There’s this thing called sensory adaptation that I think is a really important psychological concept to understand as Christ-followers (if you are one). This phenomenon has a lot to do with one’s threshold to a certain stimuli.
AP Psychology was one of my favorite classes in high school, and for the purposes of faith and pondering how to deepen my faith, one of my favorite lessons [in hindsight] was on the related concept of the threshold effect. What we did to demonstrate this effect is hand someone an empty canvas bag and ask them to hold it out over the four fingers of one hand, palm-up, and with the arm straight out in front. This someone (which I’ll refer to as the subject for the rest of this little opening blurb), would keep his/her arm straight out and close his/her eyes or be blindfolded by someone else. The subject is then asked to note when there is a change in the weight of the bag by speaking up.
The way the subject was set to hold the bag left it open and made it pretty easy to put things in. We started with unsharpened pencils, one by one, very meticulously placing them in the bag as not to disturb it. The subject said nothing almost two boxes of pencils in.
Then we had a rock.
Theoretically, if you placed the rock in slowly and carefully enough, you could get it in the bag without the subject noticing the weight change, but if the subject wears a shirt or blouse with anything fluffed or hanging from it that (upon contact with the subject’s side) would alert him/her to his/her arm having moved, the change in stimuli will register in the brain— both the unrealized movement of the arm, and the added weight to the previously empty bag.
I think prayer is a lot like this for us. The pencils are the things we ask for, meanwhile the rocks and bricks and heavier things are the praise and worship we bring. When you hesitate to put the heavier things in, the results will hesitate to occur or be realized. When you throw all you have into that bag, you’ll see a lot more a lot quicker what God has already blessed you with and how to glorify Him in that blessing.
And this isn’t to say that the metaphorical pencil cannot do the same. For most, throwing a pencil rather than painstakingly placing it into the bag won’t cause one’s arm to be yanked to their side, but the brain will recognize that there is now something in the bag even without seeing what it is. All has its own affect. What the affect is [whether it feels more like a pencil or a stone] is more a matter of the heart behind the prayer and/or the recipient of God’s subsequent action.
But here’s where my mention of sensory adaptation comes in: a consistent stimulus will, to the brain, become like white noise if we do not intentionally call attention to it. Likewise, prayer and its impact becomes like white noise after a while when we do it just to rant to God, when we do it just because we should do it every day, or when we fail to intentionally recognize that as much as prayer is for you, it’s also not about you. I mean think about it, God already knows everything… He literally just wants to hear it from you and engage with you. He doesn’t need to know it, but you need to spend time conversing with Him to truly get to know Him. He won’t force you to engage, but He freely gave us easy access into this conversation with Him through prayer.
So when we are selfishly asking for things we want, that’s us trying to mask the weight of the pencil. When you sing your heart out in “worship” because you think you sound good, you’re masking the weight of that stone. When we are “half-in” for Jesus or not “in” at all, we are putting on a facade; we deny ourselves by what the world considers to be “accepting” ourselves.
But to boldly throw all these things into “the bag” (which I hope is kind of clear by now is metaphor for the foot of the cross), we see the impact. There is no doubt of God’s working even in the midst of our doubt when it’s all boldly thrown at the foot of the cross.
I often wonder how many people needed healing in the days of Jesus’s earthly ministry and yet passed up the opportunity to ask Jesus for help because they doubted He could do what so many had seen Him do. How many doubted His intentions in performing all these miracles? How many didn’t honestly say to Him, “I’m not sure You can, but I’m at my end”? How many didn’t admit “I believe, but help my unbelief”?
There’s something else about prayer though that I haven’t heard said enough. Most people (especially people of different or no faith) tend think of prayer as placing oneself in a different world that may or may not exist to talk to some distant, far-off creature that we just decided one day was our source for everything we have and need in this world. Even Christians too often seem to think prayer is this set time we try to carve out of our reality to talk at God.
If either of these are the case for you, it would be remiss of me not to tell you that you’re getting it all wrong.
In its broadest secular meanings and also in a more specific reference to religious life, the word “faith” is profoundly important to all of us… It is obvious that my having kept faith with the citizens when I was in office and the faith that I have in my Creator and moral values are not the same.Faith: A journey for all, Jimmy Carter
See, we were created to live in constant communion with God. Go back to Eden before the fall and you’ll find this to be true of Adam and Eve’s lives until they decided to step outside of that relationship. God walked among them in the garden, no matter where in the garden they went. That’s reality— the world we were created to live and abide in— but we were born into a world that does not have this as a result of the fall.
Our “reality” is this sin-ridden world and although God is still omnipresent, He doesn’t quite walk among us in the same way He once did, except for the 33 years of Jesus’s life. Our “reality” is that life ends. Our “reality” is that we need to go to school, have a job, a solid career, and a lot of money to be successful. Our “reality” is that Jesus is some guy the lived about 2000 years ago and for whatever reason flipped the years from B.C. to A.D. (or B.C.E. to C.E. if you use more recent textbooks that attempt to push Christ out of the picture).
One of the great sorrows which came to human beings when Adam and Eve left the Garden was the loss of memory, memory of all that God’s children are meant to be.Walking on Water: Reflections on faith & art, Madeline L’Engle
But prayer grounds us in the reality that God may not walk among us as He did in Eden right now, but He will in heaven and in the new earth when we hear “well done, good and faithful servant.” Prayer reminds us of the reality that yes this life ends, but with Jesus that’s not the end of the sentence. Prayer grounds us in the reality that we need Jesus above everything else to not only have success in any sense of the word (not just monetary or career success) but have joy in the midst of it. Prayer is a chance for us to reflect on the fact that yes, Jesus physically lived 2000 years ago, but He lives on today having changed the course of history and the eternity of countless souls that He doesn’t need but loves anyway.
Prayer is not an escape from reality, but rather an escape into it. As real as everything we see and feel and experience right now is, it isn’t steadfast or eternally true. It’s nothing to build a house on. Prayer is our active diving into the reality of God— that He is our home and our eternal foundation and our peace and our comfort… nothing else that may beg for those titles in our lives could ever live up to that.
This all said, what we pray is not indicative of who we are or what believe, no matter how pure and holy it may sound. What matters is the heart.
I admit, I wanted to tie this whole thing together with a pretty little bow, maybe try to make this whole thing come full circle to the whole psychology lesson I just dished out, but I couldn’t. I spent some time in prayer that didn’t include writing and found this clip that I think really sums up the distinction between prayer as a moment cut out of our days and prayer as a lifestyle and a mindset we have that helps us better live by the reality it helps us access.
Colby had me thinking of the moment I would go back to and say “that’s the moment I was saved.” I confessed in tears among a sea of then-strangers, without a word or a specifically formatted prayer. I’d almost lean towards saying that momentary rush of tears was the beginning of my prayer that hasn’t ended– the beginning of my recognizing and being reminded “the control isn’t mine anyway, so whom else have I to trust but You?” Has that perfectly been the case? Of course not. I am no less human than any of you. I have also had moments or entire seasons where I did not take the time to simply be. Prayer is a conversation, after all, and we are given the wisdom in James 1 of the value in not simply speaking (as Proverbs 18:21 reminds us) but of listening– or as Madeline L’Engle puts it:
When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me…Walking on Water: Reflections on faith & art, Madeline L’Engle
When we are busiest, we tend to find it much harder to truly spend time with God.
I do this thing a lot when I go out with friends late in the day where I check my watch a lot. My reasons aren’t that I don’t want to spend time with them– of course I do– but rather that I don’t want to get home so late that I might wake up my parents once they go to bed. While my reasons aren’t bad, sometimes I start to wonder whether or not I’m really spending time with my friends at that point or not. Even though the issue has become progressively less pressing as of late, on occasion I still scratch my head over it.
Spending time with God should not be us checking a watch every few minutes asking ourselves when is this going to end? Even though in my example above this doesn’t exactly fit, we should be able to simply bask in His presence, hear Him out, and bring Him along for the journey of whatever He directs us to. Prayer is giving God our input, but listening and trusting His action and guidance despite our own confirmation biases. It’s interacting and paying attention because you care enough about the One who cares for you beyond measure.
So what is reality, really?
It’s His presence.
It’s abiding in Him. That’s the reality we were separated from when sin came into our human condition.
Reality is that that does not have to be the end of the story.
Reality is that the bridge between us right now and eternity with God has been built by the blood of Jesus, and it’s a narrow road.
Reality is that as long as you’re breathing, you are loved more than enough and given abundant grace for all of your mistakes and percieved imperfections because you’re therefore given another moment to realize His mercy and love for you along with all the other parts of who He is.
Reality is that when you live a life saturated in prayer and true conversation with God, when you act according to what He’s said, He transforms you from what either you think you made yourself to be, or what you think others have made you out to be.
Reality is that this conversation with God to the earnestly believing heart, though you cannot see Him, brings more Truth to one’s life than anything we consider “reality” here on earth. Though God can certainly use things in this world to speak to us, the things He uses are not Him, nor will the things He says to us through them ever go against His Word.
So yes, carve out that time just for prayer, but don’t limit your prayers to that. Make prayer all that you do.