Practicing the presence of God is the preliminary step to all other Christian practices. It isn’t something you do once or twice or just on Sunday. It’s a life-style that facilitates loving God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul—not because God needs His ego fed, but because it sets you up for filling with positive things.
Obviously, if you don’t see the Spirit of God as having qualities you admire and want for yourself, you won’t have much incentive to seek them. (I don’t mean His omni-qualities that no human being will ever gain. I mean love, competence, intelligence, strength, compassion, etc.)
Assuming the desire, it’s possible to develop inner Christ-like qualities (spirit) that naturally result in Christ-like behavior—“Christ formed within you” (Gal. 4:19). But trying to be Christ-like by merely conforming to right behavior short-circuits the spiritual process and you’ll eventually burn out. Jesus compares it to a house built on sand that comes crashing down (Mat. 7:26-27).
Two different philosophies set you up for the crash:
(1.) Behavior and obedience are top priority. Don’t break the rules. If you do, the right rituals and prayers will atone for it, so the sort of person you are is of little consequence.
This is the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus says people must get past (surpass). They cleaned the outside of the cup, but the inside remained full of negative qualities (Mat. 23:25-26). Their idea of redemption was that as long as people tithed correctly, got circumcised, or avoided murder, they could be as full of greed or anger, for example, as the next guy.
(2.) Behavior and obedience don’t matter. You’ll always break the rules. So, having the right beliefs, particularly in forgiveness or gratitude, is top priority. The sort of person you are is of little consequence as long as God finds the correct doctrines in your mind.
This is today’s idea of “right with God” among most Christians. This version of redemption is that people can be as full of anger or greed, for example, as the next guy as long as they believe they’re just sinners “saved” by grace. Instead of avoiding sin, it’s about avoiding guilt and punishment.
In either case, people learn to act like Christ rather than be like Christ; and acting is a heavy burden to maintain. By contrast, the way of salvation is much lighter—a gift from God to develop inner goodness that’ll shine on the outside with much less effort. C.S. Lewis noted, “Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is.”
Relief and Practice
The secret to the lighter burden is to work from the inside out using spiritual disciplines in partnership with God. Take your time with the following reflections:
First, consider that the way you behave comes from who you are, not the other way around. You can’t escape yourself through your job, substances, relationships, or even worship. And if you don’t like yourself much, what blessing is it to merely be the harder-working, more sober, social, or church-going version of the you you don’t like?
If you think that salvation isn’t about you, but only about God (and countless churches preach this, unfortunately), you’ll completely miss what He’s up to. I missed it, too, for many years.
Second, contemplate whether you’ve attempted to be like Jesus just by trying hard. If so, examine the results you’ve gotten. Exhaustion? Frustration? Negative, sinful qualities that won’t go away? Addictions to habits, things, or substances?
Many Christians use words like “commitment” and “no excuses” to express sincere diligence, yet they find they must rededicate their lives to the Lord frequently. Some go forward in altar calls week after week. If it’s all working so great, why is this so common?
What Christians unknowingly do is rededicate themselves to a humanly devised system that will fail and crash repeatedly, yet blame it on them. They didn’t have enough faith; they didn’t try hard enough; they didn’t really have their hearts in it. Consider that this is the Accuser’s game, not God’s, and the only way to win it is to quit playing it.
Fourth, understand that faith means finding out how you can contribute to God’s way of doing things in the world. It’s not about trying hard, it’s about becoming competent in mind, spirit, and body—a whole person—by obeying and practicing what Jesus teaches. You can love God, self, and neighbor, and live the fuller life Jesus offers.
Realize that God’s purpose for you is to rule and serve your little kingdom the way He rules and serves His, wisely and safely. This prepares you to inherit the earth and reign with Jesus, fully restored to God’s original life-driven purpose for mankind.
Then read as many verses as you can where Jesus speaks of good trees bearing good fruit (Mat. 12:33), the good man bringing good things stored from within (Mat. 12:35), the seed that roots deeply and produces a hundred-fold yield (Mat. 13:23), and crops producing a harvest.
All of this is the Christian spiritual discipline (practice) of study and meditating on God’s Word. These are just a few suggestions to get you started.
You want an inner readiness that produces good reactions, a spirit like God’s that flows from inside to outside without having to fake it or cave in to despair. This is the spring of living water welling up to eternal life (Jhn. 4:14).
Ask God to help your soul-searching. Since you can’t do it alone, let it be His gift to you. Partnership is exactly what He wants, and He’s all in favor of your budding new life. You simply start from where you are, but you first need some idea of where that is. And wherever it is or whoever you currently are, you’re safe with God while you learn and grow.