Today’s questions come from Cheri. She writes: “What do you do when you feel like God isn’t listening to your prayers? This is not a crisis in faith, it’s a head knows heart hurts issue. Second Question: How do you motivate yourself to read your Bible and pray when you’ve gotten out of the habit? (Not me – I was asked this week and don’t know how to answer.)”
Two great questions. Let me start with the first.
One of the things I’ve noticed as a pastor is that lots of us think that we are only in relationship with God when we feel connected – when it feels as if things are going well in our lives. The flip side of this, however, is that when we don’t feel connected – when it feels like things are NOT going well, we conclude we are not in relationship with God.
When I talk with folks in this headspace, I use the analogy of our human relationships. I remind them that just because things aren’t going well in a relationship it doesn’t mean the relationship is absent or broken: in most cases, the relationship is still there. Recognizing that you are still in the relationship – still connected – even during the most distant and difficult times can actually strengthen the relationship in the long run.
That’s how I see our faith. When we don’t feel God’s presence or care manifest in our lives, it’s a great opportunity to do what the psalmist did: name the pain and pour out your heart to God. Some of the most powerful words in Scripture are words of lament. As we head toward Easter, who can forget Jesus’ heart-wrenching words of lament on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in Matthew 27:46
That process of pouring out your pain and frustration in the hardest times can actually strengthen your relationship with God – as you learn to be more real in that relationship.
The second question raised is a great question about the nature of spiritual practices in general: whether one is seeking to read the Bible more, pray and/or meditate more, or engage in acts of service.
Let me start with two techniques that I recommend, and then finish by making a more general observation.
The first technique I use to cultivate spiritual practice is to set aside a regular time in my day that I devote specifically to that spiritual practice. I might, for instance, devote the first 20-30 minutes of my day to reading scripture; I might add 10 minutes in my schedule when I go to bed to prayerfully review my day; or I might set aside a portion of my day off to engage in an act of service. By regularizing the spiritual practice, I’m less likely to get busy and “forget” about it.
The second technique I use to cultivate spiritual practice is building a community around the spiritual practice. If I want to read the Bible more, I might recruit a friend to do a “read the Bible in a year” program with me; if I’m working on my prayer life, I might seek out a prayer partner whom I can check in with and share how my prayer life is unfolding; if I want to engage in an act of service, I might work on befriending someone at the ministry site to build a friendship with. My spiritual practices are a thousand times easier to maintain when I’m not going it alone.
While I’ve found those techniques helpful, there is an underlying issue that can be the elephant in the room. The most important determiner I’ve found for myself is answering a key question: why do I want to engage in the particular spiritual practice?
If I’m reading the Bible just because I think it’s important; or if I set aside time to pray because other good Christians I know do that; or if I volunteer at a food bank because the pastor talks a lot about doing that sort of thing in her or his sermons – I can almost guarantee the effort will eventually fail.
If I adopt a spiritual practice because I truly believe that the spiritual practice will bring me closer to God – and provide me with nurture that I need and can’t get anywhere else – then a person is MUCH more likely to maintain the spiritual practice.
Those are just a few of my thoughts in regard to Cheri’s excellent questions. What thoughts do her questions raise for you?