Post Date: November 10, 2017
November 7, 2017, marked the release of Dr. Ken Boa’s newest book, Life in the Presence of God: Practices for Living in Light of Eternity, from InterVarsity Press. The book’s content is based on Ken’s Wednesday morning teaching series that ran from January to October 2016 (start watching the series here). Below is a question-and-answer with the author, discussing the content of and motivation behind a book that, in many ways, “embodies Ken’s life message” (as one reviewer put it).
What do you mean by “practicing God’s presence”?
Ken Boa (KB): This phrase comes from one of the inspirations behind this book, Brother Lawrence, whose sayings and writings were collected in the enduring classic The Practice of the Presence of God. The Scriptures describe this same concept using various “process images,” such as abiding in Christ like a branch in a vine (John 15), walking by and in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5), running and pressing on with perseverance (Hebrews 12, Philippians 3), and setting our minds on heavenly things (Philippians 4, Colossians 3, Romans 8). All of these commands are ongoing things we do. They’re not once-and-done actions. We don’t come to Jesus and stop there; we come to him, and we keep coming, keep following. That’s why the book is titled life in the presence of God—because we’ve been saved not just from sin and hell and death, but for a glorious, abundant life in and with him that begins now.
What motivated this book?
KB: Brother Lawrence and others have always inspired me to walk more closely to God (to “practice his presence”), but there’s one thing I never really got from them: how they did it. I’m not a monk, and I don’t spend my life in a kitchen or prayer closet all day (like Brother Lawrence). My life is busy and full, and I’m constantly on the go. So how can I practice God’s presence? There’s an impression, I think, that this “practice” is only for some “super-spiritual” Christians. But Scripture doesn’t suggest this—it suggests, as Watchman Nee wrote, that daily abiding in Christ is simply the “normal Christian life.” It’s what all of us should be doing! But the question is how can we be aware of God in the midst of our fast-paced modern world? This was a challenge back in Brother Lawrence’s day, and the difficulty is only compounded in the 21st century (especially by advances in technology). Our society and relationships have been radically changed, and if we’re not careful, we’ll succumb to a life where, in William Wordsworth’s words, “the world is too much with us.”
Would you tell us a little more about the book topic as it relates to you personally?
KB: I first became aware of God’s presence before my conversion in 1967. Since then, there have been watershed moments, but until recently, my awareness of God’s presence was still closely connected to my devotional time. You spend time with him in the morning, and then you’re on your own the rest of the day—that sort of mentality. But that’s not the picture Jesus gives of life in the Vine in John 15. He has so much more for us than a few minutes in the morning. So I began to try to make myself more aware of him at other times of the day. While speaking to people, for instance, I’d pray for them. I began reading a collection of “renewal verses” regularly, and what I found is that, over time, they became more embedded in my thinking. They rose easily to the surface. So, for example, I’d be driving and start to grumble about the traffic (as I am prone to do), and the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 (“rejoice always . . . in everything give thanks”), like a tonic, slaps me in the face.
Was this a sudden change in your life?
KB: No, it’s been gradual. But lately, with a measure of intentionality, this awareness of God in everything has become more habitual. When I began reading more about the latest scientific discoveries about the human brain, I understood why: God made us, physically, with the capacity to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2); he created our brains with an astonishing ability to rewire and renew itself (the scientists call this neuroplasticity). Repetition and focused attention, among other factors, play a role in this process of change.
You devote a whole chapter to brain science, connecting it to practicing God’s presence. And this is what you were seeing happen in your own life and mind—with these renewal verses.
KB: Right. The reading and rereading of God’s Word made his truths sink in deeper, so that, with repetition, they became more intuitive, more readily available. We’re not just biological beings, but there are chemical processes behind how God changes us, our thinking, and our actions. Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains particularly tipped me off about this as it relates to technology’s effect on our souls. Carr contends that overuse of the internet (to the exclusion of other media) physically changes our neural processes in such a way that it reduces our capacity for contemplation and reflection. Hence the spiritual impoverishment we see around us—and even in our own families. Our brains are, literally, rewiring themselves, further away from a life that is conducive to awareness of God and the things he cares about.
Can you tell us a little more about what’s in the book?
KB: There’s a chapter on living in God’s presence amidst suffering; a chapter on sin’s impact on our ability to enjoy God’s presence; and a chapter on community—because we don’t just practice God’s presence in isolation, but as a Church and in relationship with one another. Other authors have covered most of these topics in bits and pieces elsewhere, but to my knowledge, this is the first book that brings them all together. Not only that, but there’s a plethora of ideas for how to apply the book’s principles in practical ways, including exercises at the end of chapters and interspersed throughout. We are currently putting the finishing touches on a companion training guide that will compile these exercises and dozens more. It’s a suite of practices, a toolkit. There’s no magic formula to experiencing God in your life. But we can do certain things to avail ourselves to him. This book and training guide help believers do that. And because it offers such a diversity of practices, there’s something in it for every personality at any maturity level. It’s also a toolkit you can keep returning to, when one practice grows “stale.”
Any final thoughts?
KB: You don’t have to be a monastic to experience God regularly and often. His presence is a gift he gives every follower of Jesus. But many of us make the mistake of thinking his presence is only palpable during times set aside specifically for him. What I propose in this book—and it’s not a new idea, but emblematic of the life of Christ himself—is that “we don’t have to be alone and away from the world to walk in his presence; he can be present in our noisy times too” (p. 59). I hope this book will help people understand more how this can happen for them, no matter what their lives are like.
Get a taste of the content in this article: “Life in the Presence of God: Everything Matters to God.”