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.
The 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.
Brother 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.