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James Martin, S.J.March 05, 2021
A young woman prays during Ash Wednesday Mass at Jesus the Divine Word Church in Huntingtown, Md., in this March 6, 2019, file photo. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

[This article is excerpted from Father James Martin’s latest book, Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone. Subscribe to America today and receive the entire first chapter]

Lent is a time when many of us try to jumpstart our spiritual lives. One of the best ways is to start being honest with God.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me,” says Psalm 139. Letting God come to know you is essential in your relationship with God. Letting yourself be known in this relationship means more or less the same as it does in any relationship: You must speak about your life, share your feelings and reveal yourself openly. Honesty is an important part of this process. Honesty is an essential part of prayer.

In his book God and You, William A. Barry, S.J., suggests thinking about what happens when you are not honest in a relationship. Usually, the relationship begins to grow cold, distant or formal. If you’re avoiding something unpleasant, the relationship devolves into one defined by nothing more than social niceties. Eventually the relationship dies. It is the same with prayer. If you are saying what you think you should say to God rather than what you want to say, then your relationship will grow cold, distant and formal. Honesty in prayer, as in life, is important.

If you are saying what you think you should say to God rather than what you want to say, then your relationship will grow cold, distant and formal. 

About 20 years ago, I became friendly with a Jesuit whom I really admired. He seemed to lead a charmed life: He was happy, optimistic, hardworking, friendly and prayerful. For a long time I tried to figure out what his secret was. What enabled him to lead this seemingly carefree life?

A few years later, this same friend went through a wrenching personal crisis and turned to me for help. In a series of conversations he poured out his pain and showed a part of himself that I had previously not seen. Fortunately, the crisis passed. But after he had opened up to me, I felt closer to him, and he told me that he felt closer to me.

Both of us were grateful for our friendship. Though I now knew he didn’t lead the perfect life, I liked him even more. Honesty had changed our relationship, making it deeper and more real.

How can you be honest with God in prayer? The easiest way may be to imagine God in front of you. You might picture God or Jesus sitting across from you in a chair, sitting beside you on a couch or whatever feels comfortable. Then just speak in a familiar way, in silence or out loud, about your life.

God already knows what is going on in your life. Still, your openness and intentional sharing are an important part of the spiritual life. Once again, comparing it to a human friendship is instructive. Let’s say your father has died. Good friends already know how sad you are and probably don’t need to be told the extent of your loss. But you tell them anyway, right? And they listen.

Not too long ago I had lunch with a friend who lost his brother at a young age to cancer. My friend is a warm and generous person, and I knew that he was devastated by this loss. But it was still a privilege for me to hear him talk about what had happened, to see his tears and to hear him recount funny stories about his brother.

Letting God come to know you is essential in your relationship with God. You must speak about your life, share your feelings and reveal yourself openly.

Telling a friend about your loss, even if he or she already knows about it, may help make the loss more concrete for you. It gives you the opportunity to accept your friend’s consolation, and it reminds you that you are known by another person in an intimate way.

Honesty with God means sharing everything with God, not simply gratitude and praise and not just things you think are appropriate for prayer. Honesty means sharing things you might consider inappropriate for conversation with God. Being honest can be difficult.

The spiritual writer Margaret Silf, in her book Wayfaring: A Gospel Journey in Everyday Life, tells a marvelous story about holding back. Once on retreat her spiritual director described to her three kinds of people in prayer. The first uses rote prayers.

Ms. Silf thinks, “a touch self-righteously,” that she has moved past that. “No, that’s not me.”

Those of the second kind really pray from the heart, enter deeply into Scripture and open themselves up to God, speaking as a friend speaks to a friend. Ms. Silf was inwardly pleased by that description.

“But,” said her director, “they pray about everything except the one burning issue in their lives—the one thing that they don’t want to look at.” Ms. Silf realized with a sinking feeling that she was that second type of person. People who constitute the third type, by contrast, bring their whole selves to God, “just as they are” and talk about “whatever comes up.” They are, he said, “willing to take off the censorship filters, and let God be God in their lives.”

We’re all called to that kind of honesty, but often feel blocked. What kinds of things would we not want to bring up before God?

Honesty means sharing things you might consider inappropriate for conversation with God.

Anger is a good example of something we might avoid bringing up in prayer. Disappointment, which is part of the human condition, often leads to anger. So anger is a sign that you’re alive. And all of us can get angry for any number of reasons: a frightening medical diagnosis, the loss of a job, a family conflict, a terrible financial blow, the rupture of a relationship.

God can handle your anger, no matter how hot it burns. God has been handling anger as long as humans have been praying. Just read the Book of Job in the Old Testament—there Job rails against God for causing his painful situation. Usually Job is seen as a patient man, and at the beginning of that book he is. But eventually even Job loses his patience and begins to curse the day he was born. “I loathe my life,” he says. “I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.”

“The great tradition of prayer in the Old Testament in the Psalms, in Job, in the lamentation of the prophets,” the German theologian Johann Baptist Metz wrote in The Courage to Pray, “makes it clear that the language of prayer does not exclude or shut itself off from the experience of suffering and desolation.”

Anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment and bitterness in prayer have a long history. Why shouldn’t you allow yourself to express those feelings too? Father Barry frankly acknowledges these situations and offers this advice, “All I can do is encourage you to speak directly to God if you have questions about God’s ways, as one friend to another, even if anger is the only emotion you can voice.”

God can handle your anger, no matter how hot it burns. God has been handling anger as long as humans have been praying.

A few years ago, I told my spiritual director that I was so angry at God that I used an obscenity in prayer. I was so frustrated that God didn’t seem to be doing anything to help me that, one night, I clenched my fists and shouted aloud, “How about some @#$% help, God!” Some readers might be shocked that a priest would use language like that, especially in prayer.

I thought my spiritual director, a wise and gentle Jesuit priest named Damian, would reproach me. Instead he said, “That’s a good prayer!” I thought Damian was kidding. But he continued, “That’s a good prayer because it’s honest. God wants your honesty, Jim.”

Being honest also made me feel that God now knew exactly how I felt. Have you ever had the experience of confiding something to a friend and feeling relief? I felt God could now better accompany me, just as a good friend might. More accurately, I would now be able to allow God to accompany me.

Saying it aloud also brought me face-to-face with something else: my ingratitude. Sure, there was a big problem in my life, but there were some wonderful things going on at the same time. I was like an adolescent saying to his parent, “I hate you!” because he’s asked to go to bed at a reasonable time, turn off his video games or take out the trash. Hearing myself talk like that—out loud—revealed a childish aspect of my relationship with God, one I very much wanted to move beyond. Finally, it was a reminder of how often we push God away when we need God most.

So it was a good prayer!

Father Barry and William Connolly, S.J., note in their now-classic book The Practice of Spiritual Direction that one should also not fear expressing the same emotion repeatedly in prayer. People often find that one airing of a strong feeling such as anger (especially anger toward God) “does not eliminate the necessity for repeated expression of it.” Often in spiritual direction a person needs to be encouraged to continue to be honest with God, to “keep at it.” The problem is not that God has not heard us or that we have not adequately expressed ourselves. Rather, “the development of transparency in our relationship with [God] requires repeated expressions of a particular feeling.”

Sadness is another emotion that some people feel reluctant to share with God. Someone once told me a story about going to a movie with a close friend. Because the subject material intersected with his life, he began to sob at the end of the movie and was embarrassed. Later on, as the two sat together in a car in the parking lot, his friend sat silently and let him cry.

Can you give God the intimate gift of your true self, your true emotions, even when you are grieving?

His silent friend wasn’t the only one showing love. The person weeping gave the gift of intimacy by allowing another to enter his life. Can you give God the intimate gift of your true self, your true emotions, even when you are grieving?

But when it comes to prayer, the most inappropriate emotion, at least in many minds, may be sexual desire. In one of the best contemporary books on prayer, God, I Have Issues: 50 Ways to Pray No Matter How You Feel by Mark Thibodeaux, S.J., each chapter addresses prayer during a different mood. The moods are organized alphabetically, so that you can thumb through the book when you are afraid, angry, despairing, doubting, jealous, joyful, sad, weary and so on. One chapter is entitled “Sexually Aroused.” Mark begins bluntly: “Good Christian people often worry about their sexual feelings. They are embarrassed and ashamed of them.”

Mark reminds us that sexuality and sexual activity are gifts from God to be celebrated. On a natural level they draw people together for the sake of love and creating new life. On a spiritual level those feelings can remind us of the love that God has for us. Many spiritual writers use erotic love as a metaphor for God’s love for humanity. (Check out the Song of Songs if you have any doubts.)

But like any gift, sexuality must be used wisely. If motivated by selfishness, it can turn into a desire for possessiveness. On a more benign level, sexual thoughts during prayer can simply be a distraction. So what do we do with those feelings in prayer?

Again, the solution is honesty. “Instead of hiding these experiences, we should share them with God,” says Mark, “and use them to remind ourselves how great it is to be alive, how great it is to be a creature of God, and how wondrously we are created.” If that doesn’t work, or if those feelings are troublesome because they are directed at a person with whom you cannot have a relationship, just be honest with God about your struggles.

Be honest with God about everything.

More articles from Father James Martin:

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