Into the Deepest Rest: How Prayer Helps You Process Your Emotions
How long can you hold your breath?
Go ahead: take a deep breath, time yourself, and see how long you can go until your “I need to breathe” reflex kicks in.
If you went 90 seconds, you’re probably above average, as many of us would give in after a mere 30 seconds.
Just the thought of not being able to breathe may induce a slight panic. The normal automatic breathing process that occurs naturally thousands of times a day is so dependable and expected that you rarely stop to think about how it works and how necessary this instinctual activity is to your survival.
That’s why the recent documentary “The Deepest Breath” has viewers squirming as they watch free divers voluntarily plunge hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean. These divers push the limits of how far they can go with no oxygen supply other than the last deep breath before their dive.
Something compels the divers to exchange the safety of mammalian comforts (oxygen) to experience the wonders of aquatic life to the point where they are willing to risk their lives for a few transient moments of quiet, stillness, beauty, and a glimpse into the deep mysteries of the ocean. One of the deadliest competitive sports, free diving attracts people from all over the world to push the boundaries of human limitations and—for one brief, fleeting moment—feel more alive than they ever do in their ordinary lives.
In some sense, free diving describes the experience of prayer in the Christian life.
The Lord’s invitation to pray asks you to leave the surface of life’s waters with all its distractions, noise, predictabilities, pressures, and chaos to enter something far deeper: the unchartered water of your soul where the Spirit of God dwells.
Perhaps as vast, unknown, and unexplored as the ocean, your soul is your most valuable possession, and it contains treasures that have not yet been discovered.
The vulnerable nature of prayer means that it can feel like a panicky place. If your comfort zone is doing, managing, controlling, and fixing, if you feel most at ease with constant stimulation and distraction, then “free diving” into prayer may be the last place you want to go.
It may take being in a place of desperation, exhaustion, or unbearable pain before prayer becomes a serious consideration in your life.
Yet the spiritual reality you face is that if you are out of touch with your emotions, needs, longings, and desires, then no matter how “productive” you are in your outer life on the surface of the water, your deep inner life may be atrophied.
Prayer is a place where you are not in control. And it is not about being productive. Instead, you are opening yourself up to receive love from God out of dependency and need.
You may naturally protest this posture of helplessness, neediness, and spiritual poverty for a variety of reasons. But for you to progress in your spiritual journey, your experience of prayer will need to move beyond splashing and frolicking on the surface of the water to deep communion with God beneath the shallows.
What if you don’t know how to experience prayer in this way?
You may think of prayer as burdensome, dutiful, mindless, and fruitless. But, simply put, “free diving” prayer is not about being productive or successful. It is about leaving space for your soul to emerge from hiding and become aware of the presence of God, your Creator.
This type of praying starts with being still.
Maybe this means starting to focus on your breathing (Yay! You can breathe since you’re not under water!). Being still is where you start to release the expectations you have on yourself to “pray the right way” and simply prepare for communion with God.
Along with stillness comes silence. Tune out the noise, the voices around you, and the ever-present distractions pressing for a response, and find a quiet place.
Now here’s the most important question to ask yourself when you’re “free dive” praying:
“What am I noticing now?”
This question gently invites you to pay attention to what is happening inside of you and patiently observe what you notice. As you descend further into this present space, here are a few questions to guide you:
What am I feeling?
What am I wanting?
What am I most worried about?
What am I hoping for?
What do you (God) want me to know?
These aren’t true/false or multiple-choice questions. They are open-ended questions that pull you further from the surface and deeper into the realm of your soul. You may notice resistance or protest coming from a part of you that “doesn’t want to go there,” and this response is normal and should be noted without judgement.
In stillness, in quiet and in noticing, you may be able to identify burdens that you’re carrying, and their accompanying emotions. Let those responses arise unedited. They don’t need to be shut down or fixed. Simply noticed.
Not everything that you feel can be put into words, but the Spirit hears your groanings that are too deep for words and responds with his comforting presence.
Don’t be surprised if you feel the urge to “pop up” to the surface! Your automatic reflexes may kick in and say, “we need to get out of here!”. But see if you can stay one moment longer and listen. In stillness, quiet and noticing, now you are in a position to hear from God, perhaps in a way you have not been able to hear him before?
As you pay attention to these internal dynamics you may be reminded of troubling scenes, images, memories, distressing emotions, or faces of people who have hurt you. “Free dive” praying will undoubtedly take you to unexplored or even painful territory in your heart, and that vulnerability may be new to you.
But the more of yourself you bring into God’s presence, the more aware you will be of how near he is to you.
And if you can begin to name the burdens of your soul, something mysterious happens in the deep: you are invited by the Spirit into a deeper rest than you have known before.
In repentance and rest, is your salvation. In quietness and trust is your strength. But you were not willing.
Are you willing to accept his invitation?
Lynn Roush is the co-host of With You in the Weeds, a podcast designed by Christian therapists to help you navigate the weeds of life. The WYITW team has created a resource as a guide to help you “Manage Your Emotions,” including a user-friendly feeling word sheet that can assist you in your “free dive” praying.