spirituality

Some thoughts on prayer and if/when/why it works

My interaction with God has been a little anemic lately. On reflection, I’m finding some patterns that are probably at the root of this. Here’s what most of my conversation with God looks like lately:

  • vague spontaneous thanks for generally nice things
  • vague spontaneous requests for fairly specific (but unlikely) last-minute interventions, without much expectation or follow-up
  • vague requests for insight or guidance or help, without much time spent waiting/watching/listening for an answer
  • most critically, a tendency to ask for things that will get me out of having to care or engage

Now that I’m starting to pay attention, I’m remembering what I’ve learned in the past. God seems much more responsive, and more consciously present to me, when my communication with him is basically the opposite of those patterns. Specifically, I want to get back to communication with God that is:

  • Specific, not vague. My rule of thumb on this one: if God does what I’m asking, will I be able to tell? Similarly, when thanking God, I find it helpful to try to thank him for something I’ve never thanked him for before (even if it’s just a new phrasing/angle on a longstanding gratitude).
  • Intentional, not (just) spontaneous. Spontaneous is actually great, but it needs to be built on a history of real, focused communication. I tried this today by setting aside some time to talk with God about my to-do list, outstanding projects, daughters, wife, friends, and a few other issues that came to mind in the process. It was pretty abbreviated in form, but I’m already feeling the difference between proactively asking for God’s help with the things I care about and randomly winging a prayer his way if something looks like it’s about to go south.
  • Listening, not just asking. When I think about it, it’s so dumb when I ask God for guidance and then pay zero attention to what happens next. I’m trying to start acting like I think he might respond if I ask him something, and pause for a moment to see if I experience any noteworthy shifts in my attention and desires, new thoughts or ideas, or a new gut sense of what’s the wise or foolish way to proceed.
  • Willing to engage with pain, discomfort, effort, and sacrifice. This is the huge one. I typically haven’t been a fan of the aphorism that God helps those who help themselves (which, as far as I can tell, has no discernible connection to most actual Christian theology). That said, I’m realizing that there’s a profound difference between asking God to help me enter into beneficial sacrificial effort and asking God to help me dodge it.

To expand that last one a little, I’m realizing that a lot-a-lot of the times I ask God to help, it’s basically me trying to get out of having to do anything. Please calm my girls down (so that I don’t have to get up from my dumb phone game). Please make sure that panhandler gets something to eat (so that I don’t have to, because I really don’t feel like making eye contact this time). That sort of thing.

But that’s contrary to the whole heart of what I believe God’s doing in the world. The entire point is that Jesus (who was showing us exactly what God is like and how he works) entered straight into the center of the messy, dangerous, painful, complicated guts of the broken world, depending fiercely on God to give him everything he needed to get through it. He was the one who entered so deeply into the pain and depended so fully on God that he made it straight through death and out the other side, blazing the trail for the rest of us.

So if I’m following Jesus on the trail he has blazed, I should be walking straight into the heart of the pain and complication, exactly where I won’t be able to handle it, asking as I go that God keep giving me the strength to dig deeper in, the love I need for the people I meet there, the provision they (and I) still need even after I’ve given the shirt off my back, the forgiveness that lets me unjustly take the blame and stay quiet, the peace I need to enter the chaos without freaking out and giving up.

In sum, I should only be asking God to show up if I’m willing to be the body he shows up in.


PS – There’s a risk, after that glorious crescendo of self-sacrifice, to feel like you should go out and give everything you own and save everyone you see and take up every cause immediately all the way on the spot. Going back to the “listening” point, I’ve found great balance to this urge in the practice of asking God which people/needs/causes I should be serving and caring about at any given moment.

This lets me take on the ones that he directs me to and freely not worry about the rest, trusting that other people also serve him and he knows what will be the best, most beautiful, and most freeing way for each of us to join him.

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Review: The Practice of the Presence of God

The Practice of the Presence of GodThe Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I keep coming back to. You always think a book like this is just going to be boring and religious and helpful in a vegetables kind of way, but this one’s about a clumsy monk who worked in the clangabang monastery kitchens with everyone shouting for this and that, and still found such a simple pleasure in being with God in the middle of it that the set prayer times were at best no better and at worst a bit of a redundant bother.

The language is old-fashioned and may be a slog for some–he lived centuries ago, after all–but this is a delightfully refreshing reminder that we can keep going back to God any time, and that, religious systems and mystical complications aside, in the end it all comes down to doing everything out of love for (and in love with) God.

There are effective and ineffective ways to go about this, of course, and it’s mentioned several times that it took Brother Lawrence ten years of steady practice before it became totally natural, but as one who has at least occasionally experienced, like him, the need to “take measures” to cover up how gleefully overwhelmed I am by the nearness and kindness of God lest I start to freak the people around me out, I can attest that it’s going to be worth it.

If I could add one book to the Bible, this would be it. For real. Check it out.

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Step 1: Face Reality

I think that’s at the core of everything I care about. You have to face reality.

I wrote this a few years ago, back when I was Past Ben.1

I am getting honestly kind of scared about how unusual a stance this seems to be these days. It strikes me as fairly self-evident. Things are a certain way. Also, that means they are not any other way. Like it or not.

I have one new fear as I read this, and one old fear.

One of the most desperate driving impulses in my life is to discover and respond to how things actually are. I can’t stand the idea of intentional self-deception, and I have only an uneasy truce with the fact that lots of truth is currently out of my reach. It is a hard, bracing, knife-edged lifestyle, and absolutely gushing with life and power. I know I have pockets of inaccuracy and self-deception in me – lots of them, I’m pretty sure – but they only last as long as they can stay out of my scopes.

The reason I share this is because it’s the groundwork for any conversation you’ll ever have with me. If you can’t agree that reality is a certain way (and therefore not any other way) and that we must find and face reality as it is, I’m happy to serve you however I’m called to, but our serious conversations are not going to get very far. Conversely, if you agree with me on that, I’ll love every moment we spend talking, even if we’re at each others’ throats in hard debate.

Prove me wrong, anytime, on anything. Open invitation. Don’t take my word for stuff. If you can convince me that I’m wrong, I’ll change my mind and thank you for it. I can’t understand any other way of living.

Here comes the part that sparks the old fear, followed by the part that sparks the new.

This gets particularly interesting because I’m a devoted follower of Jesus. I follow him because I’m convinced he’s real and everything he said is right. My allegiance is to the truth and to Jesus, not to “being a Christian” or anything else. If you seek the truth, I don’t care where you’re starting from or where you currently stand. Let’s talk. And if you’re not willing to face the truth, I don’t care if you’re a Christian or what. Be careful how seriously you engage with me, because I’m committed to bringing everything into the light.

The old fear is one that, I suspect, is akin to the fear of coming out. Among many people I deeply respect, believing in a real God (much less a living Jesus) is at best a little eccentric, at worst self-delusional and maybe even dangerous. Highly unscientific, at the very least. One of those people. And I really, really care about people knowing that I’m capable of intellectual rigor and I’m not a superstitious freak or a kneejerk bigot. Shallow, I know, but I care.

The thing I want you to understand is that I believe in God as a result of my synthesis of how I’ve seen the world working. My faith is not (intentionally) escapist or superstitious. I didn’t decide to believe in God. It’s just that, as far as I can tell, God is real, and I’ve had to decide how I’m going to respond to that.

Often this complicates my life rather than making it easier. But based on my experience, not believing in God would be kind of like not believing in electromagnetic force. It may be a little tricky to explain, sure, and I’m open to new data, but I’m pretty sure that, whether clumsily or accurately, we’re describing a real thing.

But there’s another side to it, too. Pretty much all of the actual Christians I know in real life are super cool, but outside my really cool church and my deep and deeply understanding friends, and even sometimes with them, I’m scared to admit how deeply I think about and question things about God and Christianity and spiritual things, and what strange and complicated conclusions (or theories) I arrive at.

Or sometimes it’s just hard to explain my ideas.

But in any case, I worry that people might not like what I’m really thinking about things. Sometimes my ideas are a little unorthodox (in the strict sense, diverging from accepted beliefs). Often it’s just really hard to tell whether they’re orthodox or not because I’m not asking the standard questions to start with, much less getting the standard answers. And that makes people uncomfortable, or makes them wonder if I’m really reliably Christian.2

To you who are worried, I want to reassure you that I am deeply devoted to Jesus, and I plan to walk with him for the rest of my life and beyond. I’d go so far as to say I’m in love with him. You know, not in a weird way, except how could it possibly not be weird? He’s invisible and 2,000 years old and/or eternal and has been through death and out the other side!

I want to shout this to the world in two ways. To you who don’t know this yet: Jesus is incredible! He’s invisible and etc. and yet so cool and lovely! Ask him to show you if he’s real, then pay attention to what you know deep down is what you really need to do next—Unplug for a minute? Reconcile with somebody? Write faster?—and follow that. Then repeat. Recipe for adventure.

And to you who believe in Jesus: This is freaking weird! You’re so weird! You believe in invisible people! You think you’re going to be alive ten thousand years from now! And I do too! We’re so weird! Let’s not act like we have it buttoned up, like this is all some tidy, comforting lens that finally makes sense of everything.

As for the new fear? It’s sparked by that last line:

Be careful how seriously you engage with me, because I’m committed to bringing everything into the light.

I’m really scared that’s less true now than it was when I wrote it. I’m scared I’m getting comfortable and middle-aged and cocooned into my sense of my own smartness and rightness in how I see the world. So I’ll end with an old invitation that still holds. Seriously.

Prove me wrong, anytime, on anything. Open invitation. Don’t take my word for stuff. If you can convince me that I’m wrong, I’ll change my mind and thank you for it. I can’t understand any other way of living.

Cheers!

—Ben

PS – To those who actually read this far, thank you for bearing with me. I know it’s a huge departure from what I’ve been posting so far, but it had to come out sooner or later. It was a really scary post to write, and I’m grateful to know that there are people like you who will hear me out even when I’m complicated and long-winded and not necessarily making sense yet. But then, what are friends for, right?


1 Or was I? Maybe back then I was Normal Ben and now I was Past Ben back then. Am having been. Was have—Hmm. No, maybe now I’m Future—wait, now I was going to being Future Ben? Maybe there’s just two Normal Bens. Well, infinite Normal Bens. Or rather, would I—we?—be quantized? Maybe I am having been a spectrum of increasingly future Bens. Ben. Increasingly future Ben. Except there’s less and less Future Ben as you travel along the continuum. So I’m a continuum of increasingly past Ben. Or Bens, if we’re quantized. Sorry, if I’m quantized. Sorry, what was the question?

2 This is part of why I like writing stories, by the way. I can explore the uncomfortable questions and oddball answers freely, and if people get nervous about it, well, come on. It’s just a story. What harm can stories do, right? Heh heh. Riiight.