Why does it sound a bit strange to talk about setting yourself aside in order to hear God? And, if you accept this notion, why is it so difficult to do it? Well, your experience may be different than mine, but most of the prayers I learned growing up placed me (myself) at the center of things.
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” “I,” “my,” and “me” together occur eight times in that prayer, and the Lord appears twice. Obviously, in that prayer, my mind was more on me that it was on the Lord. Four times more.
It seems to me that even though my prayers have gradually become more sophisticated as I’ve grown older and learned more religious language, that imbalance persists between how often I’ve actually centered my thoughts in God and how often I think of myself, my family, my agenda, my nation, my friends, my discouragement, or my joy.
For instance, I remember praying this prayer: “Lord, forgive me for hitting my sister in the back with a rock when she got to the playground swing ahead of me. She can’t help that she’s older than me and can run faster, and I DID agree that the first one to the swing would get to use it, so I shouldn’t have gotten so mad. Please forgive me.” Of course, I didn’t include the fact that after I knocked my sister out of the swing with that rock, I spent about 15 minutes swinging in it while my sister ran to get my mother.
And then there was this prayer: “Lord, I accept you as my savior. Please come into my heart and save me. I want to be a Christian.” I feared for myself and my eternal destiny and my Southern Baptist culture assured me that if I’d just pray this prayer, I was safe.
Well, with my salvation all wrapped up, my prayers changed somewhat as testosterone began to flow. “Oh, Lord, please let Cathy say ‘yes’ when I ask her to the dance. It would really hurt if she said no.” And then, “Oh, Lord, please forgive me for how Cathy and I ended up that dance.”
And now, as I’m older, even my prayers of thanksgiving place me, and my tribe, at the center. “Thank you, Lord, for this food you’ve given us. We’ve been so blessed by you. We have so many freedoms and blessings. Help us not to take them for granted.”
Indeed, profound, legitimate, and understandable desires are at the center of my prayers for folks experiencing disease, or populations suffering from armed conflicts, or the millions suffering from hunger. And I remember the depth with which I prayed for my sister, Maxie, after she’d been diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer which eventually took her life. Or my wife when she had breast cancer. (My wife has survived and is doing well.)
I imagine that you’ve experienced these kinds of prayers, too. In most cases those prayers are age-appropriate, sincere and holy, issue from our hearts, flow from the stuff of our living, ooze from our despair, and erupt from our joy. They’re all good prayers and central to a mature faith. In all cases, too, we’re quite aware of ourselves in this prayerful mix. In our prayers, we might know what we want. Simultaneously, we acknowledge that often, what we want might not be what is best, since we know we cannot see all ends. Sometimes we don’t know what we want. In those cases we pray because we don’t have anything else and we know we need wisdom and guidance.
Notice, that in all of these prayers, my self – my ego – stands at the center, using my mind to form verbal petitions or doxologies which I mentally address to God, whom I imagine is “listening” to me in some way.
Some circumstances, however, exceed our capacity to comprehend, and when we get to the limit of our understanding and cannot express ourselves, or formulate what we desire, that’s when we admit that we don’t know how to pray. As the apostle said in Romans 8, “we don’t know how we ought to pray.” But then the apostle says something intriguing. “The spirit intercedes with groans that words cannot express.”
When we reach the limits of our Selves, we must go beyond our Selves. When we reach the limit of our language, we must go beyond our language. We do that by entering into silence in the presence of God and laying aside every thought that comes to us. This opens us to the wordless presence of God, “the groans that words cannot express.”
When we open ourselves to the wordless presence of God and God does God’s work in us in God’s wordlessness, we will find it tremendously difficult to express this work in words. Simultaneously, no words will be able to shake the assurance and peace we’ve received in this wordlessness. The “groans,” though not physical, are quite real.
Our ultimate participation in the Eternal Word lies in our own wordlessness.
The next blog will be about God’s “language” and how we go about learning it.