In the February 2018 copy of Beacon Lights, the magazine of the Protestant Reformed Youth (PRCA), Brenda Hoekstra severely criticised Brother Lawrence a 17th century Roman Catholic monk and mystic on his approach to covenant fellowship with God. Please read the article first if you can, and then read my response:
Response to “Practicing the Presence of God” by Brenda Hoekstra, Beacon Lights, February 2018
Firstly I want to thank Brenda for writing her provocative article and straightaway state that people who say they glorify God and worship him in washing dishes or taking a walk are not necessarily influenced by Brother Lawrence; indeed I doubt if most believers have heard of him. These folk who include myself, are only echoing what Col.3:23 states (and Brenda quoted) along with Rom.12:1 and I Cor.6:13-20 where it seems to me that ALL we do in the body is part of our spiritual worship. Every part of our lives, including work, leisure, public worship, private devotions and our thoughts and prayers uttered verbally or silently, is meant to glorify our Saviour.
It is true that what must and does underpin true Christian religion is INTERNAL. We cannot please God without a new heart (mind). The battle within is between the old man of flesh and the new mind of Christ. We are to renew our minds by not conforming to the world but by being transformed in the renewal of our minds principally by the word of God preached and in its other forms. Hence our thought life is the battleground, for “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he”. Our thoughts are known to God and are as important as our words and deeds. To lust is to commit adultery and to covet is to be guilty of idolatry! So when Brenda asserts that, “God does not encourage us to find him in such an inward, secret manner.” I object. How about David’s example in various Psalms e.g. Ps. 63:5,6, “My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips: When I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches.” Psalm 94:19, “In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul.” Psalm 19:14,” Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” I contend that such meditation on our God must inevitably issue in praise, either spoken, sung, or quietly raised heavenwards. This whole aspect of our lives and experience are where we practice the presence of God, which then come to expression in our behaviour.
Is Lawrence alone in claiming a “continual conversation with God”? I think not. Didn’t Paul say, “Pray without ceasing” and “In everything give thanks” (I Thess. 5:17,18)? This can only be done when much of it is internalized, for we don’t go around thanking and praising God or petitioning him out loud. Didn’t Abraham’s servant worship at the well when his INTERNAL prayer was answered and didn’t Nehemiah also get a positive response after his “arrow prayer” was shot to heaven INTERNALLY before speaking to King Artaxerxes? These men were about the duties of their masters (Gen.24:26; Neh.2:4). These examples are not to be divorced from time set aside for private devotion, which I am sure both these godly men practiced. Brenda states, “Internal thoughts to ourselves or to God about how much we love him as we walk in the woods or wash dishes may fix our minds on God but is not true prayer.” As I already stated, to God, our thoughts, and some of them will be silent prayers, are as our actions, all known to him and heard by him and should be lumped together. She mentions the Lord’s Prayer as true prayer. Of course it is! BUT true prayer may not always include all the various components of the Lord’s Prayer, which is a compendium of praise, thanks and petition. Our prayer expressed or internally spoken may just be on one aspect of A.C.T.S.* It is also worth remembering that the silent cry of the Spirit within us is heard by God. Thus we must never underestimate or discount our internal thoughts and prayer life!
Who would disagree that we only come to God through Christ. Nevertheless, we need not state this in every prayer or end our prayers “in Jesus name” for them to be heard! We can be reverentially informal with the Lord our only Mediator who lives in us by his Spirit; and because we are united to him by faith this means we can and do enjoy constant fellowship with him.
With Brenda I concur that our prayer life “must be informed and guided by the Scriptures” and I would say for most mature and Reformed believers it is. This vitally important aspect is missing from Brother Lawrence’s writings and must weaken his assertions. Nevertheless, I cannot from Scripture fault his experience. If Lawrence was guilty of underplaying the means of grace, then I agree Brenda has a point. Never ought we to hold that practicing the presence of God is a substitute for being in the Scriptures, for they are symbiotic (live off each other)! The likelihood was that those means including preaching, Bible study, prayer and fellowship would be dead orthodoxy (or heterodoxy!) in that monastery, whereas in our Reformed churches they are alive by the Spirit. We all agree these are the pre-eminent means of sanctification, but they are not to be divorced from everyday life but rather to influence them where the knowledge we gain is to be lived out (James 3:13). It is true that if we go by our feelings we are being deceived, and I would judge closeness to God as depending on whether we “walk in the Spirit” or “after the flesh” which grieves him (Rom.8:12-14, Eph. 4:30).
Lawrence was correct in saying that the smallest deed done out of love for Christ and fellow man pleases God (Mark 9:41) and saying he experienced God’s love and presence in the act: why not? In contrast he rightly criticised much done by those in “holy orders” in the monastery because God knew most, if not all, was done self-righteously for selfish motives. Benda states that, “Loving God is more than loving him in every activity…. We love Jesus Christ by sacrificially loving and serving others” but is that not a part of “every activity”? She goes on to say that our relationship with God by the Spirit depends on God’s sustaining (grace) and renewing activity. I agree entirely, but that water “bubbling up in us” (John 7:38) affects all we do whether the activities are “spiritual” or “menial and secular”. We are mistaken to compartmentalize life like that, for it hankers back to the sacred-secular divide of priest and people, tabernacle or temple as opposed to camp or city. God now dwells in all of us.
Is Lawrence not just speaking about our daily experience as believers, nothing smacking of elitism or mysticism? This rich life does serve to unify us and enable us to reach out to others with the gospel as we share our lives of communion with God, which includes answered prayer and his grace to cope in adversity. I believe that answered prayer in the little things and giving thanks continually are an integral part of growing in grace and the knowledge of our Saviour (Phil.4:6,7). I write having read Lawrence’s letters which comprise the “Practice” and from personal conviction. I do agree with Brenda that if Lawrence does not distinguish time in the word from other daily activities he is mistaken, but there are times to be like Mary AND times to be like Martha! We cannot be at spiritual activities all the time! We only deliberately skip the means of grace if we are backsliding. The challenge to all of us Reformed is to be present at all the means of grace organised in our churches and to practice daily personal devotions. If we do this alongside enjoying continual fellowship with the Lord, I do believe we are rightly “practicing the presence of God”. Let’s not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” by denying Lawrence has anything to teach us.
- The acronym for adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication, which encompasses all the aspects of prayer.
Dr Julian Kennedy.