Prayer as therapy

After all the years I’ve spent as a Christian, all the hours I’ve spent reading and studying the Bible, and a lifetime in the church — I should have most of the answers, right? But knowing about God is not the same as knowing, really knowing Him. He remains a Mystery, too vast for my puny, human mind to comprehend. Sometimes, in His Presence, I’m reduced to the little girl who went forward years ago at a Billy Graham crusade.  

Some days, I have more questions than answers. Some days, I struggle. But my earthly father has always assured me that God can handle all our questions, even the messy ones.
This is raw. It’s not neat and tidy. But it’s true. And it’s where I am today.

“Thanks for not being a traditional therapist.”

That’s what I said to Donny as I hugged him goodbye at the end of one of our sessions months ago. After that, I wrote the following in my journal, slightly edited here for clarity: 

Earlier, I’d expressed pretty much the same sentiment at the beginning of my prayer — only the words I’d chosen then were more vulnerable in some ways, and more expressive of how deeply thankful I am that my therapist has always been far more concerned about pleasing God and serving Him than he has been about living up to human standards and expectations. Of course there have been times over the past five years that I have been less than thrilled with the guy, and wished he was more of the feel-good kind who wanted me to leave the office smiling after every session, one who wouldn’t ever stoop to “imposing his values” on me. Once I even jumped on him for something I now don’t remember — I thought he was wrong to “make me feel guilty” — and he let me know quietly but firmly just Whom he was serving. (In case anyone wonders, it wasn’t me.)

The irony is that this “odd” approach of serving God instead of the person he’s supposed to be serving — as in me, his all-important client, the one he is being paid to make feel better — turns out to have been the most healing thing for me. Then again, that’s hardly ironic; God has always had my best interests at heart.

So it was that we started our New Adventure in Therapy: praying through my past. I felt a little apprehensive and self-conscious at first. Part of me was afraid that I hadn’t quite communicated what I meant when I originally brought up my idea, and that Donny would suddenly put on the brakes once he realized what I really meant. Then I worried that he would want to structure or stifle it somehow…but all those fears were laid to rest after my first introductory sentence or two. (All that seems unrealistic and silly now. I thought I’d gotten over my fear that Donny will unexpectedly morph into a Completely Different Sort of Therapist, one that is Frightening and Sinister…or just one I no longer like.)

At that point, my nervousness was about the prayer itself. Other than a few desperate phrases here and there, and I mean truly desperate, I’ve only prayed out loud with him once, and that was before his last mission trip. I could tell that I was possibly using some delaying tactics, and was about to start using said tactics in a big way, so I forced myself to…gulp…just get started.

I ended up covering my life from the beginning — in utero — up until we moved when I was 5. The starting point was what I’d already planned, but I’d not given much thought to where I’d wrap things up for today.

As I’d anticipated and warned Donny, I cried pretty much the whole time. It wasn’t some big huge sob-fest — not at all an “ugly cry” — but what seemed like a fairly steady stream of tears and no small amount of sniffling. Next time I need to remember the Kleenex box conveniently located on the end table, so I won’t be reduced to using the cuffs of my sweatshirtish jacket.

There were lots of good memories in there, and they probably caused the most tears. I thanked God for so many things, and I felt as if He kept bringing really special pictures, thoughts, feelings, events, and people to my mind. I was truly blessed during those early years, and it’s no wonder that I remember myself as mostly happy, and feeling right in my own skin — even if I was an unusually fearful child.

Yes, and I’m glad I have a therapist who doesn’t pooh-pooh the idea of being impacted by maternal emotions while in the womb…or my wacky ideas about early attachment…or any of that stuff.

Towards the end, I thanked God for the personality and temperament He gave me. Some babies would have been a wreck not to be held “constantly”. I didn’t spend hours weeping or screaming in my crib, nor did I shut down. God spared me that, and He spared Mums that. After all, she didn’t choose to be ill, weak and exhausted.

So I left, feeling wonderful. Sat in the car, jotted down some notes, and started writing this. Dropped off two bags of bedroom junk and clothes for Goodwill. Drove to Laguna Lake and practically raced into the bathroom — a result of all that water and coffee. It was then that I felt a sudden wave of anxiety. Uh, oh. Not good. It was wrong to pray like that in therapy. It was bad — bad — and not therapeutic at all. That’s why I’ve never heard of any reputable therapist — or even a disreputable one — conducting “therapy” in such a manner.

For a looooong moment there, I was convinced it wasn’t just wrong; it was dangerous. I felt that familiar panic — yeah, that one, the one I haven’t missed having around at all — and I got the desperate urge to call Donny before I fell apart in a completely hysterical shambles.


Before the panic mounted up into the stratosphere, I suddenly thought, “Huh? What could possibly be wrong or dangerous in praying about my past?” I’d like to take credit for that sensible thought, but I’m convinced it was a God thing. And, just as soon as I thought it, my panic vanished — poof! — and seemed laughably ridiculous. Oh, yeah, praying is so dangerous — to whom? (I really did think that last part with correct grammar. Yet another miracle. Haha.)

It seemed such an obvious ploy of the Enemy. All too often, I had fallen for that sort of thing; in fact, there had been an almost uncanny pattern of:

  • an Especially Good Session — a significant breakthrough —
  • followed by Suddenly Being Convinced the Session was Really THE BIGGEST MISTAKE EVER —
  • followed by anxiety, panic, desperation…and sometimes tequila.

That is, unless I took a Xanax or two first, or ended up in the hospital (which happened only once…my panic attack that tried to disguise itself as a heart attack). But this time…well, I was going to say “God intervened”, but I bet He did the same all those previous times. Only this time I listened.

God is good.

It’s as if I’m just spreading everything all out in front of Him, asking Him to clean it up, free me from it, and redeem it — and seeing what He chooses to do. But what about putting it at the foot of the Cross — that’s where it really needs to go, isn’t it? What more redemptive place is there?

And now? What about these months later?

I’ve hit a wall. It took me a while to realize it, because I kept coming up with excuses to put “praying through my life” on hold while dealing with supposedly more pressing current life issues. Last week I let Donny know that’s what I was doing, although I suspect he already knew. We spent that session trying to figure out what exactly I was avoiding, and why I didn’t want to pray about 10 to 11 year old me. It’s not like something horrid happened to me at that age; in fact, those were good years, full of wonderful memories. It was during that time that I encountered a very personal God in some very real ways, and I treasure those memories beyond words.

No real answers for my avoidance. I left, feeling still stuck.

And kinda silly about the whole thing.

A week later, today I was in his office again, trying to will myself to just start praying. I mean, really, how hard could it be? It’s not as if God and I had never talked about any of this stuff before!

I couldn’t. Finally I figured out that I wasn’t so much avoiding praying through those good years as I was dreading praying through the years that followed. I decided this whole “prayer therapy” was ridiculous anyway. It was stressing me out. Here I was, after sitting mostly adult-like in therapy for months upon months, suddenly reduced to taking off my shoes so I could adopt my childish couch-huddle, hiding behind my knees, chewing on my fingers, playing with my hair, and hugging myself. Even worse, my legs started trembling. Ugh.

We tried to talk about it. Finally it dawned on me why I was so afraid: what if God “fussed” at me for some of the things I did during my teens? What if He turned out not to be as compassionate, tender, and forgiving as I hoped? What if I ended up feeling as I did then? My voice no longer sounded like an adult as I said the words that described those long ago feelings: “Dirty…small…insignificant…dirty…”

Then another, stronger fear hit me. What if God turned out to be as loving and compassionate as I am beginning to hope and believe He is? How will I survive such love without feeling completely undone? vulnerable? naked?

“I think I’d prefer a somewhat impersonal God,” I said, feeling like a doubting, rebellious heretic for even voicing such a thing. Then I cried because how could I doubt the extravagant love of God after all He has done for me? How often must He demonstrate it to me?

As Donny talked about leaps of faith and jumping off cliffs, and I told him my high-dive story and said that this felt like jumping into a foggy abyss without knowing if there was even a swimming pool there, I kept picturing myself standing on a mountain top, yelling up at the sky, “Who are You, God? Who are You?”

…and being afraid of the answer, even while demanding it.

“Why does God have to be so complicated?” I cried, only to laugh at how ridiculous that sounded. I answered myself, “Duh, because He’s God.”

This is not a mature, adult faith. It’s a mess, a broken jumble of confusion. But I’m posting it here because it’s real. Jacob wrestled with God. David asked Him tough questions, and lamented and wailed. The Bible is full of people struggling with God, people who didn’t have neat and tidy answers, people that we would feel uncomfortable having around if they showed up at our next small group meeting.

Way back when I was 11 years old, I threw two troubling questions at God, and He answered. Now I feel as if that wasn’t a lifetime ago, as if I’m still Little Me, all childish and earnest and troubled, desperate to believe and trust, desperate for answers that satisfy.

He’s the same God Who answered a crying little girl…the same God Who brought peace to a little girl who needed to cling to hope and beauty…He’s that personal, intimate God…Abba…Daddy…

It scares me. He scares me. Because I know that encountering His love never leaves me unscathed. Never. I will be undone. My heart will be broken…in the most beautiful and healing way. Who will I turn out to be, when I see myself through the loving eyes of my Creator?

I want to run…far far away from a God I cannot escape, at the same time that I want to throw myself into His everlasting arms.

So I stand on what feels like a mountain top, yelling to the Heavens, “Who am I? And You — who are You? What kind of God could possibly love me? And how will I survive Your unfathomable, wild, fierce, tender love?”

5 thoughts on “Prayer as therapy

  1. This is a song by Randy Stonehill I’m convinced is meant for you. And all those who are sick at heart. A couple years back Julia and I were on a road trip, heard this song, and we prayed for you, I was weeping, not having any idea what you have been going thru. These are the lyrics; it’s on iTunes. I wanted to learn it and play it- very tough guitar part! So here it is: Broken Places
    “Standing there at the open door,
    Not quite sure what you’re looking for,
    Goin without knowing what you’ll find.
    It’s a road of uncertainty, where it goes isn’t guaranteed,
    Sometimes this old world can be unkind.
    But you can’t ever leave My love-can’t ever leave My love- you can’t ever leave My love behind;
    I’ll meet you in the Broken Places,
    In the shadows of your pain;
    In a sea of stranger’s faces,
    I will find you, stand beside you,
    any time You call My name.

    When all your dreams have fallen down, You’re longing just to turn around; and someone you can trust is hard to find…
    You might think it’s been too long,
    The road that leads back home is gone,
    But loves a thing that don’t keep track of time!
    You can’t ever leave My Love behind
    When the world has gone insane, when you’re ragged from the strain,
    Call My name!
    In a sea of strangers faces I will find you, stand beside you, I will find you,
    Stand beside you, any time you call-
    Just call My Name.


  2. Amazing. So much confirmation for me today. I’m not alone. This post was so needed and God inspired. May the Lord richly bless you today and every day!


  3. Pingback: Prayer therapy, part 2 | Prone to wander…

  4. Pingback: God, love, and difficult questions | Prone to wander…

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