Pray with joy

God is love, and prayer centered on love is highly important in Christian practice. The second aspect is conviction (or faith). (See Ask, and it shall be given you.)

This isn’t meant to be understood in an abstract way, but a concrete, experienced way. For it to matter, it has to be real.

So, pray with joy. Joy contains love, and is a kind of enthusiasm. Hence, it contains both love and cultivates conviction. By praying with joy you connect with God more fully.

A recipe for prayer is to infuse joy into prayer, and then let go, letting God do his work. This recipe will increase both love and conviction in your prayer life.

How do you infuse joy into prayer? The first step is to ask God to come into your heart and mind. Then actively see joy in whatever situation you are praying about – don’t focus on what you fear, but a joyful outcome. ‘Love casteth out fear.’ Then let go, knowing God is working to align things and guide you in your actions to bring more joy into the world.

The point of prayer with joy is to bring more joy not just into your heart (which is highly important) but into the world outside.

Fear -> Love

One process of violence is as follows.

Lie -> fear -> anger -> violence.

The lie is often something one tells to oneself – a mistaken belief about the world which, upon reflection, we can see isn’t well grounded. This belief causes fear in us – perhaps a belief we will lose something – and the fear causes the emotion of anger. Basically, we feel threatened in some sense, and so respond with violence to destroy whatever might cause us to lose something.

This process then causes similar aspects of the process in another person, which leads to more violence, hence a cycle of violence.

The violence here could be physical, but also emotional or verbal – in essence, it is negative energy directed toward things in your thoughts. In an expansive and perhaps truer sense, this is what violence is. (‘Thou shalt not kill’ can be understand in this more expansive sense, and certainly that’s the logic Jesus works to unpack.) So, this cycle is an everyday cycle, something that for most people happens everyday and perhaps many times per day. It negatively affects our relationships, our stress levels, and our well-being.

So, how does one break the cycle? Through ‘metanoia’, or changing one’s mind. The key is to detect the lie, feeling of fear, or feeling of anger, and instead

Let go of negative emotion -> forgive -> love -> focus on goodness for the other person or situation.

Ask, and it shall be given you

The Gospel according to Matthew has the famous section which begins

“Ask, and it shall be given you.”

Matthew 7:7

Jesus then reiterates what he is saying to emphasize it.

“For every one who asketh receiveth.”

Matthew 7:7

Yet, this seems puzzling. Many Christians ask and don’t receive. What is going on here?

A clue is in the letter from St. James.

“Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.”

James 4:3

St. James is saying that they ask in the wrong way. This leads to another question – what is the right way?

Here we can turn to St. John.

“And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do.”

John 14:13

Note ‘name’. Name here does not mean a label or tag – rather it means the essence of something. So we should ask ‘in’ God’s essence – what does that mean? We get the answer shortly after the above verse.

“If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.”

John 15:7

So here we can see that asking in the right spirit means abiding in God and his words abiding in us. To abide means to rest in, or to dwell in. It means more than just a fleeting experience. So what does it mean to abide in God? Finally, we get the answer in St. John’s first letter.

“God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”

1 John 4:16

The language here is very similar to that in John 15:7.

So, the answer to our question of what the right way to ask is, is in the abiding spirit of divine love.

Here is what I want to emphasize. This isn’t abstract – rather, to pray in the right spirit is to experience love – to have a tangible experience of the presence of God. As St. John says, God is love. This is the key to much of the Gospel message.

So how do you have an experience of love? Much of what Jesus says is aimed at this. For examples, letting go of fear, resentment, and anger is important because those block the experience of this love. Letting God into one’s heart, which is to say letting God’s love into one’s heart. Divine love and emotions like fear are incompatible – one will inevitably end up removing the other one.

Once you are in the right spirit, you also won’t be asking for things like you might in a selfish state (as St. James says, ‘consuming it upon your lusts’).

However, this isn’t all there is to say about how to ask. St. James gives us the second big key.

“But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think he shall receive any thing of the Lord.”

James 1:6

The term ‘faith’ here is meant to convey conviction. So, we have the two keys to asking.

  1. Ask in the abiding spirit of love.
  2. Ask with conviction – with a certainty in God.

How to transform anger into joy

Anger affects not only the object of the anger, but the person who holds the anger. And we do ‘hold’ on to it. So, how do we transform anger into an emotion like love or joy?

  1. Let go of the negative emotion. Just as we hold anger, we can let it go. This can be prompted by simply feeling the emotion being let go.
  2. Re-contextualize. Often, especially with more powerful emotions, it is difficult to simply let go of the emotion. So, it is useful to also re-contextualize the situation. The archetype for this is Jesus’ words as he was being crucified – an extremely dramatic way for him to make clear the point and importance of forgiving. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Here, Jesus re-contextualizes what is happening – it is a product of the people who are crucifying him not having spiritual truth.
  3. See harmony, joy, love, and so on, instead, in relation to the situation. Again, Jesus gives the keys here. “Bless those who persecute you.” So, see good things for the situation, and in particular, send love towards the person who is the object of your previous negative emotions.

Repeat these, switching from one to the other until the felt intensity of the negative emotion is gone, and there is a felt intensity of the positive emotion.

It might require a large number of repetition before the negative emotion is gone (“How many times should I forgive, 7 times?” “7 and 70 times.”)

It is very difficult for a negative emotion, such as anger, to exist simultaneously with a positive emotion, such as love. This process will typically benefit not just the object of the negative emotions (for example, you will be better able to respond to their behaviour, think clearly about the situation, take steps towards a better relationship where appropriate, and so on), but (often more importantly) it will benefit yourself, because you will no longer have the direct impact of those negative emotions on your physiology and the effect of them on how you interact with other people who may not have any involvement in the situation.

Doing this when you have quiet time and the ability to focus on and connect with God will help with appropriately responding to the emotions when they come up in the moment.

Repeatedly freeing yourself from the bondage of negative emotions leads to a kind of emotional freedom, and often this is characterized by a quiet joy in your day-to-day life. You are no longer controlled by these negative emotions (as much), and can choose a better way to respond and better things to focus on.

Fear not

Jesus repeatedly warns against fear (including worry). Why?

Part of this comes from the first commandment of the Old Testament. ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ When someone fears something, it is easy for them to put that thing ahead of God. So, instead of doing what God leads us to do, we do what our fear leads us to do.

There are some cases where fear is warranted and useful. In these cases, it is a call for action – there is some action we should take (a plan to make, something to practice, and so on), and so the appropriate response it to take the action and then let go of the fear. Usually, however, it isn’t warranted and limits what we can do.

This is why trust is integral to Christian practice. If you don’t trust God, but instead fear every little thing when it comes to your vocation or what God is telling you to do, you’re not going to get very far. Trust is the antidote of fear.

We say that ‘fear has a hold on one’, but the truth is more the reverse – we hold onto emotions of fear. The way to let go of fear in many cases is to literally feel oneself letting go of the emotion.

  1. Quiet your mind and reach out to God.
  2. Think of the fear. Now feel yourself letting go of the emotion of fear. Repeat this until there is no more fear present.
  3. Now, replace that with a feeling of goodness, harmony, love, success, and so on (whatever is relevant), for the situation.

This is a simple pattern one can repeat whenever one senses a fear that doesn’t have a legitimate basis (again, where it does, take the relevant action and then let go of the fear). We are holding onto it, and in the process making an idol of what it refers to. By letting go of the fear, we can more easily put God back into first place.

Thou shalt not kill

The logic of ‘thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:13) can be thought to run deeper in the context of Christianity. To ‘kill’ someone is to harbour negative emotions towards them (see Matthew 5:21, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”).

The better response is to let go of those negative emotions (‘forgive those who have trespassed against you’) and then to express goodwill or love towards the object of those emotions instead (‘love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you’).

One prayer format for this is fairly simple. The first thing is to find a moment in the day when you will have several minutes where you won’t be interrupted, and relax and quiet your mind. Reach out to God. Then, with a specific person or situation in mind,

  1. Let go of any negative emotions that come up with regard to a specific person or situation. This is literally to ‘forgive’, or let go. The important thing here is to feel this letting go.
  2. Replace that with goodwill or love towards that person. Again, it is important to actually feel this love or goodwill towards the person. See harmony, good, and so on, for this person.
  3. Now see harmony, good, love, and so on, for the situation in general.

In some cases, doing this once is sufficient. The negative emotions are released, and replaced with better ones. In some cases, however, it requires repetition. When Jesus was asked how many times one ought to forgive, he said ‘7 and 70’.

Travel light

“Jesus commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only.” Mark 6:8-9

The point here is to get going, and then rely upon God. Once you get clear direction from God, it’s easy to dawdle, thinking you need to prepare more, get this or that in order, and so on.

If the instruction is from God, the right thing to do is get going. Part of getting going is realizing you can ‘travel light’, not depending on yourself but on God. This applies not just to physical stuff, but to mental stuff. You might think you need to get a Ph.D. before you can start teaching, or study every book before you can utter a word.

But if God is calling you, just get going. Those sorts of steps might happen along the way, but it’s easy to lie to ourselves about what needs to happen next.

First cast the beam out of thine own eye

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3)

1. Before you criticize someone else, look to yourself. Scour your conscience, and see if you do what you are about to criticize them for.

2. If so, first ‘cast out the beam out of  thine own eye’. This means working to change your own behavior first.

3. Once you have changed your own behavior, return and help the other person through constructive criticism, or whatever is relevant.

So the habit is to reflexively look to oneself before criticizing, and honestly search to see if one does the thing one is about to criticize someone else for.

It is easy for us to have blindspots about our own behavior, so this has to be an honest search. Take at least 1 minute to search.

The basic pattern is “this person is wrong about x” -> “do I do x in some way, shape, or form?” -> put in the work to change one’s own actions -> use that experience to help the other person.

The human impulse to blame others is at the base of scapegoating, which in turn is responsible for much of the problems in our own lives, and in the world in general. So, first look to yourself! This not only decreases the negative emotions in one’s life, it is ultimately empowering, as the spark that used to lead to blame begins instead to lead to an inner transformation that helps you and, ultimately, can help the person you’re about to blame.

Go into the desert

Many things can distract from a relationship with God. An aspect of the walking with God habit is to set aside time during the day, but it helps if this time is free from distractions, so you can focus on God. The internet, phones, even other people, all can act as distractions.

Just before Jesus began his public life, he went into the wilderness or desert for an extended period, and fasted. This place is characterized by an absence of distractions.

So, the ‘go into the desert’ habit is to set aside time each day, and longer periods of time at intervals, and create an environment that is relatively free of distractions, in order to cultivate your relationship with God.

Walks, hikes, time spent on an island away from regular busy-ness – all these things can be ‘going into a desert’, and can catalyze your spiritual life.

So, write down one thing you can do on a daily basis to create time with fewer distractions (perhaps turn off your phone while out on a walk), weekly (perhaps go for an hour-long hike), and then perhaps seasonally (for example, rent a cottage without the usual distractions nearby), and where you can spend that time focusing on God, such as the ask-listen-act cycle or opening up your heart.

If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out

“And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” – Matthew 18:9

This extremely important habit is the habit of avoiding negative influences. Jesus here uses hyperbole, as he does often, to make the point memorable.

In an age of unprecedented media influence, this habit is highly important. In many cases, it is literally images entering through the eye that offend (which here means to make one worse off). The habit is to routinely

  1. Identify sub-optimal influences.
  2. Take action to remove or reduce them.
  3. Notice if that action is working, and if not, modify your approach.
  4. Repeat until you have removed or significantly reduced the influences.

This applies to all sorts of things, such as television, internet, or people. Jesus’ point is not to hesitate to remove it completely (don’t just remove it but also cast it from you). It is easy to underestimate how difficult it is to remove such negative influences, and how much of a benefit accrues from filling your day with better influences.

You can ask yourself what are the top 3 negative influences in your life right now? Write them out. Then think up one action to remove or reduce each of them. Then take the first step to implement that action.

The point is to make actions 1.-4. into a habit – until it becomes a reflex to notice sub-optimal influences about you, and then remove them.

As you do this, you will begin to notice that the tenor of your days begins to change. You can then take it the next step, and search out influences that are good to replace the negative influences with.