Beloved in Christ,
How is your life of prayer? I know that question can often provoke guilt or regret in our hearts over how little we actually pray, and how distracted we feel when we do choose to set ourselves to the task. And guilt can sometimes provoke us, at least in the short term, to pray more frequently as a way to ease our conscience. But guilt is not the emotion our Father wishes us to feel in response to our evaluation of our own lives of prayer. For guilt, like pride, is fundamentally incapable of forming a sound motivation for a mature spiritual life. Just as we are forbidden to look down on others in regards to their spiritual practices, it also does us little good to look down on ourselves. We will only be able to be offer to the God the kind of prayer he longs for from us if we learn to come to him as a grateful and confident son or daughter, not as a servant driven by guilt and obligation.
So, how is your life of prayer? Perhaps, if you are able to listen carefully enough to the answer of your heart, you might discover that under the initial sense of guilt or regret, the Spirit has placed another, quite different response: desire. Desire for the taste of God’s presence that you once felt. Desire to be able to live fully and honestly before him. Desire to never feel distant from his presence again, to speak boldly to him face to face and to know he hears your prayers. Let me speak plainly: none of us are fully satisfied with the frequency or quality of the time we spend with God in prayer. And that is as it should be. Because the fundamental reason for our dissatisfaction is not the busyness of our schedules, but the nature of our hearts. Our hearts were made with a restlessness by our Creator which find its rest only in him. And, if we are honest, we long for a union with God which we taste and glimpse, but have yet to experience fully in this life. Paul speaks not of present fulfillment but desire when he writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
It is my sense that desire, and not guilt or obligation, is the only lasting basis for a mature spiritual life. And if we are to be men and women who grow in our lives of prayer, we should not be discouraged by but rather expect a kind of holy dissatisfaction in our practices and experience of prayer, a longing for God’s presence that grows in our hearts as we learn to say truly with the Psalmist: “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?”
How do we increase our desire for God? Only by seeking his presence, while also, strangely, experiencing and lamenting his absence. After all, Jesus has given his sure promise to never forsake us, but he does not now dwell with us as he will one day. That promise, like so much of our life in God, points to the future for its complete fulfillment. How do we experience the presence as well as the absence of God? In many ways, but perhaps most especially in our lives of prayer, as we learn to long for the presence of God in the midst of the tension of the distraction of our hearts and the apparent silence of his response. And so we see that a growing life of prayer leads properly to dissatisfaction, not fulfillment, and dissatisfaction leads in turn to growth in prayer.
So, how is your life of prayer? Perhaps a good answer would be: “Not as strong I wish it were, but strong enough to increase in me a longing for what it might be.” And so it is that we learn to desire the intimacy with God for which we were graciously created, and one day will surely be given. Brothers and sisters, let’s grow in our lives of prayer together: not so we will be assured of our maturity or quiet our guilt, but so that we might learn what it is to desire, and even pant, for the presence of the living God.
Remember, Jesus himself knew the silence of God, and yet he committed his spirit into the hands of his Father, trusting that the promise would be kept, and that none of his prayers were ever offered in vain.
Let’s follow him together.