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In an ideal world, major Christian holidays wouldn’t fill me with self-doubt and alienation. Take this past season of Lent. I abstained from a lot of the apps on my phone and managed to use the Book of Common Prayer to pray through some of the holy days. But as usual, it was less than I wanted to do. Less than I assumed God wanted me to do.
Less-than. It’s how I often rate my spirituality.
That sense of inadequacy a long-running pattern. In college, I felt guilty that I spent only 20-30 minutes to do quiet times when friends seemed to fit in an hour or more. After college, going through a crisis of faith, I abandoned the Bible altogether, and felt sure it was giving me the side-eye from its dusty place on my bookshelf. And once I had kids, my time squeezed out like toothpaste from a tube, I felt terrible about how hard it was to practice spiritual disciplines at all.
My most consistent spiritual discipline has been shaming myself about spiritual disciplines. Is that really what God wants for me?
Shame takes a lot of mental energy. It also makes spending time with God seem like a chore, something I do because I should, not because I’m legitimately thirsty. Shame is incredibly corrosive.
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Here’s what’s crazy: the shame is a lie. I’m not in charge of my spiritual life; Jesus is. I’m not responsible for healing and change; Jesus is. And even if I don’t feel adequate, Jesus most certainly is.
Turning over that shame to him is a work in progress, though. Here’s how I’m practicing.
I’d like to want to pray as much as I want to go play a round of Angry Birds. Sometimes I do want that, of course: praying with my prayer partner, resting on the Sabbath, studying the Word in my small group brings me lasting joy. But often, at 8 pm, I don’t feel like picking up my Bible. I’d rather go zone out.
Then the litany of shame starts. What kind of Christian would rather fling birds at pigs than spend time with Jesus?
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The usual ‘disciplined’ response to this conundrum is to try harder—to remind myself that Angry Birds is junk food, and that praying is whole wheat bread. That better discipline will develop my spiritual core like crunches for my abs.
But I have a tricky relationship withtrying harder after experiencing abuse (spiritual and otherwise) early in my life. I spent years being “good” under threat. Trying harder repeats patterns that shredded me.
I sense God tugging me towards surrender instead of more effort. When I feel shame about not wanting to pray, I stop, and offer up a super-simple, one sentence prayer:
Help me desire to come close to you, Jesus.
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Draw me deeper to your heart, Lord.
Father, help me to want to spend time with you.
Sometimes this prayer helps me pray longer. Sometimes it doesn’t.
I’m trying not to judge the results. I’m trying to stop trying and start depending. To trust that God can change even me.
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These tiny little prayers feel like cheating. How can I get out of time with God using one measly sentence? Does that even count?
The words “cheating”, “get out of” and “count,” reveal something. They’re all pretty bleak and transactional, aren’t they? I assume prayer is something unpleasant that gets me results, like a tax return or a root canal.
God doesn’t desire a quid-pro-quo from me, but a minute-by-minute dependence.
The words I use about prayer reveal exactly how much heart-change I need.
I try hard in my life. In writing, I make goals. I make a list of each day’s homeschool assignments. I plan the week’s meals. I set reminders to tell me to weed the yard, to pay bills, to call friends regularly, to volunteer.
I’ve tried that hard-working drive in my spiritual life. I end up exhausting and frustrating myself.
Jesus speaks of an easy yoke. If we’re constantly working harder, trying more, and getting stressed and shamed about our faith, something is terribly out of whack.
I long to be sanctified, mature, and complete. But I’m not the One who blesses or heals. I have severe limits, and I run into them every day.
The tiny, one-sentence prayers remind me that all Jesus needs is a mustard-seed of faith.
He created the world out of nothing. Could He not do the same with me? Dear Lord: I need Jesus, not better self-discipline.
And I long for Jesus to change me—for his power to be made manifest—instead of me attempting it with white knuckles and resentment.
As I practice these tiny prayers for transformation, I’ve realized I need new eyes to notice the prayer I actually do.
God is in the long walks where I breathe the Jesus prayer, the robust theological books that heal the abuse I went through as a kid, the desperate, impromptu prayers I offer for my kids, the quiet I cultivate when I suffer from insomnia.
He’s most definitely within the constant discipline of turning over my shame to Him.
Tiny prayers bring thousand-fold blessings. And the biggest blessing is this: I can cultivate the presence of God in every moment. I can open my eyes and see His presence everywhere.
Shame lies about how hard I have to work at faith. Shame keeps me blind to the ways God is already growing and healing me. Shame substitutes a checklist for a relationship. It uses the logic of the marketplace instead of the dear, loving embrace of a Father.
I’m dropping my yardstick and falling to the ground, ready to depend on the One who whispers beloved.
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Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.