Why pray - especially if God knows what we need before we ask Him?
Jonathan Leakey from the Ballymena House of Prayer offers a Reformed perspective of what Catholic saint Francis de Sales, a leading figure in the Counter-Reformation, has to say about praying, as well as some practical advice
COMING from the Protestant tradition, as I do, drawing inspiration from the life and spiritual legacy of Francis de Sales, a Catholic saint as well as a leading light in the Counter-Reformation, required me getting over my initial instinctive doctrinal cautions.
Yes, Francis prayed the Rosary; yes he petitioned Mary; and yes, his life's work - in particular as Bishop of Geneva - was primarily about winning Protestants back to the 'Mother Church', which was a task he undertook with zeal and great success.
However, it becomes quickly evident, on reading into his life's work and his devotional writings, that Francis de Sales acknowledged Jesus Christ as His Saviour, Lord and Friend, loved and served Him wholeheartedly, and laboured with a godly humanity and an exemplary Christian love.
He also demonstrated a clear awareness of the need of the Catholic Church to reform much that had fired the Protestant Reformers to rebel in the first place.
Protestants tend to tar all Counter-Reformers with a similar brush of ruthless, sometimes cruel, zeal, and assume the Catholic Church in its teachings and practices and the lives of its adherents remained unchanged from the abuses that so provoked the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century.
Francis de Sales was clearly a godly man, Christ-like in his character and authentically Christian in his prayer life and the integrity of his actions.
Both in his life and his writings, he radiates a love for God and his fellow man, especially the poor and the downtrodden, whether believer or unbeliever, and a balance of contemplative prayer and intentional, godly action; so much so that he impressed even leading Protestants.
King James I of England and the Methodist revivalist John Wesley lauded his widely acclaimed Introduction to the Devout Life, published in 1609.
A leading contemporary Calvinist said on his death: "If we honoured any man as a saint, I know none more worthy than this man since the days of the Apostles."
A man, to whom were accredited two resuscitations from drowning and cures for blindness and paralysis, surely merits attention and further investigation; a disciple who rose at 4am every morning to meditate, pray and read the Scriptures, fasted on Fridays and Saturdays, and abstained from ostentatious penance, maintained the habit of hourly recalling the Presence of God, and never begrudged time and effort in associating with the people entrusted to his care, especially those who might be considered the less important, deserves our respect.
A leading contemporary Calvinist said on Francis de Sales's death, 'If we honoured any man as a saint, I know none more worthy than this man since the days of the Apostles'
So, what did Francis have to say about prayer and action?
The following key principles, amongst others, informed his daily walk: a deliberate and constant practising of the Presence of God and the conviction that the love of God must be the motivator of all prayer and all action.
Prayer, to Francis, clearly was more than trying to get God to do things.
It was, first and foremost, about relationship, friendship with God, communion with his Maker and Friend.
There are many memorable passages of writing in his corpus of work: on intimacy with God, for example, he poetically compares the union of the heart with God to "the way ivy clings to trees with roots that actually penetrate into the bark".
Prayer and action both had to be motivated by love. And Jesus was his primary model and inspiration.
On love he writes: "The fire of [our Saviour's] love consumed his life. He was the sacrificer and the sacrifice. He died in love, to love, by love, for love, and of love."
On the link between prayer and action he urged believers to: "Accustom yourself to pass from prayer to action: the merchant to business, the married woman to her household and family...
"Prayer and action are both according to God's will, and we must make passage from one to the other in humble devotion."
He saw how easy it is for believers to imagine doing great things for God without actually doing them: "God preserve us from imaginary fervour that breeds a vain and secret self-esteem deep within us."
And: "It is not enough to embrace great crosses in some undefined future circumstance.
"It would be better to take up lesser crosses that are present right now. There is a great temptation to be valiant in the imagination." Ouch...
His writings are infused with Scriptural references and reflect devoted Bible study on his part.
Francis de Sales also demonstrated a clear awareness of the need of the Catholic Church to reform much that had fired the Protestant Reformers to rebel in the first place
And, yes, the Scriptures are clear regarding God's will on the relationship between prayer and action.
The apostle James writes: "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much." But just as faith without works is dead, so prayer that is divorced from Christian character and conduct - i.e. prayer that is neither fervent nor coming out of a righteous life - will, in all likelihood, not get much beyond the ceiling.
Furthermore, a prayer life that is never accompanied by obedient, godly action, is likely to remain barren and sterile.
Jesus made this clear early on in His ministry: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."
But why pray, especially if God knows what we need before we ask Him?
Philip Yancey in his excellent book Prayer - Does it Make a Difference? quotes Tim Stafford on this: "We do not pray to tell God what He does not know, nor to remind Him of things He has forgotten.
"He already cares for the things we pray about... He has simply been waiting for us to care about them with Him.
"When we pray we simply stand by God and look with Him toward those people and problems."
The answer, it seems, is that God always intended that life, the stewarding of planet Earth, and the workings of His Kingdom, be a relational partnership of trust, and yes, obedience, between God and man, where God 'does stuff' and we, his friends, get to join in with what He is doing.
Jesus modelled how we should live. He freely admitted His loving dependence on His Father: "Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does."
Where did Jesus see what the Father was up to, or about to do? I believe it was primarily in the place of prayer, though doubtless on the hoof as well.
His life's motto, from the age of 12, was clear: He wanted to be where His Father was, "be about My Father's business"; He wanted to be where Love was, and do what Love did.
And if Jesus prioritised this kind of attitude to prayer and action, surely we need to, also; the more so.
As founding leader of the Ballymena House of Prayer, which has been going since 2010, you might think I always find prayer easy.
My journey with prayer has been a little bit like CS Lewis's - a painful effort much of the time.
The struggles have tended to be the same all my life as a believer: wrestling with the lack of desire, with competing distractions, the pleasures of life, the pressing business of life and the to-do lists, the warm comfort of bed, or the uninviting cold of the prayer room at 6am in the morning.
When I get myself into the place of prayer it is then about finding the right heart posture, the how and the what, not to mention the how long.
The enemy of our prayer life has tried on me both the lash of legalism and the lure of license to drive or tempt me away from engaging with the Lord from the place of rest and intimacy that makes prayer a true pleasure.
The journey continues. Not every prayer we pray bears fruit, or bears fruit immediately, or is answered in the way we visualised when we prayed it
Over the years I have come to find a balance of disciplined routines and rhythms, mixed with creative variety, really helps.
Worship music at the start, whether I am on my own or leading a prayer group, always helps to get our eyes off self and on to the Lord, and lift one's spirit.
This also ensures one is praying from and in his presence - where his yoke is light and his burden is easy.
Praying Scripture, under one's breath, or if possible out loud, is also important every time one comes to pray.
Always have a notebook by one's side. This can be useful for writing down inspired thoughts, people or things one is praying for, and indeed those things to do that one's mind throws up that might threaten to take us away from the place of prayer.
What has been my journey of moving from prayer to action? The biggest step, and source of encouragement, involved beginning to pray with other people - not just on my own, and not just for individual needs, but for the extension of God's Kingdom in my community, street, workplace, town and nation.
And trying to understand what Jesus meant when He said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God..."
For me, I can truly say that this has been where my spiritual walk has been a story of an increasingly exciting and enriching adventure of discovery, personal growth, and realisation of how the Lord meets us more than half-way as we obey His promptings.
It has also been wonderful to discover the friendship and the joy of fellowship with believers from across the Body of Christ.
Getting to know the universe's great creative genius, the Holy Spirit, in the context of discovering the richness and diversity in the Body of Christ has been the most awe-inspiring journey of my life.
When, with a few friends from a number of different churches in Ballymena, I launched the Ballymena House of Prayer, our point of departure and guiding vision was a strong sense that 'God does nothing except in response to believing prayer'.
We were also aware that one of the few unanswered prayers that Jesus prayed while He was on the earth was His prayer, in John 17, that His bride - his Church - may be one as He and the Father were one.
We also had a deep conviction that prayer ought to be fulfilling and creative, accessible to all, not the preserve of a spiritual elite.
We knew it would also take discipline and that a regular rhythm of prayer was vital.
So, from virtually the outset we established a weekly two-hour routine of corporate prayer between 6am and 8am on a weekday morning.
We also were inspired to focus our prayers on what some have called the Seven Mountains of Culture, which would ensure our focus didn't become too narrow or focused only on the churches.
This small gathering has proven to be a catalyst for wider action and the incubator for a number of collaborative, cross-denominational initiatives in our town that have fostered greater unity in the Body of Christ in the town of Ballymena.
The journey continues. Not every prayer we pray bears fruit, or bears fruit immediately, or is answered in the way we visualised when we prayed it.
Francis de Sales writes eloquently on this: "We want our projects to succeed. It is not reasonable to expect God to act exactly as we wish...
"We are to do everything possible to finish the work God has assigned us. My point is that we should be ready to calmly accept it if things do not work out the way we intend."
And later on he adds: "It is our part to plant and water carefully, but the harvest is in God's hands."
How do we plant and water? Firstly, we can, and must, plant and water the work of God in our lives with prayer.
But then we must be ready, at His bidding, to plant and water with action as I hope our House of Prayer does.
Jonathan Leakey is leader of Ballymena House of Prayer, a multi-denominational group of Christians which meets for prayer in different locations across the town.
He is a contributor to An Invitation to Be Where Love Is - A Journey in Faith in the Company of St Francis de Sales by Ballymena parish priest Fr Patrick Delargy, published by Shanway Press