Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).
A prophet is generally a person regarded as an inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God. Unfortunately there are a lot of pretenders walking about and Jesus warns us to beware of these. They come to us in sheep’s clothing but, in truth, they are ferocious wolves preying on people. However, Jesus told us that we could recognize them by the fruit they bore. As a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit, a false prophet will reveal himself by the fruit he/she bears. What is this fruit? As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23a).
But it isn’t only a prophet we can recognize by their fruit; it is also the Christian. All the external observances of the faith like church attendance and devotions reveal the faithful, but don’t reveal the faith; it is the fruit that does. A quick introspection is all that is needed to determine this, so how about a simple exercise? Let’s look at self control.
Did you get angry in the week gone by? Did you reach out for the second helping of food when your stomach was already full? Were you able to resist the temptation to watch porn, or resist something else you know you shouldn’t be doing? If the answers to any of these questions were in the affirmative, then there is a good chance you are not bearing the fruit of self-control. If you were to consider each one in turn you might realize that you are not really bearing any fruit in the abundant measure you should be bearing them.
So how can we remedy this? Jesus provides the answer: Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit (John 15:5). So, to bear fruit we need to remain in Jesus much like a branch remains on the vine. But that leads us to another question: How do we remain in Jesus? This feature will try to answer that question.
Have you ever noticed how, during times of deep worship where we feel the presence of God strongly in our midst, everything around us fades away? During such times there is no worry or anxiety, little temptation, absolutely no fear; there is nothing but an amazing sense of peace and joy. So what happens to us when we get out of this wonderful state and return to the “world”? The troubles, fears, anxieties, temptations and worries return almost immediately. Why? Because we are no longer in the presence of God! Yet again, why? Because we have separated prayer from everything else that we do. Prayer is what we believe we do when we go to church or attend a prayer meeting and is divorced from all other activity. This is the problem, but what if we didn’t separate our prayer time from the other things we did? What if we could remain in the presence of God at all times? Wouldn’t that ensure we always remained in Jesus, like a branch on the vine? Yes, but is that possible? The short answer is: “Yes!”
A Personal Story
Many years ago, after I had an amazing encounter with Jesus that saw me return to the faith, I used to be in his presence at all times. For an entire year all I did was be with him. I didn’t have a job then and I hadn’t started my ministry yet, so I guess it was relatively easy for me to do this. I remember a friend asking me once how much I prayed. I said I prayed for about 14 hours a day. I don’t think he believed me but it was the truth. Every waking moment was spent with God listening to the wonderful things that he had to say. Then I started sharing these things with others and before long I was talking more than I was listening; I was doing more than being; and although prayer was frequent it became something separated if not divorced from everything else that I did. I believe part of the reason was because I had not fully understood what I had been doing that first year with God.
God fortunately finds ways to help us get clarity. A few months ago I went on a personal retreat to a little place some miles off Coimbatore. It was nested in the middle of tea plantations with forest—real forest—bordering it on all sides. There were bears and cheetahs, and although I didn’t see any, I did see plenty of other wild life including bison grazing and some raccoons who paraded in formation right outside my little cabin.
I had a wonderful priest named Fr. Jomio to guide me on the retreat. Not only did he help me find the direction I was seeking, he introduced me to a French monk—Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection—who would impact me tremendously. He gave me a book based on conversations this monk had with a friend, a few letters that he had written, and other thoughts that he had penned down, and not only did this remind me of my early days in the faith, it gave me insights on how everybody could live perpetually in the presence of God. I used these insights, and my knowledge and experiences to conduct an on-line retreat on how to perpetually live in the presence of God. Nearly 10,000 people from all around the world, including priests and bishops, made the retreat, and I realized that there was a deep hunger in humankind for God that could only be satisfied by being in his presence at all times. This article, and the accompanying video links (see below), along with Brother Lawrence’s book, should help you in your journey towards attaining this goal.
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection
Brother Lawrence was born Nicolas Herman in Hériménil in the region of Lorraine, located in modern-day eastern France. As a young man, poverty forced him into joining the army, which guaranteed him meals and a small stipend. Following an injury, he left the army and served as a valet to a well-known banker. His purpose in doing so was to lead a life of solitude, but he soon realized this was not for him. Finally he joined a Carmelite Priory in Paris at the age of 24 and took on the name Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.
He was assigned to the monastery kitchen, and despite the mundane daily reality of cooking and cleaning, chopping and scrubbing, there was always a joy that seemed to surround him. That, along with a simple yet profound wisdom that he possessed, attracted people towards him including the Vicar General of the Diocese, Father Joseph de Beaufort. Father Joseph had four conversations with Lawrence that he recorded, and these, along with a few letters and miscellaneous musings that the good brother wrote, formed the basis of a book that become a source of much inspiration for generations of Christians around the world. Titled The Practice of the Presence of God: The Best Rule of Holy Life it became a spiritual classic, transcending denominational and cultural lines. As the title suggests, it speaks of how the best way to lead a holy life is to practice the presence of God.
Practice of the Presence of God
There is hardly a person in the world who is connected to God right through the day. Even those who claim to have a relationship with him often don’t think about him for hours on end, if not days. As for the average church-goer, it is usually only when faced with a problem that they think of God. So, we shouldn’t really be surprised that we don’t bear fruit in abundance, because we can do this only when we are permanently attached to the vine. Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians says: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
It is God’s will for us to pray without ceasing. This does not consist of being on our knees at all times or engaged in continuous devotions. Because we have been led to believe that this is what “praying without ceasing” is, we have developed rationalizations for not praying constantly. Consequently, we also feel that prayer is boring. It isn’t. Try to recall those moments of deep worship that you engaged in. Did you find that boring? Those were some of the most pleasurable moments of our lives, when our souls seemed to be intimately connected to God. Think of the peace you experienced during those moments. We cannot get this outside of God. Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). This lasting peace can come only from Jesus but the only way to appropriate it, along with the other good things that come from God, is by decompartmentalizing him and making him part of everything we do no matter how small or insignificant. Paul tells us: So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Love is the Key
Can one really do this—be with God at all times? How?
Have you ever been in love? Do you remember what it was like when you first met this person? How you thought about him (or her) to the point of obsession. It didn’t matter what you were doing—reading something, or working out, or studying, or watching a movie—your thoughts constantly moved to this person. Isn’t that how it was? That’s how it is when we are in love.
So we just need to be in love with God. How do we do that? By knowing how much he loves us. We all know what John 3:16 says. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In the face of great love like that, what response can there be other than love of our own? We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
However, there is a good chance that we have started taking this love for granted. We see Jesus on the cross and it doesn’t move us. He has become a plastic caricature. This love has to become real again, like love for a spouse that has faded over time. How do we make this happen? By making it fresh again.
I used to go for long walks during this recent retreat that I made. One day, I walked near the forests that I described earlier and felt a little tired so I sat on a rock to rest. As I looked around me I saw a tiny flower sticking out in the middle of some grass. It was a beautiful little thing and had I not stopped to rest where I did I wouldn’t have seen it. And it suddenly struck me that nobody would ever see it, which made it mine, a flower held out by God for me. I looked up and around and everything seemed different. The forest took on a new texture, and I could see each tree distinct from the next. I looked at the sky and it felt like a moving picture that God was painting for me. A bison looked up in the distance and our gazes locked for a moment. “All for me,” I thought. “This was all just for me.” And as I stood there thinking a wind picked up from nowhere and it seemed like God was saying, “Yes, it is all just for you because I love you.”
It was an epiphany. I started noticing God’s love everywhere thereafter. I saw it in the raindrops that fell, I heard it in the chirping of the birds, I felt it in the way people treated me. And it changed me. Discovering (or rediscovering) God’s love will change you too.
All I wanted to do after that was to remain in the presence of God, and although places like this (and retreat centers) are very conducive to being in the presence of God, it doesn’t need to be different in the “world”. All it takes is some practice until it becomes a habit.
A Methodless Method
There is no method to practicing the presence of God, which makes it simple, but can be very unnerving for a lot of us who look at spiritual growth as something that can be measured. Consequently, if we aren’t able to sustain this practice, there will be the tendency to consider ourselves failures and give up, but we need to remind ourselves again that this is all about God’s grace and not our efforts.
Have you heard the song, ‘Change my heart, O God’? The chorus declares: ‘You are the potter, I am the clay; mould me and make me, this is what I pray.’ This is a spiritual truth. God is the potter; we are the clay. The clay doesn’t make the pot; the potter does. On some level most Christians understand this but still keep trying to do the potter’s job! Let us leave it to the potter. This is God. Just as the potter is aware of the impurities that are contained in the soil, God is equally aware of what is in us. And just as the potter removes the impurities he finds in the soil, showing immense patience as he does so, God shows equal patience as he goes about a similar process of cleansing us. This understanding has to guide the practice of the presence of God, otherwise it will lead to frustration, disappointment, or guilt.
This understanding has to guide our Christian journey as well, and if frustration, disappointment and guilt describe how you live your life of faith, it is time it changed. Christ promised us rest; not additional burdens (cf. Matthew 11:28).
So how do we go about this ‘methodless method’ of being in the presence of God all the time? We begin by telling God that this is what we want to do and I am certain this will make him happy because there is nothing that he wouldn’t like more than to have us with him constantly. Then we tell him to help us achieve this because, as we have realized, we can’t do anything without him. As Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5b). Everything we do has to be dependent on God. But two people play a role in a relationship and we have to do what we need to build it. Because it is something that we have never done, it might take some effort on our part to recall him to our minds through the day, but setting up some aural or visual reminders will help. Setting an alarm on our phone to go off every hour on the hour, or lighting a scented candle and placing it on our desk, or playing soft gospel music in the background are some of the things that we can do to remind ourselves to think about God.
Even as this starts to become a habit, we start making conscious efforts to bring him to mind from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep. It might take weeks before this becomes “automatic,” so you may have to use a few aids. If the first thing you do when you wake up is reach for your phone to see how many likes your last Facebook post has received, put a Post-it note on your phone saying: “Think of God!” Leave Post-It’s around your house, vehicles, and office, so whenever you see one of the little yellow stickers, you will recall God to mind. We don’t need to engage in fanciful conversations; we just need to take delight in and become accustomed to his divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him all the time (Spiritual Maxim 6). Think again of how it is being with somebody we love dearly; there is a certain simplicity in how we speak to them, and a lingering adoration in how we look at them.
During our work and other activities, even during our reading and writing, no matter how spiritual—and, I emphasize, even during our religious exercises and vocal prayers—we must stop for a moment, as often as possible, to adore God in the depths of our hearts, to savor him, even though in passing and stealthily (Spiritual Maxim 9). We can also use these moments to ask for his help and to thank him for aid and blessings already given.
What do we do when we fail? Or when we forget him? First let me tell you what we shouldn’t do! We shouldn’t go on a guilt trip because as Paul teaches us, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). We can take a page from Brother Lawrence’s book. When he failed he did nothing other than acknowledge his failure, telling God, “I will never do anything right if you leave me alone; it’s up to you to stop me from failing and correct what is wrong.” After that he no longer worried about his failure (Conversations 16).
Within a few months, if not a few weeks, one will see immense changes in an attitude towards everything in life. Because God is always with us, we won’t take any decision without consulting with him, which means that we are more likely to succeed in any endeavor we undertake, be it marriage or an occupation. I know of a person who will consult with God even before he orders something from a menu in a restaurant. While this may seem a little extreme to some, I fully endorse this practice because if you look for advice from God in the little things, you will also seek it in the big!
We become less reactive when faced with things that may disturb our peace. Consider this simple story. I returned home one day from work and the bed was not made. I hate a messy bed. My wife and I have this unspoken deal that the last person to leave the bed would make it. As she woke up after me that particular day, she should have made the bed. Under normal circumstances I might have got upset and told her to make the bed, but because God was right beside me I simply turned to God. He laughed and said, “How long will it take you to do this? 10 seconds? You want to make a fuss about that?” I made the bed and my wife never heard a word about it.
We become more content with what we have, and this comes in handy when we have jobs that we don’t like. Imagine Lawrence plodding about in that kitchen, peeling potatoes and chopping onions. Not only is it drudgery, the onions also make you cry! Although he doesn’t say anything about it, one knows him well enough to imagine him singing cheerfully as he worked, thanking God for every potato that he peeled and every onion that he chopped! Try doing this the next time you have to balance your accounts and see how much more enjoyable your job becomes.
We are better equipped to deal with adversity. Because we trust God, a trust that increases with every moment we spend with him, we believe that whatever happens is with his permission, so that makes us more accepting of what life sends our way. After all, we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). So, whether it is an accident or an injury, we are able to handle it with greater equanimity.
There are a hundred other things that you will discover, but perhaps the greatest fruit of this practice is that you will become a friend of God. What a wonderful thing that is. But we take this friendship for granted. A few months ago I was invited to pray with somebody who was very sick. I started my prayer by saying, “Jesus, you are my friend so will you please do something with him”. And Jesus said softly. “I am your friend, Aneel. But are you mine?” I felt the way that Peter must have felt when Jesus asked him, “Do you love me?” three times.
The question wasn’t a rebuke; it was an invitation to examine the essence of an important relationship. It is something that we all need to do from time to time so we can take the necessary steps to rectify anything that might be wrong. Good friends spend time with each other,they care for each other, they do things for one another, and although we may do all of this, it might be far less than what is ideal. God wants to be good friends with you and if you have read thus far, it is because he has inspired you to.
Continue the journey from here. Pick up a copy of Brother Lawrence's book. It is really an amazing piece of work, and although it is admittedly hard to understand in parts, a little bit of reflection will open our minds to things we may never have considered before. Another book that I recommend, if you find yourself wanting more, is “Writings and Conversations on the Practice of the Presence of God” edited by Conrad de Meester and published by ICS Publications. It is probably the most complete and comprehensive text on Brother Lawrence available.
A little while ago, I had conducted an online retreat on practicing the presence of God. This can be done at your own pace. Each session is only about fifteen minutes long, so it won’t take too much time out of your day. It ends with an exercise to help you learn to be perpetually in the presence of God. These are simple exercises and If you are able to do these with some degree of discipline, you will notice how your life changes. Click here for links to the video sessions.