Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The presence of God is not a practice

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence, is an old book about which there is renewed popularity and consternation. It's good to read something for oneself, and it's short.

Here are some quotes (in bold) from the book I found noteworthy. I also include Scripture references for comparison.


He said that faith was sufficient to bring us to a high degree of perfection.

Faith in what? It's not just a matter of “believing.” The demons “believe there is one God” (James 2:19), but they don't believe Jesus is their Savior from their sins. The precise object of saving faith is in the blood of Jesus (Romans 3:23-25).

He said he had been long troubled in mind from a certain belief that he should be damned. All the men in the world could not have persuaded him to the contrary. This trouble of mind had lasted four years during which time he had suffered much. Finally he reasoned: I did not engage in a religious life but for the love of God. I have endeavored to act only for Him. Whatever becomes of me, whether I be lost or saved, I will always continue to act purely for the love of God. I shall have this good at least that till death I shall have done all that is in me to love Him. From that time on Brother Lawrence lived his life in perfect liberty and continual joy. He placed his sins between himself and God to tell Him that he did not deserve His favors yet God still continued to bestow them in abundance.

The question of salvation is not answered by asking if we always “act purely for the love of God.” For any man, if there are “sins between himself and God,” then there is a “middle wall of separation” between him and God characterized by enmity (Ephesians 2:14-16). Enmity is not a favor from God; enmity is hostility, unacceptable to God for a permanent state.

“God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Only once we confess our sins is He “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Since he knew his obligation to love God in all things, and as he endeavored to do so, he had no need of a director to advise him, but he greatly needed a confessor to absolve him. He said he was very sensible of his faults but not discouraged by them. He confessed them to God and made no excuses. Then, he peaceably resumed his usual practice of love and adoration.

Did he “confess with (his) mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in (his) heart that God has raised Him from the dead” (Romans 10:9)? If he did that he was saved, “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:10).

He said that useless thoughts spoil all - that the mischief began there. We ought to reject them as soon as we perceived their impertinence and return to our communion with God.

What is meant by “useless thoughts”? In reading this book, one gets the sense that anything that is not considered communion with God would fall in this “useless thoughts” category.

The Scriptures teach we are to love the Lord our God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27), be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2), and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

We're also to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5). It is not as though if we're not always in constant communion with God in our thoughts then we're at the beginning of mischief. We are free to think about a lot of things that still fit within the context of the many ways in which can love God.

Brother Lawrence emphasized that all bodily mortifications and other exercises are useless unless they serve to arrive at the union with God by love.

The famous mortification of sin passage is in Romans 8: “if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:13-14). “And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24).

That is not a call to create a lot of rules or regulations against indulging the flesh: “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20-23).

The point of mortifying the flesh, of putting to death the deeds of the body, is not to “arrive at the union with God.” Paul was writing to believers “who are in Christ Jesus”(Romans 8:1), who “died with Christ” (Colossians 2:20), who were “in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (Galatians 5:1), who “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). Lawrence is correct that bodily mortifications can be useless, but the reason is because they don't do anything do stop the indulgence of the flesh in the heart.

To the Colossians Paul continued, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:1-4). Setting our believing minds on our hope, on things above, comes first. Only then does it make sense to “put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).

The purpose of bodily mortification is not for union with God. We put to death the deeds of the body because our minds are on our coming reunion with Christ.

Brother Lawrence said the greatest pains or pleasures of this world were not to be compared with what he had experienced of both kinds in a spiritual state.

No one has yet seen the greatest of pleasures in a spiritual state. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (Isaiah 64:4; 1 Corinthians 2:9). “Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God” (Colossians 2:18-19).

Third Conversation: Brother Lawrence told me that the foundation of the spiritual life in him had been a high notion and esteem of God in faith.

Lots of people across the theological spectrum claim to have a high view of God in faith.

The Scriptures teach our foundation in faith is the apostles, prophets, and Jesus Christ Himself: “you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).

He said that perfect resignation to God was a sure way to heaven, a way in which we have always sufficient light for our conduct.

The sure way to heaven is believing in Jesus Christ. That's the essence of the Gospel.

Brother Lawrence said that many do not advance in the Christian progress because they stick in penances and particular exercises while they neglect the love of God which is the end.

I largely agree with this claim. Today, the question of loving God is not so much in contrast to penances as it is in contrast to a command-oriented view of Christianity.

Where I would disagree is if “the love of God” implies the exclusion of loving others (see next response).

He said there needed neither art nor science for going to God, but only a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him and to love Him only.

Jesus didn't have a lot of patience for people who overspiritualized life.

Jesus asked, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”—‘then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:3-9).

“Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”’—(that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do” (Mark 7:10-13).

Jesus had no use for people who said they should love God without honoring their parents. Such spirituality is not of God or the Bible.

Fourth Conversation: Brother Lawrence spoke with great openness of heart concerning his manner of going to God whereof some part is related already. He told me that all consists in one hearty renunciation of everything which we are sensible does not lead to God.

Renunciation is not generally the language of Scriptures. Giving up things is not a matter of leading to God. Rather, for those who know God, He “gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).

Our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works. Instead, it depended on doing that for God's sake which we commonly do for our own.

Sanctification is based neither on changing our works, nor on changing our works for God's sake.

We are sanctified “in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2), “by faith” (Acts 26:18), “by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16), “in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11), “by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13), “through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

The most excellent method he had found for going to God was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men but purely for the love of God.

It is good to love God, and it is good not to do things for the praise of men (Romans 2:29).

It's also good to understand that these things are meaningless without the Gospel.

Brother Lawrence felt it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times.

The Scriptures teach us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This should not, though, be confused with thinking that any thought we have about anything is prayer. Praying is a distinct activity.

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms” (James 5:13).

His own prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but Divine Love.

The presence of God, as described in the Bible, is not some kind of nirvana of love.

“You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).  “Let my vindication come from Your presence; Let Your eyes look on the things that are upright” (Psalm 17:2). “For You have made him most blessed forever; You have made him exceedingly glad with Your presence” (Psalm 21:6). “You, Yourself, are to be feared; And who may stand in Your presence When once You are angry?” (Psalm 76:7). “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). “Surely the righteous shall give thanks to Your name; The upright shall dwell in Your presence” (Psalm 140:13).

Sometimes the presence of God is a fearful awesome thing: “Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That You would come down! That the mountains might shake at Your presence—As fire burns brushwood, As fire causes water to boil—To make Your name known to Your adversaries, That the nations may tremble at Your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2).

There will be those who claim to have known the presence of God who never did and never will: “When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out” (Luke 13:25-28).

The whole substance of religion was faith, hope, and charity. In the practice of these we become united to the will of God.

“Faith, hope, and love” come at the end of the well-known passage on love in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13). There is nothing in that passage about love being how we “become united to the will of God.”

The context from the introduction is that love is about how we make sure what we do is not just a loud noise (13:1), us being nothing (13:2), or having nothing (13:3). Yes, God's will is for us to love, but it's not as if loving God creates some unified state with his will. That's why he also talks about profit. Our job is not just to love once, and voila: we're united to the will of God. God's will is for us to continually love and “bear much fruit” (John 15:8).

The end we ought to propose to ourselves is to become, in this life, the most perfect worshippers of God we can possibly be, and as we hope to be through all eternity.

Worship of God is not the ultimate purpose of man. It can't be if there are times that our worship disgusts God. “I hate, I despise your feast days, And I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, And righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

The chief end of man is to love God and our neighbors.

The greater perfection a soul aspires after, the more dependent it is upon Divine Grace.

He has this backwards. It is the Spirit who makes the believer perfect, not some aim for perfection that gives us more of the Spirit. “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3).

After having given myself wholly to God, to make all the satisfaction I could for my sins, I renounced, for the love of Him, everything that was not He, and I began to live as if there was none but He and I in the world.

Justification before God for our sins does not come from giving ourselves wholly to God. The only thing that satisfies God's wrath against our sin is our trusting in the shed blood of Jesus because “without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22).

No one is to live “as if there was none but He and I in the world.” Most of the spiritual gifts God gives directly relate to our relationships with one another (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4; 1 Peter 4).

I have no will but that of God. I endeavor to accomplish His will in all things.

Lawrence is claiming to be more spiritual than Jesus because even Jesus had to say “not my will” (Luke 22:42).

I am so resigned that I would not take up a straw from the ground against His order or from any motive but that of pure love for Him.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

I make it my priority to persevere in His holy presence, wherein I maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God. Or, to put it another way, it is an habitual, silent, and private conversation of the soul with God.

Here the “actual presence of God” is described in this book as his maintaining of “a simple attention and a fond regard for God.” That's not the presence of God. That's a man-based, man-made idea of perceiving God. That's an idol.

People can make up whatever idea they want and call it God. There is plenty of precedent for people making a habit out of silently or conversationally worshiping an idol. Of idols, the Word of God notes, “They have ears, but they do not hear” (Psalm 115:6; 135:17). “Do not hear” implies someone trying to talk to and have a conversation with that idol. Idols are not limited to physical images either. Made-up ideas of God or his presence can be idols, too.

We die but once and a mistake there is irretrievable.

On this Lawrence is absolutely and urgently correct: “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Are you ready?

I will send you one of those books about the presence of God; a subject which, in my opinion, contains the whole spiritual life.

God has told us what is the whole spiritual life: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). Our walk with God is also affected by how we interact with others.

I know that for the right practice of it, the heart must be empty of all other things; because God will possess the heart alone.

Jesus is the one who emptied Himself: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

Our purpose is not to be empty, but to be filled with the fullness of God: “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-19).

God is not interested in just the heart alone, but also our soul, strength, and mind (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27).

Were I a preacher, I would above all other things preach the practice of the presence of God. Were I a director, I would advise all the world to do it, so necessary do I think it, and so easy too.

The great preachers of the Bible often described their above-all-other-things top priority in terms of fire. Jeremiah wrote, “Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him, Nor speak anymore in His name.’ But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not.” (20:9). Preach the Word! (2 Timothy 4:2).

Jesus said, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49). There is still fire to come (2 Peter 3:10-12). Jesus was also eager to give forth the Word of God: “I have many things to say and to judge concerning you, but He who sent Me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I heard from Him” (John 8:26). “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

Paul's priorities also differed from Lawrence. “So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also” (Romans 1:15). “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

For none of these was their goal “a simple attention and a fond regard for God.” Jesus, the prophets, and the writers of Scripture wanted to see people saved. “Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1).

God will not permit a soul that desires to be devoted entirely to Him to take pleasures other than with Him.

God is not against external pleasures. When He first made man, He put him in the Garden of Pleasure. (Eden is the Hebrew word for pleasure.)

The question of pleasure is not so much one of presence as it is one of thankfulness. Are we grateful to God for the pleasures and blessings He gives to us? Our purpose is to be “Giving thanks always for all things to God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).

Once we have established a habit of the practice of the presence of God, we are then with Him who is our end. We have no need to return to the means. We may simply continue with Him in our commerce of love, persevering in His holy presence with an act of praise, of adoration, or of desire or with an act of resignation, or thanksgiving, and in all the ways our spirits can invent.

Having a reconciled relationship with God is indeed our goal, and we have no need to return to the means, but the means does not come from establishing “a habit of the practice of the presence of God.” The means is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and once we are saved, we are sealed, secure for all eternity (Ephesians 1:12-14). The Bible describes the things to which we should have no need to return as “the first principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12), that is, “the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). Obeying him, being in faith (Romans 1:6; 16:26).

For the believer, continuing in love, praise, adoration, and thanksgiving are all good things. They are not things our spirits invent, but they are fruits of the Holy Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

I pity you much. It will be a great relief if you can leave the care of your affairs to M—” and spend the remainder of your life only in worshipping God.

Spend the remainder of your life pouring your life into others. “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain. Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:14-18).

The least little remembrance will always be pleasing to Him.

Within the context of the Christian life, there is some truth to this. Jesus wants us to remember Him (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). We also know that “whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free” (Ephesians 6:8). Rewards are not just about remembering or thinking about God, but the fruit we bear for him.

We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him. And when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.

In order to know God, we should read and study His Word. Man can come up with all kinds of thoughts of God, but the wandering mind of man is no independent guarantee of accuracy in the knowledge of God.

Jesus indeed said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21; Luke 12:34). Jesus is talking about real down-to-earth treasure, too: money. Where is our money? Do we spend it on ourselves or to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ? Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength, and wallet.

He never forsakes us until we have first forsaken Him.

“He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5).

Let us seek Him often by faith. He is within us. Seek Him not elsewhere.

Turning inward to find God or faith is not advised: “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Instead, look to the Word of God and hide it in your heart: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as to a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

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