This summer, we’re running a short series of adapted selections from my book, How to Be a Bad Christian. (If you’d prefer to get the whole thing at once, it’s available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.) Subscribe to get our next post in your inbox.
Last week, I wrote that I have to pay attention to God paying attention to me. It’s easy to get distracted from God’s presence and action in my life. The water of his affectionate attention for me runs deeper than I can imagine, but I go thirsty unless I put my bucket down into the well.
In this week’s post, I want to look at a four-step process we can follow to anchor our hearts in God’s attention to us. To turn to God’s attention, we can ask, open up, wait, and look the cross.
The Bible not only contains the teaching that God is paying attention to us; it shows us how to put our bucket down into the well of his love. We particularly find this kind of guidance in the Psalms. In these poem prayers, we find that the first step in receiving God’s attention is to simply ask for it. Consider these verses from Psalm 17:
Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer
Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings
As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.
Psalm 17:1, 8, 15 NRSV
The psalmist both conveys beautiful images of God’s attentive character and asks God to show that character. If I use the words of this prayer, I’m asking God to look after me protectively, treasuring me and guarding me, holding me close like a bird would its chicks. These are images of everyday intimacy, of deep knowing.
The psalmist is confident that he will see God’s face and be satisfied. At the same time, this confidence leaves room for asking God to pay attention; these images are offered in the form of requests.
At first blush, it might seem redundant to ask God to do what he is already doing. It’s not as though God is distracted, buried in a project, and only looks up at his children when they cry out, “Pay attention to me!” Human parents inevitably disappoint their children’s need for attention in this way, but God’s love is infinite. He has never been distracted from loving us. He does not need our prayers to remind him to pay attention.
Even so, asking God to pay attention gives voice to our deep longing for his love. The asking is more for us than for God. It puts us in a position in which we are ready to truly receive. Asking does not alter God’s basic attitude toward us, nor is it a spiritual hoop that God expects us to jump through before he gives us what we need. Asking accomplishes something substantive and important in us, to prepare us for God’s response. If we are unable to ask, there is some genuine problem. Perhaps we are unaware of our need for God’s attention, or lack the humility to come to him with our hat in hand and simply request it. If so, asking itself is the best solution. It aligns us to the reality of our need and the abundance of God’s grace.
Another aspect of receiving God’s attention is to open ourselves to him with honesty about the real situation of our lives. Pretending to be happier or more put together than we are closes us off from God. We can only truly meet him when we come to him as we are. Naked emotional honesty with God may not be possible at first, especially if we are just beginning in our walk with him. Like with anyone new, we tend to hedge our confessions, to test the waters.
The theological knowledge that God already knows our thoughts and feelings doesn’t necessarily speed up the process; we have to experientially learn that he is a good Father, willing to really listen to us, by sharing and baring our soul one step at a time.
In the psalms, we see the heartbreaking prayers of men and women who have learned to speak openly with God, without fear. They are asking for God to show up. Consider these passages:
Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
I am distraught
Psalm 55:1-2 NRSV
Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
when my heart is faint.
Psalm 61:1-2 NRSV
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
Psalm 130:1-2 NRSV
Sometimes the Bible even gives voice to the feeling that God is no longer paying attention:
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For we sink down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
Psalm 44:23-26 NRSV
If you’ve journeyed with God for some time, and you feel that longing for his attention, then these passages offer you the space to speak with God frankly about whether you feel like he’s paying attention or not. The confidence of faith in God’s “steadfast love” is fully compatible with the anxious cry, “Why do you hide your face?” I still find myself hesitant to ask God these kinds of questions. It seems too bold, too self-centered even, to imply that my suffering can justify making such demands of God. It almost seems like I would be accusing God of doing something wrong! When I pray, I tend to qualify any negative statements: “God, I know you’re listening, but it just doesn’t feel like it.” And that kind of timid, qualified cry for help may be a place to start when I feel abandoned. The Scriptures themselves invite us to just call it how it is, to speak from the anguish directly: “Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” Why aren’t you listening to me? Why aren’t you paying attention?
While inviting us into honesty about our negative emotions toward God, these passages also evoke a positive expectation of what life with God can be like. The writers call out to God, waiting for him to respond. Behind and beneath their fear and anger, they hold some kind of faith in God’s responsiveness. They still believe he is worth talking to. They appeal to his character, his love, as well as his place in their lives: he is still their Lord and God. Their words show that they believe he can do what they are asking of him: give ear, attend, listen, hear. They believe God is the kind of God who pays attention to them, and they’re asking why that hasn’t been the case lately. You can hear the affection and familiarity in their pleas: “You’re not like this, God. You’re loving and attentive. What’s happened?” These words of abandonment imply the basic attention of God by voicing distress at its absence. The cry of forsakenness is not just found side-by-side with proclamations of faith; in the paradox of prayerful suffering it is itself a cry of faith.
There is reason to believe that such faith will not be disappointed. Emotional honesty with God may not lead to dramatic epiphanies or sudden breakthroughs. The Bible does not provide any blanket promises of immediate freedom from suffering. Yet many of these passages, even those with the deepest grief, are intertwined with words that attest to the experience of God’s goodness and favor. The writers voice their trouble in expectation that God will somehow meet them in the middle of it all. Each of these verses follows one of those above:
But I call upon God,
and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he will hear my voice.
He will redeem me unharmed
from the battle that I wage,
for many are arrayed against me.
Psalm 55:16-18 NRSV
Lead me to the rock
that is higher than I;
for you are my refuge,
a strong tower against the enemy.
Psalm 61:2-3 NRSV
These passages call for a practice of waiting on God. Time may pass, with little apparent change in our situation, but even so we remain where we are, and remain open to God. We call on him, trusting that he will save us, that he will redeem us unharmed, that he will be our refuge.
But what does that actually mean? In my experience, prayer does not always lead to an immediate emotional transformation. If I’m in a season of sadness, prayer does not make me immediately happy. If I’m in a season of anxiety, prayer does not make my fears vanish. Even so, there is a deliverance that God gives me when I open myself to him, as I really am. It’s not freedom from experiencing negative emotions, but rather freedom from being dominated by them. In God’s presence, I find that I can be sad and that being sad won’t kill me. I can still feel the tug of anxiety, but I know that Jesus is with me. Even in the middle of pain, I can feel the joy of his love. The difficulty and suffering of life does not have to go away in order for me to receive his attention.
The Apostle Paul described it, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10 NRSV). Even when our experience is darkness and death, it can become a place of meeting Jesus, who entered darkness and death for us and speaks his word of new life over the bleakest of circumstances.
Look to the Cross
Paul’s words bring us to the heart of receiving God’s attention: looking upon the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is the center of God’s attentiveness to us. In another passage, Paul writes, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NRSV). Jesus’ sacrifice is the best demonstration of God’s basic attitude toward us. He is so for us, so aware of our needs, so willing to do whatever is necessary to help us, that Jesus laid down his life for us. Jesus accomplished that which we could not accomplish for ourselves: he destroyed sin and death by bearing it for us in his own body and rose again to give us eternal life.
On the cross, Jesus also entered into the experience of human suffering. When we are in distress, if we turn our eyes to the cross, we remember we are not alone in whatever pain we face. Jesus has come close to us in suffering itself. When we are in a time of anguish, the cross can be a refuge beyond words and unsatisfactory answers to unanswerable questions. My wife Katie writes of her experience with both physical pain and depression, “Most answers are unhelpful. This is why I keep coming back to Jesus’ Passion. Even when nothing gets better, God is with us in Jesus’ deepest pain, not even trying to offer encouragements, but just being there. And that is enough.”
But that central truth is so easy to forget. As frequently as I find myself drawn to other sources of attention, I need reminders of God’s deepest attention to me. These reminders can be practical, even mundane: simply seeing or touching a cross can be enough. I find frequent contact with the symbol of the cross to be tremendously helpful. There’s one at my desk at work, and another in my bedroom. I wear a cross necklace every day, so that it’s always within reach. I’m drawn into reflection on Jesus’ sacrifice at church as I look at the large cross at the front of the sanctuary. In whatever form the reminder comes, I need it. God draws me to himself through the cross.
Asking, opening up, waiting, and looking to the cross. As we incorporate these practices into our lives, we begin to experience God’s attention to us more fully. That attention slowly fills up the gap in our soul, paying down the attention debt. As we feel more at peace in God’s attention, we become less dependent upon frantically extracting attention from others. We loosen our grip on those things which we thought were essential, whether it’s the laughter of our classmates and colleagues or the approval of our teachers and bosses. Our knowledge of God’s love for us becomes more and more fully part of our lived experience.
- Of the four steps (ask, open up, wait, and look the cross), which is the most difficult for you?
- Do you have regular contact with a physical cross of some kind? What are ways you can focus on this symbol as part of your daily routine?
- Consider listening to “Open My Hands” by Alli Rogers and Sara Groves, and praying along with it.
Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash
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