Head or heart? Faith has room for both

There’s a lot of talk about how faith in God should be a “heart relationship, not a head relationship.”

But let’s be honest for a moment here. Our hearts don’t always do what we want them to do.

What about those days (… weeks, months, years?) when you just “don’t feel God”? Does that mean your faith is useless?

I don’t believe so: here’s why.

Faith is a journey of mountains and valleys

We don’t get to float through on the mountain-top experiences all the time. Sometimes walking in faith means we keep doing the hard work of trusting, even though we don’t have any real feeling of assurance to go on. All we have to go on are past experiences, and the commitment we’ve already made to believe.

Sometimes all we can do is fall back on our head knowledge: pray the Lord’s Prayer, read the Psalms, let the spiritual disciplines we’ve learned carry us through. Pray that in doing so, eventually the joy of that “heart knowledge” will return.

Head and heart

Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy to talk about “head vs. heart”. I wonder even if this is a particularly western kind of division to make. Apparently the Hebrew word for heart and mind is in fact the same word (lebh). The same is true in Chinese (xīn 心 ),1 and I would suspect a number of other languages as well. There’s a different kind of cultural understanding at play here, one that sees the heart and the head as working in harmony with one another, rather than as diametrically opposed.

Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to favor faith-with-the-heart over faith-with-the-head. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,”1 is his exhortation — the first, most important commandment! — that we know so well.

Jesus seemed to advocate a whole-of-body kind of faith. His was a dirty, messy, hands-on faith that involved putting mud on people’s eyes and spitting on the ground. It involved the messy actions of feeding people, tending to their needs, listening to them, weeping with them. It involved his heart, his soul, his mind, and his strength — no one part more or less than the other.

But it wasn’t always about “feeling” the right way. At the pinnacle of Christ’s story, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus has nothing to go on but his head-knowledge of who He is, and of who His Father is. His heart-cry to the Father, on the other hand, is one that breaks our own hearts to hear: “Why have You abandoned me?”

Lean on the ‘head’ until the ‘heart’ catches up

So if believing with your “heart” is something you can’t quite muster up some days, take comfort that you’re not alone in having experienced this. Trust in the remembrance of times past; the things God has done for you. Pare everything back to the foundations of your faith: what unshakeable truths do you know about God? Start from that. Sit with that, and trust God in the midst of the unknowing.

Many times, for me, it’s about going back to the Gospels and re-reading who Jesus is; the kind of person He lived as. When all else seems murky and unsure, I trust that this person, this person who lived and loved in such a revolutionary way, is the revelation of who God is. I trust that his life lived in rebellious love is the only real answer we have in our broken world.

And this head-knowledge carries me through, until my heart can sing out in praise again.

Unanswered prayer: the bogeyman of Christian faith

I often remember this particular moment in a small group I was once a part of. We were talking about prayer, and the joy of answered prayers, and people were listing off various things they’d prayed for that had been answered by God. After a while, there was a pause, and I asked quietly, “Do you think we sometimes avoid praying for things we don’t believe will really happen?”

For a few moments, the room went dead quiet. Then after a while, people started to nod. The group then began to acknowledge and talk about that scary problem of unanswered prayer — one of those things that as Christians we don’t like to talk about or think about, to the extent that we might even not pray about certain things to avoid having to deal with the issue.

It’s one of those things that for Christians can be a real challenge to our faith. It’s a problem that we don’t really have a pat explanation for. There’s plenty of attempts at explaining, but none of them seem to be completely adequate for those times when God just… seems… silent.

Why are our prayers sometimes unanswered?

So why do some of our prayers seem to go “no higher than the ceiling”? Maybe you’ve heard some of the following explanations put forward for unanswered prayer. While I don’t think any of them are adequate for all circumstances, they can certainly be true in some instances. There are plenty of times when I’ve found one or more of these explanations to be helpful to my own situation.

  • Sometimes the answer is there, we just haven’t recognised it, because it’s in a form we don’t expect.
  • Sometimes the answer is “not yet”. Maybe it’s about learning patience; maybe it’s about growth of some other kind: being formed, being prepared. It might be about other factors that we can’t see; other people involved who need to go through their own process of growth.
  • We might be asking for something that’s not in God’s plan for us. Guess what: that’s ok, and it doesn’t mean your prayer was “wrong”. God’s not going to hold it against you. We don’t have a perfect knowledge of God’s will, and we don’t need to pretend that we do. The truth is, sometimes we do want things that aren’t what’s best for us. Healthy, honest prayer involves bringing those desires out in the open, so God can work with them.
  • Sometimes the prayer has been answered, but we didn’t like the answer all that much. So we pretend we didn’t hear, hoping for a different response. Does this sound familiar to you? I know I’ve been guilty of this. And I know, too, that God remains frustratingly silent until I deal with whatever it is God has already asked me to deal with, whether it’s giving up something that’s not good for me, or taking a leap of faith that scares me.

Trust God in the unknowing

Any of those explanations might be true for your particular situation. Or maybe they’re not. Sometimes, the uncomfortable truth is that we just can’t know the reason for our unanswered prayer. Maybe you’ve asked God why, over and over, and still, He just… seems… silent.

And that’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? That’s the part that gets painful, that can sometimes even tempt us to pack it all in and give up on prayer altogether.

Sometimes the reason for our unanswered prayer is simply that we live in a broken, messed up world. Romans 8 describes all of creation as groaning as in the pains of childbirth. Creation has been “subjected to frustration,” it says, in the hope that one day we will be liberated from all this frustration, and “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”.1

God’s will is being worked out, but even so: not everything is going to be as it should be in this lifetime.

That doesn’t mean we give up on praying, though. We pray in spite of the brokenness — and we pray because of the brokenness. We pray because God is right there with us in the grieving and the hurting.

I don’t have all the answers about how prayer works, and why sometimes it feels like it doesn’t. But I will say this: Don’t let it stop you talking to God.

Trust God in the midst of the unknowing. Remember that prayer changes us, too, and that even in those periods of “no answer”, there is change happening in us and around us that we might not even be aware of.

Prayers of lament

There is a place in prayer for crying out and expressing our frustration — for lamenting. Many of the Psalms are psalms of lament. Look at this passage from Psalm 44:

You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
    the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
    the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you;
    we had not been false to your covenant.

Psalm 44:13-17

Wow… this psalmist certainly isn’t afraid to be upfront with God about their disappointment! What a great reminder that God doesn’t need our prayers to sound perfect, or for us to pretend our uglier feelings aren’t there. He just wants us to be honest; to give him our hurts and our grievances. He can take it.

God is with us

Even if we can’t see any change at all, even if it seems we’re still in that foggy, in-between place of unanswered prayer, remember that God is still listening. He never stops listening. He hears what we have to say, and he keeps on loving us, no matter how we express it, or how angry or hurt we get, or how many times we repeat ourselves.

God is with us. He’s with us in the dark places, as well as in the light. He’s with us even when he seems silent; even in the times when he feels most distant. He’s with us even when we’re not sure where we are ourselves, or where we’re going. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to carry us through.

The Lord is my shepherd (Part 1)

I’ve written a fair bit about the Psalms on this blog. Many of them are are a go-to place for when I feel distant from God, or can’t figure out what to pray. One of the most well-known — in fact, probably the most well-known! — is Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”.

I remember first learning this psalm in music form as a child, and internalising its simple message of God’s love and protection. Having heard it said many times since, it’s one of the few chapters of Scripture I can say from heart, without even thinking about it. I’m sure the same is true for many of you, as well.

But as many times as I may have heard these six verses, I never seem to get tired of hearing them again. There’s something about this poem; this earnest yet uncomplicated prayer. It has a rhythm to it of familiarity and comfort. Its simple language and soothing cadences somehow serve as a balm to our weary souls.

“The Lord Is My Shepherd” is still one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry I know.

Will you walk through this Psalm one more time with me? I know you know it well. Let’s meditate on it, and remind ourselves of its simple, heartfelt beauty. Let’s take the time to sink deep into its peaceful imagery, and allow its eternal truths to weave themselves into our being.

Verse 1

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

What does it mean to be God’s “sheep”, and for Him to be our shepherd? The imagery here is of a relationship of utmost trust. There is a call to lay down our fears and our responsibilities; to let go of that constant anxiety of being in control, or at least of believing that we need to be.

With God as our shepherd, we have no need to worry. We are taken care of, as by a loving parent. Rest, now, this verse says. Time to get off the unceasing treadmill of this world’s relentless demands.

Take a breath. The Shepherd’s got you.

Verse 2

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.

Sometimes we need to be made to lie down, don’t we? We need someone to take us in hand, and say, it’s time to stop. It’s time to breathe, to slow down, to focus on this present moment and enjoy your surroundings, instead of rehashing the past and fretting about the future.

When was the last time you connected with nature? The other night I took a long walk at sunset. Now, normally when I go for a walk, it’s with my dog, which brings its own set of joys, as any dog-owner will attest! But on these walks, my focus is on my dog, who is the purpose for the walk. This walk the other night, however, was different: it was purposeless, just an aimless wandering.

Somehow that purposelessness changed everything. It meant that I noticed my surroundings more: I noticed the freshness of the air, and the birds making their evening noises. I noticed the stunning beauty of the sunset turning the sky pink and orange.

And I felt God’s presence, more tangibly than I had in a long time. I could sense God there with me, in the cool of the day, walking alongside me and enjoying His beautiful creation with me. Enjoying my enjoyment, and pleased that I was taking the time to experience it.

It’s an inescapable truth that God’s presence is so much more tangible when we allow ourselves to experience His creation. In a world that increasingly works to separate us from nature and all its uncontrollable messiness, sometimes we need to make a deliberate effort to seek it out again.

Verse 3

He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

When we make that conscious effort to just be in God’s creation, then God starts working His restoration in us. When we allow ourselves the time and space to be present, to notice our surroundings and let go for a little while of the dual anxieties of what happened and what’s next, then a strange thing starts to happen, as our souls are restored to be in line with God.

Things start to become clearer as a result. Decisions that seemed confusing and murky suddenly gain sharpness and clarity. Where problems in our lives seemed intractable, God’s direction suddenly becomes obvious, and the pathway forward is unambiguous.

It’s a natural instinct for many of us, when faced with stress and tough problems, to double our efforts in tackling them head on, racking our brains for a solution and a way forward. But when it seems like we’re banging our heads against a brick wall, the answer is often to do the opposite.

Take a step back. Stop, rest, breathe. Let God quieten your soul enough that you can hear His voice piercing through the din of everyday life. Then let Him do the leading, so that you can say along with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Take a step back. Stop, rest, breathe. Let God quieten your soul enough that you can hear His voice piercing through the din of everyday life. Click To Tweet

Read part 2 of this post, walking through verses 4-6.

Pray “according to God’s will” — but what about when your heart’s not in it?

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.

1 John 5:14

I read a short prayer posted on social media the other day, which made me pause and think. The prayer said something along these lines: “Lord, help me to pray only according to your will. Stop me from praying for anything that isn’t part of your plan and purpose for my life.”

I’ve probably prayed something similar myself in the past. At the time, I probably felt it to be a good, holy prayer: words that were pleasing to God. Perhaps I might have resorted to this prayer when I felt like I didn’t know what else to pray. At least, I certainly didn’t know what to pray that would be “according to God’s will.”

Sometimes, I might have prayed that way out loud in front of a group of people I didn’t know very well. People who I didn’t particularly feel like spilling my innermost fears and secrets in front of.

Other times, I might have prayed that way when I felt like those innermost fears and secrets were too shameful to bring before God.

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar?

Too scared to be real with God

I’ll be honest, though. I don’t think God wants us to limit ourselves like this in the way we talk to Him. I have no doubt that He honors the intention behind these kinds of prayers. But I think when we pray like this, it’s often because we’re too scared to be real with God. And let’s face it, that kind of fear isn’t doing much to further our relationship with Him.

Yes, we’re told to pray according to God’s will. But this verse isn’t intended to leave us terrified of saying what’s really on our hearts. It isn’t meant to be a directive to keep everything inside us bottled up, because we don’t think it’s good enough or righteous enough for God’s ears.

When the prayers aren’t perfect

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

Here’s a confession: I don’t think God really minds if our prayers aren’t perfect. I don’t think he minds if we share with Him thoughts and desires that aren’t entirely righteous. In fact, I’m pretty sure God prefers us telling Him about those flawed parts of ourselves than not speaking to him at all!

Part of the outcome of honest, heartfelt prayer — imperfect motives and all — involves God shaping our will and our heart to His. That way, praying according to God’s will becomes a natural outpouring of our own desires.

But the catch is, this process can only happen through us being truthful with God first. Even when our truths seem ugly and unpalatable. Trusting God enough to let Him hear our ‘imperfect prayers’ lets Him begin that process of redemption and regeneration inside us.

So let’s not worry so much about striving for perfection in prayer. Instead, let’s allow God to do the work of perfecting us through prayer — no matter what messy form that prayer might take.

Instead of striving for perfection in prayer, let's allow ourselves to be perfected through prayer — no matter what messy form that prayer might take. Click To Tweet

Have you ever found yourself holding back from honest prayer?
What stops you from being real with God?
What does it mean to you to “pray according to God’s will”?

When the prayers aren’t pretty

Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies—
    make your way straight before me.
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
    their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave;
    with their tongues they tell lies.
10 Declare them guilty, O God!
    Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
    for they have rebelled against you.

Psalm 5:8-12

I have mixed feelings about this Psalm. On the one hand, sure, I can certainly relate to some of the emotions it describes. There are many times I’ve wanted to rant and rail at God to deal with that awful person, already!  Declare them guilty, Lord! Let them know how wrong they are! Give them enough rope to hang themselves, embarrass them and bring them to justice in front of everyone!

Sure, I’ve wanted to pray like that sometimes.

The problem is, it usually sticks in my throat. It’s a bit hard to pray, Lord, declare my enemies guilty! — when I’m all too aware of my own shortcomings, and of all the ways God has given me grace. Besides, isn’t this what the New Testament tells us: that we should love our enemy, not condemn them? That we should forgive, as we’ve been forgiven?

Yes, of course we should! So where does that leave us with Psalm 5? Do we toss it out as irrelevant, in light of Christ’s message of grace and redemption?

God can handle our angry prayers

Not so fast. I think we can still learn a great deal from Psalms like this one, although they might sit uncomfortably with us at first.

To me, Psalm 5 says that we can confess to God honestly, no matter what is on our minds. And it says that we should continue to do so, even during those times when what’s on our minds feels like the kind of stuff we’re not supposed to say. Psalm 5 says we can trust God to be big enough to handle our angry prayers, even if they’re not pretty. It says that we can trust Him to turn that anger into something good.

Trust Him with the outcome

Who knows what that good might be? Maybe that person you’re furious with really is in unrepentant sin — and perhaps God will remove them from your life, and allow you to move on. Or maybe they’ll come to repentance, and having allowed God to deal with your anger, you’ll be in a better position to offer them forgiveness and grace.

Or maybe, through praying, your own heart will be changed, and you’ll come to see this person with an empathy you didn’t have before, and realise the situation isn’t as straightforward as you thought.

“Loving our enemies” doesn’t just happen by pretending hurt isn’t there. Instead, we need to acknowledge the hurt, and work through it with God first. God doesn’t need us to pretend our feelings are “right” all the time. He just wants us to come as we are, angry prayers and all. Trust Him to take it from there.

God doesn't need us to pretend our feelings are right all the time. He just wants us to come as we are. Click To Tweet

A psalm for restless nights

 Answer me when I call to you,
    my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
    have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

Psalm 4:1

You know those nights where whatever you do, you just can’t get to sleep? We all have them sometimes, don’t we? Tossing and turning, throwing the blanket off you to cool down, pulling it back on because you’re too cold, mind whirling, anxieties weighing in, memories you’d rather forget replaying over and over in your mind…

You know, those nights.

I suspect the author of Psalm 4 was having one of those nights. One where all he wanted was relief from distress. One where his every problem seemed magnified, and nothing seemed to silence his mind.

But notice how this Psalm takes us on a journey. We start out hearing the author’s restlessness and anguish, but it doesn’t end there. Rather than trying to deal with the anxiety on their own, the author cries out in prayer, asking for mercy. He lays it all out before God, searching his heart, confessing that these troubles are beyond what he can deal with on his own.

 Tremble and do not sin;
    when you are on your beds,
    search your hearts and be silent.

Psalm 4:4

We don’t find out if these particular troubles were solved. Taking the time to pray about it may not have changed the situation right away. But it did bring peace to the author. At the close of the Psalm, I will lie down and sleep, he writes — finally, sleep! — for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. There’s such a beautiful sense of calm about that final verse.

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
    for you alone, Lord,
    make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:8

At 3am, when every problem seems insurmountable, and we’re at our least rational, sometimes we forget that God is still there, and still listening. But it’s worth remembering. Let him quieten your spirit on those restless nights.