Short answer: yes.
Real answer: There’s probably not a short answer.
Last Friday, Faith and I attended a new small group for the first time (she’d been there before, but I had not, so let’s just call it “our” first time). Anyway, the topic of practicing the presence of God came up. For those reading to whom that might be a new phrase, it simply (HA! – far from simple) means to engage in ongoing communion and conversation with God throughout the day. To have an intimacy with God that is unlike any other relationship, because we are in constant connection and cooperation with Him. Brother Lawrence, who wrote a series of letters over 1,000 years ago which were eventually bound in a book to become the watershed-if-not-definitive work on this subject, puts it this way: “continual conversation with God”. My favorite definition is simply “walking with God”.
So, this topic came up in small group, and the question was implied, “Is this even possible?” An excellent question! I was thrilled. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in circles of people (small groups, church meetings, whatever) and talked about things like this only to be met with blank stars or the “your from Mars, aren’t you?” look. I was all the way in on this conversation … and thinking about it over the last few days has prompted me to want to share some additional thoughts here.
I found it noteworthy that the concept of constant communion with God was considered foreign or difficult, it’s potential even questioned. This practice has been largely lost in our day (by myself included), I would submit, due to two factors. I have no idea which came first, but A) Christianity has been totally redefined (repeatedly) in the 2,000 years since Jesus walked the earth, and B) the social and technological development of our civilization has resulted in a culture today which naturally works against the concept of walking with God. I brought the latter of these up in small group, and we had some interesting conversation, but like I said, it left me wanting to blog. So here we are with my question…
Is it even possible to be a Christian anymore given these circumstances?
To answer that question, I guess we first need to ask, ‘What is a Christian?” This speaks to the point A above, and the fact that we even has to ask underscores the reality I’m describing.
A Christian is a “little Christ” or “follower of Christ”. Somewhere in the 50-75 years after Jesus went to the cross while most of the New Testament was being written, His followers became known as “Christians”. I think of when Peter denied Jesus in Matthew 27 and other places. Three separate times, someone who was part of the “Crucify him!” crowd looked at Peter and said, “This fellow was with Jesus”. That’s a Christian; someone who is with Jesus.
Now, that doesn’t really answer the question, because now we can ask, “What does it mean to be ‘with’ Jesus?” Well, Jesus was very clear that those who bear good fruit and bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8) are His followers. Just saying that you follow Jesus (are a Christian) doesn’t mean you are. Those who bear the marks of Christianity are the real followers of Christ. Jesus made this very clear in Matthew 7: 15-23 NIV (in a passage that I’m sure our modern ears don’t like to hear)…
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
In other words, the God who sees through outward appearances and looks on the heart knows the heart of man. He knows now and will know in the moment we all stand before Him in heaven to be judged, the condition of our hearts. If we were with Him in this life, He’ll know us and welcome us into heaven. If we were against Him in this life, He’ll give us what we’ve wanted all our lives, which is to be left alone – separated from him in hell. And this passage further makes clear that if we are truly with Him in our hearts, then our words and actions and perspectives will increasingly reflect that. As my pastor (James MacDonald) frequently says, “not perfectly, but increasingly”.
So, that brings into sharp contrast the difference between Jesus’ definition of a Christian and most people’s (society’s) definition these days. There are millions of people out there who think that if you fly the American flag at your house, are generally nice to people, not an axe murderer, and make an obligatory visit to a church on Easter, then you’re a Christian. Another whole swath of our culture thinks that if you religiously show up at the right place every Sunday morning and chant the right things or make the right hand gestures or say the right superstitious incantations (which they call prayer), then you’re a Christian. Still another large group feels that if you’re involved in all kinds of activities at your church, give to the poor, have a good family, are pro-life, vote republican, and don’t drink, swear, or smoke that somehow that makes you a Christian. Jesus didn’t talk about any of these things really. He talked about our being His. Even more insidiously, there are those who believe that the academic ascent to the set of facts that describe Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection somehow saves you. Jesus doesn’t want you to know in your mind that He is Lord and then go about your business … like you know that the pyramids are in Egypt, because you read about it. He wants you to KNOW HIM, the way you know your kids or your grandma or your best friend – actually more than that. He wants you to ACT as if He’s God, to worship Him as God, to give Him what He has always been due in your life – everything.
Jesus didn’t go to the cross so that our behavior could be 5% better than it was before we came to understand that He died for us. That’s why most polls show very little difference between the behavior of non-Christians and the behavior of those who claim to follow Christ. Same number of divorces. Same proliferation of swearing, drinking, R- and even X-rated “entertainment”. Same books read. Same amount given to the poor. Same compassion for the down-and-out. Same total lack of the transformation Paul talked about in Romans 12:2… “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” That’s because most of the “Christians” they polled to get those results aren’t in fact Christians. I know nobody wants to hear that, but it’s true. Jesus went to the cross so we could be HIS.
(Now the *really* sad truth is that many who ARE Christians don’t behave much differently than all this, but that’s another topic for another day.)
We could treat these topics endlessly, but let’s get to the heart of why I am writing this entry: Can we be true Christians – men and women who walk with God, who submit to His authority in our lives, who become living sacrifices, who remain under God’s discipline, who bear fruit in keeping with repentance, who demonstrate the superiority of the life lived in Christ, who actually believe with actions not with words or the mere academic acknowledgment of facts – in our culture today?
Well, of course we can, but it’s hard.
Technology has shrunk the world and sped it up. 100 years ago, people were born, grew up, lived, and died on the same street or in the same town. Now, we fly all over the world on a whim. High school students from “middle income” families visit other continents for spring break. Jobs (or mere preference) move us thousands of miles from our families. Opportunities and choices are presented to us in quantity and quality that past generations couldn’t even have imagined, and those still living from those times still reel from them. We are connected to one another in endless new almost-meaningless ways (blogs, Facebook, IM, cell phones, texting, etc), and have become totally disconnected from real community (sit on the front porch together and talk away a Sunday night). We don’t know our neighbors, but we call people friends who live around the world but who play the same video game we do. We date online because we don’t even know how to find a person in the real world. Our jobs demand more hours than ever before, while our pay remains constant. And we have bought the message of consumerism so thoroughly that our savings rate in America is heading into negative territory. We have more advanced technology, bigger houses, nicer cars, better degrees, fatter healthier pets, more toys, and more convenience than ever before in the history of man. Of course, we can’t actually afford to own many of these things but we buy them anyway (another discussion for another day), and now we work harder (or more of us work), sleep less soundly, and spend significantly more time and energy stressing about how we’re going to pay for it all. And it goes on and on.
This culture threatens our walks with God. Those who are serious about pursuing Christ have learned or are learning (this is me – just beginning to figure it out) that choices will have to be made. Jesus described the Kingdom of God to be like a pearl of unequaled worth (Matthew 13:44-46). If you were a pearl collector, someone who loved pearls, and you learned that a pearl of such value that it couldn’t be measured was buried in a field somewhere, would you not sell everything you have to buy that field? If that is true, then what might we need to “sell” in order to “buy” life in all its fullness? This is, of course, what Jesus offers. (John 10:10)
I think the biggest problem is that we don’t really believe Jesus when he says that real life is found in Him. I think, if we really look deeply inside (even true Christians), what we find is the belief that we want Jesus in addition to this world, not instead of it. I’m certainly guilty. It’s easy to obey Christ when it doesn’t feel like it costs us much, but when it really costs us something, we turn on the rationalization and the equivocation and the “let me get one more person to pray about that and see if I can’t get a different answer” -ification. Or, am I the only one with this problem? I believe Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-29 apply to us today. It may not be money, but there are a lot of other things that can be made a god in our culture besides cash.
I don’t want to fool around any more. No more games. On June 22, I will have been a Christian for 15 years. I’m embarrassed by the lack of real faith my life demonstrates even at age 15. How many days and weeks and months and years has God waited for me to truly get serious about life with Him!? It’s way past time. I’m going to have to start talking in terms of decades soon, and that’s unacceptable. So, I’m getting rid of some of the things that have been distracting me. World of Warcraft was a great example. There’s just no need for that in my life. It’s not inherently evil, necessarily, but I want to have way better things to do with my time. Getting out of debt is another thing. I don’t have “bad” debt (there is only my mortgage), but I don’t want it using up emotional and financial resources anymore. It takes away the freedom to have a job that pays less than mine does if God were to call me to that. I want fewer side projects – fewer things demanding my attention and make me feel like (with my personality) they need to get done.
It means investment in taking Sunday truly off, because work can wait til Monday. It means investment in devotional and prayer time with my family, rather than time for hobbies or more work. It means investment in reading the Bible, both for myself and for my son, which means turning off the TV and the music and all the other things that would be “easier” to do. Etc.
I want my life to be intentional. I want to be willing to answer God “yes”, no matter what He asks of me. I want to be paying enough attention to God to hear Him when He asks. And I want to actually remember to ask God about even little things during the day. I want to hide His Word in my heart, so that it’s always there to be the wisdom that I speak when someone needs it.
The question was also asked at small group… Doesn’t God need Christian CEO’s out there to reach non-Christian CEO’s? This was asked thinking that “practicing the presence of God” might mean that I have to sell everything and move to an island to be alone with God. Far from it. Of course God needs and wants Christian CEO’s (just picking on them as a type of job that seems really far away from “monk”, but it could be anybody in any role anywhere). But let it be God who makes you a CEO, rather than making yourself a CEO with or without God. It’s not about isolating myself with God, it’s about knowing the difference between these two conversations…
Conversation 1: All about God
Me: “What do you want from me, God?”
God: “I want you to be a CEO. It’s who I made you to be. Now be one with all your heart, and remain connected to me in doing so.”
Me: “How do I worship you all day everyday as a CEO?”
God: “Glad you asked. Let me tell you. I am the Vine, you are the branches. If you …….. ” (see John 15)
Conversation 2: All about Me
Me: “God, I want to be a CEO. Bless me so that I can be a good one … for you.”
God: “Uh … okay … you know, that’s not necessarily what I had in mind. Let’s talk about this first.”
Me: “What, God? I think you’re breaking up.” (speaks aside to self) “I’m really smart and have all these gifts. Surely God wanted me to be a CEO with these gifts? Not everyone has them, you know. Besides, God needs CEO’s on his team, right?!” (speaks back to God) “Okay, I guess our connection’s fuzzy, so I’ll go ahead with my plan. Don’t worry though. I’ll do a few more good things, give a little more money at church, and ask a few people to pray for me that I hear your will more clearly. That way we’ll be better connected, and I’ll be able to say I’m following you while I do what I want to do. Okay, I’ll be in touch.”
God: “Good luck with that.” (speaks aside to self) “There goes another one. It’s okay, though. He’ll come around. Time for some hardship and trials in his life to get his attention.”
So, obviously, I’m being a little facetious. And I’m not talking about anyone in my small group. I’m talking about me. This has SO been the pattern of my life, though I hate to admit it. And what makes this worse is that the longer you head down this road, the harder it is to hear God when he speaks.
Okay, what’s my point? I feel like I’m rambling. The point is that we’ve got tough choices ahead of us. Many of us have spent at least a generation, steeping ourselves in luxury and unrealistic expectations of more luxury. The average American’s baseline expectation for what he deserves in life is about 5,000% more than the average has been throughout history, and we’re grumbling because we feel like “the man” is cutting in on our groove and forcing us to set our sights low. Maybe if we just get the government to bail us out and give us some more free stuff, then that’ll fix it. But I digress. My point is that the level of “I deserve” in this country and in my heart are OFF THE CHARTS, and it’s really starting to get to me. Especially when it’s my heart that trumpets the demanding expectations. I can’t take it anymore.
I want the pattern of my life to be about what GOD deserves. How about that for a MAJOR shift in thinking?! That’s the question (God help me) that I want to ask today, and tomorrow, and going forward. What does God deserve from me, and how am I going to pony up?! Of course, I’ll never “arrive”, but even if not perfectly, may this be what my life increasingly demonstrates.
So that’s where I’ve been going in this long-winded rambling blog entry. I want a life that’s all about God, not me. That’s what Jesus’ life was. That’s real Christianity. And I just don’t see, in the 21st century, how I’m ever going to be able to give God my whole heart unless I get it back from all kinds of other preoccupations – some not even inherently bad, but still way too distracting – I’ve given it to over the years. And I don’t think I’m alone.
If you want to pursue this topic further, there are people far more insightful and in tune with God than me who have written some very good works on the subject. I would recommend the following…
- The Practice of the Presence of God (short, print it free) by Brother Lawrence
- The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg
- Almost anything by Ruth Barton