Sometimes I am at fault on this blog by making spiritual formation about what we do. I talk much about spiritual disciplines such as solitude, prayer, meditation, and scripture reading. But the reality is that these are just tools that we use to grow closer to God. A lumberjack would never say that his goal is to use a chainsaw but to cut down a tree. In the same way, a Christian would never say the goal is to prayer. No, the goal is to talk to God and to communicate what is in your heart. God is the one that does all of the real work, we are just called to use our tools (spiritual disciplines) properly.
One of the strangest miracles in the Gospels for me is not Jesus walking on the water but Peter walking on the water. The miracle had nothing to do with Peter, except his own willingness to give it a try and trust Jesus, but had everything to do with Jesus. Peter requested to walk on the water and all Jesus says is, “come.” Jesus has miracles waiting for us and all we have to do is “come”. And we “come” through our practices of spiritual devotion. Jesus does the rest.
Because of my work, I have carpal tunnel syndrome and a strange pain down the side of my right leg. I enjoy playing basketball but I have a finger that is trying to go the wrong direction because it has been jammed so many times. I also like to jog but I still have scars on both of my knees because of falls in the morning darkness.
I am describing to you the dangers of making a living and recreation. Work related physical side effects are common but from what I can tell, there are no negative side effects to the spiritual life. Prayer may make us sleepy but that isn’t causing us any harm. Serving others may be time-consuming but very rarely are you in danger of physical ailments. Worship may take a little strength for standing or hand raising but I have never seen anyone faint from worship exhaustion, at least not in my church. Scripture memorization may be a little tedious but our brains don’t cramp up from being overworked.
Working on our spiritual life requires a little sacrifice and a multitude of rewards. So before you start to complain about how hard it is to pray everyday or read scripture, go run two miles or spend all day loading trucks and tell me that your spiritual practices are causing you discomfort.
I try to pray every day. I also try to have some moments of silence where I am just thinking about God. But, inevitably these exercises will be made more difficult because of the flood of random thoughts that cross my mind and often take control of my mind to where I end up thinking about something that has no relation to anything. I suspect that this problem is one that most Christian’s experience in some form or the other. So, how can we overcome these distracting thoughts so that our prayers and our meditation on God can be more meaningful? Let me offer three suggestions. Choose whichever one works best for you.
Walking Dog – In most cases we are not able to shut off our random thought process but we can learn to dismiss them quickly. We can begin to treat these thoughts like a dog on the street. The thought surfaces but instead of dwelling on the thought, we simply let it pass on by “down the street” and out of our thinking.
Chalkboard – Here is another instance where we don’t force ourselves to stop the thoughts, we simply acknowledge it and remove it from our thinking. In this method, we envision the thought as if it is written on a chalkboard but as soon as we see the thought on the board we take an eraser and erase the thought. This allows us to return to our prayer or refocus on God.
Breathe In, Breathe Out – This one is simple. First, we focus on our breathing. Then, we take our next breath and as we are breathing we let our minds be filled with thoughts of God. As we exhale, we let go of any thought that will be a distraction to our time with God. Simply put, breathe God in, breathe distractions out.
Pick one of these methods or try all three today as you say your prayers or spend time with God. See if it helps you overcome some of your more persistent distracting thoughts.
Several years ago I read about the Jesus Chair exercise and decided to try it out. The basic idea is you set aside 15-30 minutes and take an empty chair and imagine that Jesus is sitting in the chair. And you simply begin to talk to Jesus as if he was sitting right there in the room with you. There is nothing magical or weird about this exercise, it simply gives you a visual and tangible way of addressing Jesus.
When I did it, I felt awkward for a while but then I began to become more comfortable and open up to Jesus about the things that were bothering me at the time. “It hurts me when I see my mother mourning over the death of her mother.” “It hurts me when I see my wife struggle through some health problems.” “It hurts me when people get dismissed by others simply because of their social status.” “It hurts me when friends of mine struggle with addiction.” “It hurts me when people I know lose their job.” “It hurts me when people in my church treat others in many ways that are not like Christ.” And on and on I went detailing my frustrations, my fears, and my yearning for things to be made right.
Finally, when I shut up, I just sat there. I wasn’t really expecting a reply I just felt good getting all these things off my chest and paused out of exhaustion in a way. But then I heard a reply. It wasn’t audible or mystical but just a still small voice saying these four words, “It hurts me too.” I can not tell you how comforting those four words were for me. Jesus was simply letting me know that he is bothered by these things too and that I am not alone and that he wants to comfort me and that if there is anyone who can make these things right it was him. And that it was for these things that he came and died and was resurrected so that his followers could be free from the chains of evil and brokenness that make up this world.
At that moment, I knew what real hope felt like and I knew what it meant to truly trust Christ with my problems and frustrations. It was one of the most unique and special times in my spiritual life.
I encourage you to try it. You may have to wait till everyone in your house has gone to bed or get up a little earlier than normal. But just take any chair and begin to pour out your frustrations at the feet of Jesus. Your experience may not be exactly like mine but I guarantee you you will come away from the exercise with a sweet sense of Christ’s comforting, merciful, and loving presence.