Archives For God’s Presence

A couple of days ago I wrote about God’s presence—all around us at every moment, but somehow eluding our attention. Yesterday I had a discussion with one of my students about the things we do in “secret” that we would never do if we were cognizant of God’s presence in that moment, and I feel compelled to add on to my previous post.

Theologically, we know we’re never actually alone. As David asks God rhetorically in Psalm 139: “Where can I flee from your presence?” We know this, but we don’t believe it. Or we struggle to hold it in mind at every moment. So my student and I discussed the things Christians would never do if they could only remember God’s inescapable presence in moments of temptation.

PrayerThe problem, however, is that we fail to take God’s presence seriously in such moments. You wouldn’t do it if another human being were standing there. You certainly wouldn’t do it if God incarnate were standing there. But God is there. So why are you doing it?

The problem of not being aware of God’s presence in such moments is actually much bigger than that. We have trouble caring about God’s presence in moments of temptation because we have trouble caring about God’s presence in general. You’re not going to turn on the switch of “Oh wait, be careful what you do because God is here” in your battle with temptation. That switch will stay off as long as your master switch of “Everything I’m doing right now is done in the active presence of God” is off. And for most of us, it’s just off all the time, unless we apathetically turn it back on during a church service or prayer time. But we’re always diligent about turning the switch off again when those times are over, if not before.

What we desperately need to cultivate for many reasons is a constant awareness of the presence of God. This is not a theological study, it’s a matter of getting a biblical truth to sink down into our bones and permeate the furthest recesses of our minds. This requires training, and in this regard, I think we can find some help from Brother Lawrence’s spiritual classic, Practicing the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence was a French monk who lived in the seventeenth century. As he would do his daily, monotonous activities, such as washing dishes, he would simply train himself to be aware of God’s presence. He describes the result of these years of training like this: “I am come to a state wherein it would be as difficult for me not to think of God as it was at first to accustom myself to it.” This statement reveals that continued awareness of God’s presence is hard won, but it also holds out hope that this could one day become natural for us.

Kitchen SinkBrother Lawrence said, “Our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own.” In other words, awareness of God’s presence is not the result of doing only “spiritual activities;” it’s about doing the things we do already, but doing them with God by our side.

It was said of Brother Lawrence that “he was more united to God in his outward employments than when he left them for devotion and retirement.” Leaving his daily business to go spend devotional time with God amounted to being with God in abstraction rather than being with God in the tangible stuff of daily life. If you don’t see God in another human being, you’ll have trouble seeing God in a formalized prayer. If you don’t see God in the stunning beauty and intricacy of his creation, you’ll have trouble seeing him in your devotional routine.

Brother Lawrence’s prescription is this: “Think often on God, by day, by night, in your business, and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you; leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you; why, then, must God be neglected?” This is where theology meets reality, where knowledge becomes embedded in practice. God is all around us, we must learn to see him. He is not hiding; the problem is our blindness.

Perhaps our goal should be arriving at this reality: “Sufferings will be sweet and pleasant to us while we are with Him; and the greatest pleasures will be without Him, a cruel punishment to us.” It doesn’t matter what God calls us to: in his presence there is fullness of joy, at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). And it doesn’t matter how strong the pull of sin, any activity that cannot be done by God’s side is inherently repellent.

May we practice God’s presence in every moment, including those that would seek to pull us away from him.

In my previous post, which initiated this series on the mystery of the church, I opened up a potentially deep and painful wound about how the church seems to be dysfunctional. It seems best to explore this a bit more before we take our exploration tour of various expressions of the Bride of Christ.

Why is the church so dysfunctional? (Let me be clear—that is a broad generalization. There are many healthy churches, as I will demonstrate in this series of blog posts!) At the risk of gross oversimplification, let me suggest a few thoughts:

First of all, the church is made up of sinful, dysfunctional people in relationship. We are all sinners saved by grace and are in process. Growth is painful, messy, and uneven. There are bound to be mistakes made along the way, which inevitably will hurt someone. What married person has not hurt their spouse? What parent has not disappointed and hurt their child? Where there is love and relationship, there will be pain. Period.

Secondly, and quite frankly, much of the pain we experience within the context of the church is at least partly of our own doing. We were deeply hurt just a few years into full time ministry. My leadership was rejected and we were told we shouldn’t even be in the pastorate. It hurt. Deeply. We nearly lost our house to foreclosure. There were physical ailments within our family because of the intense emotion. And so on. But in hindsight, I recognize that my leadership was pretty lousy—it was taking the church in the wrong direction, and the elders knew it. Granted, they handled it poorly. But don’t we all handle things poorly at one time or another? I handled leading the church poorly; they handled addressing the situation poorly. People got hurt. But Christ-like character developed in many lives. We were all the richer for it, and today my wife and I consider ourselves blessed to have suffered in this way early in ministry.

But even if the source of hurt is not of our doing, God has a purpose. The church by definition consists of followers of Jesus, and Jesus is in the business of making us more and more like Him. Scripture is clear that the process of spiritual growth includes pain and suffering—a lot of pain and suffering (see James 1:2-4; Hebrews 12:3-11; 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10. Seriously, read these passages!). I am a better person, more mature, more ‘seasoned’, more Christlike, because of the hurts I have endured. And you are too, if you have allowed these seasons to train you in righteousness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11). We need to be reminded that Jesus was misunderstood, rejected, betrayed, abandoned—all of which eventually led to His undeserved execution. He deserved none of it. Christlikeness, by definition, requires undeserved rejection and suffering.

But what of those churches that grieve us because they are missing the point. They are in-grown with a fortress mentality. Their entire existence is about sustaining their comfortable institution and familiar practices, rather than making disciples of all the world. Their battles are over music style and what color to paint the nursery, rather than fighting the good fight of faith. What of them? I don’t have a great answer to that one, except to reiterate: the church is made up of sinful, dysfunctional people. And sin and dysfunction rears its ugly head in many different forms, including self-serving fortress thinking.

So where do we land? These are a lot of random, rambling thoughts that hopefully strike a chord with some of you. But let’s get beyond the negative and quit viewing the glass as half-empty. Let’s change our perspective and see the glass as half-full. We acknowledge that the church is not perfect. But you know what? The church is the glorious bride of Christ, the bride for whom He died, shed His blood, offered salvation by grace, and loves unconditionally. God has entrusted to the church the task of taking the Good News to every ethnic group. The church is the only institution that God has ordained. He has given New Testament instruction to the church. We must see the church as primary to the plan of God. I can’t wait to show you some pretty cool ways that God is at work in the church—yes, churches that are imperfect and dysfunctional in some ways, but still infused with the Holy Spirit and doing good things for the Kingdom! Here we go!!

I am a pastor. My dad is a pastor. My brother-in-law is a pastor. My great-great-grandfather on my dad’s mother’s side was a pastor. I have gone to church my whole life—literally. I have attended a lot of churches, and been the pastor of a few more. Some of those churches I didn’t like. Some of them were good; some not so good. But what makes a church “good” or “not so good”? What does that even mean? I have been hurt by the church, and I have no doubt hurt some people in the church. Does that mean a church is not so good if people get hurt in it?

I talk to a lot of people who have been hurt by the church, and it grieves me. Many of these people claim they still love Jesus, but just want nothing to do with “organized church.” I know more than a few people who have rejected Jesus and His gift of salvation, arguably because they have been so hurt by the church and the hypocrisy therein. So we see a huge upswing in the “house church” movement where there are no elders, or pastors, or constitution, or business meetings, or buildings to maintain. The goal is noble—let’s return to the church doing what the church is supposed to be doing and forget all the politics. But is that the best answer? Is not every genuine local church an expression of the glorious Bride of Christ?

So what is going on here? The church is, after all, the glorious bride of Christ, the bride for whom He died, shed His blood, offered salvation by grace, and loves unconditionally. The whole institution of marriage is to picture the incredible relationship between Christ and His bride, the Church (Eph 5:32: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.) Why is it so dysfunctional?

After many years of full-time pastoring, I have shifted gears. I now serve as Director of Church Relations for Eternity Bible College. A huge part of Eternity’s ethos is centered in the local church. Every student needs to be part of a local church, have a ministry in that local church, and be mentored by someone from that local church. A big part of my job is making that stick.

So my wife and I attend a different church every weekend, or at least, most weekends. That allows us to learn about these churches and therefore allows us to better pair up a student and a church. It struck me what a unique opportunity had been handed to us: I get to travel around and witness firsthand this mysterious thing called church, body of Christ, ekklesia, in many different places and expressions. It is an opportunity I don’t want to waste. I want to share it with you.

I have slowly realized that this is part of God’s prescription for me to heal, to recover from my cynicism about the church. For I too have been hurt by the church and been pretty cynical about ‘organized church.’ This journey is helping me recover, and maybe it will help you too.

I’ll be posting my thoughts somewhat regularly on this blog under the heading of “The Church Is a Mystery” so that you can journey with me through many different houses of worship and see how God shows up at church. Most of them will be in Southern California, but there may be an occasional odd location thrown in here and there. My guess is that God will show up in some pretty mysterious ways in some pretty unexpected places! After all, this is His Body we are talking about!