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What Shall We Practice?
Wrestling with Brother Lawrence’s Concept of “Practicing the Presence of God”
by Ryan Habbena
I recall a conversation I had with an individual early in my
Christian life regarding the high calling of living in light of the Gospel —
the need for devotion to the Word, the need for prayer, the need for
fellowship, and the task of evangelism.
His response took me aback: “All
those are fine for some,” he noted. “But I can glorify God by washing the
dishes for Him.” Although I wasn’t
aware of it at the time, this individual had been influenced by a teaching
called “Practicing the Presence of God.”
A century after a certain German
monk nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg
door, another monk quietly engaged in his own soon-to-be influential
endeavors. Nicolas Herman, better known
as Brother Lawrence, was a 17th-century monastic best known for his
teachings on “practicing the presence of God.”
These teachings originated in a secluded French Catholic Monastery but
have since disseminated throughout Christianity.1In this article I will wrestle with the
concept of “practicing the presence of God,” and challenge some of its
implications. If we look at this
teaching through the lens of the word of God, we find many deficiencies. Brother Lawrence purports to have found the
secret to a higher spiritual life.
However, there are several theological and practical problems evident in
his teachings. These endanger those who
follow his lead to neglect what God has called us to practice — a life
centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In what follows, I will highlight several of the deficiencies of
“practicing the presence of God” and respond to the question “What then shall
Practicing the Presence of God—The Teaching
The primary source for “Practicing the Presence of God” is a
posthumous collection of recalled teachings and personal correspondences
credited to Brother Lawrence and listed by the same name. The work consists of two sections:
“conversations” and “letters.” In the “conversations” portion of the work, the
interviewer, Joseph De Beaufort, captured the heart of Lawrence’s practice:
Our sanctification did not depend upon
changing our works. Instead, it depended on doing those things for God's sake
which we commonly do for our own. He thought it was lamentable to see how many
people mistook the means for the end, addicting themselves to certain works
which they performed very imperfectly because of their human or selfish regard.
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.2
The writer further noted:
It was observed, that even in the
busiest times in the kitchen, Brother Lawrence still preserved his recollection
and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing
in its turn with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit.
“The time of work,” said he, “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.”3
Here, in few words, is the heart of Brother Lawrence’s
teaching: The prime discipline of the Christian life is to devote oneself to
“God’s presence” in all tasks. That’s it.
He believed that all tasks are of equal value—if one “sees the presence
of God” in the task.
Brother Lawrence’s teaching has spread not only throughout
Christian circles but is also present in eastern religion and practice.4 While the book itself has certain commendable
contains several dangers and deficiencies.
In exposing these concerns we must first define the Biblical teaching of
God’s presence. Secondly, we must
compare the practice itself to what God has instructed His people to do.
The Biblical Precepts of “The Presence of God”
The Scriptures unveil two ways in which we can understand
“the presence of God.” First, we should understand that God is indeed
omnipresent (all-present). There is no
place one can hide from the Almighty. He
is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, both visible and invisible. King David poetically teaches on this precept
of God’s presence in Psalm 139.
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You
are there. If I take the wings of the
dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your
right hand will lay hold of me. (Psalm 139:7-10)
It also is true that the attributes of God are evident
everywhere throughout His creation. In
the convicting opening chapter of Romans, Paul notes, “For since the creation
of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature,
have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that
they are without excuse”6 (Romans 1:20).
the omnipresence of God, the Scriptures consistently present the reality of the
“special presence of God.” God’s
special presence in His people’s lives is both “redemptive” and “relational.”7 We see God’s special presence highlighted in
the establishing of the Tabernacle following the Exodus: “Let them construct a
sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I am going
to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its
furniture, just so you shall construct it” (Exodus 25:8-9).
omnipresent Lord dwelt with Israel
in a unique and special way. His
presence in their midst was both “relational” and “redemptive.” God’s special
presence took on a radical new dynamic in the incarnation of the Son as
announced by the apostle John: “The Word
became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
The text more literally translated reads: “The Word was made flesh and pitched His
tabernacle among us.” The allusion is
powerful: Just as God dwelled with Israel following the Exodus, He
became human to dwell with us in a much more profound manner. Again, the reasons for this marvelous
incarnation are both “redemptive and relational.” Matthew, when chronicling the incarnation,
And she will bear a Son; and you shall
call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save
His people from their sins. Now all
this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be
fulfilled, saying, Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a
Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which translated means,
"God with us." (Matthew
While the special bodily presence of Jesus temporarily
ceased with His ascension, He promised not to leave us alone but would send the
Spirit to “be with us forever” (John 14:16). Those who repent and believe in
the person and work of Jesus Christ receive the Holy Spirit. His presence
dwells with His people to “regenerate and renew” (Titus 3:5). The presence of
God is with the believer forever. His presence is not dependent upon subjective
feelings or even “practicing” His presence, but rather upon His sustaining and
renewing activity. There may be times
when we do not “feel” as if God is near, but this does nothing to undermine the
reality of both His omnipresence in the world and His special presence in His
problems arise if we equate the presence of God in our lives with subjective
religious experience. If we
continually seek to feel God’s
presence through contemplative practice,
the result will be that we will experience further spiritual problems.
This seeking will cause us to
strive for “feelings” rather than obedience.
This wrongful pursuit will shake our assurance because the little
assurance we have will be based on subjective experience rather than on the
historical reality of the cross. In the
end we will neglect our primary calling.
Seeing God in the Ordinary and in the Extraordinary
presence of God” asserts that people
in any position and any ordinary task can glorify God. True enough. However, is this used as a
replacement, or even an excuse, not to pursue our high calling of being
ambassadors of the Gospel? Practicing
the presence of God places a prime emphasis of seeing God in the ordinary. However, does looking for God in the ordinary
take the place of growing in our faith through the extraordinary practice of
devotion to the word of God? Does
looking for God in the “ordinary” cause us to become stagnant in the expression
of our extraordinary Spiritual gifts?
Recall the conversation I noted at
the beginning of this article. The
response of “doing the dishes for God” when confronted with the high calling of
Gospel-centered living highlights the danger of this practice. I grant that we do well to realize that God
is all-present, all-knowing, all-powerful and every aspect of our lives is to
be consecrated to Him. However, the
danger in looking to “practice God’s presence” as outlined above is that we
neglect the true means of grace which God has granted.
Brother Lawrence was a Catholic monk who lived out his days
in a monastery. This alone explains the
emphasis of his teachings and their glaring deficiencies. Brother Lawrence would be considered a “contemplative”
teacher. His practice was one of inner
meditation that took place within a monastic community. Is this the life to which God has called his children? Is “practicing His presence” the “most
excellent way to go to God”? In noting
the glaring omissions in Brother Lawrence’s teachings, the answer to these
questions is No.
What has God called His people to do? In the wake of the pouring out of the Holy
Spirit at Pentecost, Luke outlines God’s “means of grace” which we are to
practice. “So then, those who had
received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three
thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles'
teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts
2:41-42). Those who received the Gospel
message were baptized and continued
in the Gospel through devotion to the apostles teaching (the word of God),
prayer, fellowship, and the Lord’s supper.8
All those who subsequently believe are
to go and live likewise in this Christ-centered way. With this as the divinely prescribed
framework of the Christian’s practice, how does this compare with Brother
glaring and foundational omission in “Practicing the Presence of God” is the
lack of primacy placed on the word of God.
Our “practice” must be grounded on the precepts of the Scriptures. Our lives are transformed through the Holy
Spirit illuminating and applying the truths of God’s word. Without this all-important devotion we will
take our eyes off Christ and become susceptible to all sorts of spiritual
pitfalls. Note the Spirit-led author of
For though by this time you ought to be
teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary
principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid
food. For everyone who partakes only of
milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But
solid food is for the mature, who because
of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Hebrews
If we are to grow in the faith and be sanctified by the
Spirit we must devote ourselves to the word of God. And note very clearly this is what we are
called to practice (5:14). We are to continually devote ourselves to the
word of God. As we continue to dig into
the inexhaustible treasure of the Scriptures we will fix our eyes on Christ and
be trained to discern good from evil.
“Practicing the Presence of God” is said to be constant prayer and
consciousness of God’s presence, the truth is our prayer life must informed and
guided by His word. Without the guiding
light of the word of God our prayer life will be deficient; the
Scriptures teach us how to pray.
Furthermore, the monastic life of which Brother Lawrence partook may
have been rich in community, but it lacked the critical cog of Christian
fellowship—the act of fellowship
around the word and through prayer that is
vital to the Christian life. “Practicing
His presence” cannot be held as a substitute for such essentials. While the above are a mere sampling of the
dangers present in Brother Lawrence’s teachings, we do well to focus our
attention upon what God has
prescribed for His people.
The Purpose of His Presence — The Goal of our Practice
The true purpose of His presence in our lives is that we
would be conformed to the image of Christ.
His presence fuels us in continuing the Gospel mission (Go, therefore,
and make disciples of all the nations. . . and behold I am with you always [Matthew 28:19, 20]). The presence of His Spirit causes us to grow
in His word so that we may “have our senses trained to discern good from evil
(Hebrews 5:12).” His presence causes us
to gather together to encourage and exhort each other as “we see that day
drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). And His
Spirit indeed leads us to “pray at all times” (Ephesians 6:18). In the midst of this robust matrix of
Spirit-filled living we surely will see God in both the mundane and the
A Concluding, Convicting Example
The Scriptures declare “Whatever you
do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Colossians
3:23). If Brother Lawrence was simply affirming
this Scriptural truth he would be within the bounds of God’s counsel. However, He goes beyond this. “Practicing the presence of God” is presented
as “the most excellent method of going to God.” His “secret” to a spiritual
life is given primacy over what God has provided. What is missing in his concept is a Gospel-centered
way of life. Many may practice Brother
Lawrence’s teaching, and even feel like God is near. Yet, if the Gospel — the person and work of
Jesus Christ — is absent from their lives, this practice simply provides false
assurance. Rather than follow the lead
of Brother Lawrence, we should avail ourselves of God’s gracious means. This will keep us centered on the person and
work of Jesus Christ and will cultivate genuine assurance.
Luke records an event that speaks to this subject:
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named
Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat
at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with
much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my
sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But
the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and
troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.
Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke
We surely need to attend to our “everyday duties,” and these
should be done “as for the Lord.” Yet, the “necessary” goal we must be striving
toward is growing in our knowledge of Jesus Christ. The Spirit-filled source granted for this
glorious endeavor is faithful devotion to the Scriptures. Contrary to Brother Lawrence’s teaching, this
endeavor does differ from our
“everyday efforts.” May we all, like
Mary, sit at our Master’s feet through devotion to His word. In doing so we will practice what He has
prescribed and will have surely “chosen the good portion.”
Issue 97 - November / December 2006
- A good example of this teaching’s influence is seen in “Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace” by James Montgomery Boice (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001). In an otherwise thorough reaffirmation of the doctrines of the Reformation, the concluding chapter on pragmatic issues holds Brother Lawrence’s teachings in high regard (pp. 196-197).
- An online version of his work is available at http://www.practicegodspresence.com/brotherlawrence/11-practicegodspresence.html
- Many have noted the similarities of this practice to Zen Buddhism. See http://www.thezensite.com/zen%20essays/FormalPracticeBuddhistorChristian.htm, which further highlights the pantheistic undertones of the practice.
- The unmerited grace of God, His all-sufficient enabling grace, and the need for life wholly devoted to God are evident in the work and are acknowledged Biblical precepts. This withstanding, the heart of the issue following these precepts is How do we live our lives in pursuit of God’s upward calling? The primary point of disagreement resides here, as well as in many theological definitions behind the above noted precepts.
- It is pertinent to note that this text notes that God is indeed “seen” through what has been made. However, in context, Paul is noting that this is a means of making humanity accountable, not a means of redemption. This highlights the need for God’s “special presence” as will be further defined below.
- It bears noting that the Biblical encounters with the “special presence” of God also produce a keen awareness of one’s own sin. The examples of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5), Job (Job 42:5), and Peter (Luke 5:8) all highlight this point.
- For further exposition and commentary on this framework see: Bob DeWaay, Means of Grace in Critical Issues Commentary, Issue 84, Sept./Oct. 2004. http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue84.htm and Ryan Habbena, Walking by the Spirit, Critical Issues Commentary, Issue 60, Sept/Oct 2000. http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue60b.htm
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