Running from what we desire

-Article by Henri J.M. Nouwen, taken from “Partnership” Magazine, July-August 1986

Recently I was given the opportunity to spend a whole month in prayer. I didn’t have to worry about cooking meals, answering mail, receiving visitors, teaching classes, writing books, or anything that usually keeps me busy. My only task was to be with God and God alone. I had always dreamed of such a possibility. I had envisioned it as a time of true peace and joy. What could be more wonderful than to dwell in the presence of my Lord?

But when my dream became a reality I experienced unexpected resistance within myself. I felt restless and anxious. I was not so sure any more if I truly wanted all that time for God. I became nervous about getting bored and I started to look for all sorts of excuses to do other things than pray: Maybe I should do some good reading about prayer. Maybe I should teach someone about prayer. Maybe I should lead some prayer services for friends. But only pray for a whole month? That suddenly seemed crazy, and I found myself running from what I had desired so much.

I am sharing this personal experience because I think we all have both a deep desire to pray – and a deep resistance against it. We want to be close to God, but we also want to keep some distance. We want real inner peace, but we also want to hold on to the excitement of the restless search.

Why this attraction and repulsion at the same time? Why do we have so many difficulties in doing what we say we fervently desire? Why do we resist so forcefully what we so desperately need? Some respond to these questions by saying: “Well, we are busy people and we have so many things to do. . .there is really not much time left to pray.” That sounds quite reasonable. But when we have to wait for delayed airplanes we read Time and Newsweek, but do we pray? When we sit for long hours on the train we have nice long chats with our fellow travelers, but do we pray? When we have a whole evening without concrete plans we watch TV, go to a movie, read a book, write some letters, or make some long phone calls, but do we pray? There appear to be empty hours in our lives to pray. So there must be something else getting in the way of prayer than just being too busy!

What then is going on? I think that our ambivalence about prayer reveals to us what kind of God our God is. We intuitively know that God is not someone who just seeks our occasional attention, and waits for our occasional prayers. God is not someone who can easily do without us and will be quite content when we are willing to spend a few hours of the weekend talking to him, as some children do with their elderly parents. If God were that kind of God we would not experience so many tensions when we enter into his presence to pray. No, our tensions come from the awareness that God is a jealous lover.

Moses said to his people, “Yahweh your God is a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24, JB), and Paul said to his brothers and sisters in Corinth that he loved them with a jealous love of God (2 Cor. 11:2). God is a lover who does not want to leave us alone for one second of our day or night. God is asking for our total, undivided attention. And that is very scary!

When we read God’s story in the Old and New Testaments we are confronted with a God who is always after us, looking for us, and who cries out each time he finds us with a divine despair: “Do you love me, do you love me, do you really love me?” He wants us to love him through thanksgiving, praise, intercession, and service at all times and places, unceasingly, with every fiber of our being. God is a very, very jealous lover. We didn’t choose him. He chose us (John 15:16). We may be interested in some of his attention at certain times, but he offers us all his attention at all times, whether we are interested or not. As long as we to reduce prayer to occasional piety we keep running away from the mystery of God’s jealous love, the love in which we are created, redeemed, and made holy.

Prayer means letting God’s creative love touch the most hidden places of our being and letting Jesus’ way of the cross, his way of downward mobility, truly become our way. And prayer means listening with attentive, undivided hearts, to the inner movements of the Spirit of Jesus, even when that Spirit leads us to places we would rather not go.

The Evangelist John says: “In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love: because to fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love. We are to love, then, because he loved us first” (1 John 4:18-19). Those words remind us that much of our resistance to prayer is based on fear. We are afraid that the God who says he loves us will prove in the end to be more demanding than loving. I am convinced that the real reason we pray so little is fear: fear of facing God, fear also of facing our own and others’ brokenness. I think our fearful hearts are saying: “Can I really trust God? Will he really show me his love when I don’t keep anything hidden from him – neither my own pain nor the pain of the world – or will I be crushed by his anger and lose the little bit of freedom I have so carefully carved out for myself?”

Yes, God is a jealous God, but God’s jealousy is not filled with possessiveness and suspicion, as is our human jealousy. There is not a tinge of hatred, resentment, or revenge in God. God loves us with a perfect love, a love that casts out all fear and allows us to approach God and his people in complete freedom.

So let us pray without fear, let us enter God’s presence with a vulnerable openness. Let us not use many words, but dare to be silent in his presence so that he can first speak to us and reveal us to ourselves as men and women created in love and created free to love. Then we can respond with a full “yes” affirming from the depth of our hearts that we are indeed made in the image and likeness of God.

Let us not be afraid of Jesus either. Jesus is saying to us what he said to his fearful disciples: “It is I. Do not be afraid” (John 6:20). Jesus does not want us to suffer, to be persecuted or in pain. He desires our love and assures us that whatever kind of evil we have to undergo, he is with us to guide us through it all to the house of his Father. Jesus is not naïve. He knows the power of evil. When we look at the increasing loneliness, inner anguish, hunger, violence, and war in this world we would not hesitate to confess that the powers of darkness are very active among us, but we should also dare to face them in the conviction that our humble and obedient Lord has overcome them through his suffering. Look at Jesus quietly, confidently and trustingly, and you will find a joy and peace you did not dare to dream of.

There is so much dullness among us Christians, so much lukewarm carelessness, so much tiptoeing around the hard places, so many palpitations, hesitations, reservations, and so, so many “yeses” followed by “buts”. Give space to the Spirit. Let the spirit do the praying. Let that Spirit cry out to you, comfort you, teach you, guide you, and make you a truly Christlike person.

I started with relating my experience of being afraid to pray for 30 days. Let me end by saying that my friends helped me go ahead with it, trusting that fear would go away. So I read no books about prayer, gave no lectures about prayer, and led no prayer services. Nothing like that. I just prayed for 30 days in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And indeed, the fear went away gradually and at the end of it I know that God’s jealous love was indeed the safest love there is . This love sent me back into the world to serve others and gave me the courage to do so.