Ian* sighed and said that he had been a Christian all his life, having been raised in a Christian home with a pastor as a father. Church life was the norm – and yes, he believed in God.
He had sought counselling after many years of caring for his sick wife, and was now feeling burnt out and directionless.
When asked to describe his relationship with God he paused. After some consideration he said: “When I look back over my life I can see that God was there with me and that there is possibly evidence that he provided for and protected me.”
Ian was describing a “retrospective” relationship with God. He was 33 years old and had never had a “God encounter”. Though he had attended church and fellowshipped with other Christians, he could not say he had felt God’s presence in “the present”; heard God’s voice; or really knew God in an intimate way.
When asked how he thought God’s voice might sound he imagined a “Hollywood-wise-old-man” voice booming from the upper echelons of heaven.
Ian’s prayer was a one way conversation, he was listening out for the Hollywood voice rather than the “still small voice”.
Ian, and many Christians like him, battle on – drawing strength from fellowship, Bible stories or church ritual, believing in God because they can retrospectively attribute any blessings in their lives to God’s handy work.
Is there more? If so, in what context does a rich prayer life affect one’s relationship with, and expectations of, God?
Maybe a good place to start is by determining: What is prayer?
What is Prayer?
Prayer is an ancient practice that is embodied by many cultures, both Christian and non Christian. Some cultures include rituals such as: meditation, stilling of the mind, fasting, isolation, chanting, counting beads and using repetitive phrases.
According to CARM Prayer Ministry (1), prayer is “the practice of the presence of God. It is the place where pride is abandoned, hope is lifted, and supplication is made. Prayer is the place of admitting our need, of adopting humility, and claiming dependence upon God. Prayer is the needful practice of the Christian.”
Unfortunately this definition describes the one way process experienced by Ian rather than the rich dialogue and intimacy that many hope for.
God is a God of relationship not a God of remoteness, or distance. He calls us to deep interaction with Him. Encountering God in a tangible way comes as a break through for many Christians, when they seek a personal relationship with Him that is significant and meaningful, has purpose but most of all is interactive.
Harvard scientist H. Benson (2), dedicated thirty years to research on distant intercessory prayer.
“For Buddhists, prayer is meditation. For Catholics, it’s the rosary. For Jews, it’s called dovening. For Protestants, it’s centering prayer. Every single religion has its own way of doing it.”
Benson studied the effects of meditation, the Buddhist form of prayer, to understand how the mind affects the body. He believed that all forms of prayer evoked a relaxation response that reduced stress and promoted healing. The results of his latest study (3) in March 2006 showed that distant prayer by Christians not known to patients undergoing major cardiac surgery actually did more harm than good.
The Power of Prayer
A more recent international study (4) observed the effects of proximal intercessory prayer where people got up close to someone they knew, touched the person and empathized with their sufferings as they prayed for healing. The results concluded that a variety of healings occurred from proximal prayer which was shown to be effective and have measurable results, such as restoring hearing and vision.
“One subject, Jordan, was presented as deaf and mute since birth and made no responses to sounds at 100 dBHL; after proximal intercessory prayer, he responded to 60 dBHL tones, imitating sounds in a hoarse, raspy voice.”
Harold Koenig M.D. (5) identified some interesting facts about health and religious practices such as prayer:
- hospitalised people who never attended church have an average stay of three times longer than people who attended regularly.
- heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not participate in a religion.
- elderly people who never or rarely attended church had a stroke rate double that of people who attended regularly.
- in Israel, religious people had a 40% lower death rate from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
People who are more religious tend to become depressed less often. And when they do become depressed, they recover more quickly.
So how do we pray effectively?
“Teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1). The disciples had been watching Jesus for some time when they asked him this.
John Eldridge (6) suggests there are two types of prayer. The first, a cry from the heart that releases God to do his will in our lives and the second, the prayer of authority and spiritual warfare. Both forms of prayer are grounded in the Christian principle of submitting to Jesus: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Praying daily with purpose and intentionally listening for God’s direction are empowering and effective approaches for prayer. Linking into a prayer group and sharing how God is working NOW can be encouraging testimony to other believers searching to hear God.
There is a significant number of Christians joining together to experience the power of listening or journaling prayer. In a group of two or more, each person shares the emotions from their heart while the others tenderly support and listen. At the conclusion of the sharing, God is invited to speak into the hearts of the individuals who listen and scribe what they hear. Henri Nouwen describes his experience of the process:
“To gently push aside and silence the many voices that question my goodness and to trust that I will hear the voice of blessing – The real work of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice that says good things about me.” (7)
Christian Counselling: find the Power of Prayer
What does faith life mean to you? How does God speak and work in your life? Do you want to live an enriching life in God?
I am a Christian Counsellor, with training and experience as a facilitator in women’s healing ministry through the Search for Significance program (A. Meyers), as well as a Certificate 4 in Pastoral Care. As a Christian (Pentecostal) I can relate firsthand to the challenges of expressing and practicing one’s faith in the sometimes complex and contradictory roles and issues we are faced with on a daily basis.
As a mother and professional, I am experienced in balancing roles, juggling time management and relationships with the joy/burden of a growing family. As a Christian Counsellor, I can listen to your worries, concerns and beliefs, explore where you feel you are up to with your relationship with God, challenge misconceptions around shame and guilt, and explore strategies for deepening your faith.
Strong emotions such as fear, betrayal, grief and anger can lead to bitterness and resentment. This in turn can derail your faith, undermine your confidence and immobilise you, or cause Dis-Ease. Talking through concerns in a safe environment, where you will be respected, can help you to find meaning and significance in your life within the context of your faith.
Strategies we might utilise in counselling sessions include:
- exploring obstacles to achieving the life you want;
- listening to God with journalling;
- examining Scripture to support and strengthen your understanding of God’s promises for your life;
- setting small goals toward healthier relationships;
- boundary setting; and
- seeing yourself as God sees you.
As humans we struggle with frequent reminders of our failings, insecurities and shortcomings. Yet as Christians we can gain strength, encouragement and hope, knowing that we are created to be in relationship with God, and that we are loved and cherished.
Living a Christian life does not mean we have a life with no problems. Our faith combined with systems and strategies can build hope and confidence to help you move forward and live your life to the full.
Author: Julie Fickel, RN, PG Cert Health Science, PG Dip Midwifery, Cert 4 T & A, Cert 4 Pastoral Care.
Julie is a midwife who has completed additional training in counselling for a range of women’s issues – such as birth trauma, menopause, intimacy and post natal depression – but also in the field of Christian counselling.
Please note: Julie Fickel is currently not practising
- http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/can-prayer-heal?page=2 Jeanie Lerche Davis.
- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/candy-gunther-brown-phd/testing-prayer-science-of-healing_b_1299915.html – Testing Prayer: Science and Healing (Harvard University Press, 2012).
- Handbook of Religion and health. H. Koenig.
- Henri J.M. Nouwen. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.
*Not real name.