Evangelicals Need to Sit in a Room and Say Nothing for a Long Time

chair-prayer

I solve most of the world’s problems right before I go to bed. It’s true. Ask my wife. I have so many amazing ideas, and she gets to hear all of them right before she falls asleep.

I recently solved the central problem with my evangelical tribe.

You know us, we’re the people who claim to have the “good news” and then we basically spend a lot of time worrying about being damned to hell, praying enough, proving ourselves worthy of God, proving we hold “sound” doctrines, defending those sound doctrines from atheists and “liberals,” fearing the fiery destruction of the world, and jumping into the political fray as if the death of America is the same thing as the death of God.

Evangelicals are anxious. We are anxious people who need to sit in a room and say nothing for a long time.

We fill concert venues with blaring worship music and shout, “Come Lord, Come! Come! COME!!!!”

We study, study, study the Bible.

We serve and minister and volunteer.

And then? The crash. So many of us crash and burn with our anxious, hard-working faith. I gave myself to all of this. I’m an evangelical who studied, served, worked, and defended, and all I got was a lousy crisis of faith. Almost every evangelical I know has had a crisis of faith in their 20’s or 30’s. Those who haven’t had a crisis of faith yet are the ones who could really use it the most.

Sure, we trust that Jesus has saved us by faith and grace, not by our own merits. But then we expend SO MUCH energy working and worrying in order to prove that profession is true. We struggle with holy living. We wonder if the defenses for the Bible will be enough to shore up faltering faith. And most importantly, we lose our ever-loving minds because God feels so distant and silent.

So we study harder, we worship with even more passion than the trademarked PASSION events, and we plead and beg with God: “Please show up. Please tell me that you’re real. Please tell me that the years of guilt, shame, repression, and fear were worth something.” Something has to give.

Some snap out of that phase, and realize that the game is over. God isn’t real. How could he be? What God would want people to live with such fear, misery, and uncertainty?

Others harbor those doubts, fears, and illusions, but they stick with the practice of their religion. Jesus matters so much to them. They want the story to be true. They want to believe that God is somehow involved in the world, but they simply can’t figure out how to find that God. They settle for mystery, but end up living without any search for or experience of God.

There’s another option that takes the beliefs and, don’t miss this word, practices of historic Christianity seriously. In fact, the problem that plagues evangelicals today may best be described as a selective amnesia. We have fought tooth and nail to uphold the scriptures and doctrines that the early church passed on to us, but we couldn’t give a flying fig (that’s an evangelical swear word) about the practices of the early church.

There is a stream of Christianity that takes the foundational teachings of our faith seriously—so seriously that they are viewed as givens—without devoting our entire lives to defending them from skeptics. This is the contemplative stream that pre-dates the canon of scripture. This stream has been practiced in quiet and solitude, as well as in cities and small towns. It has driven some to serve actively and it has driven others deeper into the desert. Ironically, those who traveled the furthest into the desert were eagerly sought out by many from the cities. These desert contemplatives exercised tremendous influence and their words remain powerful, relevant, and formative until this day.

The contemplative stream of Christianity tells us to sit in a room by ourselves and to be quiet for a long time. It challenges evangelicals to consider how much we’ve become like the ecstatic prophets of Baal who shout and dance and make a tremendous scene before an unseen god while Elijah watches with quiet confidence.

Evangelicals, we have a lot of good things going for us, but underneath all of our media empires that promise to defend us from the big bad world, our universities that continue edging toward sheltered fundamentalism, our large churches packed with programs and offices (not with prayer chapels), and our deeply flawed hero-worship and business-influenced leadership culture, there is a deep need for the loving search for God. By and large, we are not known as people who love.

I know that “love” is my deepest struggle. How do we generate love for God? How do we love people?

If Jesus’ two most important commands are to love God and to love my neighbors, if Paul said everything he does is “shit” (that’s only a translation of a Greek swear word, so we’re cool) without love, and if the apostle John used love as the only measure that matters, then our disconnect from love has to be addressed.

So far as I can tell, I have found love so difficult because I have been cut off from the source of love. This brings us back to our quiet room where evangelicals need to sit and say nothing for a long time.

The contemplative stream echoes the Psalms that tell us to wait on the Lord, to wait in silence.

For being people who love the Bible, cherish the Bible, defend the Bible, and who attack people who don’t love, cherish, or defend the Bible as much as us, evangelicals do a pretty terrible job of actually believing what the Bible says about God’s love.

I know this first hand because the foundational teachings of contemplative prayer are two things that are both very true in the Bible and very hard for evangelicals to believe:

  1. God is here.
  2. God loves you.

Evangelicals could spend years digging up scripture verses to disprove the very two things that we have longed to know all of our lives. This is why we need to sit in a room all by ourselves and say nothing for a long time.

We need to make a space to become aware of God and of God’s love. This isn’t necessarily a space for epiphanies or visions or amazing spiritual encounters. In fact, the contemplatives warn us that desiring spiritual encounters or amazing visions could become quite dangerous, as they can be self-serving and manipulative toward God. We begin to crave validation and experience over choosing to rest in the truths that God is here and God loves us.

This is a far cry from the anxious, hard-working evangelical subculture. Evangelicals don’t have language for a dark night of the soul. We can only think of ways to shine “light” into a dark night of the soul. When we are given the option of silence before God, we are quick to quote scripture and to begin another freestyle, “Lord we just…” prayer.

We desperately need silence. We need to learn what it means to abide. We need to learn what it feels like to finally be still before God for a long time.

This is the path we walk by faith. This will take all of the faith that we can muster.

I have taken a long, winding path into contemplative practices. They were the only things I could hold onto when my evangelical faith crashed and burned. I spent years worrying that they didn’t work, that God wasn’t real, or that I had somehow alienated myself from God. I freaked out because nothing was happening. I have since learned that this is by and large the point.

People who abide and live by faith don’t need God to constantly poke them in order to prove that he’s real. It took years of learning to search for God before realizing that I’d already been found. I couldn’t make God any more present. I couldn’t plead with God to be with me more than he already is. I couldn’t say anything to make God love me more. I couldn’t add any spiritual practices that would change the way God loves me.

I am loved and you are loved right now. This is the deep, abiding mystery of our faith. This is a truth that can revolutionize our lives.

This love of God is so deep and unfathomably wonderful that the only appropriate response is to sit in a room and say nothing for a long, long time until we accept that God is here and God loves us.

 

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

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When the Truth Doesn’t Help and God Is Hard to Find

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My pastor once asked during a sermon: “Who would you turn to when your life hits rock bottom, the theological know-it-all or the person who embodies the love and compassion of Jesus?”

Some may say that one need not choose between the two, suggesting that an unrelenting, uncompromising dedication to the truth is the most loving thing you can do. My pastor was aiming at something entirely different.

If you get the truth that Jesus and his contemporaries were communicating, you’ll start to embody his love and compassion. In fact, transformation becomes far more important than indoctrination.

I won’t say I’ve hit rock bottom, but our family is in a challenging, isolating season. It has felt like ALL HANDS ON DECK for months now, and we have no guarantee that it’s going to end soon. In the midst of it, someone said to me, “Remember, we have a great God.”

I’m not sure that “remembering” theological statements in this season has been that helpful. I have been far more in need of God’s presence and empathy rather than intellectual guarantees. It’s a similar principle to the story of Job: when difficulty strikes, theologizing should never come before empathy and presence.

I’m not shutting down the “thinking” part of my faith, tossing out my theology books, or leaving my Bible unread. The big picture of my life doesn’t boil matters down to an either/or proposition between theology and love/empathy. Perhaps I’m reacting against a proposition-based, theologically-driven form of the Christian faith that mightily feared not having an answer for a particular situation.

When life becomes difficult, this fragile form of the faith grasps for answers and throws around truth as if the people in a difficult situation could pose a threat to the stability of Christianity. What if someone’s trouble demands an answer that a proposition-based faith can’t deliver?

More than propositions, Jesus came to give us God’s presence. The assumption is that seeking first his Kingdom and his righteousness will ensure that things work out in the end. If anything, Jesus disrupted the answers of theological systems without necessarily tossing out theology all-together.

Jesus pointed us to the place where we can find God’s presence and experience union with God. I have grown suspicious of anyone who wants to debate that point or inserts caveats.

As life feels uncertain, and challenges pile up, I have longed for God’s presence more than ever. The people I’ve turned to for prayer aren’t the ones with all of the answers. I’m taking my weakness and fear to the people who will pray with compassion and love. These are the people who know the Father’s heart and can intercede on my behalf as fellow beloved children of God. These are the people who happen to have a sound theology, so far as I can tell, but that is only  because they have drawn near to the loving presence of God.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book: 

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

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

Artboard 1FBP Blog Footer post release

 

Why Don’t Protestants Talk about Dark Nights of the Soul

Have you ever felt like there are times when prayer doesn’t work, or God seems distant?

In my own Protestant tradition there isn’t a whole lot written about the times we fail to find God or struggle with doubts. In fact, our focus on being saved or unsaved may even create a dynamic where we see faith as a switch that’s either on or off, and if things aren’t working, we fear that somehow we’ve lost our salvation or God isn’t real after all. We don’t have much of a grid for seasons of struggle, depression, and loneliness. Some have been told that God is either real and capable of showing up when we pray or God’s fake and will not show up when we pray, but there’s a third option. God can be both real and not present for a season.

I won’t even begin to speculate about the potential causes for a dark night of the soul. However, I want you to know that you’re in good company if you’re going through one. In her personal letters, Mother Teresa wrote about living in a perpetual season where she didn’t hear from God. She persevered in faith as she served the poor even if she couldn’t get a direct confirmation from God for long stretches of time.[i]

A Saint Living in Darkness

Mother Teresa set out to serve the poor after having several mystical encounters with Jesus in 1946. She wrote in those days about her encounters with “the Voice” who asked her to serve the poorest of the poor and about her passionate love for Jesus. However, once she began serving the poor in Calcutta, she entered a prolonged season of spiritual darkness and loneliness:

In a letter estimated to be from 1961, Teresa wrote: “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. . . . The torture and pain I can’t explain.”

I have sensed the joy of the Lord when I do certain things. I’m well aware of God’s guidance for specific things in my life. However, there are many days when I don’t get a clear sense of God’s direction. Some days are lonelier than others when I pray. I’m stuck with persevering by faith based on what God showed me.

Some traditions see this season of alienation and darkness as a bad thing. It certainly can be that. I don’t think anyone should feel alienated from God . However, these situations are not without precedent. We’re in good company if we have a season of darkness or emptiness. If we’re always praying for spiritual breakthroughs and come up empty, we need to stop and ask what God is teaching us in this season of loneliness and silence.

Sometimes a time of waiting and anticipation can be just the thing we need even if it’s not what we want. Oftentimes the seasons of my greatest needs, doubts, and struggles have made me more reliant on God than any other and have strengthened my faith in ways that I never anticipated.

That isn’t to say that we should crave a dark night of the soul or downplay how difficult one can be. Rather, we fail to see that God can even use these seasons for good. All is not lost if God seems distant.

Today’s post was adapted from the chapter on prayer from A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth.

 

A Christian Survival Guide

 

Sources:

[i] Daniel Trotta, “Letters Reveal Mother Teresa’s Doubt about Faith,” Reuters, http://in.reuters.com/article/2007/08/24/idINIndia-29140020070824 (accessed July 31, 2013).

[ii] Shona Crabtree, “Book Uncovers a Lonely, Spiritually Desolate Mother Teresa,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/augustweb-only/135-43.0.html (accessed July 31, 2013). See also Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk (New York: Doubleday, 2007).