-by Jesse Hill
In last week’s sermon on the vice of sloth, I mentioned that one of the symptoms of sloth is that prayer becomes a difficult, obligatory act. When we are slothful (that is, when we are apathetic towards the transforming work of the Holy Spirit) we avoid encountering God in prayer out of fear that we might have to change in some way. As a result, our prayer time becomes a chore—a time to dispassionately recite a list of requests and minor concerns before we close the conversation off with a hurried “amen.”
Prayer is meant to be a continuous dialogue with the Living God, enabled by His Spirit living within us. This is why Paul is able to say that we should “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). When we are afflicted with sloth, prayer becomes an occasional chore, rather than a way of living in constant communion with God. In my sermon, I mentioned that the practice of Lectio Divina would be one way to move towards a more biblical practice of prayer.
The person afflicted with sloth might also consider deliberately asking more questions in prayer. Because sloth causes us to pray hurriedly and only in monologue rather than dialogue, we can work against sloth by asking questions of God and then leaving room for Him to respond to us.
Consider Augustine’s famous prayer:
How can I, who am [a created thing] ask you to come into me, when I would not exist at all unless you were already in me? Not yet am I in hell, after all but even if I were, you would be there too; for if I descend into the underworld, you are there. No, my God, I would not exist, I would not be at all, if you were not in me. Or should I say, rather, that I should not exist if I were not in you, from whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things? Yes, Lord, that is the truth, that is indeed the truth. To what place can I invite you, then, since I am in you? Or where could you come from, in order to come into me? To what place outside heaven and earth could I travel, so that my God could come to me there, the God who said, I fill heaven and earth?
Augustine echoes King David’s question of God: “Where could I go to flee from Your presence?…If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.” (Psalm 139). He also echoes King Solomon’s question, “Will God live on earth?” (1 Kings 8:27). By asking questions of God, Augustine participates in the the thoroughly Biblical practice of asking questions in order to allow room for God to speak.
Augustine, David, and Solomon all asked questions of God in prayer because they believed that prayer is a dialogue with God, a two-way conversation in which we not only share our concerns but encounter the Living God in a way that leaves us fundamentally changed.
For person long afflicted with sloth, it seems that God is always distant, and thus asking a question in prayer is daunting because the slothful cancer within says that God is too far away to answer. The slothful person not only fears encountering God—he or she is also afraid that if they ask, God will not respond at all. The fear is that we might ask, and hearing no answer, discover that our faith is a sham.
The solution to this is to not shrink back from seeking God. Scripture tells us that those who seek God will find Him. If we believe scripture, then we believe that asking questions of God will result in an encounter with Him.
The person sick to death from sloth should begin by asking where God is. Is God far away? Is He near? Veterans of faith know the “right” answers to these questions, yet our prayers sometimes mask a fear that God is too far away to respond. Rather than continuing to mask our doubts, we should bring them to God. We should pray like David, who asked, “Lord, why do you stand so far away? Why do you hide in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10) This is a prayer that takes real faith that God will listen, rather than letting our words fall to the ground.
Sufjan Stevens wrote a beautiful, David-like song asking these same questions of the Lord:
Here is the full text of Augustine’s prayer:
Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.
Grant me to know and understand, Lord, which comes first. To call upon you or to praise you? To know you or to call upon you? Must we know you before we can call upon you? Anyone who invokes what is still unknown may be making a mistake. Or should you be invoked first, so that we may then come to know you? But how can people call upon someone in whom they do not yet believe? And how can they believe without a preacher?
But scripture tells us that those who seek the Lord will praise him, for as they seek they find him, and on finding him they will praise him. Let me seek you then, Lord, even while I am calling upon you, and call upon you even as I believe in you; for to us you have indeed been preached. My faith calls upon you, Lord, this faith which is your gift to me, which you have breathed into me through the humanity of your Son and the ministry of your preacher.
How shall I call upon my God, my God and my Lord, when by the very act of calling upon him I would be calling him into myself? Is there any place within me into which my God might come? How should the God who made heaven and earth come into me? Is there any room in me for you, Lord, my God? Even heaven and earth, which you have made and in which you have made me – can even they contain you? Since nothing that exists would exist without you, does it follow that whatever exists does in some way contain you?
But if this is so, how can I, who am one of these existing things, ask you to come into me, when I would not exist at all unless you were already in me? Not yet am I in hell, after all but even if I were, you would be there too; for if I descend into the underworld, you are there. No, my God, I would not exist, I would not be at all, if you were not in me. Or should I say, rather, that I should not exist if I were not in you, from whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things? Yes, Lord, that is the truth, that is indeed the truth. To what place can I invite you, then, since I am in you? Or where could you come from, in order to come into me? To what place outside heaven and earth could I travel, so that my God could come to me there, the God who said, I fill heaven and earth?
Who will grant it to me to find peace in you? Who will grant me this grace, that you should come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you, my only good? What are you to me? Have mercy on me, so that I may tell. What indeed am I to you, that you should command me to love you, and grow angry with me if I do not, and threaten me with enormous woes? Is not the failure to love you woe enough in itself?
Alas for me! Through your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, I am your salvation. Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation. Let me run towards this voice and seize hold of you. Do not hide your face from me: let me die so that I may see it, for not to see it would be death to me indeed.
From St. Augustine’s Confessions (Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5)