The Presence of God

Psalm 139

The truth is, it’s easy to box God up in a little corner of our lives and every now and then, crack open the box just a little and throw in a prayer, but then slam the lid shut and tape it closed – until we feel the need to pray again. Now, when we say it out loud like that, it sounds rather ridiculous, but then again, tell me I’m wrong.

There was a book written by a 17th century monk, named Brother Lawrence, that considered how one might always seek and do the will of God. He entitled it The Practice of the Presence of God, and in that book he suggested that prayer was not a matter of heeding specific times or places of prayer, but in practicing prayer as a constant conversation with God, acknowledging God’s constant presence in our lives.  He wrote:

… That we might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him, with freedom and in simplicity. That we need only to recognize GOD intimately present with us, to address ourselves to Him every moment, that we may beg His assistance for knowing His will in things doubtful, and for rightly performing those which we plainly see He requires of us, offering them to Him before we do them, and giving Him thanks when we have done. That in this conversation with GOD, we are also employed in praising, adoring, and loving him incessantly, for His infinite goodness and perfection. That, without being discouraged on account of our sins, we should pray for His grace with a perfect confidence, as relying upon the infinite merits of our LORD. That GOD never failed offering us His grace at each action; that we distinctly perceived it, and never failed of it, unless when our thoughts had wandered from a sense of GOD’s Presence, or we had forgot to ask His assistance. (Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, p. 11)

What if you and I were to be able to so constantly perceive the presence of God, that we could remain in a continual conversation with him? What would that require, how could we do that, is it even realistic to think in those terms?

In a passage of scripture that we read last week in Psalm 139, David invited God to search him and know everything about him. David goes on to talk about the constant presence of God:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you. (Ps 139:7-18)

Do you hear what David is saying? This is different than the philosophical statement, “God is omnipresent.” He is talking about God’s personal, intimate presence in his life. That there is nowhere he can go (or would want to) that God isn’t already there waiting for him.

For David, God’s constant presence was a given (even in those moments when that was an uncomfortable, convicting presence), God was always with him.

There are times in our lives when we would rather God weren’t there watching (and we pretend and convince ourselves that he isn’t). But that’s especially when we need God present – he has promised to love us even when we are most unlovable.

When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be having a child who was from God, what did he tell her his name would be? “Emmanuel” – God is with us.

When John’s Gospel proclaimed that in the beginning Jesus was not only with God, but was God, he also said, “And he became flesh and dwelt among us.”

When Jesus promised his disciples that when he left them he would not leave them alone, but would send the Holy Spirit to be with them, he called him the Greek word, “Parakletos” – “the one called alongside.” And that word can be translated with a number of English words: counselor, comforter, helper, intercessor – but the root meaning of the word is that he is a constant presence by our side.

The apostle Paul captured that thought in Galatians 5:22, when he wrote: Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

God not only makes himself known, but makes himself present with us and invites us to walk with him in life.

It doesn’t happen all at once, and it certainly only comes with practice. Do you remember what Paul wrote to Timothy about the practice of godliness? For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Tim 4:8)  There is a sense in which we have to train ourselves in godliness, and just like the end result of physical exercise is a healthier body, so with training in godliness the end result is a closer walk with God.

Paul wrote on several occasions about praying constantly, as he did in 1 Thess 5:16-18:   Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I remember first reading that and thinking, Paul can’t mean that – how could anybody spend every waking moment in prayer?

But Eugene Peterson helped me with that. He wrote that constant prayer is not that many prayers are said, but that nothing is outside of the realm of prayer. Prayer is that base in our life to which we are constantly returning as we go through the day.

Simone Weil wrote, “Prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.

Paul speaks often of this attitude of mind that intentionally focuses our minds on God.

If we let our inner dialogue drift, it will naturally and invariably revolve around me – “How am I feeling, what kind of an impression am I making, what would I rather be doing?” Sometimes the dialogue is even destructive: “What an idiot I am, I’m no good, nobody likes me.” I think that’s why Paul counsels us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:6)

If we are to have an inner dialogue in which God is the center, we have to discipline ourselves to bring God into our minds and allow his voice to mediate our thoughts.

Isn’t that where Paul was taking us when he wrote:  Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  (Phil 4:4-8)

Once, when Jesus was asked what the most important command was, he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” In those words he summed up what God wants from us – not just a few scattered and rushed minutes of our day as we try to piece together a coherent prayer, but all of us – every moment, every thought – all that we have and all that we are. 

I can’t tell you how much this single idea will revolutionize, not just your prayer life, but your life. So, I want to give you a couple of thoughts to get you moving in that direction:

Start small – even if you think this is a great idea and starting tomorrow morning, you’re going to launch practicing the presence of God, start small. Start with an hour in the morning. That doesn’t mean that for an entire hour you’re going to talk with God, but that you are going to begin paying attention to what’s going on around you to see God at work.

As with any discipline, we sabotage ourselves by attempting to accomplish a great goal in one big effort and then fail to attain the goal and lose our excitement and motivation, and end up doing nothing.

So, rather than attempt to do it all at once, take smaller but more attainable steps in working toward your ultimate goal of practicing the presence of God.

But, at the same time, think big. Start to look for the presence and the activity of God everywhere and in everything. Broaden your view of God and what he is involved in.

Back in 1987, J.B. Philips wrote a book entitled, Your God Is Too Small, in which he challenged people to see God as more than a stereotypical policeman or grandfather or demanding parent or any number of boxes into which we have stuffed our image of God, but to have a picture of the God who really is – who is much more than we can imagine or control. The one who created and sustains the universe is a God worthy of all of our awe and adoration.

God is at work in your life, and part of the process of practicing his presence is to start seeing him as he really is and being aware of the amazing things he is doing in your life and in the world around you.

The third thought I want to share is to practice daily. This can’t be an occasional, if-I-get-around-to-it kind of thing. Each day belongs to God, not just Sunday morning for a couple hours of church. God means to invade your life totally, and if you want that, you need to open your life to him on a daily basis.

That’s our challenge this morning – to let God into our lives in a way that allows him to make a difference – not to hold him at arm’s length, not to hide all the dirty laundry, but to give him full access and total control. It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight, but it is a journey that begins with the first step.