I want to expand on what I said in How Many Times Was I Saved?, and I will discuss my prayer life in the process.
Which salvation experience do I count as my true entrance into Christianity? I would say my second one, which occurred in my sophomore year of high school. That was when I began to experience genuine life changes. I tried from that point to follow God and pursue a path of love rather than selfishness.
But there were times of spiritual disorientation even after that point. At various points along the way, I was bored with the Bible, since I assumed that I knew it all. After all, I was aware of a lot of the stories, and the doctrines of penal substitution and justification by grace through faith alone were familiar to me. Plus, I knew that Christians are supposed to love God and their fellow human beings. So why did I have to read these things over and over? In my mind, I already had Christianity figured out. And yet, at the same time, I had a deep spiritual hunger that was not being satisfied. I wanted to feel good from the things of God, and it wasn’t always happening. I often had a dead, bored feeling inside.
During high school and my first year at DePauw, my prayer life was rather sporadic. Sure, there were times when I prayed, but I didn’t do it every single day. Maybe I’d pray because I had a test that was coming up, or I wanted God to protect me from being picked on at school, or I asked God to make a special girl notice me. Don’t get me wrong, my prayers were not always “gimmee, gimmee, gimmee,” for I did pray to God about his nature and goodness. I didn’t know exactly how to do that, though–in a way that made me feel filled. In my high school years, it took the form of “I know that this is true about you, and I know that is true about you.” My phraseology struck me as corny, so I was often reluctant to praise God for his nature.
During my first year at DePauw, I had good times with God. For many Sabbaths, I would go to DePauw’s library at its opening time, read a Spurgeon sermon, and walk around the vacant second floor praying to God. But, again, I did not pray every single day. Plus, there were still times when Christianity made me feel empty or unfulfilled, since I thought that I knew it all.
My second year at DePauw was when I started praying every single day. At the beginning of the school year, I was reading Ellen G. White’s Desire of Ages, a biography of Christ. She said that Christ could identify with me because he was once a human like I am, so I should feel free to approach him and share my deepest emotions. And so I did that. And it must have helped somewhat, since I continued to pray every single morning. But, still, I wanted to learn more and find inspiration, and, for some reason, the Bible and Christian books were not cutting it for me.
My prayers in those days had a number of components. Granted, “gimmee, gimmee, gimmee” was a big part of my prayer life, but I was also seeking knowledge, inspiration, and good, wholesome feelings. Other Christians were claiming that “God told them this,” or “God told them that,” and I wanted some of that as well: a sense that God knew my address. And my search for inspiration sometimes took weird turns. I one time sought it from talking to God about Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca. I needed to ground my prayer life in something inspiring, and I didn’t exactly know what.
One Sabbath evening of my junior year, I felt a sudden desire to read the Bible. I picked up my Bible and a notebook, went to the library, got a private room, and started to read the Book of Jeremiah. Basically, I would read a chapter, write down what it was about, and talk to God about it. There were times in that experience when I broke down in tears! Jeremiah was a prophet who was real. He experienced anger and frustration and depression and disappointment with God and alienation from his fellow man, emotions that I too was feeling. And, yet, God assured him that he was with him and had a purpose for his life. And that was the origin of my weekly quiet time.
Scripture was also beginning to play a bigger role in my daily prayer time. During my sophomore year, I resolved to read a section of Scripture each day during my morning prayer, but I found that I was not interacting much with the Bible reading. I’d just read it and then talk about other things that I wanted to discuss. That changed during my senior year. One morning, I read a passage of Luke and realized that I did not understand it. Sure, I had read it over and over, and I could possibly recite it if called upon to do so. But it made no sense to me. So I asked for guidance from the Holy Spirit, and I suddenly began to think of interpretations that seemed sensible to me at the time. That was the origin of my daily quiet time.
Well, I took both of my quiet times with me to Harvard. Although my weekly quiet times at DePauw were very emotional and informative, they were not as good at Harvard. I was going through the prophets, and I felt as if I was learning the same thing over and over: God would destroy Israel for her sins, then God would restore Israel out of his love; and, in the process, God would glorify his name before the nations. But my daily quiet times were really good, at least for a while. I often felt like a wave of inspiration was flowing over me. I would approach the text, and it initially looked like a puzzle, but I’d be preaching in my bedroom before you knew it! I encountered stories that were unfamiliar to me, particularly in my reading of Deuteronomy-Nehemiah, so I was learning new things. I also felt the stories come alive, as God (or I) tied them to Christ’s love for me, or used them to demonstrate the right way to live. Those were good quiet times!
But something happened. My quiet times started to get more intellectual. I didn’t always identify with what the biblical authors were saying, but I found my attempt to understand their perspectives to be a fruitful endeavor. By that time, I no longer felt as if I understood everything about the Bible, or even most things, for that matter. I’d read biblical passages, and they looked enigmatic to me, so I’d read commentaries about them, or I’d struggle to understand them myself. I also sought to understand the Old Testament passages in their own literary contexts rather than subjecting them to Christian typology or allegory. The text appeared more mysterious to me that way, and so it interested me more. Right now, I have a hard time saying “God spoke to me.” I can’t even affirm that God spoke to me when I felt those waves of inspiration during my Harvard years! I just say that there are a number of ways to interpret the text, and I evaluate them, without claiming that I’m speaking for God in the process.
At this point, I don’t experience too many inspiring moments during my quiet times, but my reading of Scripture is always interesting, for I am continually learning new things. At some points in my prayer journey, I focused almost exclusively on Scripture during my quiet times. Now, I focus on Scripture, but I also talk to God about my life, movies, shows, and politics. And inspiration sometimes comes to me through that process.
When I talk to God as I’m walking to a destination, my mind can easily turn to a downward, negative direction. Unfortunately, I grumble to God more than I should. But there are times when my mind manages to get outside of itself, as it focuses on theological, biblical, or ethical questions. Yesterday, as I was complaining to God, a thought occurred to me: “Look, you (James) may have a problem with God, but maybe you should see God as the good. I may be disappointed with God a lot, but I have no problem with the good. The good is how we should treat other people, and God embodies it. I may not live consistently according to goodness, but goodness does inspire me. I recognize its value. So, whenever I have issues with the Christian God, I should remember that God is the good. And I cannot disagree with goodness.”
There are also times when my mind ties the Scripture I am reading to my problem. Yesterday, I was having feelings of hopelessness, when the thought occurred to me: This passage I’m reading on Jesus’ resurrection may relate to how I am feeling. Jesus had hopelessness and death thrown at him, yet he managed to conquer it. Somehow, the resurrection relates to my inner struggles. Perhaps it possesses a cure!
Is this God? Is it me? I don’t know. I’m reluctant to attribute any insight that I have to God, since it may be fallible. But I’d like to think that God is ministering to me in some fashion.
There are many times when I just don’t know what to say to God, for my mind is blank! I have snags in my prayer life, as I do in many social encounters. But, so far, I find that just being with God and trying to say something can lead to my edification. Perhaps I should try being silent more, but I’m afraid that doing so will lead to total inactivity, which is a waste of time, and so I try to talk. During my Esther quiet times, I found that I had very little to say, so I said a lot of stupid things (mainly about animals I’ve had in the past). Right now, I try to avoid saying stupid things. But I attempt to say something insightful to God: about the text, about life, about anything. And, in many cases, just looking at the text again and again can yield new observations.
So that’s the history of my prayer life, through thick and thin! God bless you!