I’ve read many helpful books on spiritual formation in my seminary work, for other classes I have taken, and on my own. I have many more lined up to read. Few that I have read have been more helpful to me than Ben Campbell Johnson’s Living Before God: Deepening our Sense of the Divine Presence. This is one book that I will come back to often. This book had much to say to me about what concerns me most at my stage of life experience. Johnson brings more that 50 years of his own experience in “living before God” to share with his readers in a most personal and engaging way. He shares his life with you, not just his ideas.
The importance of not spending one’s life “asleep” to the presence of God is the subject of the first chapter. Life-sleep is living life on the surface, either unaware of life’s deeper meaning or unwilling to explore it. Waking up means being aware of where life is taking you, where God wants to take your life. Such awakening is a life long process, not a singular event. It involves gaining an appreciation for the wonder and mystery of life that we so easily miss in staying asleep or distracted. “‘Wondering’ describes us as seeking, questioning, searching beings who are trying to make sense of our experiences and milk their meanings.” The search for meaning and fulfillment “points to a mysterious presence that surrounds and engulfs our lives.”
“Wonder will not permit us to live complacent lives filled with ready-made answers. But wonder without information and discipline can often lead us astray; it requires substantive material for its task. In the words of Scripture we find material to nurture and inspire wonder.” On that basis, Johnson proceeds to give the reader a very fine introduction to the slow and meditative reading of Scripture known as the ancient practice of lectio divina (divine reading). As important as the scholarly interpretation and exposition of Scripture is, it doesn’t do the whole job of allowing us to engage the living Word of God on a level that fills our hearts as well as our minds. Mediation on Scripture, and the contemplation of its meaning, allows its message to enter our lives in our own unique circumstances and work a change in us that allows us to respond passionately and sincerely as well as intellectually.
Living before God with openness and expectation is not easy. It involves significant levels of trust in the face of the most difficult and doubtful situations of life. It involves resisting what Johnson calls “the biggest lie” of the Devil–that God can’t be trusted to be God–without denying our hard feelings and serious doubts. Johnson briefly discusses ways of listening for God and reflecting on God’s work in the ordinary events of the day. One of the chapters most helpful to me was “Coming to the Present.”
Living in the present moment is something that I have a very hard time doing. I tend to be too absorbed with concerns about the future or distracted by memories of the past to fully appreciate the gift and the opportunities of the present moment. There are many memories that I treasure and hopes I entertain for the future. Doing this is an important part of life. But as Johnson says, “Living before God occurs in the present … though memory and intuition call forth the past and imagine the future, neither of these creative capacities can help us experience God anywhere but now. … Perhaps to contemplate God in the present, we need to be constantly alert to our tendencies to run toward the future or retreat into the past.” Johnson makes the important observation that he has never experienced God’s grace in the misspent energy wasted in worrying about possible future catastrophes. It has been during the actual difficult experiences in life that he has felt God’s presence giving courage and strength.
When we come to the present, we experience grace. Grace is not given to quell our anxious imaginings about the unknown future. It is not given to assist our rumbling into the past, rooting out some old feeling of self pity or condemnation. Grace is given in the present moment to help us deal with what stands before us (p. 93).
The most intimate part of the book is where Johnson shares his struggle to understand how it is that Jesus lives in us. That is, in our hearts. We often struggle to “see” God’s work in our lives, to “hear” God’s voice, to “understand” God’s will, to gain an awareness of God’s presence. Yet, all of these efforts seem ineffective in producing the desired result as often as we’d like. Experiences like this often come seemingly uninvited, at times we least expect them. Our efforts may be important exercises that help sharpen our awareness for such times, but they can also give us the impression that the effort and willingness is on our part more than on God’s and they all seem to require us to obtain some sort of mental image of God for their satisfaction. Johnson suggests that we balance out these efforts by cultivating an awareness that living before God is being seen by God more than seeing God.
An amazing shift in consciousness occurs when we let ourselves be seen rather than trying to see. I found myself being set free from images of any sort, and the thought of a person before me soon became the thought of a presence behind me. When I conceived of God as behind me, the presence was out of my line of vision, and an image was not required. Being seen required having an awareness of God’s presence, not posessing a mental image of God. Quickly the image change to presence, and I experience prayer as being before Another whose face I could not see and did not need to see (p. 98).
This helps take the edge off of contemplative prayer for me. In this part of the book, Johnson shares with the reader some of his interactive experience with Christ living in his heart. These take the form of a written dialogue, putting down on paper what he hears Jesus saying to him in his heart. Reading another’s journal written in this form can be a strange experience. It can give the impression of being dictation from Jesus. I think Johnson’s intent is simply to translate the impressions that Christ makes on his heart, in response to questions that he ponders, into conversational form that can be written down and remembered. Normally the content of this sort of conversation is best confined to one’s own personal journal since it is between the person and God; not to be applied to anyone else’s life. But, as an example of an exercise that can help us experience the presence of Christ in our hearts, Johnson’s journal excerpts are very helpful both in their form and content. Why put Jesus’ words in the first person instead of writing an objective summary of those impressions? The main reason, as far as I can see, is to reinforce the idea that living before God involves a relationship on a personal level with God and with Christ who lives in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God desires this loving interaction with us. His relationship with us is not merely as an object of our study or understanding. If we are not open to the personal implications of such direct communication of God with the human heart, we are not seeking a true relationship with God on God’s own terms. We want it on our terms, under our control. That won’t work. That is to embrace “the biggest lie.” Is the practice of this form of communication open to abuse? Certainly. But one might argue that avoiding it on that basis is too high a price to pay. Better to move ahead and try to avoid the pitfalls.
In a chapter entitled “Celebrating Life in Freedom,” Johnson gives us a heartening and hopeful description of what it means for a Christian to live in freedom from concerns about past failures and fear of the future.
Truly free person have come to grips with themselves; they know who they are and have embraced their unique being; they have recognized their gifts and use them with appreciation; they have discovered their place in life an claim it with gladness and humility. Centered persons like these face the same external pressures as everyone else — they know the distractions of a consumer society, they feel job pressures, they care about their duties to family and friends. Yet they are not enslaved by these external forces. And these free persons know a relationship with God that assures them of acceptance; they experience the grace of God as the neutralizer of shame. And eternal life, a unique gift from God, frees the children of God from the agonizing fear of death. Can you imagine this kind of freedom? Free to be yourself, free in spite of your circumstance, free from your own accusing heart, and free from your fear of the future. Is this not true freedom (p. 116-7)?
Such freedom is contrasted with license, which Johnson calls “a misguided notion of freedom [which] assumes that persons can follow their own inclinations and impulses and do whatever they please without considering social norms or the rights of others.” True freedom is found in desiring the will of God above all else. Such a desire is given to us as a gift by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. A life lived before God puts us in the position of receiving that gift on a continuing basis.
Ending well is the subject of the ending chapter. A sustainable faith requires that we find ways to resist the things in life that turn us away from the love of God. Johnson offers some wise words on keeping our focus clear, fighting important battles, and keeping in shape to “run the whole race.” Having only one life to live underlines the importance of living it well.
I think that this book would be a very good one for spiritual directors or small group leaders to use with some of those that they accompany. The journaling exercises and discussion questions at the end of each chapter are well designed preparation for one-on-one meetings. I’m glad to have found this book and I highly recommend it to other Christians who have, perhaps, come a long way on their life’s journey with God and who need some wisdom and encouragement to make it well all the way home.