For four years I was an Assemblies of God minister and a monk with the Brothers and Sisters of Charity at the Little Portion Hermitage. This is an excerpt from my book Taking Off My Comfortable Clothes: Removing Religion to Find Relationship.
Every Friday evening, the community gathered in the chapel at the Little Portion for a half hour of silent prayer and meditation. At the appointed time, we would enter the candle-lit chapel, find a place to sit, and silently talk with God. Occasionally, you would hear the sound of slow, heavy breathing in the chapel – that unmistakable indication that one of the saints is taking a short siesta. But for the most part, everyone was engaged in some type of silent prayer.
It was during these times—when I desired nothing more than to bask in the presence of God and simply be with the One who loved me to death—that unsavory images from my past or arguments I’ve had with people would come screaming into my head. Here I am trying to meditate upon God, and an image of girl I once dated (and shouldn’t have) explodes upon my imagination. Now, instead of hoping to catch a glimpse of God’s glory, I have Victoria’s Secret dancing in my head. What’s a monk to do?
The Battle of Prayer
Oswald Chambers said, “The battle of prayer is against two things in the earthlies: wandering thoughts and lack of intimacy with God’s character as revealed in His word. Neither can be cured at once, but they can be cured by discipline.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was my previous study of martial arts that helped me overcome my wandering thoughts while in prayer.
During my first year at Bethany Bible College in Scotts Valley, CA, I met a classmate who was an excellent martial artist. I thought learning a martial art would be an interesting thing to do, so I asked him if he would teach me Kung Fu. Naturally, I didn’t do it because I was worried that someone might mug me on a Christian campus. Rather, I did it for the exercise and the fun. My teacher and I would often workout with another student named Mike, a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
After I began to spar with Mike, I began to notice a significant difference in our styles of martial arts. When I threw a punch at Mike, he would often respond with loud grunt and a block so brutal, it was capable of producing a bruise or welt on my arm. However, Kung Fu taught me to meet a punch with a circular motion of my hands that gently guided the oncoming fist away from my body, or I could simply sidestep the oncoming projectile, be it a hand, a foot, or a club. In Tae Kwon Do the attitude seems to be, “You are really going to regret coming at me and I’m going to hurt you REALLY BAD so you will NEVER even THINK about doing that again!” In Kung Fu the attitude is, “I don’t believe you don’t really intend to hurt me, so I’m going to gently and almost imperceptibly redirect your negative energy so that neither one of us gets hurt and you have a chance to repent of your anger and we can be friends.”
Okay, those were exaggerations, but you get the picture. Now, how does this relate to prayer?
Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” When those unsolicited images came into my mind while praying, my Kung Fu technique taught me to sidestep the offending thoughts and gently let them go by. This “gentle answer” helped me turn away the offensive images I encountered during prayer. I’d already tried the Tae Kwon Do technique, which is to bash them into submission, but with little success. It seemed the harder I tried to get them out of my mind, the more forceful they returned. This is natural, because “a harsh word stirs up anger,” and sometimes that anger is my own! However, by gentle sidestepping the unwanted images coming at me, I didn’t give them the energy to continue haunting me and I could calmly go back to my conversation with God.
The Art of Thankfulness
The other thing I learned to do was to thank God for what I was seeing. Does that surprise you? Okay, let’s say that scantily clad ex-girlfriend comes into my mind while I’m praying. Instead of trying to fight the image, run away in horror, and repent of my impure, unmonk-like thoughts, I’d say something like, “Lord, I want to thank You that You love her and died for her sins, too. I also want to thank You for the beautiful human body You created, and the pleasure it gives You when we are thankful for Your gifts. You are good and Your works are too wonderful for me to comprehend. Be with her now as you are with me in this chapel. Amen.” I wasn’t upset, angry or over-energized by the image, but thanked God for an opportunity to ask His blessings to descend upon a sister’s life. Besides, Paul said, “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Phil. 1:3), and I was certainly in remembrance of this sister! However, if the devil thought he could distract me from my prayer life, he simply gave me a few more things I could take to God in prayer and thankfulness. Furthermore, when I learned to fight the enemy’s visions with Godly praises, the images occurred less frequently.
Arguing With Myself
Here’s another battle I’ve fought, and I bet you have too. How often have you spent a majority of your prayer time replaying an argument you’ve had with a family member or co-worker, raise your hand? I thought so. How many of you have rehearsed an argument you were sure you were going to have in the future, using your prayer time to justify yourself before God, telling Him why you are right and the other person is wrong? Me too. What a waste of time.
Soren Kierkegaard said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” When I’m rehearsing an imaginary argument before God in the name of prayer, I’m simply trying to influence God to see things my way. I found it doesn’t work. Since the primary purpose of prayer is to change me, not others, I find it very difficult to stand at the Throne of God and accuse my brother or sister. There is already an accuser, and I don’t really want his job. Finally, after wasting many hours in prayer, I began to thank God for the people I was at odds with, whether real or imagined.
Praying In Peace
Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If I’m not at peace with people when I’m praying, I certainly won’t be at peace with them when I’m in their presence. Once again, I began to thank God for the people that popped into my mind while in prayer. Was I ever justified for being angry at what they had done to me? Sometimes. However, that really wasn’t the point. They were people that God loved and I decided I was going to pray God’s love into their lives. I started asking God to let me see my “enemies” as He saw them, and when He did, He never showed me His anger, but only His loving compassion.
Successful prayer centers upon praying the heart of God. Martin Luther said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance, but laying hold of His willingness.” If God is willing to love these people enough to die for them, then I would too. I decided to die to my desires for justice and recompense and use my time in prayer as an opportunity to bring the worst of sinners into the loving presence of God’s Throne. Naturally, the worst of those sinners started with me. And when I began to think about all that God had done for me, it wasn’t difficult to pray those same blessings into the lives of others.