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God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. -1 John 4:9-10
If we really know ourselves to be loved by God, sooner or later our spontaneous response will be to love God in return. . . . The more rooted we are in love, the more generously shall we live our faith and put it into practice. . . . The knowledge that God loves us enables us to love ourselves without excuse and without questioning. We love ourselves as we are because our faith has convinced us that God does so. -Peter Van Breemen, SJ
Few factors have the potential to affect the quality of our prayer life as much as our image of God and self. On a human level, the image and feelings we have for another person and how we perceive the other person to feel about us will usually have a tremendous effect on how we relate to that person. For example, we will approach and relate to a person whom we love and whom we perceive loves us in a different way than we will to a person for whom we have little or no feeling and whom we think does not particularly care for us. Our own self-image also will affect the way we approach and relate to people. If we have a positive image of ourselves, we will go out to people and relate to them with confidence, assuming they will like us. If we think we are not very lovable, we will approach people with self-doubt, fearful that they may reject us and not find us lovable. And if we believe that people will only accept us when we behave in certain ways, we will be inclined to be unreal with them, behaving only in ways we perceive to be acceptable to them.
How is all this connected to our relationship with God and our efforts at prayer? Well, God is a person, and prayer is our attempt to relate with a personal God. We have already shown how the same basic dynamics are at work in our relationship with God as are at work in our relationships with other people. What helps or hinders us in our attempts to relate to other people will also help or hinder us in our relationship with God.
It is very important that we spend some quality time reflecting on these questions and perhaps sharing our reflections with a spiritual guide. We need to check the images of God and self from which we operate and become aware of some of the consequences of these images. For example, if we perceive God to be a policeman-type person who imposes numerous rules and demands strict adherence to them, our relationship with him will be characterized by fear, distance, and perhaps resentment. If we are overly scrupulous, we will believe consciously—or more likely unconsciously—that God is a tyrant who is impossible to please and who is ready to pounce on us for our failures. If we experience God as withholding himself from us, we will be reluctant to petition him for our needs. If we experience him as a loving Father, we will approach him with trust, relaxation, and love. If we experience God as merciful, we will not hesitate to talk to him about our failures, knowing that his love for us is not based on our good performance.
While we may at times say we believe in a God of love and mercy, our harsh, judgmental attitudes toward our own failures and those of others tell a different story. Sometimes there is quite a difference between the images of God that we think we have and the images of God that actually influence our lives. Most, if not all, of us carry around some primitive, destructive images of God that can particularly affect us in times of stress.
Once, while listening to a retreat leader speak about primitive images of God, I became aware that one of my primitive images is that God is a demanding person who is only pleased with me when I am being good and obeying his commandments. So while I may believe on an intellectual level in a God of unconditional love, I may function on an operational level with an image of God who loves me only when I am keeping the rules.
Our image of God often derives from childhood relationships with parents or authority figures. As I reflect on my relationship with my father, I become aware that I perceive him to be a good man, but also a demanding man. Seemingly I project the same demanding image onto God, and so I perceive God as difficult to please, loving me only when I am obeying the commandments.
The Scriptures give us several different and interesting images of God. God is described as the shepherd caring for his sheep (see Psalm 23); as the grocer providing food for the people (see Numbers 11:31); as a mother cherishing her offspring (see Isaiah 49:15) or weeping over her rebellious children (see Matthew 23:37–39); as teacher (see Matthew 5—7); as healer of the sick and friend of sinners (see Luke 15); as one denouncing the righteous (see Matthew 23:13–32) and the corrupt (see Matthew 21:12-17); as challenger of the rich (see Matthew 19:16–26); and as one who demands all from a potential disciple (see Luke 9:23–26,57–62). Of course, no individual image or set of images can comprehend the Incomprehensible God. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us: “If you can comprehend God, he is not God, for God is ultimately a Mystery.” Nevertheless, it is legitimate for us humans, particularly at the early stages of our spiritual lives, to make use of human images to help us in our relationship with God.
Imaging God as Love
Of all the images of God that can serve us well in our relationship with him, the image of God as unconditional lover is the most important. Insofar as we have not experienced God as love in the deepest center of our being (as opposed to acquired knowledge in the head), to that extent we have not experienced the Good News. It has been well said that the Good News is that God loves us, no strings attached; the sad news is that the vast majority of us do not believe the Good News with our heart.
God must sometimes get very frustrated with us as we ignore his efforts to convince us of his unconditional love. The primary reason he sent Jesus into the world was to reveal to us in a human way the extent of his love. When Jesus was dying on the cross—with arms outstretched and blood pouring from his crucified body and heart—it was as if the Father was saying to every individual who was ever born: “This is how much I love you. My words are not empty; they are written with the blood of my own Son.” The Scriptures tell us that Jesus died for us while we were still in our sins. St. Paul writes:
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:7–8)
Pope Francis also emphasizes the importance of us having a sense of God’s love when we pray when he says: “At the heart of prayer is the love of God, the source of our life, who constantly ‘caresses’ us with his own love.”
When we doubt the truth of God’s love, it is as if the power of original sin (expressed in a statement like “I wonder if I am really lovable”) grabs hold of us. When such darkness invades our minds and hearts, we can reject it by renewing our baptismal promises in words like these: “Satan, I reject the lies you are now placing in my heart about my basic goodness. I believe that Jesus loves me with all my flaws and failures. Jesus, I believe this. Help me to dispel my unbelief.”
Of course, the main reason we doubt that God loves us unconditionally is that we may never have experienced unconditional love on a human level. Most of the time we experience love only when our behavior is acceptable to others: We try to be good so that others will love us. Consciously or unconsciously we think it is the same with God. While we may say that God’s love for us is not determined by our actions, our behavior often says that we actually believe that God loves us only when we keep his commandments. We try to be virtuous so that God will love us. In The Christian Vision: The Truth That Sets Us Free, Jesuit priest John Powell writes that God’s response to this human thinking would be:
‘‘O child of my heart, you’ve got it backwards. You shouldn’t think that if you become more virtuous I will love you more, because already you have all my love as a free gift. You don’t have to change so that I will love you more. What you really need to know is how much I have always loved you. Oh, then . . . you will really change.”
Sometimes we see the truth of these beautiful words when persons fall in love and make dramatic changes in their lives. The experience of feeling loved by others motivates them to want to make changes in their lives and want to respond with love. Love effects a change that no law and no amount of force could bring about.
In the Christian journey our primary aim is not to be good so that God will love us, but rather to be open to experiencing God’s transforming love, which in turn will motivate us, more than anything else, to want to be Christlike in thought, word, and deed (see 2 Corinthians 5:14–21). This also reminds us to use some of our prayer time to be still before the loving presence of God so he can communicate to us that we are loved by him regardless of our performance.
Unfortunately, most of us tend to be so busy or active in prayer that we fail to give God a chance to reveal his love to us. Yet this standing or sitting still before God is crucial for our spiritual growth. It is especially important to sit still before God when we are aware of specific sins that we have just committed. It is a healing grace for us to be able to face God with our sins and know that he still loves us. As we know, Jesus died for us while we were still in our sin (see Romans 5:8). Christians are “loved sinners.” Knowing this, not just in our heads but in our hearts, is indeed a tremendous grace.
Are there any practical suggestions that will help us to experience God’s unconditional love? Yes, there are. Here are some worthwhile ones. First, we can pray for the gift of knowing in our hearts that God loves us. We can say: “Jesus, lead me more deeply into the unconditional love that our Father has for me.” Second, we can try to recognize and name the particular ways that we believe God is presently loving us. Sometimes children don’t recognize the many ways their parents love them. Likewise, we are often blind to the many ways that God loves us. We need to work at becoming conscious of the simple ways in which God loves us in the flow of a day. A third suggestion is to try to develop a grateful attitude toward life, realizing that all the good and the apparently not good happenings in life come from the loving hand of God. Fourth, we should try to see an expression of God’s love in the genuine expressions of love that people give us. The experience of intimacy with another readies our hearts to experience intimacy with God our Father.
Coming to prayer with a heartfelt (and not just headwise) sense of God’s compassionate love for us should help to make prayer much more relaxing. In the presence of a loving Father, we don’t have to prove anything, dress up nicely, or be formal. We are loved just as we are. Our loving Father says to us: “Come as you are; be yourself; enjoy your time with me. If you want to talk and pour out your heart about something, that’s okay. If you want to rest in my presence, snuggle up in my lap and arms, that’s okay, too.”
Imaging Ourselves as Lovable
We need to remember that a key factor in an effective prayer life is experiencing ourselves as lovable. A poor self-image can play havoc with our relationships on both a human and spiritual level. When we suffer from a poor opinion of ourselves, we are inclined to assume that God (and other people) share this opinion. If we don’t see much to love in ourselves, we will find it difficult to believe that God sees much to love in us. Such a belief will keep us at a distance from God. In effect, to question or deny our own goodness is like questioning or denying that we were created “very good,” as we are told in Genesis 1:31. Perhaps we should sometimes tell our Creator that we are sorry for the times we felt that he must have had an “off day” when he created us.
What can we do to come to a greater sense of our innate goodness and beauty? How can we begin to see ourselves as God sees us? The following are a few suggestions.
First suggestion: We can use the Word of God to transform and shape the way we see ourselves. Ultimately, our self-image is formed by the loving Word of God or deformed by the destructive words of others. Our self-image is shaped by the words we believe about ourselves. Which words are we listening to and believing—the affirming Word of God or the destructive words of others?
The only reason we end up with a poor self-image is because we allowed destructive words to enter and shape the core of our being. For example, some of us may believe we are stupid or no good. This happens because, at some point in our formation, someone said to us, “You are stupid and no good,” and unfortunately we believed that person. The words, “I am stupid and no good,” became part of how we saw ourselves. But—and this is a crucial point—the only reason why such words became a destructive force in our lives is because we dwelt on them, pondered them, and reflected on them so much that they reached not just our ears but the very core of our being where our self-concept is formed or deformed.
To counteract this, we must learn to dwell on, ponder, and reflect on the loving words of God and others. We do this when we allow the affirmation of God and others to touch not just our skin, as it were, but the very core of our being. But we allow the loving words of God and others to touch just our skin when we do not receive those words into our being and believe them. For example, we may receive an affirming letter from someone, quickly read it, toss it aside, and forget about the loving words written there. On the other hand, if we receive a negative letter, we may not only read it, but keep pondering it all day and perhaps for several days. How sad that so many of us tend to toss aside so easily the affirming words we receive while we tend to hold onto the negative, destructive words.
To help us as we listen to God’s Word and allow it to affirm us in our self-worth, we will do well to consider the words of John’s Gospel: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you” (John 15:9).
We begin by using our imagination to visualize Jesus speaking these words to us. We can imagine Jesus sitting on a chair across from us. He is looking at us with love and saying, “As my Father loves me, so do I love you.”
Then we should try to allow those words to enter our being—to touch not just our ears but also our hearts. Perhaps we may wish to repeat the words of Jesus over and over again, giving them time to touch and shape the core of our being. We should recall everything that has been said about the importance of dwelling on the words spoken to us. Those words cannot bear fruit unless we reflect on them over and over again. Here we should imitate Mary who pondered the words that were spoken to her (see Luke 2:19).
Then we should verbalize our acceptance of the affirmation and love that Jesus offers. We can say, “Yes, Jesus, I believe you love me. Help me to believe it more deeply.” So often we deny or fail to accept gracefully the affirmation offered to us by God and others. When the experience of affirmation and love is truly received and pondered, it has the power “to make us over again.”
Then, having received, pondered, and accepted the word of affirmation, the next thing we need to do is thank God for his loving words. The act of giving thanks is a concrete sign that we have accepted God’s word of affirmation. We could give thanks to God in simple words like this: “I thank you, Lord, for who I am. I thank you for making me precious in your eyes.” Every time we feel negative about who we are or feel tempted to put ourselves down, we ought to affirm our God-given self-worth with that little prayer. Each of us has to learn to talk back to the negative voices inside and outside of us that threaten our self-worth. We can do this by constantly repeating: “Father, you have made me beautiful in your eyes. I praise you for the wonder of my being.”
Second suggestion: We can learn to believe more deeply in our own goodness if we see and receive Jesus in the Eucharist as a tangible sign of his tremendous love for us. At the Last Supper Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body, which will be given for you.” Then he took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you” (Luke 22:19, 20). In and through these words Jesus is telling each of us: “I am dying that you may live” or ‘‘I love you so much that I am ready to pour out my blood (my life) for you.” Such words are truly awesome if only we could believe them deeply. Every time we receive Holy Communion, we are being offered an opportunity to affirm our belief in Jesus’ love for us. Our “Amen” when we receive the Eucharist at Mass could very well mean ‘‘Yes, Lord, I do believe you love me! Help my unbelief.”
Third suggestion: We can learn to accept ourselves as good and lovable if we risk sharing our true and false selves with other people. As we begin to reveal our dark or less noble side to another caring person and begin to experience his or her acceptance of us, this acceptance will help us to be more loving toward ourselves. Many people today are finding the therapeutic setting the best and the safest atmosphere in which to make true confessions. Good, caring therapists have both the training and the skills to communicate to their clients their unconditional acceptance. To decide not to reveal all of ourselves to another is to condemn ourselves to a life of loneliness and to be cheated of the opportunity to experience ourselves as unconditionally accepted and loved.
If we truly wish to transform the way we see ourselves, we have to be very patient. If for years we have believed negative and destructive lies about ourselves, we should not expect to change those beliefs overnight. Normally the transformation from a poor to a positive self-concept takes years, and even then we will sometimes find that we occasionally regress into believing negative things about ourselves.
We have treated the love of God and love of self separately in this section. In reality, of course, they are not separate; they are intertwined. As we grow in the experience of God’s love, we will also come to see and experience ourselves as lovable.
Questions for Personal Reflection and Small-Group Discussion
Suggested Prayer Exercise
Take time to sit with the three Scripture verses below, and listen to God and Jesus speak words of love to you. Try to visualize Jesus saying to you, “You are precious in my eyes and I love you.” Allow time to let these “I love you” statements sink into your heart.
“Because you are precious in my eyes . . . I love you.” (Isaiah 43:4)
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
“As the Father loves me, so I also love you.” (John 15:9)
by Eamon Tobin
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Prayer nourishes your soul in wonderful ways.
Just as there are many different foods for the body, so too are there many different types of prayer for the soul. And a healthy prayer diet will include a variety of them for different times and seasons. But what are these different methods of prayer?
In this practical book by Fr. Eamon Tobin, you'll discover thirteen of the most common ways to communicate with God. You'll also gain a deeper understanding of why prayer is essential to your life, how it comforts and transforms you, and what to do when it seems dry or difficult.
Some of the prayer methods suggested in this book can be easily incorporated into your everyday life, while others require taking time away from your normal activities to intentionally meet God in solitude. But the goal is always the same: connecting with God and learning to know him more intimately. When it comes to prayer, there's something here for everyone.
Back to 13 Powerful Ways to Pray (Paperback)
Author description goes here...
Product Type Media Books
Author Eamon Tobin
Publisher Beacon Publishing
Number of Pages 175
Book Format Paperback
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