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
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.
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.