Did you ever hear someone say, “I can glorify God by washing the dishes for him” or, “I can worship God by working on my car engine or while taking a walk in the woods”?
People that speak this way often have been influenced by a teaching that is called “practicing the presence of God.” It originated with a 17th century monk named Nicolas Herman, better known as Brother Lawrence, in a secluded French Catholic Monastery. Practicing the Presence of God is a book put together after the death of Brother Lawrence from a collection of personal correspondence and recalled teachings. Lawrence taught that our sanctification did not mean that we needed to change our daily deeds or habits. Instead, it meant simply doing regular, ordinary daily things for God’s sake that we commonly do for our own sake. Built from the truth of Colossians 3:23 that we are to do all things “heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men;” his message was one of cultivating a keen sensitivity to the presence of God in everyday life. He claimed that “the most excellent method he had found for going to God was that of doing his common business without any view of pleasing men but purely for the love of God.” He was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking him only, and nothing else, not even his gifts. He was satisfied with his method of being governed and motivated only by selfless love for God. According to Lawrence, this habit soon brought an awareness of God’s love, inwardly exciting him to every action, and he interpreted this as God’s presence.
Finding this presence of God in each task made every task equal to Lawrence. Thus, the prayer times called for by the Holy Father were no different or more desirable to him than regular activities. Lawrence was saddened as he saw his fellow monks addicting themselves to special activities like times set aside for prayer, the Mass, devotions and verbal reciting. He viewed these activities as selfish. Brother Lawrence grew to find such activities and calls to prayer by the Holy Father of the monastery to be a distraction. Lawrence stated, “The time of work does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great a tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper”. According to Lawrence the “prime discipline of the Christian life is to devote oneself to ‘God’s presence’ in all tasks”. By this discipline, Lawrence engaged in what he considered a “continual conversation with God.”
Practicing the presence of God is said to be useful today as a way to teach us to be in constant prayer and consciousness of God, but the truth is that our prayer life must be informed and guided by the scriptures. Without the guiding light of the word of God, our prayer life will be deficient. Internal thoughts to ourselves or to God about how much we love him as we walk in the woods or wash our dishes may fix our minds on God but is not true prayer. Contemplating God as we gaze at a dish-soap bubble could be prayerful, but is not true prayer as Christ taught us in Matthew 6:9–13.
If practicing the presence of God is not profitable to prayer life, is it still a good way to find God or go to God, as Lawrence teaches? The scriptures teach us the only true and safe way we can go to God and not be consumed because of our sins is through the mediator that he provides. In the word is where we find that mediator who is Christ. The most excellent way to go to God is only through Jesus Christ as we find him in the word. Brother Lawrence’s teachings gives us no focus on Christ with his redemption and constant mediation.
Do the scriptures teach us to practice anything? In the time following the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, Luke outlines God’s means of grace that we are to practice. In Acts 2:41–42 we learn repentance and baptism is in the forefront and is followed by believers continually devoting themselves to the apostle’s doctrine (teaching) and to fellowship. These believers were called to continue in the gospel (attend to the public preaching), prayer (including and especially corporate prayer), fellowship (friendship together in God’s word and its study), and the Lord’s Supper. To continue in the gospel is to be in the word. This is the divinely prescribed practice of the Christian.
The Spirit uses our time in the word as the means (of grace) to draw his people closer to God through Christ. The Spirit uses our time in the word to conform us to Christ so that our lives can be centered on him. The study of God’s word, including attendance to the preaching and to catechism, gives our hearts and minds the inexhaustible treasures of the scriptures. And, in the learning and understanding of these treasures, we are more able to know Christ, grow in him and live unto him. Growth in Christ, spiritual maturing, is the promised result of being in the word as taught in Hebrews 5:12–14, “who by reason of use [in the word of righteousness] have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil”. Without such discernment, we would be unable to root evil out of our hearts and lives and be conformed to Christ. And, with such discernment, we are increasingly better able to ‘handle’ life, live our life unto him, and to spread Christ’s word to fellow Christians and to others. Finding God’s presence and feeling closer to God sounds lofty but is not the same as knowing and growing in Christ by being in the word.
We would all agree that practicing God’s presence cannot be held as a substitute for being in the word. But, what if we add it to our rich life of being in the word that we already have? Wouldn’t that make our lives more filled with holiness or help us to be the best possible Christian? God does not encourage us to find him in such an inward, secret manner. This is a spiritual elitism because such efforts do not edify others in our church or provide us a way to better witness to those outside of our church. It is an unproductive spiritual dead end much like liturgical dancing or the gibberish of a Pentecostal. Is Lawrence’s idea of finding God’s presence even compatible with a gospel-centered life? The gospel message is: Christ and him crucified. It is about redemption and relationships. It is summarized by Jesus himself when he said that as his redeemed people we are to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. Brother Lawrence’s teachings of finding God and being closer to God by way of worshipfully doing ordinary, daily things is not even half of our calling or duty as taught by Christ. Loving God is more than loving him in every activity. Loving God is in loving Jesus Christ, his Son and our Mediator. We love Jesus Christ by sacrificially loving and serving others (Matt. 19:21, 25:40; James 1:27).
What about this idea of the presence of God? We know that God is omnipresent or everywhere-present, as we find in Psalm 139:7–10. We know that the attributes of God are evident everywhere throughout creation, as Romans 1:20 teaches. We also know that there is a special kind of presence of God for his people—one that is a relationship of friendship by way of our being redeemed. This special presence is first highlighted when the tabernacle is established, as we read in Exodus 25:8—9, where God will dwell among his people. God’s special presence took on a radical new step closer to his people in the incarnation of the Son. In the Son, the relationship of friendship and redemption itself was humanly personal as we read in Matthew 1:21–23. After Christ’s ascension, he sent the Spirit to maintain his special presence with his people (Acts 2:1-4.) This presence is not dependent on what we feel or anything subjective. It is not dependent on what we practice. It depends on God’s sustaining and renewing activity.
The message of the gospel is not about how to find God, but how God finds his people and changes them (Psalm 65:4). He finds us…dead…and makes us alive in Christ and to those around us. That ‘aliveness’ shows his special presence is already with us. It is the result of God’s sustaining and renewing activity through Christ in us for the benefit of the universal church. God’s special presence in the church as the source of the ‘aliveness’ of its individual members by the Holy Spirit has a purpose. The purpose of the presence of God is that we as individuals and as a whole, corporate church are more and more conformed to the image of Christ. This is much more than a warm, inner awareness of God on a personal level that makes us pleased and perfectly satisfied. The purpose of God’s presence is to gather us together in a unified faith as his body, to encourage and exhort each other so that we are not “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” as we “see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:25). The purpose of the presence of God is to fuel us in continuing the gospel mission to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). God’s promised presence is already with us, we don’t need to practice it to have it. Lawrence and those who embrace his teachings totally miss this truth.
While Lawrence’s monastic lifestyle is rarely recommended, his inner-meditational teachings have been around since the 70’s. Lately they are finding their way into Reformed circles. Ann Voskamp, a former blogger for the Gospel Coalition, heavily advocates his ideas throughout her book, One Thousand Gifts. While Ann upgrades Lawrence’s ‘love’ with ‘giving thanks’, the idea and theology remains the same as Lawrence’s. Another example of Lawrence’s influence among Reformed circles is found in the book Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace by James M. Boice. According to Ryan Habbena, a writer for the blog Critical Issues Commentary, the book thoroughly reaffirms the doctrines of the Reformation, but the concluding chapter on pragmatic issues holds Brother Lawrence’s teaching in high regard (pp196–197).
The Spirit indeed leads us to pray at all times (Eph. 6:18), and we surely need to attend to our everyday duties ‘as for the Lord’. Yet, our calling as Christians, the work we are assigned to do, is that we grow in our knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ. We are to grow both personally and together in the knowledge of Christ. We can only fulfill that calling by being in the word. Contrary to Brother Lawrence, being in the word does differ from our everyday efforts. God’s gracious means will cultivate genuine assurance but it involves special effort on our part. It involves time spent specifically in the scriptures, in prayer, observance of the Sabbath, and attendance to the preaching. In Luke 10:38–42 we read of Martha who was busy with much serving. I’m sure that with the actual presence of Jesus in her house, she was very much doing her tasks ‘as for the Lord’, in very true and selfless love for him even as Brother Lawrence taught. And yet, this behavior was discouraged when she was told by Christ himself that ‘Mary had chosen the good portion which would not be taken away from her’. That is the message of the passage, to prefer the study of and instruction by Christ when it is made available. The tasks Martha involved herself in for the purpose of serving were not sinful in themselves, but Christ taught her to prefer the means of grace over daily mundanities, to set aside daily things to be in the word in a special way as Mary had done.
Devotion to the word of God and attending the preaching is the scriptural discipline and practice of the Christian life. We don’t skip church to bring a meal to a sick friend. We don’t skip devotions to go talk to a straying brother. We certainly don’t forsake the means of grace as Martha did to accomplish our mundanities of life like preparing meals, cleaning the house or fixing the car. These average things of life should rather serve our efforts to partake of the means of grace. We fix our car so that we can get to Bible study or catechism. We finish our work and go to bed early enough on Saturday night so we are able get to church on time, attend to the preaching, and not be distracted or fall asleep. And then, from the activity of attendance to God’s word, we go forth in regular life with the people around us rather than into ourselves. We outwardly express our love by helping our brothers and sisters in Christ with our service and by verbally and outwardly witnessing to each other and to those around us of the salvation we experience. Follow Mary’s example and obey the call to worship that your elders send out, including those special mid-week calls. Make time to be in the word in special ways of devotions, catechism, prayer, and Bible study together with your friends. In so doing you will surely be ‘choosing the good portion’. You will be practicing what God has prescribed and you will find his presence is already with you.
* Brenda Hoekstra is a member of Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, MI