Prayer Puzzles

10 January 2022

I used to think prayer was simple: ‘Ask, and you will receive.’

Not anymore. Experience tells me it isn’t that simple at all: I often don’t get what I ask for, even when I’m pretty sure I have asked ‘in Jesus’ name’ and in line with what I reckon is the divine will.

I’m talking here, of course, about ‘petitionary prayer’: bringing requests to God. The New Testament writers, including Jesus himself, urge us to do that, and most of us do it regularly. ‘Lord, heal my child.’ ‘Let me get the job I was interviewed for.’ ‘Could you please temper my grandson’s autism.’ ‘Deal with that noisy neighbour who’s making our lives a misery.’ ‘Please stop Mum’s dementia from getting any worse.’

One problem, of course, is that answers to prayer are unverifiable. My child got better, yes, but would she have got better anyway, if I hadn’t prayed? After all, non-religious people often get things they long for. No-one can say for sure. Or if she didn’t get better, was it because I didn’t pray enough, or with sufficient faith (whatever that means)? So many unanswerable questions!

It’s not all bad, however. There have been a handful of occasions in my seventy years as a committed Christian where a prayer of mine has brought such a striking and immediate response that I will never doubt that God did it.[1] But the majority of the many thousands of my everyday requests remain in the grey area.

And a huge number have not been answered, in that I didn’t get what I asked for. Christians have come up with all sorts of clever ways of explaining that. ‘It was answered,’ they say; ‘it’s just that the answer was No.’ Which is not very satisfying at all. Yes, I trust my heavenly Father’s love, and I know that his perspective is far broader than my own little world, but it’s still frustrating and puzzling to hit yet another brick wall or ‘brass heavens’.

This has made me more selective these days about what requests I bring to God. And that, in turn, has made me explore other types of prayer. Praise and thanksgiving is one such type, and no Christian worth the name will be short on offering that to God, so no issue there. But what about ‘set prayers’?

I was raised to look down my nose at these, as examples of the ‘vain repetition’ that Jesus warned against. Even saying the Lord’s Prayer was frowned upon in my circles. ‘Proper prayer’, I was taught, would always be extempore and from the heart, led by the Spirit. What a sad mistake—as if only ‘off the cuff’ prayers are in those categories! I have come to see that the Lord’s Prayer and other liturgical prayers from the church’s long history have immense value. I have learnt quite a few by heart, to my enrichment, and use them daily.

Someone has wisely said, ‘When you can’t pray, say your prayers.’ I have been blessed in using the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer, along with prayers from Phyllis Tickle’s devotional series The Divine Hours, and a variety of other sources. I find they keep my communion with God on sound lines and provide a security in that, in praying them, I am one with the countless believers who, down the centuries, have used them to channel the outpouring of their hearts to God.

And the benefits go further than that. Set prayers help shape our thinking and serve to form our character. When our thoughts and ‘talking to God’ are in danger of going off-piste into potentially dodgy territory, the boundaries of these ancient prayers keep us safe. They pull our focus back to the Lord himself, and away from selfish or misguided aspirations.

Along those lines, I am also finding ‘centering prayer’ helpful. This is a ‘contemplative’ practice used by Christians throughout the history of the church and revived in recent times by the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating.[2] It involves coming consciously into God’s presence for a period of, say, twenty minutes, not to ask for things, or even to praise him—in fact not with words at all—but just to ‘be’ before him. It is ‘centering’ in the sense that we pull right back from the chattering of our minds and imaginations to simply rest in his presence.

But back to petitionary prayer. Why does so much of it seem to bounce off the ceiling?

The ‘word of faith’ people put the blame squarely upon us, the pray-ers. We need to have more faith, they say. We should repeat relevant Bible verses till we go all glassy-eyed and ‘break through’ to God. I’m unconvinced, in spite of the fact that some of them are truly godly people. Their definition of ‘faith’ is, I think, open to question and their grip on reality sometimes painfully tenuous.

Others hold that God doesn’t give us what we ask for because he often can’t. His nature, they explain, is love, and love by definition ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Cor 13:5), so he needs the cooperation of human and other agencies in order to change things. That doesn’t go down well with Calvinistic types, but it is something to think about. It certainly goes a long way towards explaining all those unanswered petitions.[3]

So those are my prayer puzzles laid bare. Don’t worry about me, please. In raising these issues I’m not backsliding. The fact is, I pray a great deal more now than I ever did before. I ‘seek God’s face’ daily with determination. I love him and trust him wholeheartedly, and I hope you do, too.

And please don’t bombard me with Bible proof-texts on prayer—I’m familiar with them all. I’m just a learner doing my best to grapple with how they work out in practice, and I’ve still a long way to go. So I’ll wind up by echoing ‘one of his disciples [who] said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray…”’ (Luke 11:1).

 

  1. I relate one of these in my memoirs (p94-95), regarding being stuck with a group of youngsters on a dangerous mountain when darkness fell. Available here: https://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/index_htm_files/DM%20Memories.pdf
  2. A ‘how to’ leaflet on centering prayer is here: https://contemplativeoutreach.org.uk/leaflets/MethodLeaflet.pdf
  3. More on this in T.J. Oord’s book reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2020/07/25/god-cant/ Another book, by M.G. Karris relates the principles specifically to prayer and is reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2021/10/07/review-problems-with-prayer/

 

 


Review: Help on the D/R journey

24 September 2021

Lots of one-time keen Christians are questioning many of their long-held beliefs. This can create enormous pressure because those beliefs have previously undergirded their mental and emotional stability. To help navigate a way through that pressure, books have been appearing in recent years, including this one:

Religious Refugees: (De)constructing toward spiritual and emotional healing by Mark Gregory Karris (Quoir, 2020)

The author, who is from a Pentecostal background, is an ordained pastor and licensed therapist, and writes as someone who has himself made the journey successfully. He calls it ‘the D/R journey’ (Deconstruction/ Reconstruction). His book is in three parts. Part 1 identifies and outlines the scale of the problem, which is huge internationally. Part 2 examines the emotional and spiritual pressure people feel in the midst of it. And Part 3 provides some guidelines for moving forward and maintaining faith—though that faith will likely be of a different form afterwards.

The book is substantial and detailed, covering every aspect of the subject. Each chapter ends with questions suitable for group discussion. It analyses the different ‘stations’ of the typical D/R journey, providing honest evaluations of what people feel in each one, before offering pointers to the way forward. I wondered sometimes whether the author’s treatment is too detailed? But he is commendably anxious to cover all the options and so can perhaps be excused.

As part of his suggestions for moving forward, Karris offers some helpful approaches to prayer—including ‘centering prayer’—which go far beyond the routine petitionary approach of most evangelicals. He also offers useful insights from psychology and neuroscience. And he shows himself aware of a range of approaches to God and the Bible currently being publicised by authors like Thomas Jay Oord and his ‘uncontrolling love of God’ conviction.

If you are struggling with some aspects of your own faith right now, this book is guaranteed to shed light on your situation and offer you real hope for a good outcome.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

The D/R journey is shorthand for those who are going through a seismic shift in their religious and spiritual orientation… I call the signs and symptoms of this disorientation Religious Disorientation Growth Syndrome (RDGS).  (p17)

It’s not your fault that your faith is shaken and your core beliefs about God, the church, the Bible, and yourself are shifting. Life happens. Shift happens. Life changes with or without our gracious consent.  (p23)

You are going through (or have gone through) a profound shift that has catapulted you into a season of doubt, distressing emotions, anxiety-provoking and painful social realities, and existential and identity concerns. You are not alone!  (p26)

Since church politics and bureaucracy are overseen mostly by men, there can be strains of misogyny and patriarchy, interlaced with theology, that are oppressive to women and marginalized people.  (p28)

With the power of the internet, people now have the ability to travel to exotic, cognitive-dissonance-producing, theological places with the click of a button. Stale, simple, myopic, and repetitive Christian teachings on Sunday mornings are no longer going to reach the hearts and minds of many church goers.  (p29)

The problem is, when church is all about positivity, singing solely upbeat music, and hearing shallow responses to complex individual and societal problems, some Christians just can’t stomach it.  (p31)

Some churches are functioning like powerful, foreign occupiers attempting to squash identities, individual desires, and anything that doesn’t fit in with their pathological ideologies that masquerade as divine intentions and holy prescriptions.  (p38)

When people finally awaken and realize how their once-beloved faith has sadly failed them (or worse, mentally or emotionally abused them), the result can be spiritual trauma.  (p40)

We had the answers. We were part of the in crowd and everyone else was on the outside. And, the best part? Because of our denomination’s perfect, unblemished doctrines, I knew I was one of a chosen few who were truly saved.   (p48)

There comes a time…when all of us…have to choose either to go home to what is familiar or to journey ahead toward foreign, potentially perilous, territory.  (p52)

I have heard firsthand from pastors who were in the midst of this kind of internal conundrum. Many have shared with me their terror just thinking about publicly acknowledging their doubts about important doctrines that their church holds dear. Knowing that they would be kicked out of the church, and perhaps be unable to provide for their families, forced them to hide. This is no easy predicament. It’s sad their professional roles don’t allow them to be exactly who they are: imperfect followers of Jesus on a messy spiritual journey just like everyone else.  (p53)

No single, unchangeable label captures the complexity of who anyone is. Labeling others is an attempt to dehumanize and erase the diverse complexities of individuals and groups in order to gain power over them.  (p61)

The more love-filled and inclusive one’s heart becomes, the less at home traditional beliefs, that lack such love and inclusivity, will feel.  (p68)

Years ago, amazingly, I wouldn’t even cringe at the idea of God commanding genocide (Joshua 1:12); flooding the planet and giving sharks a smorgasbord of human entrees (Genesis 6-9); killing precious Egyptian babies (Exodus 11:5); burning people to a crisp (Numbers 11:1); striking down seventy people for being curious and peeking into the ark of the covenant (1 Sam. 16:19); ordering someone to be stoned to death by an entire community for working on the sabbath (Numbers 15:32); being prejudiced against people with disabilities and those who looked different (Leviticus 21:17-24); or committing a host of other Hitleresque monstrosities. I suppose I was just going with the Christian flow.  (p74)

Am I supposed to believe that a God, who is vastly more loving and just than I am, would be less loving and just than me? No matter where you are on the liberal/conservative divide, I am sure we can agree that maiming, burning alive, stoning, and drowning our children, when they selfishly go against our wishes (even if they were our adult children), is not the most compassionate, just, wise, and loving thing to do.  (p79)

Here is my concern with the “God demands justice for sin” motif. It seems to me that God asks us to forgive, without the need for violent physical punishment, when people act unjustly toward us. So, how is it that God demands justice in the form of violent physical punishment if people sin against Him, but God calls us to extend love, mercy, and forgiveness when people sin against us?  (p79)

After many years of reading, wrestling, and reflecting on the biblical text, I cannot with a clear conscience hold to a flat reading of Scripture where all texts fully disclose and reveal the true nature of reality and of God.  (p81)

The Pentalateral Hermeneutic of Love (PHL) is a lens with which I currently look through the Scriptures… The five-part lens consists of:

  1. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)
  2. The biblical definition of love (1 Corinthians 13:4–7)
  3. The only explicit parabolic picture Jesus gave of God the Father found in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31)
  4. Perfect love described in Matthew 5
  5. The radical self-giving, others-empowering life of Jesus Christ, who is the full revelation of God. (p82)

Even secular researchers are studying this phenomenon called spiritual disorientation, seeking to find a correlation between a person’s mental health, beliefs, and inner wrestling with God—what they call divine struggle.  (p90)

Because of our tribal brains, it’s almost impossible to stop singing the songs, to break the rules, to disobey the religious leaders in our lives, and to become anything different than the docile sheep that we are used to being.  (p92)

Some Christians, on the D/R journey, experience a sense of loss due to the tenuous relationship they now have with the Bible. What was once a comforting sacred text in which every passage of Scripture was God-breathed, is now an ambiguous book that is better left on the table collecting dust.  (p100)

It’s normal to experience strong jolts of emotion in the middle of your faith shift. After all, you loved deeply. You gave your heart to both God and the church. And you are now grieving a profound loss of connections, attachments, intimacy, conversations, rituals, and beliefs. You have every right to feel the way you do.  (p109)

The hardest dynamic of the deconstruction process is the confusion that sets in because of your chaotic emotional experiences. Your level of anxiety and suffering is increased by your inability to understand what is going on.  (p110)

Splitting is a defense mechanism that causes people to label others as either “good” or “bad”. Splitting enables people to steer away from complex feelings of ambivalence which are often uncomfortable. This shock absorber is wired inside of us because, let’s be honest, it is sometimes easier to see the world as black or white than to see in shades of gray.  (p128)

Because we can have so many thoughts—some of which are contradictory—and mixed emotions during our deconstructive process, our mind is on a mission to manage our mayhem and make sense of it all. Telling our story to others helps accomplish that mission.  (p140)

Finding healing in community is not an alternative, or fallback plan, for those who do not have enough faith in God. It is a biological imperative and part of God’s gold standard for successful healing and necessary for living life to its fullest.  (p147)

God loves it when we are truthful, no matter how ugly we think our experiences may be. And God much prefers truthfulness than to see us wearing a mask—pretending and bearing false witness. God can’t heal our masks because they are inanimate objects, but God can heal an authentic hurting soul that is laid bare before God’s presence.  (p152)

I have found Christians to be some of the most self-deprecating people I have ever met. Not only do many of us not love ourselves, we do not even like ourselves.  (p159)

Perpetuating the message of original sin and eternal torture, especially to children, can bring grievous, monumental, pathological ramifications from which a person might take a lifetime to heal.  (p166)

You have the option to relate to yourself as the Father of love (1 John 4:16) relates to you, or as the Father of lies (John 8:44) relates to you. Do I need to tell you which option is best?  (p169)

The descriptive words we use of God are not God. They are placeholders, and imperfect ones at that. They are fingers pointing to that which cannot be fully pointed to or named. I could tell you that God looks like Jesus. And, that is an incredible place to start. Jesus is God fully manifest in the flesh. But, even our conceptions of Jesus are diverse. Our minds, which are our filters that are conditioned by a great number of factors, such as the time and place in which we live, cannot even fully and perfectly conceptualize or reflect him.  (p181)

If it seems you have multiple personalities when it comes to your faith, rest assured, you are not crazy. Science validates our experience. We can have contradictory feelings and thoughts. We can have different parts of ourselves vying for their unique positions. The hope is that we can combine and integrate our head knowledge with our heart knowledge and align them with the truth of who God says we are and move a few degrees closer to who God really is.  (p188)

The primary metaphor Jesus gives us for God is that of a father. Premier New Testament scholar and historian John Dominic Crossan writes, “Despite its male-oriented prejudice, the biblical term ‘father’ is often simply a shorthand term for ‘father and mother.’”  (p191)

I am convinced that to reconstruct our faith, we must have a theology of suffering anchored in the unconventional love of God. This is especially important in a world full of pain, suffering, confusion, sorrow, and death. I believe that the unconventional love of God is shown in God’s perfect, moment-to-moment, uncontrolling, and co-operative love.  (p205)

Many Christians believe God can control but chooses not to. It is a complete paradigm shift (a heretical shift for some) to suggest that God simply cannot control because of God’s uncontrolling, loving nature.  (p208)

As you are in community with God and others, trust in your experience. I know that experience gets such a bad rap. But, unfortunately, the alternative is to trust everyone else’s experience and how they interpret the scriptures, God, and reality.  (p211)

What would we think of a man, watching a child be sexually assaulted, having the power to stop the event from happening, but simply choosing not to help? Our inner spirit captivated by love and justice would passionately rise up and object to the unjust and immoral actions of that man. In the same way, our spirit would also rise up against a view of God as someone with full ability to intervene in horrific events, but who simply chooses not to help (but unfairly decides to help others).  (p214)

Anyone who claims that God is in control of all things is implicitly stating that God is the Grand purveyor of evil.  (p223)

While God can always be trusted, the same cannot necessarily be said to be true of human beings. Creatures big and small, laws of regularity, and spooky quantum anomalies cannot always be trusted to have our well-being in mind. Horrific events occur because randomness, lawlike regularities, and human choices collide.  (p224)

The very fact that we can “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30), shows us that God doesn’t always get what God wants.  (p225)

I propose that we Christians need to get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused about God’s role or, worse, blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary, cognitive, and emotional obstacle that prevents many from having a loving and grateful connection with their Creator.  (p226)

Your tears are not a sign of weakness but a powerful symbol that shows you were courageous; you took a risk on the unpredictable nature of love and loved anyway. Those who have ceased to cry have ceased to love and participate fully in life.  (p236)

Sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is that which appears faithless. There are times when singing songs of lament, which appear to hyper-religious folk as faithless, would be far more honest than singing today’s all-too-common, upbeat, pop praise songs.  (p239)

Our interactions with those theologically different than us can devolve into the type of religious debates for which Jesus called out the Pharisees. I think Jesus would remind us that, in spite of our differences, what matters most is whether or not we love God and others. Period.  (p262)

When we prioritize love, we make sure we are compassionately present, embodying the gospel for each person we meet.  (p264)

At the end of my life, I don’t want to have regrets because I was afraid of being the unique person God has co-created and co-shaped me to become.  (p274)

Identifying your values, choosing them for yourself and living them out is a part of the reconstruction process. This process can restore authenticity and congruence to your life, propelling you to live the life you are meant to live and to lovingly serve others with more of your authentic self.  (p275)

 


The eye of the storm

19 December 2019

Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee (1903-1972) wisely observed: ‘The reason for much poverty of thought is thinking too much.’

For many of us, our biggest struggles are with the tyranny of the mind. There’s so much going on around us, so many demands on our attention, so many compex issues in the world, so many fascinating questions, it’s no wonder that our minds, as they struggle to eye of the stormprocess everything, sometimes come close to bursting. The mental whirlwind threatens to suck us up, tear us to shreds and spit us out into madness.

As a committed Jesus-follower, I’ve learnt a few mental disciplines over the years. I wrote about some of them in my book A Sound Mind.* Since that was published I’ve made further progress in dealing with mind-matters, and one aspect is a departure from something I said in the book.

In the section on meditation, I wrote that, for Christians, meditation means focusing the mind deliberately on good and godly subjects, rather than emptying the mind. The latter, I suggested, causes a vacuum that invites negative stuff to rush in to fill it. And negative stuff is the last thing we want.

While I remain a staunch promoter of choosing what to think about, and of limiting my choices to good and godly topics, I’ve come to see that, alongside this, there’s room for helpful moments of not thinking at all—of deliberately emptying my mind. These days, because I’m far more conscious of God than of the nasty stuff allegedly waiting in the wings to take over the stage of my mind with vile performances, I can retreat confidently from thinking…into the presence of God.

This practice is called centering prayer. While it shares elements with forms of spirituality outside of Christianity, centering prayer is distinctly Christian. It involves coming deliberately into God’s presence, not to ask for things, and not even to offer thanks and praise, but just to be there. To stop mentally hopping around and just relax in his presence, in the knowledge of his steadfast love.

I normally do this at times when I can be alone and undisturbed, and aim for about twenty minutes. I sit upright, with my eyes closed to avoid distractions. I briefly tell the Lord that I’m coming just to be with him. Then I relax and try not to think about anything. To help keep that focus, I have a personal ‘sacred word’ that I repeat to myself as required.

It’s a bit as if, on a warm summer’s day, I were sitting on a rock at the edge of a river, with my feet in the water. Bits and pieces float by on the current and I find myself automatically picking them up. These are the thoughts that appear, unbidden, in my mind: a phone call I need to make today, the conversation I had with a friend yesterday, the mark on the lounge carpet, the tickle in my left ear…

As soon as I become conscious of having picked something up, I gently put it back in the water and let the current carry it away, because I’m not here to think; I’m here just to be in the presence of God.

I’m getting better at this, but the thoughts still intrude every few seconds. It can be frustrating, and the temptation is for me to berate myself for my ineptitude. But that wouldn’t help. It would only unleash a host of jumpy thoughts, and that’s the opposite of what I’m aiming for. So I try to relax, let the river carry all that away, and remind myself briefly that God understands and is not displeased. And so I return, to think of nothing and relax in his presence. I’m ‘centered’ again.

Sometimes, what I find myself picking up from the water is a spiritual insight. I put that back in the water, too, because the aim of this exercise is not to collect anything, but just to be. I can trust God to bring back to me later that sermon idea, or that angle on a passage of Scripture I’ve been reading. For now, I’m just here, relaxing in God’s presence, soaking up the sunshine of his love.

Time passes fast this way. Twenty minutes are soon gone. I wind up with a brief spoken prayer, get up and go about my business.

The benefits of this practice are more in the long-term than the immediate, I’ve found. The scientists say that it leads to some gradual neural re-wiring that makes for a calmer disposition and the ability to be more in control of one’s reactions. And since it’s true that we inevitably become more like the god we worship, the Christian can see centering prayer as one means by which the Holy Spirit can further the process of transforming us gradually ‘into his image’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Watchman Nee would have approved, I’m sure. If ‘thinking too much’ leads to ‘poverty of thought’, here is one way, at least, of taming our wild thinking and thus becoming richer.

At the eye of the mental storm is a place of calm. I invite you to explore it.

*  My book is available from Amazon, in Kindle format only now. For further information on centering prayer, download the guide from Contemplative Outreach here.

 


%d bloggers like this: