Hello, friends! Today we have a topic that’s a little hard to write and put on the internet for all to read. I actually thought if I ever wrote about this, it would be anonymously, but VoxCon stressed the importance of openness and vulnerability, so here we go.
First, a few disclaimers:
- This is a faith-based post, but I’m not going to preach. I’m just going to share a story, one that you might identify with if you’ve ever struggled with your faith/Christianity.
- I hate writing “I” this much in a post, but my hope in doing so and sharing my story is that if you’re in the same place or have been in the same place, you’ll find some encouragement in knowing that you’re not alone. When I first talked to someone who was in the same place she said, “I’m not going to be able to offer any advice” but I didn’t need advice… it made all the difference to know someone was in the same place.
- If you’re going through something similar, I’d encourage you to also reach out to a spiritual mentor you can trust. The person I talked to who was in the same place I was said the same thing and I have talked to a pastor about all of what’s below. He’s actually the one who connected with me with her. (He also read this post after I wrote it.) Please talk to a spiritual mentor you can trust about this. I don’t think this is something you should go through alone. It makes it harder and I think you need to have someone who has the same beliefs as you to walk alongside you.
If you just want some ideas for spiritual practices when it’s hard to pray, scroll to the end and I have them listed. If you want the list and a little bit of background, you should also read the next section. But if you want the whole story, you can read all the way through.
LET’S TALK ABOUT WHEN IT’S HARD TO PRAY
I’m not talking about when it’s hard to come up with the right words or you’re not sure how to pray, because that’s a thing people deal with, too. I’m talking about when it’s hard to pray because praying means opening yourself up to God and sometimes… you don’t want to.
A little bit of my background: I’m a PK, aka a pastor’s kid, so I was raised in the church. I was baptized the day I was born, confirmed as a teen, very active in youth group, and on different boards as an adult. So the church and faith have had a big presence in my life. When I was 19 I questioned whether what I believe is what I actually believe, and it wasn’t an easy time, but I got through it quickly. Now I work for churches.
And I also have a hard time praying. Because God and I aren’t exactly besties right now.
Not that I’ve ever seen him as my BFF, but there have been times that I’ve felt closer to him and felt comforted by him. Now when I feel God’s presence it’s usually like, “Do you trust me?”
There was a period of time very recently where the story of Jonah and Jonah imagery kept popping up in different areas of my life—even in random posts on Instagram. I mentioned it to my coach during one of our calls and she asked me which part of the story I’m in right now.
I think I’m in the water and I see the whale approaching. Or maybe it’s already swallowed me and I’m being strained through its baleen right now. That doesn’t sound pleasant and the place I’m in doesn’t feel pleasant. But I’ve already been thrown out of the boat and I’m definitely not in the stomach yet, because I don’t think I’ll be out in three days. I think I’ll use Jonah’s story (loosely) to share mine.
RUNNING AWAY/THE STORM
A few years ago I worked in a place that had an environment that was—for me—very toxic. For an entire year, I literally cried on my way to work every day and left each afternoon unsure if I’d return the next day. I knew my boss didn’t value me or see me as someone who had worth. There was a way of operating that is completely contrary to who I am and was something I couldn’t be part of anymore. Being there showed me who I didn’t want to be and now I try to be the exact opposite that place.
When I finally left I found myself staring at two doors that I could go through. Door 1 seemed like a sure thing and I didn’t think Door 2 would pan out. But I also didn’t want to take any chances. I didn’t trust myself to make a decision and I didn’t want to have to choose, so I asked God to only open one of the doors—the one that he wanted me to go through. And I wanted it to be the first door; the easy one. The one that had less chance for disappointment down the road. After I talked to God, Door 1 slammed shut and wouldn’t reopen, even though I tried to pry it open. And, you guessed it, Door 2 swung wide open.
I stopped talking to God.
At the beginning, I didn’t want any part of a spiritual practice. I had some really strong feelings about God that I had to process and I seriously questioned my faith again. More than I did that first time when I was 19.
It was more than just the things that had happened in my own life (which were really small in the grand scheme of things). But I also struggled with things I’ve seen and heard and just… the world in general. At the end of 2018 I said that it was a year where I examined and questioned every belief I had, and that’s true. I took a closer look at “issues” in our world that I hadn’t really let myself fully confront before because… what do I do with it when I do? Our world is hard and unfair and bad things happen.
And I say this with no shame and no embarrassment… just a little awkwardness that family and others that I know “in real life” might read this and might be surprised. (And, yes, I am afraid of being judged for it, by people I know and people I don’t know.)
But I want to make that clear: I say that I seriously questioned my faith with no shame or embarrassment. So often when I see people talk about doubting God, questioning God, or even being angry with God it’s accompanied with phrases like, “I hate to admit” or “I’m ashamed to admit” or when expressing frustration with God I’ll see, “but I never doubted him!”
And I get it. When you think about questioning the God who created us and everything around us, the God who wants what’s best for us, the God who loved us so much he sent his one and only son to die for our sins… it’s like… I questioned him? I doubted him? I was mad at him? I’m not sure I trusted him?
At the same time, we’re human. And, while there are so many incredibly beautiful things about this world and life, it’s also incredibly hard. I believe it’s normal to ask questions. Even in the Bible we see people who God used for his glory, but they also asked questions and didn’t trust and tried to pry doors open. So I would encourage you to let go of the shame or the guilt or the embarrassment. God can handle all your questions and all your doubts. He doesn’t love you any less for it.
Eventually, I was ready to go back to church.
STRAINED THROUGH THE BALEEN OF THE WHALE
And then I was ready for a spiritual practice. But praying… that’s hard. Yes, some of it is the stuff listed above. What do I say? Praying for myself has always been hard and uncomfortable for me; I’ve always typically prayed for others. But now if I wanted to pray for myself, I didn’t know where to begin. And people always say, just talk to God. But… about what?
I wanted a spiritual practice, but I didn’t know what to do.
I was also in a period of time where I felt like God was silent unless I got desperate and asked things like, “Just open one door.” This poem was actually written by a spoken word poet (Tanner of Written to Speak) and he sent the paper to me to take a photo of. I felt like it started before I stopped talking to God and he only responded when I had, “Hey, I’m desperate, please only open one door” kinda questions. I don’t really know how that fits in with the overall story, but I talked to Tanner and took this picture when I was at this point, so it goes here.
At this time, I was gravitating toward people who aren’t afraid to ask questions or talk about the hard parts of faith. I didn’t want or need uplifting or motivational speeches, I wanted to hear from people who were willing to talk about their struggles with faith and draw attention to the questions that we grapple with sometimes. One of those was Audrey Assad, whose music I had been listening to quite a bit. (I’ve probably listened to more Christian music during my struggle with faith than I ever have before.)
SPIRITUAL PRACTICES WHEN IT’S HARD TO PRAY
One night I was working late at the office and for some reason, I had YouTube videos of her music on AutoPlay instead of listening on Spotify, which is what I usually do. And this video came on. What she shared was really helpful to hear, but through it, I also came to the idea of praying through songs.
1 // CONNECT WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC. I’ve heard of people who pray hymns, so I started with her version of Abide With Me, which has been one of my favorite hymns for as long as I can remember. And it’s led to some comforting experiences. The night my uncle was taken off of life support I played Abide With Me on repeat during my hour-long drive home from the office and later I found out they sang that song at his memorial service the next day.
This isn’t to say that I don’t pray at all. I do. As I’ve treaded water and strained through the baleen, I’ve prayed for others. But when it’s about connecting personally with God for me, this has been one way that I’ve been able to do it.
2 // CONNECT WITH GOD THROUGH ART OR PRAYER PROMPTS. I also follow an artist on Instagram who creates religious-based art and isn’t afraid to talk about the hard stuff or ask questions. His thoughts are often spiritual meditations and visual prayers that I use as a guide to connect with God.
And if you’ve been following my blog and book reviews for a while, you may have noticed an increase in the Christian non-fiction that I read, which has also been one of my ways to connect.
The funny thing is, through all of this—even through the period of not speaking to God—my faith has become more of a presence in my life than I think it ever has been before. And sometimes that really annoys me. There are ebbs and flows when it comes to wrestling with God and there are still things I think I need to process from experiences I had in faith communities when I was younger. But I’ve also made it through the storm and through being tossed into the sea.
If you have a similar story… it’s really hard. Know that others are wrestling with you. And don’t be afraid to talk about it. Yes, I’ve found that some people want to fix you. Sometimes it feels like people judge you for it. And it’s really scary to open up about it. The first few times I talked to the pastor about what I was going through, I doused myself in essential oils that have a calming effect for me before I met him.
But you might be able to find people who are willing to listen and when you do, it doesn’t feel quite as dark.
And if you want to share your own story in the comments or an email, I’ll tell you what someone once told me: “I’m not going to be able to offer any advice.” Other than what’s above. But, I can let you know that you’re not alone.