It was December 17th, 2012 when I finished reading A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World. Three days before my birthday and four days before I found out that my now ex-wife had filed for divorce. I had known it was coming, but we had an agreement that we’d wait until after the new year and our son’s birthday before filing. It’s little wonder that I put my review of the book aside. I had read it to try to heal my heart from the damage that the marriage had done.
I wanted to get closer to God, but I was deeply conflicted because I was clear about how “God hates divorce.” (If you want to see biblical perspectives on divorce, see my review of Divorce: Causes and Consequences.) The book was a great view of how to find peace in prayer and how to keep the noise of everyday life at bay. Just as I mentioned in my review of Intimacy Anorexia, my thoughts were too personal and raw to share at the time; however, with the passage of several years and after having found love again, I feel like I can write how I was able to find A Praying Life.
What Prayer Is
It seems fitting that, if you’re going to talk about praying, you should start by explaining what it is. Clearly, prayer is a conversation with God. It’s a way to communicate with your Creator. However, what most folks don’t realize is that in Greek, which the New Testament is written in, “prayer” is the exchanging of wishes for faith.
We often casually say that we don’t have enough faith. We believe that faith is something that we generate internally; however, faith is always a gift from God. Prayer is how we exchange our hopes, fears, desires, and wishes for that faith. So, when we believe that we don’t have enough faith, we should pray more – not less.
What Love Is
It was during this same dark time that I read God Loves You: He Always Has and He Always Will. (I finished that book on December 22nd of 2012.) I was struggling to understand God’s love for me personally. Both A Praying Life and God Loves You encouraged me to evaluate what God’s love was – and what it meant to love everyone. I brought this discussion of love together with a discussion of hope and faith in my post Faith, Hope, and Love.
While it’s possible to enumerate romantic love (eros) separately from our familial or brotherly love (philos) and compassion or global love (agape), this doesn’t explain what love is. It doesn’t help us to love one another. Love isn’t, in fact, a feeling. It’s action. It’s a commitment that we make one person at a time to the other people in our lives and to the people of this fragile planet. Love is more powerful and amazing than anything that we as humans can experience.
In western cultures, we rarely speak of weakness. We don’t speak of hardships as opportunities to build character. Brené Brown says that we “gold-plate grit”, and thereby diminish its importance and its relevance. Certainly, there have been times in my life when I’ve been beaten down, when I’ve been worn, and when I’ve been weak. These times can be times of celebration if I allow them to be the ways that God reassures me of his presence. These can be times when I am reminded of how I can’t do this alone. I need God’s strength and power to carry me.
I won’t say that this is easy. I won’t say that I relish my walks through the wilderness. I won’t say that I feel like I always turn to God as much as I should. However, I do know that God leads EVERYONE he loves through the wilderness.
Somewhere along the way, I learned to be myself. I learned to be the authentic self that I am. I don’t try to project an image that I’m someone else. I don’t attempt to appear better than I am. Nor do I try to think more highly of myself than I should. I realized that if I wanted to be intimate with others – to truly connect – that I’d have to be vulnerable, and that meant that I’d have to be my real self. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more on this progression.)
It seems like this should be easiest with God – but it isn’t always. If you know that you have an omniscient and omnipresent God, then it should follow that he already knows the complete truth about you since the moment of your birth. Yet, sometimes we think that we should somehow appear better for God than we are. We dress in our “Sunday best” to go to church. While this can be done out of respect and reverence, it isn’t always. It’s sometimes just a way of demonstrating what we’ve done and accomplished to others, including God.
However, the funny thing is that we’ve accomplished nothing without God. Even when you don’t feel his presence in your life and in your actions, the raw materials we’ve used to accomplish whatever we’ve done are the raw materials that he provided. We couldn’t possibly have accomplished anything without him.
The problem is that when we fail to be ourselves – our true selves – it’s impossible to be in an authentic relationship with God.
I’m a believer in Johnathan Haidt’s model of the Rider-Elephant-Path and the implications of the relationship between our emotions and our rational selves. The model is, in short, that we have a rational rider sitting on an emotional elephant walking down the default path. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more on this model.) One of the components of being authentically you is the acceptance that we all have emotions.
Feelings are friends. Feelings are the expression of our emotional elephant into our consciousness. It’s our elephant getting the rider’s attention, so that the rider can know what the elephant knows. I know that some of the mentally healthiest people I know have developed a relationship between their elephant and their rider so that there’s no tension between rationality and feelings.
When you can safely acknowledge your feelings, and accept them as legitimate while not necessarily accepting their accuracy, you build that relationship between the rider and the elephant that transcends anything that makes sense to the rider.
The Mission of the Heart
In church, you often hear of the “mission field”. We hear about the places that missionaries are working to ensure that everyone has been able to hear the great news about Jesus. The challenge is that these places seem so far away and unreachable. We often forget that the mission field is all around us. We forget that our neighbors are struggling to find their way. Our family is lost in how to develop better relationships with one another. Our co-workers wonder if they’re loved by their families.
The truth is that the mission field is truly all around us. The mission field is more than just bringing folks to Christ. The mission is to help lift the hearts of those whom we touch every day. We can be God’s hands and feet as we touch others’ hearts.
God is more concerned with the matters of the heart – where our heart is – than our physical conditions. Jesus spoke to the Pharisees about their hearts. He looks much deeper than our outward appearance into where our hearts are. Often, the Bible speaks of how God loves a “cheerful giver”, or how Jesus implored us to check how we felt in our hearts and whether we’ve violated God’s commands in our hearts.
The mission of our lives may be to heal our hearts from the wounds inflicted by this sin-filled world. The Bible says that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). We have the opportunity to heal our hearts and the hearts of others by focusing on love. The Buddhists would speak of cultivating compassion and that this is the path to Nirvana. We need to simply seek love and to be loved to heal our hearts – the hearts that Jesus came to reach.
One of the most difficult things today is to learn how to be still. For most of us, life has become an overstimulated, continuous stream of distractions as we go from one distraction to the next. Rarely do we get the opportunity to pause and reflect on our lives or just be. We’re bombarded by advertisements and notifications from emails and social media. We’re constantly worried that we’re not going to make it, that we’re not enough, and that we need to do something. (See Daring Greatly for more about being enough.)
Learning to connect with God necessarily means prayer – and that means finding a way to be still and create space for the conversation with Him. God speaks in a whisper. He speaks in the softness of a gentle wind. If we allow ourselves to be constantly distracted and constantly bombarded by distractions, we don’t create the space to hear His still, soft voice. Of course, God is capable of communicating more loudly – but I generally find that I’m not happy when He must speak with such a loud voice.
Writing Your Story
One of the hardest things for me to understand and accept when I initially read A Praying Life was that there is a story to my life. It felt like my life was ending, or at the very least pausing. It was hard to see around the bend to where I’d be four years later. It was hard to see that this was the center of the story, the climax of the conflict. When you can frame your situation in terms of not an endpoint but a milestone on the journey of life, your entire attitude changes. Bitterness becomes waiting to see what God has in store. Aimlessness becomes wondering what amazing things are to come. Attempts to control are replaced with submission to His will.
The most amazing thing about my life today isn’t what has happened in the past, but the opportunity to see what God has planned next. If I can maintain A Praying Life and in that remain connected to God, I truly can’t imagine what great things He has planned.