Can You Recognize the Signs of a Spiritual Breakdown?

We have a 2002 Subaru Outback that burns through oil. Maybe it leaks oil. Maybe it does both. No one really knows. A mechanic told me the engine from that year was really, really bad.

To make things worse, the dip stick is extremely unreliable, so I’m always just guessing how much oil to add.

All of that is to say, when we used to drive that car daily, I had to keep a really close eye on the oil—among several other things.

It’s my understanding that cars generally have an “oil” light that comes on when it gets low. In our case, we were on a road trip with that Subaru, cruising up a hill on an Interstate, when the light came on and then we instantly heard an alarming crunch in the front of the car.

That was it for our engine.

Besides a useful dip stick and an engine that kept oil inside of it, I also could have really used a warning light BEFORE running out of oil completely.

It turned out that we had driven through a lot of mountains in western Maryland and West Virginia, and we had burned through all of the oil I put in at the start of the trip.

While we could replace that engine with a used one, I often think of the warning signs I see in my life before I burn out or hit rock bottom mentally or spiritually.

Do I have a functioning “warning” light for the times when I’m in emotional, mental, or spiritual trouble and in need of a pause for restoration?

As I’ve explored what spiritual health looks like for me, I have learned that I am at my best when I do at least 3 things every day:

Journal

Pray

Read scripture

These aren’t major revelations or secrets, right? That’s a pretty standard list of daily practices for a Christian. I could list things like exercising daily, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, reading spiritual books and attending church, but those three in my list above form the foundation.

If those three practices aren’t a regular part of my day, I can almost certainly expect to start feeling distant from God, out of sorts, or just kind of lost. Each practice plays a vital role in keeping my head in a good place and helping me to remain aware of God’s presence.

Since it’s so important, I have a schedule each day, and I fit my spiritual routine into it.

Here’s the thing, schedules change, life gets crazy, and the routine sometimes falls to pieces.

We had some pretty disruptive changes to our schedule over the past month, and my routine suffered.

Over the years, I’ve learned to watch for some warning signs that all may not be well. Here is what I look for:

Is My Journal Empty?

When I open my journal, I can know things are difficult or stressful if I don’t have any entries for the past day… or week.

During one really tough stretch, I would show up for church, open my journal to jot down some ideas during the sermon, and start right below my notes from the previous Sunday. That’s a whole week without reflection!

I use my journal for a wide range of ideas, reflections, prayers, meeting notes, and whatever else. It’s a place to get thoughts out of my  head, and if my journal is empty, that means my head is likely full of stuff I haven’t fully processed. That is usually not good for my mental health.

Journaling also makes it much easier to pray since a head full of thoughts can lead to a busy mind that will struggle to pray.

Have I Moved My Bookmark?

I use The Divine Hours to read, reflect, and pray through scripture daily. Each day offers a series of readings based on the day of the week and the time of day. It’s a very handy way to read a variety of scripture on a consistent basis.

But when my schedule falls to pieces or life gets chaotic, I may catch myself flipping past a few days in order to find that day’s reading. If I haven’t been keeping up with scripture reading, my bookmark will be off by a few days.

Having grown up in a Christian subculture that attached a lot of guilt and obligation to Bible reading, I’ve really had to rethink WHY I read the Bible. I prioritize devotional reading or using scripture to guide my prayers.

When I open up the morning scripture reading, I take a prayerful posture and ask God to guide me. I’m not looking for answers, prooftexts, or a duty I can check off in my list of spiritual things.

If I’m not guided by the words of scripture and the Spirit’s inspiration through those words, then who knows what will influence me. There are plenty of alternatives!

I shouldn’t be surprised that my head often ends up in an unhealthy place if my daily scripture reading slides.

Do I Have Enough Time to Pray Daily?

There isn’t an easy way to visibly track how often I pray, but generally I aim to land in the 20-30 minutes range for dedicated prayer. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to be prayerful and mindful of God throughout my day, but I benefit the most from focused, distraction free prayer time if possible.

But dedicated prayer time isn’t guaranteed each day. A kid may wake up early, a work project has a tight deadline, I miss an alarm, or who knows what else can spring up.

I do my best to stay honest about prayer. Am I getting at least 20 minutes? It’s not a magic number that guarantees some kind of spiritual epiphany. It’s just a way to keep myself from getting lazy or cutting corners.

Over the years, I’ve found that if I can set aside 20 minutes for prayer, it’s usually a breeze to hit 30 minutes. Of course, stretching my prayer time that long can start to take away time from my morning exercise routine!

What Are Your Warning Signs?

I’m certain that my three essential daily practices aren’t the only ones or that they aren’t unique to me.

I’d love to know which daily practices you rely on to be both mentally and spiritually healthy. If the comments are closed (they close after 2 weeks to prevent spam), you can always drop me a line on my contact page or share this post on social media along with your own list of essential practices.

Social Media’s Solutions Often Make Our Problems Worse

Where does your mind turn in a free moment?

When it’s time to relax, what do you do?

What do you crave?

These are the kinds of questions that the designers of technology have in mind when creating devices, apps, and other tech-centered “solutions” to our perceived problems. And even before we realize we have a problem or a craving, technology is there to present a version of what we desire.

Consider some of our most important and meaningful desires in life.

We all want to do something meaningful and important that somehow makes a difference. And even if some people are largely absorbed in themselves, they’ll never flourish until they turn their gaze outward.

We all crave interpersonal connections with others. We want to belong, to be seen, to be appreciated as we are, and to know we have a place to call our own.

We all need downtime for leisure, freedom of thought, rest, and restoration.

Spirituality weaves its way through all of these areas of need, and my sense is that the goals of spirituality and overall human flourishing often suffer because of the technology-driven solutions offered to our most basic needs and desires.

That isn’t to say that technology and spirituality are completely at odds with each other. They can work together toward shared goals.

I receive spiritual direction over Zoom. Churches are streaming services online, and we keep in touch with others via phone calls, text messages, emails, and video conferences.

The meaning and connection that spirituality offers is not fundamentally opposed to technology in theory. Taking a smartphone in hand to send a message to someone is hardly anti-spirituality.

But, what if I can’t stop picking up that smartphone ?

What if I have a hard time putting that smartphone down?

THAT gets us to the deeper issues at the root of technology’s proposed solutions to our deepest desires, needs, and challenges. In the view of technology’s designers, it’s often the case that our good and essential needs, desires, and challenges are reduced to a marketing sales pitch for a tech-driven solution that may not truly fulfill our needs.

In fact, the tech-driven solution often makes things worse. Technology can offer a solution of sorts, but too often it’s a partial solution or a counterfeit solution.

Consider how the person craving connection with other people may opt for the easily accessed and socially distanced option of social media. There may be some meaningful connections made via groups or in some discussions.

Yet, that genuine need for connection drives the design and features of social media sites. The good of interpersonal connection is exploited in these social media apps that use the feedback of other users and the most engaging content of others to keep you hooked.

As a result, I’ve found myself less physically, mentally, and emotionally present for others because I’m “engaged” on “connecting” with others on social media. Social media uses up time I could spend with others in person or in one-on-one interactions. Social media fills up my mind with the most engaging (or enraging) content, making it harder to hear other people or to be silent and still before God.

It’s true that we can do good through social media. We can meet people and even loosely maintain some relationships, but how many relationships can we realistically maintain on social media? Couldn’t we just as easily use an email or a text message to maintain that relationship if it is a high priority for us?

Most importantly, what do we lose when we use social media to meet some of our deepest needs for connection, relaxation, or entertainment?

Do we lose time to make deeper connections with individuals? Are we actually relaxing or being entertained? Wouldn’t reading a book, doing an art project, or intentionally reading a newspaper be a better, more restorative practice?

Consider how much better it is to read a few focused articles in a newspaper or newspaper app vs. the reactive stream of outrage and tragedy that afflicts us on social media where we may not even know the reliability of a story’s source.

The more I think about what social media is and the impact it has on me, the more I’m convinced that it offers partial or counterfeit solutions at best to my problems. In too many cases, social media often makes my challenges worse.

How to Make an Author Howl in Despair

 

No one ever made me literally howl with despair, as if I was lost in the bleak darkness of the wilderness, but I’ve had that feeling deep in my soul on many occasions when discussing my latest book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction.

The internal howling in despair often happened before I sharpened my elevator pitch for Reconnect. I told others little tidbits about the aim of the book:

  • It’s a book about using technology too much…
  • It’s a book about how technology makes it hard to pray…
  • It’s a book about how spiritual practices can help us transcend the harm done by smartphones and social media…

Each time I shared little tidbits like this, people naturally compared my idea to existing books—one book in particular came up, in fact.

  • “Oh, it’s like The Tech Wise Family, then?”
  • “Ah, I see. That sounds like The Tech Wise Family.”
  • “Hey, I just read The Tech Wise Family. That’s the same idea, right?”

This is where the internal howling kicked in. Perhaps a sophisticated answer like this passed through my mind as well:

“NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

There are two really good reasons for this response…

Authors Always Believe Their Books Are Unique

Part of the reason for this response on my part is that every author, for better or for worse, believes their books are precious little unique snowflakes that have deeply unappreciated intricacies that truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

Even the authors who write Bible studies on the book of Romans or something about fighting the stress of “too busy” with the whisper “you are enough” (don’t forget the flowers on the cover too) think their books are extremely unique. My gosh, it’s still a bit of a miracle that I got a book published in 2008 about “theology and culture” at a time when every white dude with an MDiv was “musing” about such things on their blogs.

Authors can’t help it. And to a certain extent, every book is as unique as the author. Even books that appear identical may find a new angle that benefits readers. And honestly, some topics just have a higher demand that publishers who want to keep the lights on can’t help meeting.

Yet, there is another really good reason for this howling in despair…

Authors Must Distinguish Their Books

One of the most stressful and challenging aspects of writing a book proposal for a publisher is the Competing Works section that lists five or six similar titles and compares them to your proposed book. The competing works is a difficult balancing act because you need to demonstrate an existing market for your book without overlapping completely with an existing work.

I’ve seen promising book proposals fall flat because similar books were either in a publisher’s pipeline or had been newly released.

When I developed a proposal for Reconnect, I listed The Tech Wise Family as a competing work and carefully distinguished my book from it. If I was pitching something that is “the same thing” as The Tech Wise Family, I wouldn’t be able to promote my book to readers, let alone to a publisher.

My internal howling and shouting at comparisons to The Tech Wise Family called to mind the painstaking process of defining my book’s place in the market.

I didn’t know of any other Christian book that merged an awareness of the design of digital technology and its formative impact with an awareness of spiritual formation and the ways technology could undermine spirituality.

When I managed to calm down my internal screaming during these conversations, I put it like this: The Tech Wise Family is accurate and useful, but it’s dealing with the flood  by proposing countermeasures to deal with the reality we have.

I’m seeking to look further upstream…

Why do we have a flood?

What is the design of the flood?

How can we keep the flood from reaching us in the first place?

How can we build a solid foundation of spiritual practices that can save us from being swept away in the flood?

Less Howling, More Silence

I fully endorse and use the ideas in The Tech Wise Family, but I have personally needed a different approach to digital formation. I needed to understand why I’m drawn to social media and my smartphone. I needed to understand the ways these technologies exploit my weaknesses and how spiritual practices can restore my soul each day.

Placing good barriers around my technology use has helped me, but I wanted to know why I needed these barriers in the first place.

Most importantly, I needed a soul restoring alternative to digital formation. For many of us, our excessive smartphone use is scratching at itch for something: distraction, connection, enjoyment, etc.

I wanted to find the alternative to digital formation, and many of spiritual formation’s practices offer helpful alternatives. Digital formation makes us reactive; spiritual formation helps us become thoughtful and aware. Digital formation creates despair and anxiety; spiritual formation helps us wait with patience and hope.

All of this is to say in a very detailed way that my book Reconnect is a precious little unique snowflake that has deeply unappreciated intricacies that only truly sophisticated readers will appreciate.

I trust that you are just that sort of reader and that you are no doubt eager to read it now, rather than telling me it’s just like The Tech Wise Family

 

Learn More about My Precious, Unique Book

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

Learn more about Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction

Order Reconnect Today

Download the FREE 4-Session Reconnect Discussion Guide

Reconnect

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.

 

 

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

But the Prayer Book Didn’t Teach Me to Pray Like That!

I have turned to different spiritual teachers and prayer books to teach myself how to pray, and I have often found myself starting out far below the bars they set.

If one teacher suggests praying for twenty minutes at a time, I’ve started with five.

If another teacher recommends two sessions of prayer daily, I’ve managed to at least get one.

If yet another tells me to pray sitting up straight in a simple chair, I’ve laid down on my yoga mat, letting out the nervous energy through my hands and feet.

My goal is never to stop where I am and call it good enough. Rather, I need a starting point, a place to get into the habit of daily prayer. Once my prayer habits are established, I can take the next step of actually working toward better posture, longer prayer sessions, and more frequent prayer.

But taking that first step? Or the second, third, or fourth steps after that can be challenging, if not dispiriting. I can fall so far short of my ideal that I can forget that prayer is a daily “practice” that also requires… practice.

Much like everyone thinks they can write well enough before seeing how a professional editor can whip a project into shape, we may overestimate our ability to settle into prayer, to slip into an awareness of God, or to trust our worries and cares with God rather than clinging to them with an unending swirl of thoughts. The letting go of our cares and the simple receptivity of prayer can take time to develop.

By assuming I could dive into prayer without a period of learning and adapting, I’ve set myself up for disappointment and disillusionment. I was lost in a maze of my own making, uncertain about what to do next because I just couldn’t manage to meet the expectations I’d set for prayer. I thought that I could hit the ground running, immediately putting prayer practices into place without a time of struggle or even failure.

I finally found my way forward by embracing each faltering step toward the goals of contemplative prayer teachers. I gradually built my way toward longer and more regular periods of prayer.

My mindset has shifted from focusing on results to focusing on the process. I still have the guidance of teachers and authors in mind, but I’m not drowning in guilt or shame either.

Of course there’s a risk of setting the bar too low. That’s the risk of grace after all. In my own past, the fear of “abusing” grace has pushed me too far toward the fear of letting God down or suffering God’s wrath and anger.

There is a lot of hope to be found in the promise that we are God’s beloved children imperfectly reaching for God, failing at times, but ultimately finding that we were being held all the while as we tried to find God in each daily moment of prayer.

 

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How Habits Can Help Us Pray

I stumbled into the practice of the best practices of habit formation backward as I began to make more space in my life for prayer. I found the connections between spiritual practices and habit formation after the fact, reading books like The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits when certain prayer habits had already taken root in my life.

As I read these books on habit formation, I couldn’t help thinking that I really could have used them as I was getting started with a more regular prayer schedule. As a disclaimer, it would be a mistake to reduce spirituality to a simple habit-based schedule, nor do I limit my prayer to certain times or practices.

One of the reasons I struggled to make space for prayer was my lack of habits to add order to my life. Habits aren’t the silver bullet for prayer or other spiritual practices, but they offer a useful place to make space for prayer on a smaller scale than say a more rigid monastic community.

Here are a few ways that habits can help you make more space for prayer.

Set a Time and a Space to Pray

This is nothing new or revolutionary, as Christians have been praying at set times for centuries, to say nothing of the Jewish roots of Christianity. A set time for prayer in a specific place makes it significantly easier to pray since my body now seems to almost know instinctively what will happen next at specific times and places.

Begin Small and Grow in Prayer

I began to pray in silence for just a few minutes. That grew to five minutes, and then over time I experimented with ten, twenty, and even thirty minutes. Habits are more likely to stick if you can start small, keep consistent, and then increase the time for the habit.

It helped that I invested time in learning how to pray, such as the practice of centering prayer where a simple word offers a way to refocus my intention to be present for God.

I used to think of myself as a failure if I couldn’t pray for a long time, but James Clear emphasizes in Atomic Habits that it’s far more important to keep a streak going for a habit than to skip it if I can’t do it perfectly. If I only pray in silence for a few minutes one day, that at least maintains the routine of praying daily and makes it easier to begin again the next day, hopefully adding more time.

Give Yourself a Prompt to Pray

A prompt is a reminder or cue that helps me remember what I intend to do. For instance, I leave my running clothes out in the morning as a reminder to run–that also makes it easy to choose to run.

Leaving my prayer book out helps me remember to pray each morning, while driving my car in the morning also helps me remember to spend some time sitting in silence. The “prompt” is as simple as turning my car on and then sitting in silence for 5-10 minutes. It took discipline to make prayer a habit in the car each morning, but now, it is far more automatic and requires less willpower.

Make It Easy to Pray

Closely related to the prompts or cues pray, making it easy to pray ensures that I remove any barriers or distractions. For instance, I don’t have to look for my prayer book because it’s already out. I don’t have to force myself to choose a time to pray because I have chosen some simple cues.

I sit in silence when I turn the car on in the morning, or I open my prayer book before I begin my work in the morning. It’s not hard to pray at these times, and while these aren’t the only times I pray, I have set moments throughout the day where I make it as easy as possible to choose prayer.

I’ve already made the choice to make space for prayer, so it’s not major decision each time I think of praying.

Consider Your Motivation to Pray

My motivation for prayer called for deeper scrutiny than I had imagined. I share in Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, that I had prayed because of fear, duty, guilt, and obligation. I imagined that God was disappointed in me because I was such a slacker who never prayed enough.

I hadn‘t considered that God was already present and loving, accepting me as I am and craving an intimate relationship with me.

Moreover, the simplicity of the Christian contemplative prayer tradition pulled me away from a performance mindset where I tried to demonstrate my piety or commitment. While silence or centering prayer aren’t the only ways I pray, they have been the most healing for me as I learn to turn to God in faith, waiting patiently in silence for the Lord.

While habits aren’t essential for making space to pray, they can make it significantly to find space each day for prayer. I have found that the best habit formation practices have a lot in common with the schedules of monks and nuns, and it seems that they may have a thing ten to teach us about making space for prayer and work.

If you aren’t sure where to begin with prayer, it may help to rethink your spiritual practices as habits that can start small and grow over time.

 

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The Trouble with Offering Religious Goods and Services

I write books about Christianity, prayer, and spiritual practices, so you could say that my books could be considered religious goods in a consumer society.

When I sit down to write these books, I’m always trying to think of ways I can minister to and help my readers. However, drawing a line between helping readers and telling them what they want to hear can prove challenging to authors.

Staying positive, giving a “Rah, rah, you can do it!” message of abundance and prosperity may sell well. Honestly, there is a positive element to the Christian message that can take on a life of its own at times, but there are two big caveats that I’ve found in genuine Christian spirituality:

  1. Abundance and joy is preceded by a surrender or death to certain priorities or ways of living.
  2. Abundance and joy rarely look the way we imagine they will look.

While writing Flee, Be Silent, Pray, I was constantly trying to avoid a consumer-focused sales pitch for contemplation:

  • Cure your anxiety!
  • De-stress!
  • Find inner peace!
  • Find security in God!

These are all results that come over time in contemplative prayer, but they are not necessarily guaranteed, especially in the short term.

Contemplative prayer can offer a deeper, more foundational fix to these issues by addressing them as part of the larger picture of prayer, identity, and surrender.

When Jesus spoke of the life he offered, he certainly used terms that we would associate with abundance–springs gushing with water or trees that are plentiful with fruit. He also warned that our lives must go into the ground and experience a kind of “death” in order to produce fruit.

There really isn’t a program other than surrender and sacrifice to a loving but unseen God. It’s not easy, and oftentimes it’s counterintuitive to wait in silent expectation.

The sales pitch, to use consumer language, for contemplative prayer is summed up more or less in the word surrender. It’s much easier to add something than to give something up! That’s what makes consumerism so powerful.

When Thomas Merton shared the writings of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila, both offer a demanding path forward that involves sacrifice, discipline, and purity of heart. Yes, they wrote of the deep love of God for us, but they also oriented their lives around this pursuit.

We need contemplative prayer because it offers a simple yet structured way to become present for God each day. Silence and resistance to distracting or afflicting thoughts through a prayer word can open up a space for God that we didn’t even know we could find.

Arriving at this point is hardly easy going. It’s costly. It’s a leap of faith. It calls for the disciplined pursuit of God through surrender and silence.

Far from providing yet another spiritual good or service to acquire, contemplative prayer in silence before God will challenge us to surrender what we have.

Our hope is that what God gives us in return will far exceed the worth of whatever we can purchase on our own.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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