Prayer is hard. While it is within the grasp of a child, it will still stretch, challenge, test and confound our souls. We often attribute the struggle of prayer to some shortfall within us. There may be truth to that. We are inconsistent, apathetic, easily distracted and struggle with sin. If we want to grow in prayer, these are matters to address with His Spirit,. But let me say what is rarely said out loud in Church. Even if the frailty of our souls was replaced with fortified spiritual fibre, prayer would still be hard. Why? Because the greatest difficulty in prayer doesn’t stem from what we do, but from what God does.
When this occurs we usually try to fix it. “I will pray more! I will pray harder! “ If the distance is not bridged, we begin to examine our prayer patterns. “Maybe I am doing something wrong. Is there a new prayer seminar I can take?” When silence continues even after we’ve re-ordered our praying, we conclude that the problem isn’t our prayers - it’s us! “There must be some hidden sin within me. Am I being punished for past offences? Worst of all, we may become cynical about God’s love and callous our souls against the perceived space. These are common responses to our common experience in prayer. People of prayer throughout the centuries have faced this.
Ignatius of Loyola is known for developing his “Spiritual Exercises” in the 16th century. The heart of the exercises is prayer. He writes that the experience of prayer is an interplay between consolation and desolation. Consolation means “with the sun” - the times of prayer when you feel the nearness and warmth of God. Desolation means “without the sun”- the times of prayer which leave you cold. God is present in both and both are tools of God to shape us. An anonymous author of the 14th century wrote the classic, “Cloud of Unknowing.” He describes prayer as an experience of darkness when we are blind to His presence. He calls us to pierce the cloud with the dart of longing love. John of the Cross was a 16th century Spaniard famous for writing “The Dark Night of the Soul.” He too describes a station of prayer in which we are enveloped by darkness. A more recent author, Thomas Greene wrote “When the Well Runs Dry” - what happens when prayer no longer works? So, the experience of struggling prayer is common. The understanding of what this is all about is also common.
What is this about? When God seems to remove His Hand, it is His invitation to faith. He is weaning us from the assurances we cling to. Answered petitions. Soul exaltations. Victory ground. Certainty of His Voice. Even God’s gracious gifts can become ropes we grasp to find assurance. Yet, we are called to live by faith and it is faith which pleases God. Whatever signs or gifts we lean on to support faith can become props, which become obstacles. I once asked God for an unshakable faith. So He took me at my word and began to shake my faith. God walked me through a very dark lonely tunnel, in which the only question was, “Scott, am I enough for you?” I wasn’t sure of the answer at first and was quite angry at Him asking. I didn’t understand it in the midst, but God was shaking everything superfluous from my faith. He was paring my soul down to the essentials. I am not special. This is what God does out of love for His children. Ask Moses forgotten 40 years in the desert or Abraham holding a knife to Isaac. Think of Naomi who lost her husband and her sons. Consider Joseph locked in a dungeon wondering what happened to his dreams. Listen to David in the Psalms, “How long O Lord?!” The silence and stillness of God are pathways on which our faith grows. God does not test faith because He is insecure. But since spirituality is fuelled by faith, it is His mercy to strengthen the very thing we need.
These are words on a page. In principle you may see the need and wisdom of them. You may even recognize that when God steps back from us, it is good for our maturity. It’s not hard to assent in theory - but we don’t live in theory. If you are in the midst of desolation, you feel like your soul is being shredded. Nothing you try helps. You feel unbalanced and unsure. You are stripped of all you leaned on. Now there is only God. He is enough. It’s a time for faith. Turn towards His silence. Stand before His stillness. Press into His heart of grace. Continue. He is there.
If I give up on prayer in the face of silence from heaven, it reveals more about my love than God’s.
Spend time with Psalm 22. Meditate over it as the prayer of Jesus upon the cross.
When have you experienced “dryness” in prayer? How did you feel about it? What did you do during it?
During a wilderness season of prayer, what conclusions do you lean towards about yourself? What conclusions about God?
What hope is there for anyone when their prayers don’t seem to be working?
What is God inviting you to this week?