Prayer, Loneliness & Manipulation: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 14

I once read a quote from a friend of mine, which said: "I never knew I was lonely until I saw un-loneliness." In my view, that is a simple yet incredibly profound statement. Really, if we were to let it, I think it could touch a nerve deep within all of us because in this day and age, loneliness is something that many people can relate to. In this post, I want to explore for a few moments, the relationships between prayer, loneliness and manipulation. At first, these items may seem to have no connection but upon further reflection, it appears that, in fact, they can be intimately linked.

I want to re-assert here, my definition of prayer: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us. We need to start here because really, such a definition has a bit to say about loneliness and manipulation. For starters, if prayer is first and foremost about attending to God's presence and to seek out His wants and desires, then this offers a sort of critique of loneliness: To be in the presence of God is to not be lonely. And while we all know that human relations are a necessity (indeed, I have even argued that the very nature of humanity posits a relational necessity), there is a sense in which God's presence is, to borrow a title from Henri Nouwen "The Only Necessary thing". It is not far from Jesus' statement in Lk. 11.13, where He asks why we humans would prayer for "things" when we can pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit!

When our attempts to encounter The Living God are authentic and genuine, then we begin to see loneliness not as something to be feared or dreaded but rather, enjoyed. For the longest time, I have viewed loneliness as a problem or threat in my life. I have tried to escape loneliness instead of embracing it. I thought that loneliness said something bad about me, made people think ill of me and it caused me to stress out over it. I think that many people can relate to this. And I think there are a number of ways to react to such thoughts and emotions, some of those ways are healthy while other ways are very very unhealthy.

One of the unhealthy results of such a view of loneliness is that it causes you to manipulate people. You find yourself laying guilt-trips on people in order to get them to spend time with you. You find yourself trying to get others to pity you. You find yourself complaining about your situations to get some sort of attention. You cling so hard to people that it smothers the relationship. Every time you feel threatened by loneliness, you go to greater and greater extremes to not be lonely and you will take any sort of drastic measures you think you need to. You will say and do things that are hurtful and evil. You will let jealousy run rampant in your life. You will alienate people by continually putting your relationship in a spot where it can potentially be jeopardized. You will destroy marriages, friendships, communities, households, hopes and dreams, all in the name of not wanting to be or appear lonely. This unhealthy view of loneliness is a source of many problems that people have today.

But there is another way to think about loneliness: Loneliness is not a threat but rather, sacred time. Nouwen often spoke of loneliness as a "gift from God". This is the sort of shift that has taken place in my own prayer life (and life in general). When moments alone are viewed as sacred times, that is, times of prayer, then there is no sense of threat! When loneliness can be viewed as something akin to a godly gift, a healthy spiritual life can begin to manifest itself. Loneliness is sacred time! And while it may seem contrary to the whole idea of loneliness, there are at least two ways in which loneliness can actually be communal! The first way is to understand that God, who is Triune, is Himself a community. Thus, when we enter into the prayer event, when we enter into this time that can seem so awkward and lonely, we are actually entering into the Divine Community, the Divine Relationships!

Many of the Church Fathers (and thankfully, many modern theologians have begun recognizing its importance) used a Latin word to describe something similar to this: perichoresis. Perichoresis is understood as a sort of inter-penetration between God and humans and humans and God. I have written about perichoresis HERE if you'd like to read more about it. In short, I view it as a sort of hoe-down-like, circle dance. It is a dance that is already in motion when we come to it but that we are constantly invited into. In this dance we weave in and out, interlock arms, inter-penetrate one another's space and we are all united, as a community, in the same cause! If the moment of loneliness is in all reality, a moment of perichoresis, then we are not actually alone but rather, dancing with The Divine.

Another way that this time of loneliness can, in fact, be viewed as a time of relationality or community is when we treat it as a time where our "clingy-ness" to others is let go of and is placed upon God. Thus, the prayer event becomes something whereat we begin clinging to God. Not only is this psychologically healthy but it is theologically edifying too. Letting the things we place on pedestals (even our emotions or thoughts or relationships) be replaced by God is always a good thing. But here's what makes this so great. If prayer is about attending to the presence of God both around us and in us, then, when I'm doing that genuinely and authentically and you are doing that genuinely and authentically, we begin to have a healthy foundation. If God is the thing that we both cling to, then we end up not clinging to one another, smothering each other out of fear of loneliness and / or manipulating one another to meet a want or need or desire that we think we might have.

Just as well, when we meet God in the prayer event in an authentic and genuine way, then that means we are not attempting to manipulate Him either! If we are seeking His presence and His wants and desires, we are not asking about ourselves and our wants or desires. This, friends, gives us a healthy perspective not only on the relationally-driven prayer event but also our human relationships. Finally, I should say that as we grow more and more in a healthy view of prayer like this, we begin to recognize more and more, when and where nasty manipulation rears its ugly head. Having such an awareness prevents us from running into such situations and from being taken advantage of. Even more, as our perspective gets healthier and healthier, we find that we are able to distance ourselves from both unhealthy views of loneliness and manipulation more and more.

In conclusion, loneliness does not have to be viewed as a threat but can also be viewed as sacred time. Indeed, it can even be understood to be the vehicle that leads us into genuine and authentic communion with both God and others. I would encourage everyone to evaluate their own prayer lives (and just life in general) to see if some rethinking and reordering of things needs to take place. If so, begin making those mental, emotional and physical changes and you may well be on your way toward a healthier prayer life and theology of prayer!


Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
8) What Is Genuine Prayer?
9) Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137)
10) Why Pray If God Already Knows Your Thoughts?
11) Mystical Praying
12) Prayer In School & At Public Events
13) When To Thank God

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