Saturday, July 17, 2010

Prayer and anxiety

My husband and I are on the cusp of finishing a book called The Cornerstone Concept by Roberta Gilbert, which is a book about being an effective leader through the application of Bowen Family Systems Theory. We have been studying "systems" for nearly 2 years and it has been both enlightening and beneficial.

Today we read a chapter about the effects of prayer on reducing anxiety. (And if you have no need to reduce anxiety in your life, stop reading now.) The chapter was written by Victoria Harrison, a member of the faculty of Bowen Center for the Study of the Family as well as an accomplished author and clinical practitioner in systems theory.

I am only going to briefly discuss Harrison's article, as I cannot do it justice in the few minutes I have to write this post. Basically, Harrison uses two case studies to show the difference that prayer can make in reducing anxiety and emotional reactivity in individuals. Using technology known as biofeedback, which measure physiological reaction by examining respiration rate, heart rate, skin temperature, and brain wave activity (to name a few), Harrison determined that certain types of prayer greatly decreased emotional reactivity and anxiety.

Specifically, the test subject whose grandmother raised him in a mainline protestant church and whose prayer life was centered on "counting his blessings" was significantly less anxious and reactive after a time of prayer. By comparison, the test subject who came from more of a charismatic background and experienced conversion in a prison setting in which prayer centered on the "casting out" of demons; and whose prayer time focused more on confessing his sins and begging forgiveness was more anxious and reactive after prayer.

More anxious after prayer. Isn't that amazing?

What I conclude from these findings (and of course two subjects is quite limited in the world of research) is that using our prayer time to beat ourselves up is not only futile, it may just be harmful.

What is this obsession with asking forgiveness over and over and over again? Don't misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that confession is not an important aspect of prayer. I am merely saying, let's confess a particular sin or shortcoming and move on with it. To continue to bring the same thing up, I believe, shows a lack of faith in terms of our belief that if we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

The next verse in that passage says, "If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives." I want to suggest here that asking forgiveness over and over again, as if God refuses to forgive us until we ask a certain number of times, or become sufficiently upset with ourselves while asking, or experience a sufficient amount of shame and guilt is as "bad" as claiming we have not sinned in the first place.

Why do we think it is noble or righteous or pious to a beat ourselves up in this manner? Why do we believe that this is what God requires of us? This does not sound like my understanding of Grace -- God's unmerited favor; God giving me what I do not deserve. Neither does it sound like mercy; God not giving me what I deserve. It just sounds like self-hatred.

(As a side note, I have found that the greatest obstacle experienced by the women I work with who are going through drug and alcohol rehab is self-hatred and the inability to believe that they can be forgiven.)

Are we mocking God and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to practice a prayer life that focuses first on our unworthiness instead of God's love? Reading a recent daily devotional by Richard Rohr, I was again reminded that our focus is not to be on our shortcomings, but God's love. We must remind ourselves repeatedly that we are the object of God's love; and he is the Lover. This will always be our role -- the loved; and God will always be the Lover. As Rohr puts it, "Divine love is not determined by the worthiness of the object of love but by the Subject, who is always and only Love. God does not love us if we change, as we almost all think; but God loves us so that we can change."

Perhaps following the example of the test subject who practiced "counting his blessings" in our prayer life would be an extremely healthy practice for all of us, both emotionally and spiritually. And certainly, chief among those blessings is that we serve a God whose property is always to love, to forgive, to exercise compassion, and to work for good in the world.

That truth alone makes me considerably less anxious!

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