Excerpted from “Beloved Dust” by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. Published by Nelson Books, an imprint of Thomas Nelson.
I was doing all the right things. I was reading my Bible regularly. I was enrolled in several Bible classes. I was living a life of service. In fact, I was leading a ministry caring for the homeless in the city. Yet something was amiss. I had lived this way for several years, and all the feedback I received was positive. This must be what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ. This is what the Christian life is all about.
Yet something about it didn’t feel right. In truth, I was flat bored. I didn’t feel inclined to rebel or “fall away” from the faith; I simply felt a dissonance in my walk with God. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I was tired of the “to-dos,” but I wasn’t sure why. My faith life felt hollow and tedious. What was going on?
During that season of spiritual malaise, I was invited on a retreat where I was “forced” to spend extended time in prayer. Not prayer for others. Not prayer with others. Silent, solitary, unscripted, deprogrammed prayer. I felt like a kid forced to play a sport he knew nothing about. I was fumbling in the dark, trying to remember the rules, all the while forgetting to play and have fun. It felt awkward, shallow and forced. I felt lost.
After about an hour of silence, alone in the mountains, God and me, I realized that the dissonance I felt was a surface marker of a deeper reality. I discovered within my heart a profound disconnect in my relationship with God. As I prayed, I realized I wasn’t really sure who God was, and for that matter I wasn’t sure who I was. I tried to lean into all of the theological truths I knew, but they offered no help in the deafening silence of lonely prayer. In that moment of naked honesty, God provided a turning point.
Before that point I had certainly prayed. I prayed for friends in need. I prayed God would take away my sin and guard me from future temptation. I prayed God would give me the desires of my heart. All of these prayers were conducted, unfortunately, with little relational attachment, and functioned more like a phone transaction with a somewhat friendly but unknown customer service representative. What I realized on that retreat was that, in a very real sense, I had rarely truly prayed.
As Eugene Peterson states, “We discover early on that we can pretend to pray, use the words of payer, practice the forms of prayer, assume postures of prayer, acquire a reputation for prayer and never pray. Our ‘prayers,’ so called, are a camouflage to cover up a life of non-prayer.” I had been living a Christian life of “non-prayer,” and now I knew it. Prayer had become another thing to do. It was another bullet point on the list of “should” and “oughts” for good Christian behavior. At its best, it had been dressed up as a spiritual discipline: as one practice on the list of many that mature believers are supposed to engage in. As a result, prayer became a place to be good.
Prayer became a place to perform.
Prayer became a place to get things done.
If I was honest, even those “non-prayer prayers” were few and far between compared to reading my Bible or engaging in other Christian activities. That was for one simple reason: prayer did not offer an obvious return on investment. I didn’t feel smarter as a result of prayer. I didn’t feel better about myself as I prayed. I didn’t feel like I was getting much done. So I turned to other things like service and church attendance to gain a sense of accomplishment.
All of this betrayed a deeper and more insidious reality in my life. My desire for a felt experience of self-fulfillment was the driving force of my spiritual activity. The Christian life had become more about looking and feeling like a Christian than abiding in relationship with God. I was operating in the realm of seeming, not being.
However, if the Christian life is most fundamentally about being with God, then prayer cannot be merely another activity on the list of good Christian behavior. Prayer must be a way of life. But this is not what I had signed up for. I thought I believed Christianity was about having a relationship with God, but in that moment, alone before Him, I came to realize that deep down I didn’t truly desire God’s presence.
Claiming that Christianity is about a relationship with God taps into the provocative truth that God gives Himself. The solution to the pain, suffering, evil and vice that plagues our world is nothing other than the presence of the Creator. God’s presence brings healing. This is such a big idea, and its implications are so far reaching, that we often accept something less instead. Rather than embracing the wildly provocative truth that God has given Himself to us, we come to believe He functions primarily to give us other gifts.