What Motivates Us Besides Fear and Anger?

The other day I learned about a Christian book that combines end times prophecy predictions with extremely questionable but explosive political commentary.

Looking it up on Amazon, it has been selling quite steadily and has tons of positive reviews. As I searched for additional information about the book and the author, I found that he had been promoting it on the television of show of a long time doomsday prophet of the end times, seller of dubious survival kits, and convicted felon.

Red flags were shooting up all over the place for me.

I could go on about my many reservations over an author like this, whose end times predictions would leave my Bible professors speechless, but enough has been written about that. I couldn’t help thinking about how this author had really cracked the code to use anger AND fear mixed together to sell books.

If an author isn’t going to use expertise, research, or experience to sell a book with a compelling or helpful message, anger or fear are usually the two tried and true paths.

As an author who tries to avoid these tricks to sell books, I wanted to pull the curtain back a little bit to ask some questions and to leave us in a place with better information and a hopeful path forward.

How Anger Manipulates Us

Anger focuses on something outrageous and wrong that leaves us livid. Reading a book about that anger helps us feel seen, but it also stirs up the anger and becomes a kind of addiction in itself.

Ironically, we may become angry about something very valid that needs to be addressed. Yet, anger that is used to sell something rarely offers a point of resolution or a path toward action.

For instance, the Poor People’s Campaign is addressing injustice through a moral fusion movement that may leave us feeling angry that so many have been overlooked and exploited for so long. Yet, the goal is to move people toward redemptive, bi-partisan action that addresses the wrongs.

The goal isn’t to make people angry so that they buy something and then stew in their anger. Rage isn’t the end point of the message.

When anger is used to sell a book, the book becomes the end in itself. We could say something similar about news websites that supplement their useful reporting with posts showing shocking and outrageous news stories, whether or not they’re true, in order to get clicks and to then sell ads.

The news event may be true and worthy of being addressed, but the goal of the website goes beyond informing the public. The emotional high of the anger is just a tool to sell ads.

Anger can be used to motivate us toward positive action, but it’s very easily abused, especially when it comes to book promotion and media.

How Fear Manipulates Us

In a similar way, fear can be used as a dead end motivational tool as well that prompts us to take action based on what we fear. We may be prompted by fear to buy a book or to consume media based on feeling safer if we’re in the know.

This was often parodied on the Colbert Report: “Watch this segment. What you don’t know, COULD KILL YOU!”

End times books have been selling access to secret knowledge to prepare us for the end times for generations. On top of feeling safer by gaining the author’s special knowledge, we feel like we’re special because we’re on the inside track!

I confess that I’ve been wrapped up in some of this end times thinking in the past, and gosh, it does feel good to believe I’ve got a special edge on everyone else. I KNOW THE FUTURE!!!!

However, the real appeal I’ve found in these end times books is the way they address our fear of the unknown. They traffic in special insider knowledge that helps us manage our fears a bit better because we can prepare for what will happen next.

Oddly enough, these end times books run the very real risk of leaving us worse off because we are preparing for a future that will not happen!

But wait, there’s more! We also end up relying on this insider knowledge rather than living by faith. By seeking to mitigate our fears with end times predictions, we aren’t trusting our futures to God and facing the unknown with trust in his indwelling Spirit and the victory of his Son.

It’s all a really big mess.

What are the alternatives?

Empowering People with Expertise, Research, or Experience

I’ve had a front row seat watching my wife and several friends get a PhD. They spend years learning how to responsibly research topics, evaluate their findings, and then present them in a way that honors what has been done before.

While working on my MDIV, I saw the folks on track for a PhD in a theological discipline, and I thought to myself, “No thanks. I’m out.”

Those folks had to read, remember, assimilate, and evaluate A LOT. They seemed to be reading all of the time. When I’d ask them about a topic, they wouldn’t mention the chapter or two of a book they’d read. They’d discuss multiple books, articles, and theories.

Just to write an academic article requires diving into multiple fields, each with their seminal texts, regarded experts, and intellectual land mines. The width and breadth of research is enormous!

All of this to say, getting expertise that you’d find in a seminary or university is hard and time consuming.

Even worse, by the time you’re done getting a PhD and writing for so many academic folks, it’s challenging to transition into writing and communicating for a popular audience. It can be done, but that’s a whole OTHER skill set to learn.

The other paths of experience and research for writing a compelling book are challenging as well, even if they aren’t quite as demanding as becoming an academic expert. And even if you have lived through an experience or invested months or years into research, there’s no guarantee that you’ll catch anyone’s attention.

In fact, you’ll most likely look at best-selling authors who use fear, anger, or a mix of the two and wonder what you’re doing wrong!

When I look at the books that have been most helpful for me, I find that the offer some mix of hopeful change and practical guidance. Things can get better, and this book will show you how.

That message can certainly be exploited with a shallow, quick-fix solution that doesn’t actually work. Yet, a genuinely hopeful message is a bit harder to capture. It’s not easy to articulate hope and change in a brief media hit today. For new authors, this process is especially agonizing as they try to cram a 50,000 word message into two sentences.

It’s no wonder that folks who don’t want to spend the time gaining expertise or conducting research or living through a series of experiences and who don’t want to bother with formulating a hopeful message opt for the shortcut of fear and anger.

The good news is that people are motivated by things other than fear and anger. We are motivated by hope, goodness, and the possibility of change, but fear and anger can become addicting if we are exposed to them over and over again.

Perhaps the most helpful way for us to confront the fear and anger we confront in our world is to remain aware of how they are impacting us. Can we step back from our reactions and thoughts to become mindful and prayerful?

How can we bring our fear and anger to God today?

As we see our fear and anger for what they are, we can regain some of our agency and then ask the next question: How can I join God in bringing hope and change to the fear and anger in our world?

My prayer is that we are motivated by God’s hope and loving presence, even as we are surrounded by anger and fear today.

 

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Prayer, Anxiety, and What Should We Do When We Stop?

Motion and activity can become a way to avoid the parts of ourselves we would rather not face. When our motion and activity are limited, or we are forced to stop, we face what we’ve been running from all of this time.

What should our next step be when we have to stop?

Perhaps it would help to think of this more like a bit of maintenance time for just one thing. At least, one thing at a time.

Stopping long enough to see what we’ve been worried about or avoiding can be jarring, but we also can finally take a little bit of restorative action.

For instance, journaling is a vitally important way to build resilience. It’s also an extremely useful first step toward prayer, since it gets my thoughts right out in the open. Prayer is so much easier when I can share my burdens with clarity!

When I take time for silence, I won’t have those thoughts bouncing around in my head to the same degree. That is, provided I’ve been as honest as possible in my journal.

Journaling doesn’t have to be the longer form three page commitment of morning pages, although that is extremely helpful. A bit of maintenance could be a pause to write down a few sentences about what you’re feeling or thinking.

If something in the news bothered you, then write it down immediately. Don’t let it stew in your mind. Journaling doesn’t have to be a formal process of writing letters to yourself or recording every event from your day. It can simply offer a way to process your thoughts when you have a moment to pause.

My hope is that we can at least draw some restorative practices to improve our resilience and grounding in the present as we face an unprecedented pandemic crisis.

The general strategy of avoidance, motion, and activity isn’t good for our souls in the long term. When we are forced to stop, it can be jarring to lack any resources to respond otherwise.

As we consider ways we can help others during this crisis, we can also think of how to help ourselves slow down, take better stock of the present moment, and process our thoughts more completely. This can help us pray and become more present for others, as we won’t expend so much energy staying busy to avoid the thoughts we’re running from each day.

We have to face our thoughts one way or another. Regular journaling is one way to choose the terms for facing them and seeking a sustainable path forward.

 

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3 Things to Remember as Technology Becomes Essential

It is quite strange to have written a book about using technology less at a time when it appears essential for our economy, relationships, entertainment, and overall sanity.

There is no doubt that some of my arguments in favor of prioritizing in-person interaction will have to wait until better times when this pandemic is past us. Yet, the majority of the message in Reconnect still stands. In fact, it may be even more important as we immerse ourselves in technology and routinely experience the real limits of interacting over a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use technology in our relationships, especially during a pandemic. Rather, we should use technology with our eyes wide open about its limitations, design, and strengths.

If we want to make the most of our quarantine time, preserve our mental health, and keep our relationships as healthy as possible, we owe ourselves a clear-eyed view of technology’s capabilities and very, very real downsides.

Technology Is Great for Information, Bad for Empathy

Webinars work really great because they can efficiently share information with as many people have an internet connection and a link. That plays to a strength of technology.

However, as we take to Zoom, Facetime, or Facebook Live for more regular social interactions, we should remember that technology makes it hard to fully engage with others in the same way as in person. The reason, in part, is that in-person interactions result in many non-verbal cues and expressions.

Communication is more than the words we say, and technology is very limited in delivering these cues and expressions.

Researchers have found that technology addicts especially struggle with empathy. This is because empathy is extremely difficult to convey over a screen.

That doesn’t mean we should leave our video calls with friends, family, or colleagues behind. Rather, let’s remember that we’re getting a limited experience.

Limited connection is all we’ve got right now, and I’m so grateful for all of the video calls I’ve had, but if you feel a lingering sense of disconnection or dissatisfaction with these calls, there’s a good reason for that.

It’s Nearly Impossible to Filter Out the Negative Side of Social Media

While we can carefully manage who we see in our social media feeds, keep in mind that social media will always promote the strongest reaction or the most shocking perspective because those posts drive higher engagement.

I turn to social media to see what my friends and colleagues are up to and to learn from experts who share their experience in their feeds. In fact, there are times when I turn to an expert or two on social media to help me figure out a news story.

At the same time, there will always be someone who shows up in the replies or comments with a bit of despair, anger, or sarcasm. I have found it’s quite hard to disengage from a fight or flight response when I start seeing comments on social media like that.

It’s as if my body reacts whether or not my brain wants it to react like that! Seeing strong reactions and emotions on social media can override my more rational responses to a crisis.

At a time when we are turning to social media to keep in touch with friends, family, and colleagues, let’s remember how quickly the most divisive or distressing content rises to the top. Pay attention to how you react to comments on social media.

If anything, this time could call for more intentional usage of social media, posting personal updates or checking up on the pages of individual friends and colleagues to post a note or to interact with them.

Beware the firehose of information that is the social media feed. It never stops–and that’s by design. If you’re already worried about the pandemic, then it may feel good to disengage for long stretches of time with whatever comes up on your social media slot machine feed that could always give you something exciting if you just… keep… scrolling.

Pay Attention to Your Reason for Using Social Media

At a time when the mental health of many is under strain and we’re looking for ways to make ourselves feel a bit better, social media can become a bit like candy in comparison to a substantial meal. While social media can offer helpful connections to a certain degree, we shouldn’t expect too much of it.

In fact, a co-creator of the Like button on Facebook shared that she simply can’t use Facebook anymore for the sake of her mental health. She sought affirmation on Facebook so often that she got addicted to the feedback of others on her posts.

This again drives home the importance of using social media with intention and limits. The designers of social media have packed in as many addicting features as possible to keep us hooked on their feeds, so it’s wise to set limits on our time even if we use social media and our phones with good intentions.

No one logs in to social media or picks up their phone with the intention of becoming distracted from their loved ones or their daily priorities. No one wants to feel worse after using social media to keep up with friends and colleagues.

Yet, the research available suggests that the downsides of social media and digital technology in general are very, very real. If we don’t have clear intentions and limits in place, even at a time like this, our mental health may begin to suffer as the days of our quarantine could turn into weeks.

 

Learn More Digital Formation vs. Spiritual Formation

My upcoming book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction shares how digital technology is designed to shape us, what that means for spiritual formation, and how our spiritual practices can lead us toward the flourishing and health that God has in store for us.

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What Makes It Hard to Stand Still?

Perhaps the strangest paradox of modern life is that it can feel harder to stand still and do nothing than it is to remain in motion doing something.

Shouldn’t “doing nothing” be the easiest thing to “do”?

I have often experienced this sensation while taking a walk and stopping to look at a flowering tree or noticing a particular swirl of light in the late afternoon sky. There’s often something else to do or an inner drive to be productive–to keep moving.

I’ve watched several documentaries where monks are staring contentedly at fields where the sun rustles the corn, where monks settle in at a desk to read scripture for long stretches of time, or where a monk calmly works on a task such as cutting fire wood or making soap. These people may as well be from a different planet compared to me.

How are they so unhurried and calm?

What super power enables them to sit or stand so still and so erect for so long?

Do they drink less coffee???

My suspicion is that I have immersed myself in motion, productivity, and meeting certain goals that appear quite important. I find it difficult to stop each day for meditation, prayer, or silence before God because I’m immersed in illusions about my own importance or the urgency of everything before me.

Training myself to value silence or to thrive in stillness has challenged me to rethink my addiction to motion and activity.

Perhaps I won’t get what I crave if I’m always thinking about doing the next thing?

What exactly do I crave in the first place?

That’s where some uncomfortable reflections come up!

It may be easier to reflect on what I could gain if I made stillness and silence a more regular part of my daily life.

For instance, I have managed to train myself to recognize when I’m not getting enough stillness and silence. I know the feeling of rush, despair, and disordered thoughts that comes with an addiction to hurry and doing.

I can feel my soul lurching forward with the shock of a stop, as if silence is slamming on the brakes in my life.

Yet, when I am grounded in a measure of silence and stillness, I can become more aware of God and more aware of how I’m spending my time.

I can ask if I’m using my phone or social media to check out from reality. I can ask if I need to add more life-giving activities to my day, such as a walk, some art, or a bit of reading.

Perhaps the thing that makes standing still so difficult is that I haven’t realized just how beneficial it could be for me to stop doing things. It would be a tragedy to get everything I’ve been striving to achieve with my activity only to realize I could find most of what I need if I set aside more time for silence.

Do You Know When You Make the Best Decisions?

Perhaps I’m confessing too much, but I often try to avoid making decisions late at night. Ever since my college days, I’ve struggled to disconnect from my day, to stop working, and to just make good choices in general.

When I’m tired, I need routines and plans to be set in place. I need a good book to help me settle down along with a simple bedtime routine.

This could explain why I plowed through Richard Rohr’s, Thomas Merton’s, Henri Nouwen’s, and Martin Laird’s writings about contemplation so rapidly. I just needed the routine of reading something that could capture my attention, and each of those authors hooked me right away.

Adding my smartphone to the mix in the evening was terrible for my sleep until I chose some blocks and reminders to help me make better choices. For instance, the Freedom app on my phone blocks the internet so I can’t look up anything. That’s great news for me since I could spend the night looking through home improvement sites now that we’re buying a home!

I set up the Freedom app in a moment of strength, when I was sharp and aware of my basic need for sleep. Once bedtime hits, I feel the pull to start doing research into, well, anything. But at 9 pm the Freedom app shuts down my internet access on my phone’s browser.

There are a few times when Freedom has a bug and doesn’t set up the block on time. Those are usually the nights when I want to look up “just one more thing…”

And even on my computer, I could always work on just one more thing. In that case, Freedom kicks on at 9:30 pm, saving me from working too late into the night but giving myself a bit of wiggle room if I have an urgent deadline to meet.

Similar blocks set up in moments of clarity, intention, and determination help me with social media. For instance, I use the Self Control 2 app to block all social media sites on my computer while still allowing general internet access for my work. One of my favorite tricks is to restart my computer at the end of my work day and to then set up a long social media block into the next day.

For instance, if I end my workday at 5 pm, I may set up my block for 20 hours. That still leaves me the entire afternoon on the next day for social media use if I need it, but then I don’t have to think about it before bed time or in the morning when I’m most likely to be productive.

The Self Control 2 timer runs all night while my computer sleeps and reminds me first thing in the morning that social media is off limits.

Since using this strategy, I have never missed any important messages or events. I always have plenty of time on social media, and my attention isn’t fragmented in the morning hours when I’m most productive at work or most receptive for spiritual practices.

Even better, my work and spiritual practices aren’t disrupted by what I read on social media at the start of the day. I think we underestimate just how distracted, unsettled, or worried we can become through what we see on social media.

I recognize that we all have different goals, requirements, and challenges before us with technology use. The overall principle I follow is to set up my boundaries when I’m best capable of making good decisions.

Honestly, when I’m a bit ashamed of wasting time on a website or app, I may be the most motivated to make a change! We’re all different, so we all need to sort out which boundaries help us remain emotionally, spiritually, and relationally healthy.

I remember scrolling through Instagram one night for far too long and then resolving to delete it when I realized just how late it was. I have not put the app back on my phone since.

Just as you don’t want to force yourself to make decisions about eating ice cream when you have a freezer stacked with quarts of your favorite flavors and your belly is rumbling, you don’t want to force yourself to make decisions about phone use when your will is weakest.

The good news is that our computers, smartphones, and even social media (on occasion) can be used productively to help ourselves and others. If we sort out our boundaries sooner than later, we can preserve all of those good uses without losing out in the other vitally important areas of our lives.

 

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I Can’t Talk My Way Out of Every Spiritual Crisis

Words don’t always make difficult situations better. I still haven’t been able to shut down my impulse to speak up when I should probably keep my mouth shut.

I’m the kind of person who always wants to help someone going through a tough time. And so I talk, I try to commiserate, and I do my best to think of something encouraging or helpful to say.

Maybe I’ve helped others sometimes, but plenty of other times I’ve felt like reaching into the air to grab the words and stomp them into oblivion before they land in the other person’s ears. I tend to overestimate the good that my words can do, and so I pressure myself to say something, anything, when sometimes I really just need to be present and remain available.

There’s a kind of theme that emerges in my own spiritual practices and in the stories I hear of others who practice contemplation. We want to talk our way out of a spiritual crisis, we want answers, we want definitive statements, we want the doctrine that unlocks the door that will alleviate our doubt, uncertainty, frustration, and pain.

I have imagined myself talking my way through difficult situations, as if my own chatter would somehow compel God to take notice and offer a solution once I reach a magical threshold of prayerful words. Perhaps there’s also a reverence threshold to my words where I try to sound like a prayer book… “Gracious, magnificent, and merciful God, bestow upon me, your servant, the full measure of your goodness…”

And yes, talking through our prayers can work and yes God can give us answers, but I can’t talk my way out of every spiritual crisis. And to be honest, I’m not sure that I would even want to be talked out of a crisis or given a magical solution to every issue in my life.

I imagine a parent holding a sobbing child without words, just offering presence and comfort. We wouldn’t criticize the parent for that kind of presence. There really is nothing to be said in the moment. The pain must be felt and the moment can only be resolved with presence.

There isn’t a physical God on earth to hold us quite so directly, and so I have overcompensated with words until they failed me. And when words failed and I couldn’t talk myself out of a spiritual crisis, I assumed that God had failed me.

But there is quite a lot more to God than the words we speak or the ideas scrolling through our minds. There is presence and comfort in silence, even if such a possibility appears counterintuitive or unlikely.

Even in this space where I only have words, images, and white space, I can’t talk you out of a spiritual crisis. I can’t give you the magic next steps to spiritual prosperity. I can only say that words have failed me, but God has not. If you step into that silence and stillness, there is something else waiting for you there. I can’t tell you what it is or what it will feel like. Even if you do find it, words may fail you.

Perhaps we can find hope in the possibility that we don’t need more words to be present for God. In fact,  I typically find it most helpful to use fewer words.

 

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The Prayer of the Heart vs. Prayer as Mental Therapy

Silent, contemplative prayer has been calming  for my mind, but it’s not the same as going to therapy. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve spent enough time in a therapist’s office to know what kinds of practices can help calm my mind.

There are some ways that prayer and therapy can overlap, as both can lead us to simple phrases or insights that help us re-order our thoughts. As we let go of toxic thoughts, a prayer phrase or word can aid us on our journey. Throughout my time in therapy, I’ve also learned simple phrases to carry with me so that I can keep my mind grounded in reality rather than what I fear.

Yet, it has been a mistake for me to pursue prayer as merely an escape hatch from troubling thoughts. It can help me do that, but I have found that it also calls me to something deeper and far more expansive. I could argue that prayer is also far more costly since it takes me to the depths of my nothingness before the love and mercy of God.

When I’m caught up in anxiety, I can use the insight of therapy to reorder my thoughts around the reality of my situation. The same can happen with prayer, but that is often the incidental result of a deeper healing and presence.

Contemplative prayer has been described as the prayer of the heart. Teachers of prayer have spoken of this prayer as going into the heart and standing before God. They describe it as beholding God or consenting to God’s presence in your life. If God is already present with us, then it stands to reason that the only missing thing for prayer is our consent that leads to a deeper awareness of that reality.

On the other end of contemplative prayer, I have felt a similar reordering of my thoughts much like in therapy, but something else happens as well. Prayer takes us into the realm of mystery and love. Some refuse to put the details of these prayer experiences into words because they are too intimate and beyond the limits of what they can say.

I participate in both prayer and therapy because they are different. Yet, the deeper healing and love of prayer is hardly at odds with the ways therapy puts my mind at ease.

Many times it seems that I leave therapy with a clearer idea of what has gotten in the way of my prayers.

Yet, I don’t pray merely for it’s therapeutic benefits. There is a real cost to prayer that can empty us and lead us through challenging places. There can be a struggle. At times it may seem that God has remained far away, and confusion may loom over us for a season.

We go down into our hearts to pray not to feel better but so that we can love God and become aware of God’s love. There is an opportunity for transformation and renewal, but prayer isn’t just about feeling good.

Prayer gives me an opportunity to be shaped by God on God’s own terms, no matter what the cost may be. As I walk through that refining, I have found greater peace and have let go of the many afflictions haunting my mind.

Finishing a moment of prayer isn’t the same thing as leaving my therapist’s office with the hope that I got my money’s worth. But there both offer a moment to step away from patterns of thinking that can leave myself alienated from myself and from others. Perhaps the greatest difference is that such a movement away from alienating thoughts is often just the beginning for prayer.

 

 

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What Am I Actually Looking for on Social Media?

Once upon a time I woke up early and settled down to write in the sunshine of our Vermont home’s cozy living room at 6 am.

The walls had been painted in a rich colonial green color, and the ceiling lined with crown molding that a carpenter friend battled to line up for us. The pine trees surrounding our home filtered the light that shone through the windows that lined the room.

I wrote a lot in that room. Not very much of it was good. Some of it was quite negative and exasperated, but I still look back at those days as a kind of golden age for my writing. There was no better way to start the day than a quiet moment writing in the sunshine of our living room.

A few years later, my mornings had changed dramatically. I was trying to market my first book without the help of a marketing team at my publisher, and I heard that authors were using social media quite a lot.

Gradually, my mornings shifted from immersion in my writing to immersion in whatever people posted on social media.

I told myself that I was making connections for the purpose of promoting my books, that I was connecting with friends, and that I was keeping up with family from far away. I convinced myself that this time spent on social media was productive, but as I reflected on my motivations for using social media in subsequent years, I’ve gotten a bit more realistic in my assessment.

My most important shift in using social media since the days of my cozy Vermont living room has been asking what I’m actually seeking when I log in.

  • Do I have something to share?
  • Am I seeking interaction with any particular people?
  • Do I want to learn from someone?

Those strike me as good reasons to use social media, although they are rarely ever urgent reasons.

However, plenty of other times, my reasons are not so good…

  • I’m seeking distraction, disconnection, or affirmation.
  • I want people to like what I’ve written, I’m stalling in the face of something challenging.
  • I’m avoiding stress and anxiety over a particular situation.

Over time, tuning in to social media has become a habit. The engineers who studied the psychology of habit formation and addiction wanted social media and smartphones to function like a slot machine that can deliver something interesting or affirming at any moment. You need only pull it out of your pocket!

As I use longer blocks on social media, continue to limit my time on social media, and strive to make my smartphone as useless as possible, I’ve found greater freedom from the draw of social media. This is especially true first thing in the morning where it had become a habit of sorts.

By changing my habits, I’ve realized that I don’t really need social media in the ways that I thought I did.

The reality is that social media needs me. It needs my attention for the ads. It needs my engagement so that it can track my preferences. It needs me to become addicted to its features, scrolling endlessly without thinking all that hard about what exactly I’m looking for…

 

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Is Contemplative Prayer Biblical?

contemplative prayer biblical

 

If a Bible loving Protestant, especially an evangelical, asks “Is contemplative prayer biblical?”, it’s likely that this person is already assured of the answer.

“Contemplative prayer” as a defined concept does not show up in the Bible, and the same goes for the methods that contemplative prayer teachers share today. There is nothing quite like centering prayer or specific instructions about how to pursue silence in the Bible.

If you can’t find contemplative prayer methods in the Bible, then it appears to be checkmate, right? Without chapter and verse, there is no Biblical basis for contemplative prayer… except that the teachers of contemplative prayer quote a lot of scripture.

What gives?

It’s true that there is no specific instruction about how to engage in contemplative prayer, but there is plenty in the Bible about praying in silence, waiting on the Lord, seeking God in the solitude of the wilderness, praying always, and praying in secret/silence. You could say that we know about as much about prayer as we know about being a pastor.

We can list the limited details of serving as a pastor just as we could list the limited details of where and when to pray. If we made a list of how pastors go about serving today compared to the guidelines of the Bible, there is quite a bit that we could say doesn’t show up in the Bible–including just about all of the stuff in church leadership books that detail mission statements, vision statements, core values, and corporate leadership and HR guidelines.

I’m not listing those things to argue against them. Rather, within the biblical view of pastoring, we tend to expect the practical, day-to-day realities of pastoral ministry will require some innovation and problem solving on our own parts.

So, when we are instructed to pray in silence, to wait on the Lord in silence, to pray constantly, and to pray in secret, we are right to wonder exactly how to pray in this way.

What does it look like to pray in silence and solitude?

When we see that Jesus ventured off to solitary places, John the Baptist and Paul both sought God in wilderness solitude early in their ministries, and many key figures in the Old Testament experienced God in the wilderness, it’s only logical to ask how we should go about seeking God in these quiet, lonely places.

This is where a bit of church history can help us and show us how contemplative prayer intersects with the Bible.

The desert fathers and mothers sought to imitate the wilderness spirituality of Jesus and many other figures in the New Testament. They still ventured into cities to minister, wrote letters to the churches, and made themselves available to visitors, but they devoted the bulk of their time to prayer and work.

As these early Christians worked, they typically sought to make themselves available to God in silence, with some either breathing in a rhythm where they imagined the Holy Spirit filling them or praying the Jesus prayer which is based on the prayer of repentant tax collector (“The publican’s prayer”). Some used other ways to pray in silence, but over the years a simple breathing practice or prayer word/phrase stuck as the primary ways to pray in silence and solitude.

Most importantly, there is no dogmatic approach to a single way to pray. These Christians engaged in a variety of forms of prayer, giving thanks, making requests, and praying with prophetic insight. They didn’t demand only silent prayer, and different forms of silent prayer took shape over time as they learned to encounter God in the depths of their being.

This inner prayer that takes place in a heart that is still and receptive to God rather than reacting to thoughts and fears is often called contemplation or the prayer of the heart. While Jesus never described this precise outcome for silent prayer, he most certainly modeled this form of prayer and intersected with the biblical tradition that made space for silent prayer and waiting on God.

The teachers of contemplative prayer who pass down these traditions and practices for silent prayer that are grounded in biblical directives don’t pretend to teach centering prayer as the only way to pray in silence. Rather, it is a helpful way to be receptive and aware of God.

The point is to be silent, aware of God, and receptive to the Holy Spirit as directed by the Bible, but the details of the silence are up to us. While the traditions of the church are not the final word on these matters, there is a lot of wisdom in seeing which prayer practices have stood the test of time and proved their worth to Christians in a variety of settings over the years.

We are more than welcome to experiment with our own ways of being silent in solitude before God, but let’s not kid ourselves that our modern innovations are somehow superior or more biblical than the traditions passed down for generations. I’m personally most interested in doing what the historic church has found most helpful.

No one is going to argue about the Bible’s teaching to pray in silence and solitude, and so arguing over the details of how to do that strikes me as unhelpful. The teachers of contemplative prayer have literally based their prayer words and repetitive prayers on scripture, using simple phrases and words to let go of their troubling thoughts, to let scripture fill their minds, and to be fully present for God.

One final point bears keeping in mind here, and it’s a big one.

I have yet to read a critique of contemplative prayer from someone who had actually practiced it and had received spiritual direction from an experienced director. That critique may be out there, but regardless, the majority of the critiques I’ve heard and read are based purely on hearsay and conjecture without real first hand experience.

If you aren’t comfortable with a practice like centering prayer or sitting in silence isn’t helpful and life-giving for your soul, there is no one condemning you. I was once in your shoes, so I get it better than most.

Yet, I encourage you to consider that a large number of Christians throughout the history of the church have benefitted from contemplative prayer. Why would any Bible-believing Christian dismiss a practice like this based on modern conjecture and hearsay?

 

Learn more about contemplative prayer by checking out my related post: Is Contemplative Prayer Dangerous? 

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

Based on my own resistance to and experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

 

Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

How Social Media and News Work Together to Crush Your Soul

If I had to choose between shouting out my front door, “Hey, what’s happening today?” and learning about current events on social media, it’s at best a toss up in my mind with a slight edge to my neighbors.

That isn’t to say that I follow unreliable people on social media or that my neighbors are all current event experts. My greater concern is with the medium of social media itself. If I want to fast track my overreactions, fear, dread, and envy, then social media is the perfect place to go.

While I can and do log on to social media in order to find the viewpoints of experts, I am also exposed to despair, conjectures, and divisive remarks. The most extreme versions of popular viewpoints are sure to pop up one way or another. It doesn’t take too much to spark some fear and to send my mind spinning off course.

Of course these conjectures or despairing comments may not be true, and they may even be said in jest. Yet, they still get the job done: introducing troubling thoughts into my mind.

I have learned how to better manage these thoughts, but they remain a distraction that can leave me sidetracked and struggling to get back to a more productive direction with my day.

Heaven help me if I jump into the fray with a comment on a controversial post. That’s a whole other downward spiral of defensiveness that leaves me with a lingering desire to appear clever.

This particular week American news stations and social media networks are speculating on and lamenting the possibility of further escalation of military conflict with another nation. It’s a mess. I could spend the better part of my afternoon wringing my hands about it on social media, reading endless analysis, speculation, reactions, and predictions.

Or, I could spend two minutes reading an article about the main contours of the situation and avoid social media conjectures and debates like the plague. I will likely come away knowing just as much about the issue at hand and have far less fear, anger, and dread consuming my thoughts.

I love the way that social media exposes me to a wide variety of perspectives on the issues of the day and gives a platform to smart, prophetic people who may otherwise be overlooked. Yet, tapping into the best of social media often results in exposing us to its worst aspects as well.

In certain current event situations, the best way to remain informed and level-headed may include a bit of a fast from social media–at least that’s true for me. Perhaps you can sort through the speculation, fear, and hysteria, only holding onto what actually helps.

Personally, I’m not at that place with social media. I need to limit my access to social media in a time of public crisis, but any time really since everything can be turned into a crisis, because it crushes my soul with conjectures, fear-mongering, and seething anger.

If your soul is feeling weary or even crushed this week, consider how you can make a bit more space for silence, prayer, and simple awareness of what’s on your mind–especially if you feel unsettled. Consider where the troubling thoughts on your mind are coming from and replace those soul crushing sources with something you find life-giving.

I certainly don’t run every morning with the Jesus Prayer on my lips because I dig waking up at 5 am, but that bit of mindful and prayerful headspace always feels better than scrolling through social media in fear of the latest insanity du jour.

 

Photo by Kayla Velasquez on Unsplash