Trying to Be Open

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A lot of the people I know struggle with God. The realities of poverty, past abuse, daily battles with chronic pain, the ongoing toll of mental illness, painful church experiences, and a host of other reasons make connecting with God a tricky dance.

It’s not that the desire isn’t there. It’s not that there’s not a hope for deeper intimacy and connection. It’s the reality of wondering what does it really mean to connect with a God who seemingly allows so much pain and suffering in this world? What does it mean when we cry out over and over and don’t receive the relief we hope for? What does it mean when the only words that seem to come related to God sound like anger and sadness and confusion?

In my former church experience, I was taught to have a “devotional time” with Jesus every morning, a set-apart time where we read the Bible, prayed, journaled, brought our hearts to God. We were supposed to “sit in His lap” or “at His feet.” It was meant to be a worshipful time where we turned our hearts away from ourselves and towards God.

When I think of the word “devotion” I think of smiley eyes and melted hearts, of warmth, of worship. I have had many experiences with God like that. Tender, beautiful moments where I was overwhelmed with God’s goodness, faithfulness, and mercy. Where I felt the Spirit move in deep places in my heart. Where my bones felt more sturdy and my blood flowed with hope. Devotion is a great word for those experiences.

But one of the things I have also come to passionately believe is that devotion doesn’t have to just be centered on what we perceive as “good” or “happy” or “connected” related to our intersection with God. What if we began to re-think devotion not as something just warm and melty but also raw and real and vulnerable and rough and scared and angry, too?

Years ago I was afraid to bring my honesty to God in those “quiet times” because it didn’t feel like the right place. What ended up happening in the end is that I experienced a split—I had the right words I brought to God in my “spiritual life” and the real feelings I was experiencing and trying to hide from God in my “real life.” The result: an inauthentic relationship with God and myself.

One thing I most respect about my friends struggling with God is that they are honest about it. It’s tough to hear sometimes, but it’s so good, too. It’s tough for me to share my real struggles with God out loud, too. I can hear that mean little voice inside that says, “You’re not spiritual enough, faithful enough, devoted enough.” But really, I believe we are living the Bible, which is filled with so many struggles and mistrust and fear and honesty with God that we often are taught to squeeze out or gloss over in favor of “perfect trust.” In the old churches I was in we had to hide these honest feelings out of fear.

When I think of devotion these days, I have a completely different vision of what it is. I now think of it as “an openness to God no matter what that looks like.”

An openness to God no matter what that looks like.

It reminds me of so many different stories in the gospels where people came to Jesus in search of healing. We see all kinds of stories where people crawled, yelled, busted through doors, and weaved their way through crowds to get to Him. Jesus healed them in all kinds of different ways. Their devotion was desperate.

But what about the people we don’t hear about who stood on the sidelines as he walked past, who held themselves on the fringes while he healed people they may have known for years, who didn’t have the boldness to “ask” but wanted to? Who were cynical about what was happening in front of their very eyes but had a little spark deep inside that wondered, “Hmm, I wonder if this is real?” Who doubted, who wondered, who questioned? Who were trying to unclench their fists and receive but weren’t quite sure how?

I think they were devoted, too. Because they were at least in the room. They were there when they could have been somewhere else. They were present. They showed up.

They were trying to be open to Jesus, too. It may have just looked different at the time.

Sometimes people have criticized me and my “hurting-in-terms-of-faith” or “struggling-with-being-mad-at-God” friends as not faithful enough. Or, people have said, “If they just believed the Bible more …” or “they just need to….” or “their hearts are hard.”

That’s not true.

They’re still here when they could be somewhere else.
They’re still showing up in relationship when they could have run away completely.
They are trying to be open.
They are just being honest.

And that’s devotion, too.

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Kathy Escobar
Kathy Escobar co-pastors The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver. A trained spiritual director, speaker, and advocate, she also blogs regularly about life and faith at kathyescobar.com and is the author of Faith Shift and Down We Go—Living out the Wild Ways of Jesus. A mom of 5 young adults and teens, she is married to Jose and lives in Arvada, Colorado.
Kathy Escobar

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Kathy Escobar
  • What refreshing words you’ve shared here, Kathy. They speak to my experience, again. I especially like this: “They were trying to be open to Jesus, too. It may have just looked different at the time.” It’s that different look that has opened me up to a more honest need in my life.

  • Bev Murrill

    Sometimes I think that there are Christians who are not taking into account that God actually knows what you’re thinking and feeling, and that just not mentioning it to Him doesn’t mean He’s unaware that there’s turmoil in the camp.

    Just being on your best behaviour with Him and the people around, not letting anyone know what you are really struggling with, doesn’t mean you’re not struggling – a skunk by any other name is still a skunk…

    I love what you’ve said – they’re still here when they could be somewhere else. Thank God He has more understanding of the state of our hearts than the God Police.

  • Julianna

    My experience with devotions was a little different than you described…it was not about hiding or pretending, but it was about fixing. It was about the expectation that your quiet time was like a sitcom and any problem you threw at it could be solved in 30 minutes, minus commercial breaks. Ok, I’m being silly, but it was about getting to the “right place.” And (possible trigger warning here) I was abused, and in that relationship if I was not being open and affectionate toward that person, I was going to be *made* to be open. And that’s how I experienced God, with a sense of it not being ok to be any way but open and warm and affectionate, even if it was the truth. And more twistedly…if God is not forcing me, then he is also not loving me. So (it’s not the analogy, it’s me) but I don’t like the picture of Jesus passing by all those people that were there but that weren’t able to be the gushing crowds. I mean, of course Jesus was just one guy and he couldn’t have gone up to each of those people and told them, “I know exactly where you are and I love you exactly like that.” But I hope that’s not what God is like…that he passes you by until you’ve got yourself into the “right place.” In fact, I don’t believe that’s what God is like. And I am learning to believe that God can love me in a way that actually sees the value and beauty of the role of every stage and emotion that I go through as it weaves into the tapestry of my life. That he can look at where I am with affection and respect and can be with me in a way that is imminently present without being invasive, without crushing or erasing who I am. And I love that picture that you present of God, Kathy, as a God who has open arms for the whole of who we are.

  • jill_richardson

    Oh, I too love that last paragraph. As a pastor in a church plant, I see so many people on the fringes, unready to trust again. But they are there. They show up. And their walk looks nothing like mine, but maybe I have no idea what they have to overcome just to show up. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Anne-Marie

    Kathy, I love that you are such an advocate. And I love the Psalms because they are David, of all people, pouring out such crazy emotions toward God. But your point is so good – toward God, not away. Someone once said to me that the whole thing is where someone is pointed not where they are. And are we really looking deeply if we aren’t struggling? Such tough questions. Thanks for raising them. Sometimes, I’m most afraid of being luke warm, and the verse about being spit out of the mouth. To others, i think luke warm may translate as smug.

  • Donna-Jean Brown

    EXACTLY, Kathy! And the ones who have left need to hear from us that neither we nor God are mad at them for leaving – the door will always be wide open to them.

  • This post left me in tears. It spoke exactly to where I am. Thank you so much!

  • “I experienced a split—I had the right words I brought to God in my “spiritual life” and the real feelings I was experiencing and trying to hide from God in my “real life.” The result: an inauthentic relationship with God and myself.”

    DING DING DING!

    Over time, I’ve realized that Jesus would much prefer my raw, bleeding heart over a sterile vegetable artichoke heart. Having a baby has steered me away from compartmentalizing my spiritual life and real life. Perhaps sleep deprivation has its benefits! I’m more vulnerable and open these days. And I rarely have the answer for anything(!!!) so my heart is more inclined to listen. The daily “grind” feels like embodied prayer. All of it. The breast pumping, the hot shower, the climbing into bed, the kissing of baby toes, the drinking of lukewarm tea, the one text I manage to respond to! ALL OF IT. Prayer and worship.

    Love your thoughts, Kathy. No surprise there!

    I do hope you make it to Canada for a visit soonish.

    xxoox

  • Ellie Stailey

    This is so true!

    The question I run up against so often is, why does God give us strong desire if He knows we aren’t going to see the fulfillment of that desire right away, if ever? He gives us a promise, and we receive it with joy and excitement, but then we go into the agonizing period of waiting, not seeing the promises fulfilled. It’s so painful! It’s so painful to keep coming back to Him and hoping for something.

    But what I have to hold onto is that He sees me and hears me and isn’t worried about my moments of fear and unbelief. I have found so much a freedom and relief that comes in just being real and open with God. When I hold it in, I become cynical and hopeless.

    Thank you for putting language to this struggle, Kathy! You are definitely a hope-bringer.