Prayer in the Desert
During lockdowns and isolation we may find ourselves alone in an icy desert, assailed by evil thoughts that seek to hold us down, crush us, and destroy us. Psalm 42:1-3 captures the pain poetically;
1 As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
Judging by his illustration, I doubt David was in the mood to pray when he wrote this. Yet in his sorrow, he makes a startling claim;
6 My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I will remember you
And then later,
8 By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.
Was David using God as a holy-escape-hatch from mental anguish and intrusive thoughts? I doubt it. If you’ve ever prayed for God to take a difficult emotion away, it’s unlikely (albeit possible) that it simply vanished as soon as you prayed. Typically, focusing on the bad thing that’s happening will not make it go away, especially if you’re focusing on not wanting the bad thing. For example, if I were to tell you, don’t think of a purple elephant for as long as you possibly can, what’s the first thing that leaps to your mind?
So David takes a different approach to these uncomfortable feelings: He threw himself into God’s hands through prayer. He focused on being a man after God’s own heart rather than mending his feelings so that he could feel like going after God’s heart.
God reveals himself to us as one who ‘Moves into the neighborhood,’ of our suffering and steps on the ground that bears thorns for us in solidarity with our suffering. Bonhoeffer called this “Stellvertretung,” or Place-sharing, and it is his ultimate illustration for God’s mission to humanity; he overcame our separation from him by being crucified. God meets us through Jesus in the hard soil of our suffering, not by resolving it.
Carrying our cross never feels good whether it’s persecution or the far more general groaning of creation, but as we practice this moment by moment communion with God in the midst of our pain, we can be swept up into a story that gives our suffering meaning and orients our action toward something bigger than how we feel. This seems to be what David was practicing; God was with him even as he felt God was furthest away. If God is with us as we are subjected to isolation, maybe he will meet us there in prayer like he met David?
If you’re interested, here is a step by step guide to praying in the desert:
Take a deep breath,
Notice whatever mental anguish you are experiencing
With palms facing down give lordship over this feeling to God, recognizing that it’s his to grant you.
With palms facing up, receive these feelings of anguish anew as part of your discipleship and what it means to bear your cross. Recognize that following Jesus will always involve suffering for the sake of other people.
Thank God for being present with you in your pain, and on the cross. Repeat this as often as you find yourself assailed by painful thoughts and feelings.