Three Skills You Need When You Can't Face God
I am a pastor by trade, and with increasing frequency, moments arise in my work (and in myself), where I must confess: “I just don’t know that I can face God right now.” To face God is no trite matter. Even on his best day, Moses was told God was only going to be seen by him from behind (Exodus 33:20-23). Job had it far worse — he couldn’t get away from God’s face. At one point, in his agony Job screams to his friends, “Why is life given to a man, whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?” (Job 3:23)
Many of us who have experienced any range of trauma intuitively understand Job. If trauma is a wound of the mind — the soul’s painful tenderness to the touch — often, the need for the wound to heal often prevents many of us from wanting to see God’s face. Like Job, we feel hemmed in — like God is looking at us with a stopwatch and a judgmental look on his face, wondering when we’re going to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Like Job, we will need time to rant, time to rage, time to question, and time to heal, before we’re ready to see God’s face.
For this reason, pastors need strategies for what to do in the meantime when it feels like we can’t face God.
Features of Traumatized Faith
When someone can’t face God, I offer hear them confess they are unable to pray. This, of course, makes sense. Prayer necessitates a seeking of God’s face — it relies upon a trust that may have been compromised — and far more often survivors feel the need to flinch before God instead of rest.
I also hear frequently from those with trauma that singing songs of worship, or even reading their Bibles, just seems to fall flat — a shallow drop in a raging sea of emotions inside. That too makes sense to me, though it's often that this point the pious faithful throw up their hands in dismay. Of course, as a pastor, I believe in the power of prayer, the power of worship, and the power of Scripture. All will be necessary in time. But as a pastor I also believe in the power of pain, and recognize that sometimes times, instead of more faith-filled answers, a person with space can ready themselves, on their own initiative, to turn once more to God’s face.
Non-Spiritual Skills for Spiritual Recovery
All this begs the question: “What we are meant to do while we wait?” Are there any practices — any skills that one could learn — like someone recovering from knee surgery to get back on our spiritual feet? Better yet, are there skills we could learn that actually start to lead us back to God? As I’ve searched, I’ve found the answer has been yes. Christian and secular research is in agreement that there are several key skills which can facilitate spiritual and mental recovery without overburdening survivors with religious expectation.
Even more, each of these skills has a surprisingly spiritual sense — an opening up to a higher power through their rhythm and utilization — that could ultimately result again in such disciplines as prayer, scripture and worship. In that sense, these practices almost become a form of spiritual calisthenics — a way to stretch, recover, and heal the spiritual portion of the brain in order to face God again.
1. The Skill of Engaging Nature
I have recently discovered the antidote to a stressful day. I currently work in a church that sits adjacent to 18 acres of Illinois prairie marsh. As the weather grows warmer, as a project begins building, and hours start to pass, I inevitably hit a wall. Before, I would have attempted some combination of caffeine and self-shaming to try to force myself back on task. Now, I get up and go for a walk. Immediately, when I hit the tree line of the marsh, my stress starts to fade. By the time I get half a mile in (about a 12 minute walk) my mind has cleared. By the time I make it back to the building, some 25 minutes later, I normally have solved whatever problem was plaguing my mind.
Now, if you had asked me several years ago whether I would have made working near an Illinois prairie marsh a priority for my mental health, I would have laughed. But just a little prodding consistently demonstrates that nature holds profoundly therapeutic and even spiritual power of silently looking at nature. Just a few examples from the growing body of research:
● Japanese researchers led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University sent 84 subjects to stroll in seven different forests, while the same number of volunteers walked around city centers, both for just fifteen minutes. Even for such a short space of time, the forest walkers showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate.
● In England researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School recently analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment.
● In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space.
● Nooshin Razani at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, is one of several doctors who have noticed the emerging data on nature and health. As part of a pilot project, she’s training pediatricians in the outpatient clinic to write prescriptions for young patients and their families to visit nearby parks.
What’s perhaps even more fascinating than the effectiveness of nature is the question why nature is so effective. In an insightful article by the National Geographic entitled, “Call to the Wild: This is Your Brain on Nature,” Richard Mitchell, an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland thought that greener living must be correlated to increased exercise. But then, he did a large study that found less death and disease in people who lived near parks or other green space—even if they didn’t use them. “Our own studies, plus others, show these restorative effects whether you’ve gone for walks or not,” Mitchell says.
As a Christian, I can’t help but speculate that there is indeed something inherent in nature itself that speaks to our eternal souls, calling to us in its beauty, order, rhythm and design of a true creator. But the point here is to insist that even if you see nature another way, it is profoundly powerful, and perhaps even profoundly necessary to your recovery. You will need nature to heal. You will need nature if you are ever to turn and face God. And nature, so the research would indicate, has something innate that can heal your very mind.
Could it be 30 minutes, on your way home from work, that you stop every day to walk through the park? Or is it more intentional and rhythmed? One of the most grounded men I know goes for an hour walk through the park with his family every Saturday. Another takes one day a month to simply get away for a couple hours in nature. David Strayer, a psychologist at University of Utah cited in the article above believes that 2-3 days in nature actually resets your brain. What would it look like to make nature a practice in your life? It’s probable that you’ll start to be less stressed, more productive, and more healthy. It’s even possible that you might see God.
2. The Skill of Exercise
Mention of exercise inevitably provokes the eye roll from those who don’t do it. Everything from United Way commercials, to Michelle Obama has been encouraging us for a while to get out and exercise to improve our lives. Yet increasingly, the studies continue to pour in demonstrating that exercise is not just essential for our physical health but also our mental health. Put simply: exercise directly affects the brain. Regular exercise increases the volume of certain brain regions — in part through better blood supply that improves health of neural pathways in your brain; improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrients. Your brain starts to function healthier, makes connections faster, and regulate various mood alterations better.
For this reason, the implications of exercise for mental health has been an exploding field of research. One such example is a recent study at UC Davis that found exercise increases and replenishes neurotransmitters that are often depleted in depression. The primary researcher Richard Maddock concluded, “We are offering another view on why regular physical activity may be important to prevent or treat depression,” Maddock said. “Not every depressed person who exercises will improve, but many will. It’s possible that we can help identify the patients who would most benefit from an exercise prescription.”
Is it possible that exercise, if its missing from your life, could actually boost not only your physical but also your mental and emotional health? Increasingly, physicians are realizing that good, regular exercise holds a variety of cures. But integrating nature and exercise, that is getting outside while you get active, could be even better. Remarkably, an article by the New York Times pointed to study after study that have demonstrated a consistent response of improved mood, improved health, and lower stress for those who get outside and exercise. I would suggest that if one wants to heal in such a way that opens up more spiritual space in their lives, nature and exercise together almost seem like a natural fit. So what would this kind of rhythm look like in your life? Running, of course, biking, running, even simply going outside to do jumping jacks once or twice a week is a good place to start. But this leads to our third skill.
3. The Skill of Mindfulness
Imagine that you’re going throughout your day, and suddenly, an intrusion to your mental health occurs. Maybe it’s a stressor, like a car swerving in front of you, an offhanded, painful remark, or an unexpected assignment that fills you with rage. Or perhaps it's something more serious. A trigger connected to your previous trauma. An abuser, or antagonistic family member who reaches out. You feel that kick in your stomach, that fight or flight freeze. The overwhelming rush of dread.
For many with trauma these are of course regular (if not daily) occurrences, that result in all kinds of emotions. The temptation for most of us is to look at the external factors and want them to change (be it shouting at the driver to learn to drive all the way to far darker thoughts towards those who have wronged us). However, if you’re going to have any hope of taking back control, and regulating your own emotions regardless of the invading threats, you are going to need the skill of mindfulness.
All said and done, mindfulness is the simple practice of slowing down, breathing deeply, focusing on either a word, image, or nothing at all, and thus allowing your brain to switch from its high-speed processing network, to a moment-by-moment network, living in the present. Mindfulness can be achieved in as short as a two-minute breathing exercise all the way to a 30 minute morning meditation. While mindfulness can sometimes be over-hyped as the “golden-bullet” to anxiety, Harvard Business Review recently offered a helpful survey of what they called “gold standard” studies, which they noted primarily show mindfulness offering:
staying calmer under stress
building stronger relational bonds.
Anyone from a faith background, after prolonged exposure to mindfulness exercises inevitably remarks, “hmm… slowing down, breathing, focusing on moment-by-moment awareness. That sounds almost like prayer.” They would of course be right. Mindfulness is essentially the prayer-practice for someone one can’t currently face God. It grounds and connects you to awareness of yourself and prepares you to be aware of others, and perhaps even ultimately when you’re ready to return to being aware of God.
Once again, mindfulness is simple and much like nature or exercise, impressively effective even when minimally engaged. You could start with 2 minutes of breathing, where you simply focus on your breath before you start your work day and before you end it. Or you could grow stronger, with a 5 minute mindfulness exercise every hour as you sit at work. Personally, I feel most grounded when I end my day with 30 minutes of breathing, eventually processing all the moments that happened and all the tasks to come. But if nature, and exercise and mindfulness became a part of your day, or even your week, you might just find yourself slowly turning on your own, in search of God.
So what do you do, when you can’t face God?
I have been haunted, in my pastoral work, by the many stories I’ve heard where someone has experienced the unimaginable and finds themselves unable to face God. All the usual answers fall flat on these battered souls. Worse, the pressure on those who have been traumatized to conform to “acceptable” or “standard” pietistic practices say of reading one’s bible, praying, or singing songs at church are put forward as a kind of spiritual “golden bullet” that almost magically are meant to cure all ails.
Such pressure to engage evangelical practices, as helpful as they can be, strike me to be about as effective as the pat answers of casual justice Job’s friends insist on, as if a simple word of repentance on Job’s part could somehow take away his existential ache. This returns us to our predicament. The practices of the faithful might be necessary and good, but what do you do if your faith has been lost, and the church only seems to aggravate the wound?
Perhaps the most effective strategies are the least articular — maybe the logocentrism of evangelical piety has intellectualized suffering in a way that silently neglects the more creational, sub-conscious needs of survivors. It may be the case that those who have faced trauma ought not face God until he faces them.