Updated: Apr 20, 2020
I’ve recently been going through some of the most difficult times of my entire life; to say I’ve experienced some “ups and downs” would be a gross understatement. Some mornings it’s all I can do to get out of bed–the life feels drained out of me, and I don’t want to face anything. Or sometimes I feel great in the morning, but a sight or a smell during the day triggers something in my memory; suddenly my eyes well up with stinging tears and I feel as though I can’t breathe. The waves of emotion have been turbulent, threatening to knock me down and drag me out to sea.
The thing that has made the greatest difference in my ability to keep from being swept into the abyss has been routine. My established routine has meant the difference between being able to remain standing through stormy days, or being at the mercy of the waves. I get up, make coffee, empty the dishwasher, get the paper, feed the dog, shower, get dressed, go to work, and so on, as I have every day for years. Key to the process is not thinking about whether I feel like doing these things; if the thought “I don’t want to do this” comes to mind, I have to push it aside and just keep moving to the next thing.
As a Christian, I was taught that prayer and Bible reading should be part of this daily routine. Unlike the “just do it, don’t think about it” approach to physical routine, however, there’s always been a sense that spiritual routine should not really be “routine” in the way we often think of it. I somehow got the idea that prayer must “come from the heart” in order to be genuine, and the Bible should “speak” to us. In other words, if I don’t feel joyful, thankful, repentant, during my devotional time, I’m essentially being dishonest with myself and with God; if I don’t hear the voice of God while reading the Bible, it probably means I’m not really listening.
This may sound right, but it is a dangerous misunderstanding, and can lead to rarely if ever praying and reading–first, you avoid it for fear of doing it wrong, then you feel guilty for not doing it, so you try no to think about it, and gradually you grow more and more complacent until you nearly forget it completely.
Don’t get me wrong–there is something wonderful about being so full of gratitude or joy that heartfelt prayers bubble up within you, and hearing God speak clearly through His Word is a true blessing; both are gifts that most Christians experience often throughout their lives. But it’s not realistic to expect this to happen all the time; surely the alternative isn’t to stop praying altogether until the right feelings return?! In other areas of life, we don’t expect ourselves to always “feel before we speak” –most of us engage in a kind of “dishonest” behavior all the time without thinking for a moment that it’s somehow wrong.
For example, we speak encouragingly to our children even if we’ve had a bad day, we express thanks for dinner at someone’s house even if it wasn’t our favorite food, and we express love to our spouse even if we may not feel particularly romantic at the moment. We do these things because we are expressing the reality rather than simply the emotion of the moment. Even though positive feelings often do line up with reality, most of us would rather be “dishonest” than to risk hurting someone we love by the expression of a temporary negative emotion. We call on the habits of good manners to express what is actually true–we do appreciate the invitation, we genuinely want to encourage our children, and we genuinely love our spouse, regardless of how we may feel in any given moment.
Routine in prayer and Bible reading is just as important as other routines in terms of getting through the tough days–it must be done without checking to see if we feel like doing it, especially when we don’t feel like it. A prayer book can be a terrific help on those days when you aren’t feeling it. I’ve used several, and my favorite is the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. This is a treasure trove of Bible readings, prayers of all kinds, and the entire book of Psalms. There is a section of prayers especially for use by families each morning and evening, as well as prayers for things like “quiet confidence”, “guidance”, “trustfulness”, “joy in God’s creation”, “recovery of a sick person”, “one about to undergo an operation”, “a birthday”, and so on. Every morning I begin with the Lord’s Prayer, then pray the four or five prayers designated for the morning family prayer; I used to read these through, but now I have them from memory–“by heart”–and I find the words of these prayers popping into my head in all kinds of circumstances.
Some may argue that this falls into the category of “vain repetition,” which Jesus tells us not to engage in, but I strongly disagree–my own prayers, the ones that come “from my heart” are often very repetitious–I can’t imagine anything much more repetitious than “please help so-and-so feel better,” “please help us to have a good day,” “please help this food to bless us,” “I just praise you, I just thank you, I just, etc.” which are prayers I’ve heard from nearly every Christian I know. To pray these every single day is no more spiritual or genuine than using the words in a prayer book. Why not use prayers written by someone with really good command of the language, especially if the prayer expresses what I want to say? If you’ve ever prayed one of the Psalms you’ve done the same thing, only those prayers were written by David, or the Sons of Korah, or another person in the Bible.
Before I pray, I read the Bible. For this, I turn to the Psalter in the Prayer Book, which has divided the 150 Psalms into morning and evening selections for each day of the month. After that I read a chapter from the book of Proverbs, which is conveniently divided into 31 chapters, one for each day of the month. As with the prayers which I’ve memorized from reading them over and over, the Psalms and Proverbs are becoming ingrained in me, “written on my heart” so to speak. What this means is that what began as a discipline has grown into a way of thinking, with words and prayers filled with faith and hope and beauty and truth springing to mind in all kinds of day to day situations.
Research into the brain has shown that the actual physiology of the brain changes with repeated actions or thoughts. Patterns of movement in sports, difficult fingerings and patterns in music, the lines of a play, or the details memorized for an anatomy test–things that are practiced over and over and over–cause physiological changes to be made to the brain; grooves, if you will, of memory are dug into the brain, allowing these thoughts or behaviors to easily and automatically come to mind. (Just as an aside, this is one of the major reasons it’s vital to read and talk to children, why rote learning is a good thing, and why it’s important to be very careful of what children are allowed to watch and listen to over and over–it can stay in their brains forever!)
This is the way through hard times. Don’t be caught off guard! Firmly plant yourself in physical and spiritual routine, so that when tough times come, the waves will not wash you out to sea.