The Spiritual Discipline You Need in Times of Trouble
On occasional dark days, I’m tempted to view my life as a losing, lonely battle.
“Existence is suffering,” my foolish heart cries, and with Sartre, “hell is other people.” When pain and darkness crush our hearts, we find it difficult to cry out to God. In the midst of suffering, we cry, but our cries often ignore the living God. This is not a new problem.
Author David Powlison points out that this is God’s charge in Hosea 7:14: Instead of crying to Him, God’s people cry with their faces against the wall.
Pain, like unexpected road-kill, can splatter the entire windscreen of our hearts’ vision. It demands a response. Either we will cry out “my pain, my pain, my pain”, or we’ll cry with Jesus “my God, my God” (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46).
As the Spirit works in us, we expect to grow in our reliance on God. But how?
One way we can do this is by taking in God’s Word and crafting liturgies for our hearts.
You may be familiar with liturgies within a church service. Personal liturgies are the same idea: Regular patterns or disciplines that can guide our spiritual growth.
For example, in the midst of severe depression a couple years ago, Psalm 23 formed the basis of my own personal liturgy. My heart screamed of things it wanted. I was tempted to believe that God didn’t care. I was terrified of the darkness.
As I learned to pray Psalm 23 multiple times during the day, I began to connect it to John 10:
Lord, you are my shepherd. In fact, you are my good shepherd in Christ, and He laid down His life for me. In this, you’ve proved that you will graciously give me all things: I lack nothing. You are leading me beside still waters, even though today feels stormy. I fear the evil I feel dogging me: please, restore my soul.
It seems that our pain often ebbs and flows, which gives us a chance to collect our thoughts and tune our liturgies for the next round of struggle. As the pain changes, our requests can morph. As we see more of the darkness in our hearts, we can add facets of repentance.
As God reveals more of His grace in other scriptures, we can tweak our liturgies.
Personal liturgies make theology practical.
Preparing liturgies puts legs on our theology. We know that our hearts are prone to cry out on our beds, rather than to God. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” We understand the threat, and we take away the excuse of “I don’t know what to pray”.
We know that God delights to hear us, and that we have access to His throne of grace as beloved children (Romans 5:2, Hebrews 5).
We know that we need God’s help desperately. Tomorrow, when I can’t rouse myself from bed, I’m going to need assistance to be able to call for God’s help. We write liturgies to help our desperate hearts call to the Savior.
Finally, we prepare liturgies because Jesus used scripture to guide His prayers in the midst of His suffering.
How to Start Practicing Personal Liturgies
With all this in mind, pick a passage which maps onto a particular hurt in your life right now. The Psalms of ascent are a brilliant place to start. Beginning often with a severe hardship, they move towards an agitated confidence in God.
This is the goal of our liturgies: to take your sorrowful hearts and shift it to praise, even when you don’t feel like it.
Once you have a passage, begin praying it. Write it down. Over time, add particular cries to God, add scriptures which draw you toward Christ more explicitly, and keep praying it. Ask that the Spirit would make you really feel the praise and the cries you offer.
Psalm 131 is a great psalm to pray with a troubled heart. Consider praying it repeatedly, with different emphases each time:
1. Confession: “Lord, my heart is proud: it is not calmed.”
2. Looking to Jesus: “Jesus, thank you that your heart was not proud, that you stilled your soul before God perfectly.”
3. I am weak: “Spirit, humble my heart and calm my soul.”
4. Commitment: “Lord, my heart is not proud.”
Grab a notebook, and begin a liturgy before the God who hears. If that feels impossible, ask a trusted friend for a passage, and discuss how you can pray it together.
Our hearts hurt, and the pain threatens to sink us. We have a Savior who is familiar with our weakness, we have a God who hears our cries, and we have the Spirit who stirs our heart to prayer.
Let scripture guide your hurting heart to cry out.