Practicing the Presence of God

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  • Philippians 4:7 is a promise of peace. It promises that God’s peace will guard the heart and mind of the believer who prays instead of worrying. Philippians 4:9 is also a promise of peace. It promises that the God of peace himself will be with the believer who lives out the teachings of our faith. The tension between these two promises is the burden of this message.

    Both of these verses promise God’s peace. Verse 7 promises the peace of God. But verse 9 promises the God of peace. The difference is not mere semantics. The peace of God speaks of the resources of God. But the God of peace speaks of relationship with God. There is an important message in the progression of the text: Don’t settle for living on the resources of God. Sure, when worry, fear, and doubt attack, you can pray and God will give you peace. But don’t settle for that. Don’t settle for peace coming to rescue you will when you fall. Nurture your relationship with God so that you can live with the assurance that the God who gives peace is with you.

    The Bible has much to say about the God of peace. For instance, Romans 16:20 says, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And Hebrews 13:20-21 says, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.” There are many people seek peace without God – who is the author of true peace. But that just cannot be done. To know peace, you must know God. I repeat: It is good to have the peace of God. But it is better to have the God of peace. It is good to live on the resources of God. But it is better to live on relationship with God. It is good to access the power of God when you are in trouble. But it is better to practice the presence of God on a day-to-day basis. The question is does one practice the presence of God? Philippians 4:8-9 teaches three principles that will help you live with assurance that God is with you.


    Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever us pure, whatever us lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If you are worried that I am going to use this text to fuss about the music, movies, magazines, and other media you enjoy, don’t worry. I am. But before I do, let me be clear about why I am fussing. I do not stand to defend so called “traditional family values.” And I am not trying to lay any legalistic guilt trip on you. The fact that you do not go to movies or that you only listen to Christian music does not prove that you are godly. Likewise, I do not embrace the position that views popular culture as the inevitable instrument of Satan. Media, like money, is morally neutral. It is either good or evil as it is slanted by the condition of the human heart.

    Sure, I believe that we Christians must be more discriminate about the things we expose our minds to. But my concern is not political in the sense of the culture wars. It is political in terms of what it means to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The central issue is this: YOUR THOUGHT LIFE MATTERS TO GOD. Our relationship with God is not based on emotional, mystical, or sensual experiences. Instead, we are commanded to love God with our minds. Your emotions are untrustworthy. Your heart is deceitful. Your feelings are fickle. So the Bible constantly warns us about letting our natural desires govern our lives. And it challenges us to live according to what we know is right, because you cannot live right is your thinking is wrong. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” You cannot practice the presence of God if your lifestyle is shaped by this world’s false value system. You must feed your mind with godly concepts.

    A certain mother was peeling vegetables for a salad when her daughter, home from college, casually mentioned that she was going to a questionable movie that evening. The mother suddenly picked up a handful of garbage and threw it in the salad. “Mother!” screamed the shocked girl. “You’re putting garbage in the salad.” “I know,” replied the mother, “but I thought that if you don’t mind putting garbage in your mind, you certainly wouldn’t mind a little in your stomach too!”

    This is the sad indictment of our contemporary culture. We have fit bodies, but fat minds – even within the church. Physically, you are what you eat. But spiritually, you are what you think. As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. You cannot be grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ if you live on a mental diet of suggestive music, R-rated moves, and trashy talk shows. When you fill your mind with worldly garbage, you poison yourself and lose your appetite for the spiritual nourishment that will help you practice the presence of God. So Philippians 4:8 gives a spiritual MRI of what a Christ-follower’s mind should reflect: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The term “think” means to calculate, like a workman who takes careful measurements before he begins building. Grammatically, this verb is a present imperative, which means that the text commands us to constantly examine the things we expose our minds to by asking the questions:

    • Is it true?
    • Is it honorable?
    • Is it just?
    • Is it pure?
    • Is it lovely?
    • Is it commendable?
    • Is it excellent?
    • Is it praiseworthy?

    You may ask, “Do you really expect us to run everything we see, hear, and read through the grid given in this verse?” Yes and no. Sure, you ought memorize this verse and hide it in your heart. But I am not going to go through a word-by-word explanation of each of key terms in this verse, because I do not want you to miss the point by getting lost in the details. I want you to heed the call of this verse, not analyze the particulars of it. I think Paul himself would agree with that. I believe he intended this list to be representative, not exhaustive. That is why after giving his list of “whatever” things, he summarizes all he has said and could say with the all-encompassing statement: “if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise.” You don’t have to memorize and constantly rehearse these eight terms in order to practice the presence of God. If it will make you feel better, I’ll take all eight terms and replace them with just one – one name. JESUS. This verse has been called the briefest biography of Jesus Christ in scripture. I agree. Jesus Christ himself is the incarnation of truth, honor, justice, purity, and loveliness. There is no better model than Christ. So heed the exhortation of Philippians 2:5 – “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” Set your mind on the things of Christ.”

    Notice one more thing about this Christian perspective on mental health. The emphasis on the thought life here is offensive, not defensive. This verse does not condemn wrong thinking. It does not protest against sex and violence in the media. Negative thinking is never mentioned. Instead, the verse emphasizes the importance of right thinking. That is not accidental. It is an intentional process for renewing the mind called THE PRINCIPLE OF REPLACEMENT. The reason why some of us cannot break free from sinful, harmful, or negative thought patterns is because we are trying to do it through resistance, not replacement. The church’s first response to sin is always to say, “Stop it.” But simply condemning sin as wrong does not help bring deliverance. Most of us who are doing wrong already know we are doing wrong. And most of us who are doing wrong have tried to stop. But our personal reformation efforts have failed. Why?

    In Matthew 12:43-45, Jesus tells of an unclean spirit that had left a heart he had made home. Then the house was totally restored, refurbished, and redecorated. When the demon returned, he found it looking like new. But it was still empty. So he got seven worse demons and they reclaimed the house. And Jesus said that the last state of the man was worse than the first. The point is that religious reformation does not bring about spiritual transformation. Just joining the church will not make you a better person if the unclean spirit still has the key to your heart. You cannot change if you allow ungodly thoughts to be at home in your heart and minds. You need a strong man on the inside. You need to expel ungodly thoughts and attitude. Moreover, you need to make Jesus the landlord of your thought life. You need the word of God to dwell in you richly. You need to walk in the Spirit that you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. When Jesus is Lord of your thought life, you will experience the irresistible power of a new affection. That’s the principle of replacement. Colossians 3:1-2 says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”


    Philippians 4:8-9 records two commands. Verse 8 commands us to think right. Verse 9 commands us to do right. The main idea of verse 9 is found in the command to “practice these things.” But before we get to this command, I want us to consider its premise. It is in the opening clause of verse 9 where, before Paul tells them to do what they know, he reminds them how they know what to do: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” In verse 8, Paul points the church to the spiritual meditations that leads to the God of peace. But in verse 9, he points the church to the incarnational models that lead to the God of peace. Both are necessary for practicing the presence of God.

    In Philippians 1:1, Paul addresses the intended recipients of this letter: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” This is the tension of the Christian life. Paul calls the church “saints in Christ Jesus.” But they are saints “who are at Philippi.” Christians are called to be saints. But being a saint is not about retreating to some secluded monastery, surrounding yourself with classic Christian literature, and spending all day in silence as you think great thoughts about God. Rather, our sainthood must be fleshed out in the real world. In Philippi. In Jacksonville. At home or work or school. We are called to be saints right where we are. We are called to practice the presence of God right where we are. To do this we must be connected to godly people who are intentionally, constantly, and obviously growing in Christlikeness. Mark it down. You cannot practice the presence of God if you allow yourself to be influence by people who pull you away from God, rather than leading you closer to him.

    Psalm 1:1 says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, not sits in the seat of scoffers.” Proverbs 13:20 says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer.” 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: Band company ruins good morals.” To practice the presence of God, you need to focus your mind on godly companions. You must forget and forsake friendships, associations, and romances that hinder your devotion to God. It may be hard. But you have got to do it. Any person who helps you sin against God is not your real friend. Any romantic relationship that causes you to disobey God is not God’s will for you. Any business association that causes you to hurt your witness will only lead God to curse your blessing. You need godly companions who talk the talk and walk the walk.


    In verse 9, Paul says the church learned and received from him. These two terms refer to apostle’s formal, public, and official teaching ministry. Paul was a herald of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. He taught them what it means to follow the one who died on the cross to be our Savior and rose from the dead to be our Lord. And you, too, we need people in your life who will teach you the truth of God’s word. You need to be in a Bible-teaching and biblically functioning church. You need to be in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day to hear the exposition of God word. You need to be in a Bible study fellowship group to learn scripture through instruction and discussion. And you need to build personal relationships with people who are serious about studying, obeying, and sharing the word of God. You need to be under the teaching of God’s word within an organized authority structure of a local church that will hold you accountable.

    I used to think that my job as a preacher was just to give you the facts and let you make up your own mind – a kind of “We report. You decide.” philosophy of ministry. I know better now. So let me warn you: I do not preach and teach to merely inform. I preach and teach to persuade. I know that you are smart and educated. You can think rationally and logically. That is why I make sure that I do not stand here unprepared. I respect your ability to think. But I really do not give you credit for being able to make up your own mind. I know this may sound harsh, but it’s true. Until someone indoctrinates you, you do not have much of a mind to make up. Don’t be offended. Just think with me for a moment.

    • How do you know that the earth orbits around the sun? Indoctrination.
    • How do you know that 2+2=4? Indoctrination.
    • How do you know that the sky is blue? Indoctrination.

    You don’t know anything by inherent knowledge. Every thing we know, we are taught in some form or another. But when it comes to the things of God, we assume that we can make up our own minds about God without help or interference. But that is just not true. We need to be hooked up with those from whom we can learn and receive the truth. 1 Timothy 3:15 calls the church as “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” When the pillars fall and the foundations cave in, the building will not stand. Likewise, truth cannot stand in your life without the church. The gospel does not make sense with the church that makes it make sense. You need godly companions who talk the talk.


    Notice the second set of verbs Paul uses in verse 9. He says the church had heard and seen some things in him. They learned from Paul in the formal settings of teaching and preaching. But they also learned from Paul by just watching what he did and listening to what he said during informal moments. He talked the talk. But he also walked the walk. May the Lord deliver us from people who are just spiritual on Sunday mornings! You do not need those kinds of people in your life. They will not help you practice the presence of God. They will only teach you how to be a hypocrite. You need to be hooked up with people who live out the teachings of their faith on a day-to-day basis.

    Let me get in your business for a minute.
    • Who are the people in your life who talk about Jesus even when they are not in church?
    • Who are the people in your life who you can call if you need someone to pray for you?
    • Who are the people in your life who model sacrificial, humble, and joyful Christian service for you?

    A church member told his pastor, “We have some neighbors who believe a false gospel. Do you have any literature I can give them?” The pastor opened answered by reading 2 Corinthians 3:2 to him. In the KJV, it says: “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men.” His point was that the good literature is not a substitute for your own life. The most powerful weapon against the enemy is not a stirring sermon or a powerful book. It is the godly lives of believers. If you let people see you walk your talk, it will open opportunities to share the gospel with them.



    Notice verse 9 again: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Verse 8 stresses the importance of meditating on godly principles. But verse 9 stresses the importance of the application of godly principles. After emphasizing how vital it is to think right, Paul then lets us know that right thinking is not enough to make us sensitive to the presence of God. Learning and receiving and hearing and seeing are not enough. In order to practice the presence of God, you must fortify your mind with godly conduct. OSWALD CHAMBERS wisely said, “The best measure of the spiritual life is not its ecstasies, but its obedience.” You must do what you know is right.

    I am burdened by the crisis of biblical illiteracy among Christians. I can intimately identify with the grief expressed in Hosea 4:6 “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” But the longer I pastor, the more convinced I am that biblical illiteracy is not the church’s biggest problem. Our biggest problem is indifference, not illiteracy. There are many people in the church who do not know what is right to do. But there are many more of us who do not do what we know is right. And if God is grieved by those who do not know what pleases him; how much more is God grieved by those of us who will not do what we know is pleasing to God. To practice the presence of God, you must adopt a personal covenant of obedience that says: “If it’s God will, I will.”


    Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things now seen.” This verse is good news. But it is not what we really want to hear. We want faith to guarantee that what we desire will come to pass. But faith is not certainty. It is trust. The assurance of things hoped for is not itself the things hoped for. Batter in the bowl is the substance of hoped-for cake. But is not cake. Likewise, the conviction of things not seen does not guarantee what the specific outcome of your circumstances is going to be. Faith does not guarantee that your desires will come to pass. Faith is trusting that God is able and willing to give you the desires of your heart, while conceding that God has the sovereign right to do what he wants to do. And that whatever God’s will is always right. “Faith,” writes PHIL YANCEY, “is trusting in advance, what can only be proven in reverse.” That can be frustrating. But if you trust God enough to do what he says, The God of peace will be with you. Faith honors God. So God honors faith. God honors those who honor him by taking him at his word. Things may not turn out the way you want them to. But the God of peace will be with you. James 1:25 says, “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

    Let me close by saying that the assurance of God’s favor is not based on a supernatural experience. It is not based on your ability to follow some blessing plan. And it is not based on some preacher laying his hand on you. If you want to know that the God of peace is with you, just do what he says. If you put God’s word into practice, he will make his presence known to you – even if everything around you seems to be going wrong.

    That’s what happened in Luke 5:1-11. Simon Peter was a skilled fisherman. But one night he could not catch anything. When morning dawned, his nets were empty. But the Lord Jesus borrowed his boat and made it his pulpit. And when the Lord finished teaching, he told Simon to go out into the deep waters, drop his nets again, and get ready for a big catch of fish. Simon responded, “Lord, we have been fishing all night long and caught nothing. Nevertheless, at your word, we will let down our nets again.” When Simon obeyed, they caught so many fish that their nets broke and their ships began to sink. If you want the God of peace to be with you, you must learn how to say, “Nevertheless, at your word…”




    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.

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