Tag Archives: certainty

The Spirit of God is praying for you

There are a lot of Christians who have played hide-and-seek with God ever since they decided to follow Jesus and be part of the church. God seems very hard to find, and some have given up looking.

One of the main reasons they give up is they were taught it is very dangerous to live “outside God’s perfect will.” Their faith has been preoccupied with looking for that will but feeling uncertain they ever found it. I got this training early on, and it weighed on me, too. I secretly did not know what God’s will might specifically be in any given moment and I secretly thought, as a result, I was not in it. I say “secretly” because the church was preoccupied with rounding up those straying from God’s will and I preferred looking like I was in the fold.

Looking for certainty

I rebelled against that teaching early on. But I regularly meet people in my practice who have lived in it their whole life. Many continue to anxiously turn to the means the church provides to learn this will: 1) preaching and teaching, and 2) Bible reading. But their experience of those means usually leaves them alone to wrestle with the data and conform their ways to God’s will, as they were taught it. They feel uncertain they are performing properly and go back for more of the treatment that is supposed to make them feel certain.

I meet many people who have done a sincere job with this method, which is better suited for children, but have been left  with an adolescent faith which cannot, effectively, withstand the trials of adulthood. By the time they get to me, they have come to the end of the left-brained faith they learned and are looking for a deeper experience of themselves and God. I can relate; in my teen years I was blessed with an out-of-order youth pastor who introduced me to life in the Spirit. I discovered a deeper way of life in Christ was hidden in the same Bible which had been used to lock me into a set of principles functioning as an external locus of control.

Among the many teachings in the Bible that lead to an internal sense of belonging and safety is this small snippet in Paul’s letter to the Romans:

 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words. And God, who searches hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-7 NASB 1995)

Metaphysically, those sentences provide endless fuel for arguing oneself into confusion and avoidance. But the plain meaning, experientially, though mysterious, is not that hard to understand. The Spirit of God is praying for me. Jesus came to find me, and the Spirit of God is personally making sure I feel found.

Rose Mary Dougherty on the deeper way of the Spirit

Rose Mary Dougherty (1939-2019)

I read Rose Mary Dougherty’s old book on Group Spiritual Direction while on retreat last week and she kept referring to these verses in many helpful ways. Here’s one:

It is in the loving presence of God that we come to be discerning. Prayer, then, is the starting place of discernment as well as the atmosphere in which it happens. Prayer for our part is our way of honoring our relationship with God. It fine-tunes the heart to the prayer of God in us, God’s desire for us. Gradually we come to live out of that desire in all of life.

The Spirit is praying for me. Knowing God is a lot more than knowing what to do or doing what your told. In the translation from Romans 8, above, you could get tripped up if you misunderstood the phrases “the mind of the Spirit” and “the will of God.” Dougherty uses the more right-brained “heart” and “desire” to teach what it is saying. The prayer of our hearts tunes us into God’s prayer in us. The Spirit unleashes our deepest desire to connect to God; the way is not about quashing desire for fear of what imperfection it might connect to.

I looked up Romans 8 in Greek and I think Dougherty has a better feel for what Paul is saying than the scholarly men, for the most part, who have been in charge of the most popular Bible translations. In Romans 8, Paul is definitely talking about living up to our new destiny, so exploring how God thinks and how she thinks of us makes sense, and understanding what God wants from us is relevant. But it is a mistake to make those things most relevant. Nevertheless, the translators wrote their emphasis right into the translations!  I think you kind of need to skew the Greek to make it come out the way they do.

Spirit intercedes

Emphasize this

I was moved by how Dougherty refocused people who want to get beyond a constant argument in their mind by emphasizing the revelation that the Spirit of God searches our hearts in love to find ways to bring us into goodness. We are naturally way in over our heads when we seek God. But God knows we are. Prayer is all about discerning the presence of God who is constantly praying for us, connecting us according to God’s desire to be with us and God’s hope to see us flourish. Emphasize that and growth, security and deeper understanding follow.

Here are three more quotes from Dougherty which helped me keep my prayer oriented towards presence rather than lapsing into a critical assessment of my weakness.

In prayer we open ourselves to God’s gaze, looking with God at God’s desire for us; our desire for God, noticing how our prayer reflects these desires.

I almost always see this gaze as me looking into my mother’s eyes as a baby. I think there is even an old picture of her gazing into mine. I know people who visualize God “searching our hearts” like a spotlight from the top of a prison wall, because they are looking at themselves through a critical lens. But that critical impulse is mostly bent desire, the desire to be known as someone good and lovable. Prayer undoes the condemnation we carry, just like Paul begins chapter 8, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” Emphasize that.

Dougherty’s understanding gives us a place to look for God outside our “mind.”

We might be helped to recall times when prayer rose spontaneously in our hearts. Then we might remember what we already know, that prayer is God’s initiative, that God indeed has already taken the initiative in our hearts and our hearts have responded.

It has been my deepest delight in 2022 to witness a few people come to the realization that God has always been with them. They had been so consumed with pleasing God and avoiding their horrible shame they never felt God loving them. But they feel loved now, and a great joy is growing in them. It is like Dougherty says:

As we join the prayer of God within us, our defenses and our images of ourselves are gradually chipped away; we begin to know ourselves for who we are in God – beings who are loved very much, who are invited to become who we really are, beings in love.

Teilhard de Chardin affirms this when he says of human beings, “Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being.” When people live in God’s presence and come together to share in it and tell their life stories, they change and the world changes.

Alongside the evils the Trumpish people of the world have unleashed these days, especially taking opportunity through the pandemic, an amazing desire for sincere, unalloyed faith is also  springing up. The groaning of creation is in synch with the groaning of the Spirit as God continues to die and rise with us, and us with God. Even when we don’t know what to do, we can’t discern what is right, and we don’t even know how to pray, the Spirit of God is in us, for us, and interceding with us according to God’s loving will and hope. Let’s emphasize that so we never forget it, even when what’s coming at us tempts us to doubt such a wonder is even possible.

In this world you will suffer: The Lord’s unloved promise

Each personal defense system was built to avoid or alleviate suffering inflicted by our family and then inflicted by the world, as soon as we stepped into it. When I called my contractor the other day, his kids were sheltering in place in the background and beating one another up. He said, “They hit each other one minute and love on each other the next until you can’t tell the difference.” One of them had just come up to say, even though dad was on the phone, “But Dad, he hit me!”  We feel powerless to defend ourselves against our suffering but spend most of our time trying to access enough power to stop it and get through to love. Something or someone is always supposed to be fixing the injustices and afflictions of the world so we can get loved.

Or so we think. My friend’s dad got drunk every week for who knows why. It would seem it was because he felt bad about his life and had found a way to get relief. But his sons experienced his relief as terror, since he often came home angry. Their lives were uncertain when the thing they needed to feel most was certainty. Now that they are older, they struggle with anxiety, since everything feels uncertain and they feel left alone to get it under control.

Or so they think. The pandemic threatens to push them over the edge. As they are hypervigilant to avoid the disease, feelings from their deep memories are triggered. They’re trying to keep off or clean off the latest manifestation of the dis-ease they have faced their whole lives!

I Have Overcome The World" | Efisio Cross - YouTube
Click for “I Have Overcome The World” by Efisio Cross

How do I feel OK with suffering?

Now that these friends are Christians, it seems even more evident that God should be taking care of them and helping them to avoid suffering. God should be that something or someone who is supposed to be fixing the injustice of the world. The logic seems clear, “If God loves me, shouldn’t he be a better father and spare me this pain?” Sounds good to me.

But Jesus plainly says: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I don’t think he meant to speak only to his first disciples when he said that, either. He meant to speak to you and me, too.

People want peace in the middle of their mess and they can’t get it. One of the reasons is because they have always been certain that their brother should stop hitting them! (And he should!) But he probably won’t. And the 1% probably won’t stop trying to make the economic depression we are headed into be anything less than as profitable as possible for them, either!  There will be trouble. And there you go. Do you say, “But I don’t like trouble; trouble triggers my deepest fears; is Jesus going to save me or not?”

The Greek word thlipsin is translated a number of synonymous ways in John 16:33: trouble, tribulation, trials and sorrows, suffering, oppression, distress, and affliction. We can’t go one day without feeling these things. I called to cancel Direct TV – it was trouble; I forgot my mask when I went out; the contractors broke a ceiling fixture in the hall; the microwave fell off the wall and broke the stove; I hurt my back – and that was just one day! Then there is the perennial stuff: my friend was going to call and they forgot, my mother won’t speak to me, my father lost his memory – and I lost my job when they made us all shelter in place and then the unemployment compensation system crashed.

“Be of good cheer,” Jesus says, “be en-couraged, be filled with courage.” Other translations say, “Take heart, cheer up, be brave, have confidence,” because, Jesus says, “I have overcome the world.” Well, that is the problem! People believe Jesus when he says that but they don’t always feel it.

There are a lot of reasons we don’t get the peace

Most of the reasons we don’t get the peace Jesus promises have to do with how we see things. Jesus makes statements like the famous line above to his disciples because they fundamentally have to change their view of the world.

  1. We have to admit the world is a problem every day.
  2. We have to accept the world, including myself, is not a problem I am condemned to fix (or not) every day.
  3. We must come to feel mysterious, beautiful and loving forces beyond our control and even understanding are at work on our behalf. We we can trust Jesus to bring things to right.

How you see yourself, others and God starts out as part of the problem. But Jesus says, “Cheer up! You are going to overcome with me!”

Changing my point of view is all there is to getting peace? No. But if the “eyes of your heart are dark, how great the darkness!” If we follow around the anxieties of our unen-couraged selves and overlay them with habits of control or aggression or despair, we are going to prove impervious to peace. Saying it is God’s fault my brother hit me, or making sure my Dad knows it is not my fault, or just accepting being hit won’t end up in peace. We have to live the new life that comes with overcoming the old:

  1. Don’t rely on the passing away world,
  2. Bring what you have to the dying world and let your truth and love bear whatever fruit in bears
  3. Don’t just see, but trust the goodness of God Jesus has won for you.

Albert Schweitzer in Lambaréné – Iconic Photos

Part of the big trouble we will always have in the world is not getting moved along by the trouble — getting used to trouble instead of suffering it. We’ve got to respond to Jesus when he is teaching us, not just know about his teaching. We need to overcome with him. In his memoir Albert Schweitzer recounted hiring doctors for his hospital in the jungle of Gabon. He said he never hired anyone who thought he was doing something grand and heroic. He knew the only doctors who would last were those who thought what they were doing was as ordinary and necessary as doing the dishes: “There are no heroes of action — only heroes of renunciation and suffering.” He heard what Jesus was saying. The Lord’s own suffering overcomes the world, not just his resistance to it and surely not his resentment of it.

We need to train for peace

We may not suffer with Jesus because we can smell hardship a mile away. But to get peace  we will need to train ourselves to change our views and our habits to match the way to peace that leads through suffering. Sticking with Jesus in peace is not a spontaneous flowering of good character or the fruit of excellence, it is doing what we are trained to do. It manifests not in those whose training spared them hardship but in those whose training embraced hardship and taught them to overcome it. Gwen and I have been doing some reminiscing this week as our house is sold and our stuff is moved. The house itself taught us to overcome, since it was a constant problem to master. But, even more, it represents an era in which we both took on the suffering and trained to be our true selves. Gwen’s quest is represented  by her education for psychotherapy and my quest is represented in spearheading the planting of Circle of Hope. Facing the troubles has been a sweet suffering all along the way, and it has been accompanied by an ever-deeper peace.

Some people are happy this moment in history, marked by coronavirus, may launch a change in the way we raise and train all our young, at all ages. It may exorcise the tide of “safetyism,” which has gone overboard. The grandiose people of the empire float on their high tide thinking they can control their destiny and prevent anything that can go wrong. They are either in denial and a menace to others, or deep in guilt and a menace to themselves. The virus is another reminder that hardship is woven into the warp and woof existence. Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it.

That’s a big part of what Jesus was saying when he said, “Be of good cheer!” You are OK whether there is trouble or not! On the one hand, you have strength beyond yourself to create goodness out of rubble. Even more, on the other hand, Jesus is a living promise that your suffering is not useless, even if it is just reminding you that you need to be saved. Like the Lord’s suffering resulted in new life wherever he walked and resurrection after he died, so will ours.

That piece of logic might not help you feel peace even if it works wonders for me. One of my friends texted me: “If I can learn to trust an uncertain promise from the Lord I might just be saved.” I replied, “Yes. You may come to know another certainty that is free of the former manacles. You’re on the way.” At this point in my life, I don’t think it would be great if Jesus prevented all my suffering. I don’t blame God for the uncertainty of every day. Even at my age, I am looking forward to the unpredictability of what will happen next in love. I will have trouble, but it is trouble that is being redeemed, and then the fullness of overcoming!