|Henri Nouwen. |
Photo by Kevin Dwyer
Prayer, first of all, is crying out to God from our heart. “Give ear to my words, O Lord, and consider my sighing” is a prayer from the heart. “Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you do I pray” (Psalm 5:1-2).
There is so much fear and agony in us. Fear of people, fear of God, and much raw, undefined, free-floating anxiety. I wonder if fear is not our main obstacle to prayer. When we enter into the presence of God and start to sense that huge reservoir of fear in us, we want to run away into the many distractions that our busy world offers us so abundantly. But we should not be afraid of our fears. We can confront them, give words to them, cry out to God, and lead our fears into the presence of the One who says: “Don’t be afraid, it is I.”
Our inclination is to reveal to God only what we feel comfortable in sharing. Naturally, we want to love and be loved by God, but we also want to keep a little corner of our inner life for ourselves, where we can hide and think our own secret thoughts, dream our own dreams, and play with our own mental fabrications. We are often tempted to select carefully the thoughts that we bring into our conversation with God.
What makes us so stingy? Maybe we wonder if God can take all that goes on in our minds and hearts. Can God accept our hateful thoughts, our cruel fantasies, and our bizarre dreams? Can God handle our primitive urges, our inflated illusions, and our exotic mental castles? This withholding from God of a large part of our thoughts leads us onto a road that we probably would never consciously want to take. It is the road of spiritual censorship—editing out all the fantasies, worries, resentments, and disturbing thoughts we do not wish to share with anyone, including God, who sees and knows all.
When we hide our shameful thoughts and repress our negative emotions, we can easily spiral down the emotional staircase to hatred and despair. Far better it is to cry out to God like Job, pouring out to God our pain and anger and demanding to be answered.
A number of years back, Pierre Wolff wrote a wonderful little book on uncensored prayer. It is called "May I Hate God?"and it touches on the very center of our spiritual struggle. Our many unexpressed fears, doubts, anxieties, and resentments, he says, prevent us from tasting and seeing the goodness of the Lord. Anger and hatred, which separate us from God and others, can also become the doorway to greater intimacy with God. Religious and secular taboos against expressing negative emotions evoke shame and guilt. Only by expressing our anger and resentment directly to God in prayer will we come to know the fullness of love and freedom. Only in pouring out our story of fear, rejection, hatred, and bitterness can we hope to be healed.
The Psalms are filled with the raw and uncensored cries and agonies of God’s people, poured out to God and asking for deliverance. For example:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. (Psalm 22:1-2)
I cried out to God for help: I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands
and my soul refused to be comforted. (Psalm 77:1-2)
Hear, 0 Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. (Psalm 86:1)
The more we dare to show our whole trembling self to God, as did the ancients who prayed the Psalms, the more we will be able to sense that God’s love, which is perfect love, casts out our fears, purifies our thoughts, and heals our hatred.