How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling

Dear God,

Ministry is wearing me out, and I’m not seeing the kind of fruit I envisioned at the beginning. I’ve become so busy doing your work that my devotional life is a distant memory. I know that I should practice what I preach, so I’m recommitting myself to daily spiritual discipline.

I’m confident that this will improve my life. Spending time with you will lead to a deeper sense of peace, joy, and wisdom, making me more attractive to others. I’m also convinced that more devotional time will help me write better sermons that draw bigger crowds.

As these crowds are transformed by my anointed preaching, they will gain buy-in to what we are doing around here and the money will finally start to flow! The church will pay all of its bills—including one-hundred percent of apportionments. The excess that is “pressed down, shaken together, and running over,” will be used to improve our environments, technology, production value, and programing. We will hire new staff and start new building campaigns. Since people want to feel like they are part of an organization that really makes a difference in the world, we will increase our missional giving and constantly remind everyone of the difference their money is making through heartwarming stories. All of this will bring in more people and expand our influence in the surrounding community.

Given the world in which we live, all of this will be highly visible on social media. As my colleagues see posts touting my accomplishments in ministry, I’ll be admired (and maybe even envied). The District Superintendent will promote my church as a model of vitality, and (knowing how important I have become) exempt me from mandatory clergy meetings. The Bishop will see me as a rising star in the Conference, and my hard work will be rewarded with more prestigious and lucrative appointments. I will be recruited into the inner circles of the higher-ups and consulted on important issues in the life of the church. These accolades will open doors for publishing opportunities and speaking engagements. Given all this evidence, there will be no doubt that I am a good pastor.

Thank you, God, for the spiritual disciples, for the tools that allow me to advance on the way of salvation. Give me the strength to persist in daily devotion and reward my obedience with success, so that people will know that I’m living in your will.

In all of this, may you be glorified. Less of me and more of you.

In Jesus name, amen.

__________________

This fictional prayer (along the lines of parody) articulates the temptation of pastors inhabiting a culture driven by success. It is in no way intended to be an insult to my clergy friends who serve large congregations, especially since those of us serving smaller churches are probably more susceptible to this corruption of our calling. One of my clergy friends serving a huge church once told me that the only difference between my job and his was about three zeros added to all of our common problems. What is at stake in this imaginative exercise is not church size. Small, medium, and large churches can be healthy or unhealthy. The real issue is related to our call to ministry, underlying motives, and guiding value system. What drives our work? Lust for success or a desire to be counted as faithful? 

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like: “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

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Steps Toward Forgiveness: Discovering Healing and Freedom

INTRODUCTION

Forgiveness is one of the most important and one of the most difficult things we do as human beings. It is also one of the most misunderstood commands of scripture.

How is forgiveness possible? What do we do with our anger, fear, and hurt? Does forgiving meaning forgetting? Is it the same as reconciliation? Does forgiveness always restore a relationship to the way it used to be? Is forgiveness something that happens in a moment of decision, or is it a process that takes time? What if the offender never apologizes? Is forgiveness for me, for them, or both? How does my willingness to forgive impact my relationship with God?

In what follows, you will find concrete steps on the journey toward forgiveness that will help you start answering some of these questions. While these steps will prove helpful for anyone seeking healing, they are intended for those who have experienced “normal” levels of hurt (for lack of a better term). Those who have experienced intense, chronic abuse resulting in psychological trauma should seek professional counseling as part of their spiritual program.

The most important thing to remember as we proceed is that forgiveness is not a magic trick. It takes time, and some people need more time than others. Be kind to yourself in the process.

 

HELPFUL STEPS IN MOVINGTOWARD FORGIVENESS:

Fully acknowledge the wrongdoing. When we say to someone, “I forgive you,” there is an implicit condemnation of wrong doing. Imagine how strange it would be if someone said to us in a first encounter, “Hi. I’m Jim, and I forgive you!” We might reply, “Forgive me! For what?” The reason is because we only forgive people who have wronged us in some way.

In the Christian tradition, honest condemnation of wrongdoing is part of the logic of forgiveness. First we say, “What you did to me was wrong,” and then we say, “but I will not insist that you get what you deserve.” True forgiveness cannot happen unless we fully acknowledge the wrongdoing and find ways to speak our pain. Sweeping it under the rug, pretending that nothing happened, making excuses, and other kinds of minimizing behavior, does not facilitate forgiveness—it hinders and prevents it.

However, in most cases, it is not wise to immediately confront the offender. Christians are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but we typically cannot do the “love thing” without the spiritual and emotional work that enables us to gain clarity, process our feelings, and seek wisdom. We often make things worse when a compulsive overreaction is triggered by emotional flooding. Unfortunately, some Christians who have a hard time disengaging when emotionally triggered appeal to Ephesians 4:26 (“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry”) as a way of forcing a conversation that should wait. Rather than compulsively reacting, consider disengaging and working the following steps (being very careful not to use the need for a break as an excuse for stonewalling, a passive-aggressive expression of anger in which we withdraw from the other to punish them).

Prayer and journaling provide helpful ways to fully acknowledge our pain, not only to ourselves but also to God. There is something healing and empowering about speaking our truth before God, as is illustrated in the complaint Psalms (e.g., Ps. 3, 6, 60, 90) and the book of Lamentations. In addition to some healthy venting that can diminish the emotional charge and deescalates the situation, the Holy Spirit can work through prayer and journaling to help us sort out our feelings, gain clarity about the real issues, own any wrong doing on our part, and reclaim our identity in Jesus Christ so that we can act accordingly.

Conversation with wise friends, spiritual directors, or professional counselors can also be helpful.  These conversation partners should be chosen carefully, and what is said should be kept in strict confidence. The goal is not to ruin the reputation of the offender through gossip, but to process our feelings and receive wise counsel in moving toward forgiveness.

One very important task in sorting out our feelings is to discern whether or not they are proportionate to the situation. If the emotional charge outstrips the severity of the offense, then it is almost certainly triggering old wounds that have not completely healed. In this case, we can ride the present pain like a horse back to the old wound and continue our spiritual and emotional work in this area. In this way, we distinguish between past and present offense and refuse to make the present offender responsible for something she or he didn’t do. The goal is to fully acknowledge the present offense without conflating it with similar wrongs in the past and projecting the whole shebang on the present offender.

All of this creates a huge challenge when trying to forgive someone who continuously hurts us. Before we can calm down, process our feelings, and discern a way forward, the offender does something else to hurt us again! Since forgiveness is a process, some people hurt us so frequently that it feels impossible to keep up! This is a complex topic that deserves its own article, but suffice it to say that if you are in a relationship with someone that is constantly hurting you, then you need to take steps to change or end that relationship. In the least, you should think carefully about establishing appropriate boundaries (see Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries).

If safe, appropriate, and wise, speak your truth assertively to the offender. Part of the spiritual and emotional work mentioned above is to prayerfully discern if and when to confront the offender. Sometimes it is wise, and sometimes it is not.

As you pray, journal, and talk with trusted friends and counselors, ask God to disclose your real motivations for wanting to confront the person who wronged you. Also, ask God to surface the outcomes that you hope to achieve and whether or not these are realistic. In terms of motivation, your primary reason for confronting another should be to speak the truth in ways that make genuine forgiveness more likely.

Importantly, while true forgiveness always aims at reconciliation, it does not always lead to that outcome. It only takes one to forgive, but it takes two to be reconciled.  However, you can still forgive someone even when reconciliation is unlikely. You can forgive someone even when you know that the relationship will never be the same, when you know that new boundaries must be established or that a necessary ending is required. Even in the best case scenarios, when someone has been seriously injured (physically, emotionally, or spiritually), forgiveness does not always restore the relationship to the way it used to be. For example, you can forgive someone for abusing you as a kid without giving them access to your children. All of this leads us the question of our primary goal in confronting an offender.

The goal of confrontation is not to make everything the way it used to be (although this might be the fantasy of a remorseful offender seeking absolution). Nor is the primary goal to create a change in the offender. Rather, it is authentic self-presentation in obedience to Christ—honestly speaking our truth in a way that is consistent with our Christian values. We might ask the other person to hear, understand, and acknowledge our feelings. We might hope that in doing so the offender will acknowledge the offense, ask for forgiveness, and work with us to renegotiate a healthy relationship. But at the end of the day, we have no control over how people interpret and respond to our assertiveness. And remember, you can forgive someone even if they refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing and reject your forgiveness. Again, the main goal is to speak the truth in love, which can help you find freedom from hurt and move on with your life.

If you have prayerfully discerned that speaking your truth to the offender is appropriate, wise, and safe, then you want to proceed assertively. Assertiveness is the healthy alternative to passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive behavior. Here is a helpful model for assertive communication.

  1. State the facts clearly. Pretend you are a reporter responsible for explaining as concisely as possible exactly what happened, without any interpretation or value judgements. Avoid generalizing (“You always . . .”) and keep a laser focus on the facts of the specific situation.
  2. Use “I” language to express how you feel. Don’t blame, judge, or condemn with “you” accusations, but use “I” language to honestly and clearly express your feelings.
  3. Focusing on the specific situation at hand, say clearly what you want to happen in the future. If you are feeling unimportant because your spouse is always late, you might say, “I want you to be on time when we make plans with each other.”
  4. Say how your relationship will improve if they are willing to negotiate that change with you. “If you are on time then we will be able to better enjoy what we have planned.”

In all of this, do not get distracted by argumentativeness, and if you feel yourself getting emotionally flooded, disengage, calm down, and try again later.

While proceeding in this way will make it more likely that our concerns will be heard and addressed, it is not a magic formula that makes people acknowledge wrongdoing and conform to our expectations. Again, our goal is authentic self-presentation. We express our feelings, make our requests known, and invite the other person to join us in working on the relationship. But then we release the situation to God and take the other person’s response as information as we find our next steps.

Make a decision to let it go. This is the heart of forgiveness. Instead of seeking revenge, punishment, or vindication, instead of insisting that the offender gets what she or he deserves, we decide to forgive—we let it go so we can move on. This should not be confused with rescuing people from the natural consequences of their actions. In fact, natural consequences are life’s best teacher. If your husband will not sever all ties with his mistress, you can forgive him and file for divorce. A natural consequence of serial infidelity is a loss of trust, and you cannot have a healthy marriage with someone who is fundamentally untrustworthy. So the suggestion is not to rescue people from natural consequences, but to resist the temptation to willfully dig-in and stick-it to the person who hurt us.

Part of letting it go means refusing to bring up the offense in the future for the sole purpose of hurting the offender or ruining his or her reputation with others. We don’t forever forget the offense, and trying to do so is often unwise. Remembering what someone did to us can provide valuable information for discerning healthy and wise next steps. Also, there are situations in which it would be appropriate and necessary to discuss the offense (either with the offender or with someone else) later down the road. But all of this is different from using the offense as a weapon for the sole purpose of ongoing punishment.

The most difficult battleground for the task of letting go is our imagination. When the offender or offense comes to mind, we are tempted to fantasize about retaliation, but generating and dwelling on these imaginative scenarios can be like drinking poison. The initial adrenaline surge might make us feel powerful, but ultimately the fantasy will trigger and intensify the very feelings we are trying to resolve, making us feel even more powerless and victimized. And if the content of the fantasies is contrary to our value system as a Christian, they will have the added effect of creating unnecessary guilt.

(Some psychologists suggest that we can heal memories by reexperiencing them through fantasy with compassion and power. For example, if we cannot confront a parent who abused us as a child because they are deceased, then we might fantasize about a memory of abuse and imagine our adult-self standing beside our child-self and speaking-up in assertive ways. Or if we cannot confront someone as an adult because she or he is violent and unsafe, we might fantasize about standing-up to him or her and speaking honestly about our pain. What distinguishes this kind of fantasy from what is discouraged above is that it is not punishing, vengeful, or retaliatory. It is self-healing not self-wounding.)

Rather than getting lost in punitive fantasies, pray for the offender every time they come to mind. Pray that God will heal whatever brokenness drives their bad behavior, and that God will help them honestly see what needs to change. We consciously choose to let go of the offense and then pray for the offender, not primarily because it has some good psychological effect for us (although it does) but because this is what Jesus commands:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28).

This is an essential part of being a follower of Jesus, and true forgiveness happens only when we come to see the offender through the eyes of compassion. This usually doesn’t happen unless we pray for them so that God can change our hearts in the process.

Finally, forgiveness includes consciously and continuously rejecting any toxic messages about ourselves that are triggered by the memory of the offender or offense. Sometimes conflict makes us fear the worst about ourselves, leading us to accept false, negative judgements made or implied by the offender. (See my article, “Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism.”) If we are not careful, we find ourselves myopically focusing on our failures and growing edges, which generates distorted stereotypes and leads to relentless self-recrimination. This is not to say that we should avoid honestly owning our part in conflict, but beating ourselves up with false stereotypes actually makes it more difficult to accurately assess the situation and move toward genuine forgiveness (which might include forgiveness of ourselves too). As those toxic message pop into our minds, we should ask, “Is it true? Is this what God says about me? Is this what people who know and love me say about me?” If not, surrender it in prayer and reclaim your identity in Christ.

 

CONCLUSION:

As stated at the beginning, forgiveness is a process that takes time. There is no magic formula or quick fix. It is difficult spiritual and emotional work. Some people have been so betrayed or traumatized that forgiveness seems impossible. For those people, I would suggest that it is an “impossible possibility.” It might be impossible for you on your own strength, but it is not impossible for God to do through you, if you are willing to stay close to God and give yourself time to heal. Wherever you are on the journey toward forgiveness, I pray that God give you courage, strength, and hope, as well as a couple of good friends who can walk beside you.

(If you liked this article, you might also like “The Power of Weakness: How Attempts to Be Strong Lead to Impotence.“)

 

Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism

No one likes to be labeled or reduced to a stereotype. But without even realizing it, we often experience a person and then cast him or her in a role that becomes the basis of all future interactions. The problem is that once we start thinking of John as a “bully” or Jane as a “manipulative person,” it’s difficult to relate to them in any other way.

This is particularly true with interactions that involve conflict. When someone gets angry with us, their natural human response is to look for reasons to legitimate their anger. This leads them to trace offending behavior back to some personality or character defect. In doing this, it is not uncommon for them to inadvertently hit-on one of our growing edges, which are undesirable ways of thinking or acting triggered by stress. In reality, these growing edges are fragments of our total person, and usually not characteristic of our normal ways of being and acting. However, in the hands of the offended these fragments are magnified into stereotypes that not only legitimate aggression but also provide a basis for writing someone off as a “difficult person.”

Stereotyping in this context is subtle form of violence and is highly effective at triggering guilt and shame because it’s a distortion of something we already know to be true about ourselves. When someone is looking for reasons to justify their anger toward us, they usually don’t fabricate things out of thin air. Rather, they hone-in on a small piece of who we are, something with which we already struggle, and magnify it in ways that eclipse all of the other aspects of our person. Since many people are not only aware of their growing edges but also deeply ashamed of them, when someone latches on to these undesirable traits and effectively says, “This sums-up the kind of person you are,” it can really hurt.  

In Christianity, this is a form of judgmentalism, something that Jesus sternly warns against: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2). Some of Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed at the religious leaders of his day who were driven by a judgmental spirit to condemn those who failed to meet their expectations. Going even further, Jesus also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).   

Clearly, judgmentalism is wrong, and when treated this way we face a twofold challenge. First, we must find ways to resist the label. This is not to say that we should actively deny our shortcomings through the power of positive thinking. We should be honest about our failings and work diligently to grow past them. But we should also actively resist any message that says, “This shortcoming defines who you are and makes you undesirable or defective.” The best way to combat this temptation is to make a list of scriptural affirmations that ground our identity in Christ, and meditate on these affirmations during times of prayer. For help in doing this, see my message, “Overcoming Insecurity.” In addition, we can surround ourselves with spiritually mature and emotionally healthy people who know us, love us, and focus on our strengths to inspire change. These are people who help us see our faults in the overarching context of grace and our progressive sanctification. This is an exercise in discernment: To whom should I listen?   

The second (and much more difficult) challenge is to not become that which we hate. Our natural response to judgmentalism, is to say, “What a jerk!” and then fantasize about (and even act on) ways to reestablish respect, dominance, or superiority. “I am not going to let anyone treat me like that!” If we are really honest with ourselves, all of us struggle with being judgmental, and it is much easier to see it in others than it is to see it in ourselves. While it is important to consider past interactions when making important decisions about present and future interactions, we cannot effectively combat judgmentalism with judgmentalism. In addition to resisting stereotypes, we also have to resist stereotyping and allow for the possibility of grace-empowered change. The only way that I know how to do this is by praying for people that I’m tempted to condemn or write-off. 

Whatever judgmentalism, labeling, and stereotyping you face today, remember to ground your identity in Christ and pray for those who mistreat you.

Follow the Leader: Learning to Be Led

Have you ever tried to navigate a busy airport with two little kids?

Last Saturday, my middle son, Jackson, was flying into Tampa International Airport to visit for spring break. My two youngest children, Evie (4) and Isaac (6), were so excited to see him, so I invited them to come along to pick him up. Their eyes lit-up over the breakfast table as the chorus rang out, “Yaaaaaay!”

After getting everyone dressed and kissing mom goodbye, we piled into the car and set- out for the airport. I listened to a podcast of one of my favorite preachers, and the kids watched Teen Titians Go on the small screens mounted to the seatbacks in front of them. After about an hour (or “Three Teen Titians episodes” in kid talk) we arrived at the airport. The elevators from the parking garage to the ticketing counter opened to a zoo!

The kids’ eyes grew as wide as baseballs. With all the people and decorations, Evie and Isaac thought they had just entered an amusement park. There were so many novel sights and sounds competing for their attention, so many new places to explore and things to experience. In order to keep us all together, I instructed the kids to hold hands, forming a three-person chain, with Evie in the middle. Then I said, “Stay close together and follow me.”

I should have known better! Isaac was so enthralled by everything swirling around him that he kept stepping out in front in attempts to pull the chain toward things he wanted to investigate.

I tried to turn us to the left, but Isaac pulled straight ahead . . .

“Isaac, you can’t lead, you have to follow me.”

“But I want to ride that” (pointing to the escalator).

“We can ride that later, but we have to get a ticket first.”

“Awwwww!”

As huge spaces with bright decorations opened in front of us, masses of people were moving in sync toward the ticketing counter. After one glimpse, I thought, “We will never make it through that line and get to the gate in time.” I learned a long time ago that you can skip the inside line and get an unaccompanied mirror pass at the curbside check-in. As I started walking toward the sliding glass doors that led outside, Isaac started pulling us in the direction of the crowd where the long line was forming.

“Isaac, you can’t lead, you have to follow me.”

As we stepped outside, the hustle and bustle became more chaotic as everyone crowded together on a narrow sidewalk. Once again, Isaac began to step out front in attempts to lead the way.

After saying repeatedly, “Isaac, you can’t lead right now, you have to follow me,” I finally pulled him aside, got down on one knee, and explained.

“Isaac, you have never been to this airport before and you don’t know where you are going. I have done this many times. I know where we are going and all the steps we have to take to get there. So if you want to see Jackson when he walks off the plane, I need you to follow me. Ok?”

“Ok.”

Once Isaac stopped trying to lead, we were able to get a pass, ride the escalator (a first for the kids), speed airside on the monorail, clear security, and walk to the gate before Jackson arrived. When he disembarked, the kids ran over to hug him and were filled with joy. Big brother is here! Mission accomplished.

Kids at Airport

Imagine how things would have been different if I had allowed Isaac to lead? There is no telling where we would have ended-up! All of this got me thinking about how often we step out in front of God and insist on leading our own lives. Shiny, exciting, and enticing things swirl around us, and we compulsively move in the direction of whatever happens to capture our attention. Often, we have no idea where we are going or what moving in that direction might do to us. Crowds of people surge in a particular direction and we get caught-up in the stream.

How often does God say, “You can’t lead right now, you have to follow me.” How often do we ignore this voice? How many of us have become deaf to this voice? The truth is, God knows where he’s going and what steps have to be taken to get there, and if we want to go where God is going then we have to follow. We have to resist the compulsion to step-out in front, to take charge, and to blaze our own trail. If we fail to do this, then there is no telling where we will end-up. In my own personal experience, it is usually not a very good place. We have to resist the compulsion to pursue everything that elicits our desire. We have to learn to stop, listen, discern, reflect, and follow.

One day Isaac will be a great leader. It’s in his DNA. But for now he has to listen, watch, and follow until he learns the ropes and knows where he is going. This applies to all of us. God intends to make us leaders, but before we can lead others we have to learn to be led.

If you like this post, then you might also like: “Meditating in the Presence of a Three Year Old.” 

Life in the Deep End: Meditation in the Christian Tradition

One of the biggest dangers that we face today is the temptation to live life on the surface in the perpetual distraction of frenetic busyness. Too often we are overwhelmed by the flood waters of our circumstances, and instead of responding with clarity and wisdom we compulsively react out of anxiety and exhaustion. We intuit that something is wrong with this way of being in the world but feel powerless to do anything about it. According to the Bible, the spiritual disciplines of solitude and meditation are important tools to develop a different kind of life. Check out this message to see how the recreating silence of mediation can lead to a stable, non-anxious existence grounded in wisdom, freedom, contentment, and peace. The audio of this message is also available on iTunes: 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/pastor-mark-reynolds-podcast/id952866724?mt=2.

Meditating in the Presence of a Three Year Old

For the last ten years I have lived as a single man in a big house, and my only constant companion has been Aslan, my German Shepherd Dog. For longer than I can remember, my daily routine has been fairly consistent. I wake-up slowly at 8:00am, make lots of coffee, and spend two hours in complete silence, praying, studying scripture, reading spiritual classics, and meditating on what I hear from God during this time. After devotions, I use the first part of my day to write sermons, lectures, Bible studies, and articles. In order to be at my best, I need more . . . you guessed it . . . uninterrupted silence. Unless there is something pressing, I usually do not enter the busy world of meetings, classes, appointments, and visits until around 1:00pm. This discipline of devoting the first half of my day to devotions and creative projects has made an incredible difference in my quality of life and leadership, and I have come to cherish this time.

However, on August 8th I became the joyful husband of Emma and proud “2Pop” (stepfather) of Isaac (5) and Evie (3). This week has been unique because we are at the tail end of summer break and Emma had to return to work early for new teacher training at McKeel Academy. In order to save $150 in childcare expenses, I decided to stay home with the kids and work around structured times of fun with them. This has created some challenges in practicing the routine mentioned above, and it is precisely through these challenges that God spoke to me.

This morning I asked the kids to give me one hour for devotions, and I intentionally exercised patience and prayed through the noise coming from the living room. For the first time in a long time, I was finally doing what I had been asking moms to do for years in my sermons on prayer. It’s not that I was completely unprepared to be Mr. Mom for two weeks. After all, I raised two little boys myself, Jobe and Jackson, and had already had several conversations with Emma about what it would be like to co-parent small children again under the same roof. The fact that I love Isaac and Evie as my own children make this adjustment a joy, but it is still an adjustment.

During my meditation time, I had a powerful insight: My first responsibility as a pastor is to be a decent human being. Just as soon as I started pondering this insight, I heard a knock at the door. I remained silent. The door opened, and I heard 10 small feet walking all around me. It was Evie with two dogs in her wake. Amidst the jingle of collars and the sounds of panting and scratching, I heard a voice, “Mawk, I’m tirsty.” God said, “Be a decent human being,” so with my eyes still closed I gently put my arm around Evie, smiled, rubbed her back, and said, “Give me just a few more minutes until my meditation timer goes off.” She said, “Ooook” and walked away leaving me with two excited dogs and an open doorway where sound could flood in without restraint. I thought about yelling across the house, “Evie, shut my door,” but again I heard a still small voice say to me, “Be a decent human being in this situation without trying to change it.” God was calling me in this moment not to be a decent human being as a pastor but as a father, and I was obedient. After my timer went off, I did ask Evie to close my door so I could say my final prayer. Halfway through, right after I uttered the phrase, “Lord, empty me of myself,” she came barreling in again. I slowly opened my eyes and saw her beautiful, innocent, yet mischievous face, and all I could do is chuckle as my heart smiled. God helped me to see that I was meditating for Evie and Isaac today.

This is the fruit of meditation: it empowers us to be decent human beings to whoever we meet, including those that we love and get frustrated with the most. The spiritual giants of ages past help us to see the importance of setting aside a specific time each day for meditation, because it is here that we experience a much needed emotional and spiritual clearing. For a brief time, we detach from the world, surrender all distractions, and die to self in a recreating silence. But all of this is for the purpose of intimate communion with God so that the peace, love, and joy we experience in His presence can become a way of life in service to others. When we open our eyes after meditating, we see our children, spouse, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even strangers in a new light. When we leave our prayer closet, we enjoy new resources that empower us to love more deeply, forgive more empathetically, endure more patiently, and live more wisely. Indeed, meditation helps us to become better human beings.

God gave me a chance this morning to practice the gifts of meditation in very real and concrete ways. I was taught once again how to be a decent human being, even when things don’t go according to plan. I was taught how God can children to eradicate all remnants of selfishness in sacrificial love. I was able to be a little more like Jesus who said, “Let the little children come unto me.” These are the gifts that come with the challenges of meditating in the presence of a three year old.

Hold on . . . I hear her again . . . “Come wipe my butt!” I have to go practice the fruits of meditation again.

Stages of Growth in Prayer: Moving Beyond Magical Thinking to the Gift of Contemplation

We often hear about the importance of prayer in the life of faith, but few receive significant teaching on this subject. As a result, some longtime Christians experience the limitations of an immature prayer life. In an effort to address this challenge, I think it is helpful to think about prayer in terms of three different stages.

Stage One: The “Me” Prayer of a Child

The operative image of God in stage one is a heavenly Santa Clause, and prayer is mostly a monologue in which we present God with a long list of requests and demands.  Our goal is to persuade God to use his power to change our external circumstances so they will conform to our internal yearnings. This often leads to magical thinking that does not align with reality. The gift that we receive in this stage is a growing desire to pour our hearts out to God with childlike humility, and growth is evidenced by a gradual shift away from a Christmas list to an authentic sharing of our interior life.

Stage Two: The “We” Prayer of Conversation

Sharing with God from the heart helps us to get in touch with our deepest needs as human beings, and this generates a growing desire to hear back from God. Brief moments of silence create the possibility of hearing a word from the Lord as a salient insight, keen intuition, strong conviction, or deep sense of peace. For those of us who inhabit a therapeutic culture, the operative image of God in stage two is a divine therapist, someone who listens to all our problems and gives us sound advice. In a way analogous to a therapy session, prayer starts with us doing most of the talking, but periodically we pause to seek guidance from God. This is the beginning of a genuine conversation.

Since this is a transitional stage, our expectations about what should change as a result of prayer are often conflicted. On the one hand, we still want God to use his power to make our external circumstances conform to our internal desires. While this might not entail the Christmas list of stage one, our desire to hear from God is still driven by something we hope to gain: we seek advice that will empower us to continue doing what we are already doing but with better results. We pray in hopes that God will help us to realize the kind of life we envision for ourselves. On the other hand, the very practice of prayer leads to destabilizing experiences that upset our expectations: sometimes God answers our prayer in unlikely ways and sometimes God does not answer our prayer at all. These unsettling experiences raise important questions. Is there something more to prayer? Am I praying for the right things? Should I uncritically accept everything my heart desires as God’s will? Maybe instead of asking God to change my circumstances, I should ask God to change the way I am responding to my circumstances so I can live more faithfully, even in unfavorable seasons. This line of thinking leads to a new kind of prayer: “Lord, teach me to pray.” As prayer matures in and through stage two, more questions than answers are generated, which is exactly what is needed to enter stage three. Before this happens, we have to surrender the desire to leverage God’s power and wisdom to realize a life of our own creating. When we stop asking, “How do I get what I want?” and start asking, “What does God want?” we discover that what God wants is simply to spend time with us.

Stage 3: Prayer as Contemplation

In quiet moments that emerge by pondering of difficult questions, we hear a whisper say, “Be still and know that I am God” (1 Kings 19:12; Ps. 46:10). If we are obedient, the Holy Spirit can use this divine silence to utterly transform our prayer life. In stage three, we experience a growing awareness of the greatness of God, which explodes all the categories of human thought and language. We try to grasp more fully what it means for God to be the Creator, the ground of being, or the giver of the power-of-being itself. We contemplate God as the Spirit of life in whom we live, breath, move, and have our being. God becomes the mystery of the world that explodes all of our images of the divine and leaves us speechless. We sit in silence—awestruck, reverent, worshipful silence—and the “me” in prayer almost entirely vanishes. When we finally find our tongue, it breaks forth in spontaneous worship and praise.

What we expect to change in stage three is the “me” that is praying. I change. My understanding of God changes. The way I pray (and what I ask for) changes. What I expect to change itself changes! No longer do I try to leverage God’s power and wisdom to give me the kind of life that I want, because what I want more than anything is simply to be in the presence of God. We still come to God with childlike humility and a deep desire for intimate communion, but we let go of all expectations and wait upon the Lord in silence. It is in this stage that we begin to understand what Paul meant in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 when he tells us to pray without ceasing.

Conclusion

The stages mentioned above are not intended to be taken literally as a prescription for prayer. If you literalize this interpretive scheme and imagine that growth in prayer proceeds in strict linear fashion from one stage to the next, it can actually narrow and distort your understanding of prayer (which is the opposite of my intended goal). In our lived experience, we might find ourselves praying in different “stages” on any given day. Indeed, it is possible to find all the stages reflected in a single prayer. As mentioned at the beginning, all such interpretive schemes have their limitations. However, if we understand this approach as one model among others and resist the temptation to push it too far, it can be helpful in expanding our understanding and practice of prayer.

If you are interested in learning more, check out the sermon on which this article is based: