus is 100% gift – undeserved, unmerited, and outrageous in gracious generosity. As the thief hung on his cross next to Jesus, he was just hours away from an eternity in outer darkness. But upon his recognition of Jesus’ true identity, and his request to be remembered, he was immediately transferred into the Kingdom.
Think about that for a moment. The thief’s feet were nailed to the cross, so he had no opportunity to go anywhere for Jesus. His hands were also nailed to the cross, so he had no capacity to do anything for Jesus. Yet there in the death throes, he is told the magnificent and astonishing news that, just because of his brand-new relationship with Jesus, he would be with Him in paradise, that very day! A relationship with Jesus is a holy companionship, conferred to us by His grace alone. We didn’t (and couldn’t) earn our ‘withness’, so we can’t lose it either. Magnificent! Amazing grace, how sweet does that sound?
I’m not one to tie a ribbon on tragedy and give it a redemptive name. I am not celebrating my brokenness, nor polishing the pain of the last 11 months (and in fact, several years) of my life. But I am profoundly grateful the Lord has been teaching me about His ‘withness’ as I’ve walked my gruelling journey to emotional wellness. In truth, if I hadn’t discovered the deep beauty of this, each step along this path would have been much more excruciating. My increasing experience of God’s ‘withness’ in my life is the resonating drumbeat that has kept me walking.
May our gracious and attentive God speak this tremendous truth afresh into your hearts and delight you again with His presence. He is with you; He is for you.
Author: Nigel Irwin
Pastor and New Wine Trust Board member. Nigel is passionate about Jesus, His Church, and authentic, Spirit-filled discipleship.