Have you ever tried to lead a donkey through a field of tasty grass?
Unfortunately, except for the sheltered area outside my donkeys’ stall, grassy fields are all I have to train on. Sure, some places are skimpy, and I always try to avoid training a hungry donkey. But donkeys are donkeys, and sometimes the temptation is too much.
I’ve found that consistent leading practice definitely helps my donkeys stay on track. But I’ve also found a subtler yet equally important key to a focused, “present” donkey: a focused, present human.
If I trundle along admiring the scenery, debating which way to turn next, or worrying about what the donkey will do if we meet an unexpected challenge, my donkey is almost guaranteed to leave me. But if I roll along with my eyes on where we’re going, my mind on what we’re doing at that given moment, and my attitude saying, “Come on, let’s do this!” – my donkey is usually happy to stick with me.
Our walk with God requires a similar presence of mind. In order to stick with Him through a world of temptations and uncertainty, we need to keep our focus on Him and where He is guiding us.
It’s not that He ever leaves us (He doesn’t). And it’s not that He doesn’t want us to use our ability to plan, imagine, wonder, and so on to help us on our journey (He does).
Rather, it’s simply that, without grounding ourselves and our decisions in His truth and instruction, we humans have a serious tendency to blunder into sin and untruth. We spook at distant shadows, dive for bits of green, wander down byways, and just generally try to be anywhere and everywhere but where He’s placed us at this unique moment.
Here’s how we can better practice “presence” in four specific areas of our spiritual lives – and why we should.
On Call for Divine Assignments
When I first teach my donkeys a new cue, I usually have to be very clear that I want something and what that something is. Then, as they understand me better, I can use subtler cues.
Having such “quiet” conversations is rewarding for both of us. But it also takes attentiveness on their part. Because no matter how well you know a language, you’ll never understand its speaker if you’re not listening.
It’s the same in the God-human relationship. Have you ever prayed for God to use you, and then, when days pass unremarkably, wondered why He hasn’t? You might have missed a cue.
Our best work always begins with asking God for guidance and provision. But it continues with watching and listening for His response. And that response is rarely a shout.
So once you’ve asked, go about your day with your request in mind. Keep your eyes, ears, and heart open for opportunities to bless others, even in the smallest way.
Watch and listen to the people around you. Does someone look like they could use a kind word, a helping hand, or even just a smile? Pay (reasonable) attention to the news. How can you pray for individuals, families, communities, and nations in critical situations?
And if something unplanned happens, hold the grumbling and ask God how He’d like you to respond. That traffic jam might be an invitation to pray. That midmorning computer crash could be a window of time in which to write a note to a struggling friend. That meal order snafu might be a chance to exchange a few kind words with a burned-out server.
The same principle holds for any prayer request. Pray – and then watch for your Heavenly Father’s response.
It might not come in a shape or time frame you expect. But rest assured: His ways and timing are always perfect.
Be there to meet His answer. Don’t miss out on the blessings of here and now because you’re longing for those of tomorrow, missing those of yesterday, wishing for ones that don’t exist, or simply looking the other way.
Being There With God
When not actually working with my donkeys, I like to simply sit with them in their pasture or shelter. They graze, play, jockey for attention, and point out interesting sounds and sights. I watch them, laugh at them, offer pets, and try to notice what they notice.
In this way, I learn about them, they learn about me, and we build rapport. And that rapport carries over to other things we do together.
Similarly, the best way to build and maintain your relationship with God is to simply “hang out” with Him on a regular basis. One to one. Minimal distractions. Every day. Even for just a few minutes.
Yes, I know you’re busy. Yes, you have responsibilities to meet (and I’m not saying you should shirk them). But remember: your relationship with God is a matter of spiritual life and languishing. It’s as essential to your wellbeing as eating and breathing. This is the most important relationship you’ll ever have, and the health of the others hinges on the health of this one. Make investing in it a priority.
The great thing about God is that you can connect with Him anytime, anywhere, instantly, directly, personally, no satellite or electricity needed. Just be intentional (as well as considerate and safe – no closed eyes on the highway, please!).
Talk to Him. “Observe” Him through His Word. Ask Him questions. Listen for His answers – and for anything else He might have to say.
And just as in human relationships, never stop trying or expecting to learn. Not because He changes like humans do, but because He is so big. No matter how long we know Him, there’s always more to learn.
Sometimes that’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s intimidating. But always, it’s an adventure.
And He wants to be known.
On Guard for the Real Challenge
When it comes to dealing with spiritual challenges, as with any other kind, looking ahead has its place: It helps you prepare for contingencies and avoid potential pitfalls.
The key is to start your plans from where you are now, and to balance attention to future concerns and goals with attention to present realities and problems.
For example, when I plan a donkey activity, I first examine the setup for any possible hazards or stressors and take steps to minimize them. Later, during the actual activity, I watch my donkeys’ reactions and our surroundings, and adjust things accordingly.
If I were to fixate on my goals without considering our starting point, I might miss potential sources of trouble and create my own disaster. Or if I were to spend our session fixating on what could happen, I might miss what’s actually happening, from teaching opportunities to unexpected developments – and would definitely stress us both out.
Similarly, without a realistic view of our present spiritual position, we set ourselves up for spiritual harm. Either we go into a situation without assessing its spiritual risks, or we spend so much energy fortifying ourselves against possible sin that we overlook sin that’s already there.
So pause and do some serious, prayerful scrutiny. Start within. You might know how you want to be, but how are you now? Are there any sins you haven’t confessed to God, renounced, and sought His forgiveness for? Is there any part of your life or self that you’re reluctant to give Him? Why?
Ask God to search you and bring to light anything you might miss. If there’s anything that needs addressing, address it now. Remember: He wants to cleanse and change you, not condemn you. Make this self-check a regular habit.
When entering new spiritual territory, take stock of its potential challenges. What temptations come with that new ministry opportunity? Would assuming that new job position compromise your integrity in any way? Can you take on this new responsibility without sacrificing your spiritual health?
Be realistic: Every venture we undertake in this fallen world carries some challenges to our commitment to live God-honoring lives. Our very real enemy is watching for us. We need to be watching for him, too. Here and now.
Again, ask for God’s wisdom and guidance. He might want you to leave or avoid the situation…or He might want you to stay or proceed and fight. Whatever He wants, trust His judgment – it’s always the best.
On Alert for His Coming
Here’s another area where a balance between looking ahead and looking around can be hard yet essential. But in this case, instead of our present informing our future, our future informs our present.
Before He ascended to heaven, Jesus promised to return to earth one day. When He does, He will dispose of evil once and for all, end suffering and death, and bring about a new heaven and earth. The dead will be raised, and everyone who has put their hope in Him as Savior and Lord will spend eternity with Him.
With such a future ahead of us, how are we to live here and now?
First, we are to set our minds on eternal things. This means filling our minds with things that meet God’s standards and nurture God-pleasing attitudes and behavior. What we allow and cultivate inside us is what comes out in our words and actions.
Further, we are to be on watch for ways to further God’s kingdom. God wants every single human being alive to have the opportunity to claim the grace He offers in Jesus. Even those of us who will never be preachers or missionaries are called to share the Gospel in our unique circumstances.
Finally, we are to steward everything God gives us in a way that glorifies Him. How we use our time, money, energy, abilities, influence, blessings, and even hardships should reflect who we believe God is – and offer Him a platform to prove it.
So take some time today to evaluate how you use your resources. Ask God if there are any you’re overlooking (He might surprise you!). Then talk to Him about whether you need to make any changes and, if so, what those changes might be.
Remember: He can do surprising things with the meagerest and most mundane assets. Our part is to commit everything to His care and authority and to seek His glory in everything.
We don’t know when Jesus will return. But we can live our lives in such a way that when He does, we’ll be ready.
Even here and now.
Instead, I have calmed and quieted my soulPsalm 131:2-3 (CSB)
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like a weaned child.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
both now and forever.