I used to be a prayer warrior. A veritable superhero of the supernatural realm.
Heaven and earth were depending on me, after all. They couldn't do without me. At least that's how it seemed. For decades I was someone who laboured for hours a day as I prayed for family, friends, world events, unseen battles in the heavenly realm. Anything and everything really. That is, until God asked me to stop.
The change came for me one morning during a particularly intense time of intercession. I had been through a lot. A son with disabilities. A struggling daughter. A stroke. Emotional breakdown. Failed marriage. I was so burnt out. So weary. And yet, once again, I prepared to do the heavy lifting in prayer as if the whole thing depended on me.
That was when it happened. I heard “the voice”. Not an audible voice but a definite inner communique. In the stillness of that moment the voice was clear and quiet. Strong, peaceful, loving and altogether concerned for my well being. “I've got it covered.” That's all that was said. Every time I tried to pray I heard it again. “I've got it covered.” But what about … ? “I've got it covered.”
So I put it down. My burden, that is. It took a while, but I actually let go of the whole thing. Years of pain, sorrow, torment, fear, worry, stress and unfulfilled hopes and dreams. It all came cascading down as I released it into the hands of one far more able than I to carry it.
And you know what? The world kept turning. Not only that, but I was able to stand and stretch, rub my raw unburdened shoulders and let the sun caress my weary face as the tension drained away. What a relief!
Of course I haven't really stopped praying. But my understanding of what prayer is and how I engage in it has changed completely. It has been utterly transforming. I was burning myself out with prayer as effort rather than as a place of peaceful restoration.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). But I made the fatal mistake of thinking that it was all about me and thus continued to carry my own emotional burdens, rather than releasing them into safer hands. And, of course, I thought everyone else should be doing the same. I was so intense.
It can be a subtle thing, but I think the problem has stemmed from a misunderstanding of spirituality as activity rather than stillness. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has already done the heavy lifting at the cross and we are invited to simply rest in his finished work. But I had somehow let a little old covenant works-based theology filter through to the new covenant of grace and peace.
The unsettling thing about performing to please God, of course, is that you never know exactly where you stand. Believing that Jesus has done it all while at the same time holding onto the vague notion that he might not be fully happy with me – and that there's probably some more stuff I really should be doing – can be very exhausting. And it's such a contradiction, isn't it?
So what is prayer really? Richard Rohr has observed that “for many in the West, prayer has come to mean something functional, something you do to achieve a desired effect, which puts you back in charge. Prayers of petition aren’t all bad, but they don’t really lead to a new state of being or consciousness. The same old consciousness is self-centred: How can I get God to do what I want God to do? This kind of prayer allows you to remain an untransformed, egocentric person who is just trying to manipulate God.”
Did you get that? Trying to control our worlds through prayer doesn't change us. It doesn't allow for transformation. I'm still learning to let go, but prayer looks a lot different for me these days. It's no longer a performance that I'm critiquing myself on. It's very relaxed. Peaceful. Contemplative. I might still bring the needs of myself or others to God but I just as easily might not. Either way, I know that he's got it covered. And if I do bring up those needs my role is not to carry the burden, but to let it go.
For me, that is very liberating. It also makes me happy. When I'm in that place of contemplation I often find myself with a big goofy grin on my face or maybe even giggling to myself at the thought of just how wonderful the surrendered life can be. And, really, isn't that how it should be?
Mark Darling has a background in psychology and applied neuroscience. He is currently exploring the high country of grace and finding many delightful places of rest for the soul. Mark enjoys surfing, bush walking, making music, good food and laughter in the company of friends. He resides on Queensland's Sunshine Coast and has two grown children.
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