I've always struggled with an imagination full of fear and negativity. Recently, God has been teaching me how He wants to help with deal with it.
Ever have those nights when you struggle to sleep because your brain just won't shut up? Me too.
I recently went through a stretch of tearful evenings because, as I lay in the dark willing myself to just go to sleep, my imagination would run riot. I would visualize real concerns. Bad memories. Imaginary scenarios and conversations that may never happen in real life, but which nonetheless filled me with pain or anger or stress as I played them out in my mind. Negative self-talk. Future fears. My mind seemed to snatch up each bleak thought, eager to obsess over it. Some nights I would struggle against the tide of negativity, praying for relief. Some nights I would be frustrated that I still felt tense and miserable even after presenting my woes to God. Some nights I would just give in to the waves of unhappiness.
Lately, though, God has been calling to my attention to how He wants to help me through adjusting the focus and framework of my prayers. Thus I will be better equipped to disarm my lingering fears.
Often, the focus of my petitions tends to be on my issues, frustrations, and fears -- or, at least, those are the emotions prompting a large number of prayers. This is not bad per se. We are told to pour out our hearts to God, to roll our cares onto Him, and to pray all kinds of prayers. The Psalms are replete with desperate cries to God about how much life sucks, about deepening depression, and about a desire to get out of the mire (see Psalm 69 for one example).
However, darkness or desperation isn't where our prayers are supposed to linger long-term.
Three points from my recent reading, the book "If Only God Would Answer" by Steven Mosley, have highlighted what the problem is in my case. I have a sneaking feeling many of us may share a similar issue.
Tossed About The book of James talks about the prayers of the double-minded person who is tossed about like a wave. Mosley comments, "A double-minded person can ask for one thing while thinking of something else quite the opposite." (p. 53) I can be like that. I can struggle to find a solid footing and to pray with real trust, particularly when allowing myself to be tossed about and drowned by ever-changing emotions that may or may not let me feel strength and faith.
In her beautiful memoir "Meeting God at Every Turn," writer Catherine Marshall shares a story of her loneliness after the death of her first husband, U.S. Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall. Eventually, she received assurance from God that remarriage was His idea for her, and noted in her journal that she accepted this gift with gratitude and "all [she had] to do is give thanks to God that the matter is settled and relax until God's time comes..." (p. 159). This idea jumped off the page and burned into my consciousness. What a contrast to my usual mode of operation! Certainly some of my anxieties spring from a desire to be in control and a struggle to simply be thankful for what God is giving, and to relax in the waiting, whatever I am waiting for.
After all, we have the clear and startling promise that if we ask anything from God that is in line with His will, we can be sure of receiving it (see 1 John 5:14-15). The Bible is full of promises and passages that show us the will of God, and we also have His Spirit's intimate guidance in our personal walk with Him, which can lead us to peace in knowing that He hears and answers our petitions.
In pondering all this, I felt God whispering to me, "Instead of being tossed about, you can learn to relax if you turn from focusing on your variable circumstances and emotions to thanking Me instead that I have heard you and that the answer will be realized at the right time."
How Do I See God? One of Mosley's chapters compared Bible passages about persistence in prayer. On one hand, we have parables and injunctions to keep praying and not give up. On the other hand, we have a warning against being like those who "think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again" (Matthew 6:7). Isn't this a bit of a contradiction?
Mosley points out that the passages are based on the same reasoning about the character of God. God the Judge is more eager to dispense justice than any human official; God the Father is more willing to give good gifts to us than human parents are to their child; and, after the warning about babbling, Jesus says our Father knows our need before we ask.
"Obviously there's a healthy kind of persistence and an unhealthy kind. The key difference relates to that common conclusion: God's generosity. Why we persist in prayer makes a big difference. The pagans Jesus mentioned as bad examples of prayer went on and on petitioning because they thought their god had to be talked into doing good; they assumed a certain quantity of prayer would create some kind of cosmic coercion, forcing their god's hand. In the back of their minds, they believed he was lazy or indifferent and had to be prodded into action." (p. 64)
When you pray, how do you see God? I know that sometimes my prayers are motivated more by this "pagan" mindset of seeing God as reluctant, distant, and needing coercion. Yet God is generous and eager and able, beyond what I can ask or imagine (see Ephesians 3:20 and Psalm 31:19).
Where Is My Focus?
Another quote from Mosley resonated with me:
"Make God bigger than your problems. Don't go on and on moaning about how terrible your situation is and begging God for His help. Instead go on and on about how wonderful God is and express confidence in His ability to help you. This is a healthy, logical perspective in prayer." (p. 58)
Even the most raw Psalms often turn in the end to praise, thankfulness, and hope. They affirm God's unfailing love and faithfulness. For example, after honestly declaring his deep discouragement and grief, the poet says to himself, "Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again -- my Saviour and my God!" (Psalm 42:11)
In order to help me disarm my fears, then, I have sensed God calling me not merely to be honest about my dark emotions, but to switch the focus of my prayers:
From fear to His faithfulness.
From the problem to His power and love.
From begging based on dread and a desire to control and coerce, to thankfulness for God's heart of abundance, His willingness to give good gifts, and the answers He has already given.
From sadness and frustration to hope.
From my circumstances to my God.
From the temporary to the eternal.
From my feelings to truth.
In short, to pray with much more praise and positivity, to "express hope, not just desperation." (Mosley, p. 70)
This won't always be easy. Old habits die hard. And honestly, there's part of me that likes to have the luxury of pity parties.
Also, the Enemy will want to keep me locked into fear and discouragement. He will use any opportunity to bring those pessimistic pictures into my mind.
But I am instructed to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5) and to "let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think" (Romans 12:2). When my imagination starts down those gloomy trails, instead of going along with it, I can examine the scenario to see what exactly scares or pains me -- and then disarm that thought, and infuse into that picture the power, presence, and love of God.
"You tend to project yourself mentally into the [future], and you visualize yourself coping badly in those times. What you are seeing is a false image, because it doesn't include Me... When a future-oriented worry assails you, capture it and disarm it by suffusing the Light of My Presence into that mental image. Say to yourself, 'Jesus will be with me then and there. With His help, I can cope!' Then come home to the present moment, where you can enjoy peace in My presence." (Jesus Calling, Nov 9)
One of my favourite songs affirms, "I'm no longer a slave to fear...You drowned my fears in perfect love."
Thank you, Father. Your generous heart, your perfect love, is what I lean on.
First written in 2017