Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! This month’s topic is so close to my heart that I’m not even sure where to begin! Let’s see …
I could try to tempt your tastebuds by describing the experiences of famous devotional authors: I would cite Brother Lawrence (from whom I borrowed the title of this piece), who lived the last decade of his life in a continuous conversation with God, and Jean-Pierre de Caussade, who advised his flock to abandon themselves at every moment to God’s will. I would mention the Theologia Germanica, which counsels us to simultaneously keep one eye focused on God and one on the world, and Thomas Kelley, who discusses the peace that we have when we find, and remain seated in, our true Center, God. I would refer you to the works of contemporary writers Richard Foster, who scours the best authors of the past for clues on living in the present, and Kathleen Norris, who finds inspiration for the routines of her daily life in the traditions of monastic communities.
We can learn a great deal from all of these excellent authors, and they are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many, many people throughout history who have encountered the presence of God in their lives, who have tasted of God’s sweetness, and who have found that once you hear God’s gentle voice whispering in your heart, you never want to be separated from it. Those of us who have felt the presence of God, if only for a brief season, know that when God chooses not to make us aware of his presence, we feel dry and parched, longing to feel ourselves once again wrapped in the arms of love.
This is not something that only happened in the distant past, nor is it something that only happens to those who are somehow greater than normal. It can happen to us today, if we seek it and if we wait for it. The number of authors who have attested to it and the variety of their experiences shows that God will reveal himself to us in a variety of ways, whether it is through the warmth in the breast that Richard Rolle and John Wesley felt, or through the ecstasies that St. Teresa and St. Catherine experienced, or the visions which came to Julian and to St. Patrick.
Looking back over the history of devotional writing, two things become clear: First, those who experienced God’s presence were ordinary, earthy people, whose only real qualification was their openness to God’s movement in their lives. They were just as busy with daily affairs as the rest of us, only they could not see any separation between their life in God and their life in the world. Second, there is no one singular way in which we can encounter God. When God meets us, it is always an encounter between two individuals, and as such, no two people will have exactly the same experience.
But I’m not going to focus on the great devotional authors. Instead, I want to look at the two scriptural passages that to me provide the basis for the notion that our calling in Christ is a calling to be actively in God’s presence in all times and in all activities. To live in communion with God every moment of the day is not a practice reserved for the special few whom God calls to live away from the rest of the world, rather, it is an essential component of our call to walk in faith. It is the way in which we bring God back into the world that has rejected him. It is a necessary part of our life in Christ Jesus.
Psalm 139: Blanketed by God’s Presence
The first passage I want to look at is Psalm 139. Notice how this psalm blankets you with God’s presence: God has known us, past tense. After all, God created us, forming us in the womb, skillfully weaving us together. Whether we sit, stand, walk, or rest, God is “intimately acquainted with all [our] ways. We cannot even speak but God already knows what we will say. Every day of our lives has been ordained for us, written before we had even lived one of them. And here, in this life and on this earth, we are enclosed by God, “behind and before”, and God has laid his hand on us.
This psalm gives rise to all sorts of questions about free will and pre-destination. Is there no room in God’s omniscience for US? If God has ordained all of our days, does that mean we can do anything we want and trust that it’s okay with God? And if God knows all these things before they happen, why doesn’t God give us some advance warnings? “Hey! Heads up! You need to finish that report because you’re going to be really sick on Friday, and you’re going to lose your job next week!” It would be nice if God shared some of that knowledge with us, wouldn’t it? After all, we’re the ones who bear the scars!
This psalm can also sound quite claustrophobic: God seen in the likeness of Big Brother, constantly watching us, never letting us go for a minute. David, the psalmist here, dedicates an entire stanza to this one question. Read vv.7-10:
Where can I go from Thy Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Thy hand will lead me,
And Thy right hand will lay hold of me.
Do you see what I’m seeing here? Think about every time you want to do something you know in your heart isn’t right. We all do it, so don’t pretend it doesn’t happen with you. It’s called first-degree sin: we know that something is not the right thing to do, and we deliberately choose to do it anyway. This is not the sin that results from being tripped up unexpectedly. No, this is the sin that we deliberate over, mulling and planning for days, weeks, or months in advance. And in those moments when we listen to our hearts, we know not only that we shouldn’t be doing these things, but that God sees. God sees us!
Oh, that is the worst feeling! If only we could find somewhere to hide from God, so that we could do what we want to do and not have to worry about the consequences! How infuriating that God will not even respect our privacy and allow us to choose when and how we come before him! No, we are always in God’s sight-we spend our entire lives before him, as if on a stage before an audience who will not leave. Worse, we don’t even know our lines, nor where the plot of this story will take us! And yet we must continue to act before our audience, who will determine if we are to receive an encore or if the curtain will simply fall on our show.
But that is only one view of the situation. Look at what David says in the remaining two verses of this stanza:
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to Thee,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to Thee.
Do you hear the good news in this? God is always able to save us from whatever threatens to destroy us. The powers of death and hell cannot stand before God’s great love for us. Think of young children, still at the age in which they cannot stand to be out of their parents’ sight for more than two seconds. Think of children a bit older, who get hurt and run immediately to the arms of their parents for comfort. Think of adult children, who would give anything to have their parents back in their lives for one day, for one good conversation, for one reassuring hug.
God’s presence in our lives can sometimes be claustrophobic-we want more room, more space, more freedom. But the flip side of it is that because God is always present, there is nothing we have to fear. God sees all, he knows what is coming, and if we wait on God to preserve us, there is nothing that can destroy us. Even in death, we find God’s presence. But surely we cannot have it both ways: either God is always there, even when we don’t want him to be, or he is not always there, and we cannot trust that he will be there when we need him. God may hide his face from us periodically, but this does not mean he isn’t there. In fact, it might mean that we’re on safe ground!
How does this psalm help us keep God at the center of our lives? By reminding us that God is already wherever we are! In a sense, we don’t have to “keep” God at the center, because (again, in a sense) God is always at the center. All we have to do is remember this! I think of one of Kierkegaard’s prayers: that when God says that he first loved us, he means that every time we turn to him, he has turned to us first. He is always waiting for us to come to him; never is there a time in which we have to awaken God from slumber, or get his attention amidst other distractions, or prove to him that we are worth his notice. No, always and everywhere, God turns to us first.
I remember reading this psalm a couple years back and realizing how much my faith had grown since I had read it last. When I came to v.7, “where can I flee from Thy presence”, I immediately reacted: “But I don’t WANT to flee from God’s presence!” It was a wonderful moment, in which I realized that I was maturing into someone who truly loves God and who longs to do God’s work. And I thought that if God was present everywhere I went, then I wanted to be aware of it. I wanted to walk every day, in every situation, at the side of God, in his sight and under his protection and guidance. I want to live, like Brother Lawrence, in perfect communion with God, and like Thomas Kelley, resting in the spiritual Center of my life.
How do we keep God in the center of our lives? First, we must recognize that God is everywhere we could possibly go, whether we are running from him or are being taken away from him. But we have to see this as good news before it can bear any fruit in our lives. Until we long for God’s presence, until we thirst for God’s word and hunger for God’s sweetness, God’s continued presence can be no more than an obstacle to our efforts to reach happiness. Once we have tasted of God and seen how good he is, then his constant presence is a source of delight, of hope, and of love. It is only then that we can join David in the last lines of the psalm:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.
John 5:19 — Living in Communion with God
The second passage I want to look at is John 5:19, when Jesus tells the people
… the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.
Once again, this passage might cause us trouble: Does Jesus have no will of his own? Are we really expected to be able to discern all that God is doing? This passage tears to the roots of both our rebellion and our weakness: We don’t want to do only what God is doing! Perhaps we are holding on to our own agendas and cannot bear to give up the hopes we have nurtured for so long apart from God. Perhaps we fear that God is too distant or too unconcerned to do anything about the very real needs we see in front of us-if God doesn’t do anything about it, then it is up to me to take care of the situation!
But is not only our rebellion against God that is revealed by this passage. We also see our weakness: Jesus saw perfectly what no mortal has been able to see, before or since-God’s actions. The eyes of our faith are weak: we look for God’s hand, but see only our whims, our desires, or the goals that the world has told us we must pursue. Our sight is imperfect at best, partly because we are not practiced in discerning God’s hand, partly because we do not always want to see God’s hand, and partly because the world throws us imitations that confuse us.
So when we read Jesus’ words here, we are cut to the quick. Here is Jesus revealing to us how humanity is meant to live, in perfect communion with God, and his perfection reveals to us our rebellious nature and the weakness of our vision. We see Jesus modeling what we should be doing, and we realize how impossible it is for us to reach this on our own. What should be an encouragement becomes, in a way, a judgment against us.
But again, this is only the one picture. As we grow closer to God, as we learn more and more about God’s love and God’s purposes in the world, we begin to see how wonderful it is that Jesus is so perfectly submissive. We realize how imperfect even our noblest and purest desires are compared to what God desires. We realize how weak our love for others is, and how ready God is to assist us in our desires to do good in this world. As we grow closer to Christ, we begin to see this statement as no longer a judgment but as an invitation to grow in love and submission to the God who desires that we bring life and hope and peace and joy to a world that desperate needs them.
So then as we desire to keep God at the center of our lives, we must secondly learn how to do only what we see God doing. This involves a lot of growth on our part, for which we must ask God to bring about in our lives. It means we must learn to discern what God is doing and to ignore all the things God is not doing, no matter how worthy they seem to be. Then we must learn to set aside our own agendas, for the sake of completing that for which God as called us. It is here that we fulfill the counsel of Caussade that we abandon ourselves completely to God’s will at every moment. And it is also here that we learn how to live the advice of the Theologia, keeping one eye on God and one eye on the world.
Eventually, we will stop pointing to ourselves and start pointing to Jesus. But only when we do this will be able to bring forth the fruits of God’s love in the world. Only then will be able to love others as God loves them. Only then will we be able to put aside all the division, accusation, deception, and destruction and bring forth life, joy, peace, hope, mercy and grace. When we learn to do only that which we see God doing, we will no longer have to worry about doing the wrong thing or about being unable to accomplish our goals, for in Christ we can do all things, and whatever we do in Christ is beyond reproach.
Keeping God at the Center
How do we then keep God in the center of our lives? These two passages suggest two crucial steps: first, that we recognize God’s constant presence in our lives. Once we see this, we begin to look for God in our daily events and routines: we know he is there, so we trust in some way that he is revealing himself to us. We trust as well that he knows what we are going through and that he will enable us to do whatever is right in his sight. There is no problem too big and no concern to small for God. As soon as we see this, the world becomes a much less frightening place, and the alphabet that God uses becomes more clear to us.
The second step is this: we do nothing that we do not see God doing first. As we learn to do this (and it will take our entire lifetime even to get past the beginner stage), we will grow more like Christ, who laid aside all authority he had in himself in order to fulfill the will of God who sent him, namely, that he reconcile those who believe in him to God, bringing life and hope and peace to the world. As we become more flexible in allowing God to use us, we will see our own place in the world better — how we are in truth wonderfully and fearfully made, and how great God’s love is for us, that he would choose to use creatures so fragile to build a people so invincible. Simultaneously, we will learn how dependent we are on God and how lavishly God loves us.
Isn’t that wonderful news?
P.S.: I have given these two verses because they speak strongly to me. They are the verses I call to mind when I need to refocus myself on God. But I do strongly recommend the great devotional writers of the history of the church. The more we read from the past, with all its variety and complexity, the better perspective we will have on our present situation. Plus, these are the written records of people who have encountered the risen Christ in the depths of their hearts, and of the changes that have been worked in them by the grace of God. We could do far worse than to study their writings and learn from them what God has been doing. For an easy place to start, I highly recommend Richard Foster’s anthology Devotional Classics, which presents excerpts from 52 great Christian writers. Here you can easily sample and taste various writers in order to decide whom you want to invest in. It’s an excellent way to connect with the entire Christian tradition!
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.