Although professional golfer Wally Armstrong had pursued a relationship with Jesus for over 35 years, he always sensed that there was something missing. As Armstrong puts it, there's a big difference between believing something is true and experiencing something as real. In Practicing the Presence of Jesus: Experience the Gift of His Friendship, Armstrong shares his personal journey of discovering Jesus as a real companion and true friend.
Q: You write about a deep spiritual hunger that led you on a pursuit to experience a closer relationship with Jesus. Was there any one event that awakened the hunger?
There has always been a deep desire to be an authentic believer and pursue a closer relationship with Jesus. He just seemed so unapproachable for many years. I didn't feel worthy and did not feel I had achieved the level of understanding or performance that I needed to get to that higher level.
In Practicing the Presence of Jesus, I talk about the series of events that happened when I picked up a book by Dallas Willard on spiritual disciplines and was tipped off on a book from the 1920s about friendship with Jesus. It was when I started reading the first paragraph of the book’s prologue titled “A Modern Vision of Jesus” that the hunger was heightened. For the next two hours, I totally indulged in this new experience with Jesus that took me to the beginnings of living life on the highest level. It was completely different than how I had envisioned, and it all had to deal with having the truth become a reality.
There's a big difference between believing something is true and experiencing something as real. Before this experience, I believed Jesus was alive, but I had no idea that he wanted to be my friend and companion every moment of every day. The picture I have in my mind now is standing shoulder to shoulder with Jesus facing my sin together. I always felt alone and that he would have nothing to do with me in the midst of my sin such as, impure thoughts or unfair criticism of someone.
Q: Tell us about the day you met “Jesus” in Augusta.
In the spring of 2004, I drove up to Augusta to follow the King – Arnold Palmer. I had no idea that I was going to see Jesus standing there in the flesh talking to another golf professional like me. The Jesus I encountered behind the 18th green had no sandals or beard or long flowing robe, but was dressed like every other spectator at the event with a golf shirt and slacks. He only stood out in the crowd because people had seen the movie The Passion of the Christ that winter and recognized Jim Caviezal’s face as that of Jesus. So when they saw Caviezel, they were saying “look Jesus is talking to that Pro over there!”
When I came around behind the 18th green to meet my friend Jim Hiskey and his granddaughter, Rachel, I had no idea that I was going to see Jesus there talking to another player. It was just God's timing that Jim asked me to come up there and meet his granddaughter or I may have missed this whole encounter. It was the affirmation that this was the picture that I needed to secure the truths that I believed in as well as validate the personal encounter I had with the real Jesus four months before.
You see months before I found myself in my library reading a book which encouraged the reader to envision what Jesus would look like today if he showed up in your world as someone like you or me. As I thought of this, I envisioned Jesus as a fellow golfer and all of a sudden he became approachable and alive and real for the first time. The truths about Jesus became a reality. So I began to engage him mentally, not only as my Savior and Lord, but as a friend. A friend who is up-to-date and spoke my language. I always heard the scripture “I am the way the truth and the life,” but now I realized that this was just not encountering truth or discovering a way or a lifestyle. He is a real living person who was always there, I just never saw him in that light.
Back to Augusta – Later that evening when I was on the phone being interviewed live on a national radio sports talk show, it all gelled and made sense when I began to describe what it was like to see Jesus in the crowd. It must've been similar to what the disciples saw or maybe Zacchaeus saw from up in the tree. He saw that Jesus as one of them. The moment I finished the interview I felt as though God were saying to me, “now this is a wonderful way for people to connect with Me on a level they were created to experience, so tell others so they can meet Jesus as their personal friend in this simple uncomplicated way.”
Q: Growing up, you struggled with being “good enough” for your own father. How did that translate over to your spiritual relationship with Jesus and the feeling of not being able to measure up?
Growing up as a child of an alcoholic you become a human “doing” rather than a human “being.” You find all of your significance in your performance and attempts to please your father, and to be recognized by him as being okay. There was so much energy spent on meeting his expectations. You're just looking for that nod of acknowledgment that you’re special or have done well, but when it never comes, the energy builds up and it gets transferred to other ways of gaining that affirmation such as winning golf tournaments, writing books, speaking to hundreds of people, and doing golf clinics. Over the years, I have found many ways of gaining that affirmation. So your greatest strengths become your greatest weaknesses. Unfortunately, I found my significance and got my affirmation from the praise of other people.
This same quest for affirmation was transferred over to my relationship with God the Father and Jesus. After accepting Christ I read about a father who really loved me and my energy was transferred into that new relationship. I was driven in a new direction, but I was on the treadmill of performance again, but this time it was spiritual in nature. I still felt like I fell way short of God's expectations, and even though reading the words of Jesus in the Scriptures gave me great comfort, subconsciously I was still restless and working so hard to be okay, to get to the next level where I knew I had to be. I was trying to be a disciple on the highest level, but I was getting there on my own effort and understanding, based upon what I had read about in other books. No one really shared with me that Jesus was really alive, and beside me and in me, every moment of every day—whether I was doing well or doing bad, whether I was honoring him or dishonoring him.
I read the truth of Scripture telling me about how much God loved me and how special I was to him but this didn't deeply impact my heart until I encountered Jesus as real and began to practice his presence. I began to hear the voice of my Savior and friend affirming me of his love for me, not based on me doing anything but being his friend. That's the big difference between changing and transformation. Change requires effort and trying and earning to be okay, but the transformation requires letting God love you for who you are and receiving that affirmation without trying to change to earn that love.
Q: What is the chair experiment?
The chair experiment came about when I read the book I mentioned earlier, and the author’s own personal experiment of desiring “the friend’s” comforting presence and envisioning him in his office. The writer told the story of a man that a pastor once visited. The old Scotsman was ill and had a chair beside his bed. He made the Savior real by imagining him sitting in the chair and talking to him eye to eye as though he were his friend. When I read that from his old book, I decided to jump right in and visualize Jesus in my room and to imagine him as real.
Once that connection was made, and I saw that I could receive his gift of friendship as if he were a loving friend, I turned my desk chair to face me in my reading chair and began to imagine Jesus sitting across from me. I visualized what he would look like and how he would speak to me. This became a habit, and I could not get enough of this relationship every morning. I would get up and imagine him in the chair and mentally speak to him. Then, I would listen and imagine how He would be sitting and how he would be talking. The friendship was developed and nurtured day after day. To me it's finding space, a place for him not only in the morning for our special times together, but throughout the day whether it be imagining him in the car sitting next to me, on the golf course walking down the fairway together, or playing with my grandchildren. My desire is for him to be involved in my daily life and to acknowledge his presence in the good and the bad, knowing that everything is okay because he is there and as much alive today as he was with Peter and the disciples when they were on the beach cooking fish.
Q: What does it mean to practice the presence of Jesus? What steps are involved?
Practicing the presence of Jesus is something that takes discipline and work just like building a friendship with anyone else. It requires spending time with them and being totally transparent with them. It requires learning about them by asking sincere questions, sincerely listening and hearing with your heart.
My first waking moments start with meeting him wherever I am, whether it's in a hotel room on the road or at home in my den. This is the time when I am most alert and alive. It's an acknowledgment of his presence and his sovereignty and his love, the time when I talk to Jesus eye to eye and worship the Father for who he is.
I read his word in Scripture and visualized him speaking the same words to me in a modern setting with modern language. I know that he is present in all of my activities throughout the day, so there is an acknowledgment that he will be a part of everything I do and everything I think. It's more than a relationship but a companionship. A relationship is on and off, but a companionship is alive all the time because he lives in me and walks beside me every moment of every day. I desire for him to enjoy my life, and that I would be a loyal friend to him wherever I am and whatever I am involved in.
As I come to situations, circumstances, decision-making, and meeting people, I desire to have an awareness of his presence and check in with him during the day. Some days I may go for hours without this actively happening. I just think you develop a mindset to look back and to look ahead in order to have the assurance that He has been a part of it and will be a part of the future whether you want him to be there or not. It's a lifestyle and the mindset that follows the Scriptures of “come to me,” “learn from me,” and “fix your eyes on me” so His joy may be in you. The truth is because of his presence he experiences our life with us, now that an incredible truth to ponder.
Q: Why do you think we too often see our Christian lives as performance-based rather than relationally-based?
We are living in a performance driven society where everything is based on the curve. You're constantly being graded and everything is achievement oriented. From the time you understand this force, it becomes more and more drilled into you. Relationships take time and, most of all, risk. It’s much easier to perform a task than to develop a relationship. God wants people to be involved in being real with each other and be in relationships that are genuine and filled with integrity. With Jesus and others, risk is the path to certainty. If you don't risk, then you'll never be sure that relationships are real and sustained. This is where so many opposites come into play. In order to be a leader, you must be a servant. To be a true follower of Jesus requires looking at life in a whole different way. You make choices every day to follow his lead rather than your own common sense or instincts. Jesus said my sheep hear my voice and they follow me. So as we live our life in this interactive companionship with Jesus, it requires looking at him and stepping out onto thin ice, or as Peter was encouraged to do, by walk on the water to Jesus.
Q: We often think of Jesus as being condemning, but He was nothing like that with His disciples, was He?
As I read in the Scriptures about Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, there was a tremendous amount of patience with these numbskulls. They were very numb to what was happening around them. Jesus was teaching a whole new way of life than what they were used to experiencing. Jesus lived an upside down life and was encouraging them to follow him in the same way. You have to go back and understand the culture that they lived in to see how incredibly upside down Jesus was turning everything. He wasn't condemning people except those who were religious fanatics or cruel to little children. He loved the disciples and corrected them, but he realized that they were not filled with his Holy Spirit yet, so their spiritual insights were not fully developed yet. When they got connected to Jesus after the resurrection, then the Holy Spirit helped them to see Jesus clearly and connect with him and live life on the highest level. So there is no condemnation, only corrective love.
Q: What do you mean when you talk about not only accepting Jesus as a Savior, but as a friend?
There is such a reverence to Christ and a loyalty to his sovereignty that some people like me keep him at arm’s length in the sky as a royal judge. They see him as a task master who requires them to shape up and get to work. They're not comfortable sitting at his feet and resting. They have no time to learn from him because they're too busy learning about theology and doing all kinds of benevolent things for others. They're becoming disciples on their own efforts and the have never been taught the first step of how to follow him as the living person he is and the friend that he wants to be.
They don’t see the gift of his friendship that is offered. We are talking about a living person who is a brother and is an advocate (someone who comes along beside to help). He is someone who is approachable and has walked in your shoes, experiencing everything to the same level that you experienced them. This is a side of Jesus that very few people see and understand. They have not been enabled to see a simple way of entering into this friendship.
That's what I am hoping that this little book will do: open up this side of Jesus that is personal and intimate and that people will enter in to this invitation he gives to be his friend and develop intimacy (which means – “in to me see). Now that's what friends are for.
Q: What can we learn about Jesus by looking at His relationships, especially with His father?
Jesus was the actually the first disciple, a disciple to his father. And because Jesus was the first disciple, we can learn many things by looking at the way that he described his relationship with his father. Then we can realize that these are the same opportunities we have to enjoy fellowship with the father and the son. It was his desire that we would be living together in communion with the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. In the Lord's prayer, Jesus encourages us to live on earth as it is in heaven, so we just live on this Earth with the triune God as it is in heaven. We are invited into their family as a son or daughter. It was once said, the son of God became a son of man so the sons of men could become the sons of God. God is in the business of building a family of sons and daughters who will live with him forever and ever. Jesus was sent to start the ball rolling again. He was mankind’s second chance. The best second chance ever and it's all about being saved by grace. On Earth as it is in heaven.
Q: You say that you waited a number of years to write this book. Why did you wait so long?
I was a busy bee, writing another book and traveling to support other ministries with my speaking and clinics.
As I began to practice the presence of Jesus and study his word I began to put many of my thoughts and experiences down on paper in my Journal, so the book was written over many years. I'm an avid reader and usually have three or four books I am reading at one time and because of this, I'm constantly learning from others new ways of looking at this interactive life with Jesus.
As I began to get deeper into this friendship with Jesus, I realized that I had many misconceptions of the truth. I began to categorize these within my Journal, so when I had enough of them together I wrote out my story. I started the first rough draft about five years ago, then I had a number of writers take a look at it and doctor it up, so the book just kept growing and being refined.
Just like in golf instruction, there's nothing new under the sun, so this book is a giant compilation of many things that I have read from other people and listened to other people talk about. It's always been my desire to share with others the simplicity of the gospel. I've spent my lifetime refining the golf swing into its simplicity and teaching it so people can play golf and enjoy it for what it was meant to be not for what it has become.This is the same desire in writing this book – that people could be freed to live life on the highest level in the simplicity of a friendship with Jesus.
Armstrong invites readers to visit his website www.oldprobooks.com for more insights about receiving the gift of friendship Jesus offers us, and check out www.wallyarmstronggolf.com for free golf tips.
Practicing the Presence of Jesus: Experience the Gift of His Friendship by Wally Armstrong
(Summerside Press, October 2012, ISBN 978-1-60936-702-2, $12.99)