(This is part one of a two-part email)
My first year of marriage was one of the toughest years of my life. Save your stories about how amazing it was for you and how absolutely in love you were. We just weren’t there. I was a new pastor re-planting a church and my marriage (and it seemed like my life) was hanging on by a thread. I was overwhelmed by fear and anxiety about the future. And that’s when I learned to pray. I mean legit pray – The kind of praying that’s a little desperate and didn’t sound anything like my previous prayers. It happens when you feel like you have no other option and prayer is your only shot. And yea, yea, yea, I know prayer isn’t a last resort, but I didn’t operate that way most of the time. Do you?
I had heard Philippians 4:6 a hundred times. It’s an easy answer for “church people” to anyone struggling: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”. Bam! There you go…that’s your answer! You just need to pray more.
Just a side note to all of us “church people” (by “church people” I’m referring to those of us who grew up in church, we know the verses, and we can be pretty quick with easy answers). Can we just acknowledge that sometimes we are too quick to throw out an easy answer or prescriptive verse rather than just entering into the pain of somebody else and feeling it with them? Pain and anxiety are complex and sometimes you can’t fix it with a verse or a well-worn cliché that ends up on a coffee mug. But, you can be the physical representation of Jesus in someone’s life simply by being present with them. I’m convinced that the reason why we try to find easy answers to others’ pain and suffering is not always because of how they hurt, but because of how their hurt makes us feel. We need to get comfortable entering into spaces and saying, “I can’t fix this for you, but I’m here for you”.
But back to my story. “Don’t be anxious but pray more” didn’t seem to work for me either (I’m assuming it hasn’t for you? Is it just me?). I mean, I believe the Bible but (and I would have never said this out loud) that verse seems kind’ve naïve. I had prayed A LOT, but my wife was still struggling with mental illness, my marriage was a mess, and I didn’t feel any better – the fear and anxiety were still there!
At my lowest point while I was searching for some kind of answer, relief, anything really, I realized that the kind of praying Paul (the dude who wrote it and who had a ton to be anxious about) was writing about was different than how I was praying. All of my prayers had been what I’d call Top Line Prayers: I prayed about my obvious circumstances and how I wanted them changed so I could feel better: “God, my marriage is terrible, fix it!” “I’m overwhelmed, help me!” “We don’t know how to survive this, make it go away!” Those aren’t bad prayers necessarily, but they are not what Paul is talking about in Philippians 4:6. Anxiety and fear run deep. And to pray at a level that exposes what’s really going on in our hearts takes Bottom Line Prayers. Here’s what I mean: When Paul says, “present your requests to God”, he’s not talking about telling God about your circumstances and how you want them changed, he’s talking about praying at a deeper level than you’ve ever prayed before. “Present” means “to tell the whole story or to gain full knowledge of”. See, most of us have never really confronted the full story of why we are anxious and fearful – of why we really want those circumstances to change. We’ve never been vulnerable enough to really figure out why we feel the way we feel. What are you REALLY afraid of? What is REALLY behind that prayer for a change of circumstances? That’s what God is inviting us to bring to Him. But it takes work, it takes honesty, it takes a certain level of rawness that supersedes a lot of the polite cliché prayers we were taught to pray. It’s why you have to start with being brutally honest about what is really behind what you feel.
In next week’s email we’ll talk about how to do that.