Praying When It’s Hard: Praying Through Resistance

March 21, 2021

“Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ “   — Luke 14:15ff. 

In prayer, I think we are sometimes like these people who were invited to the banquet.  We have been invited to a feast, yet we find any number of reasons why we just can’t (or don’t want to) go. What is this penchant for not going where God invites and what does it all mean?  Why would I ever want to avoid God or something God shows me -and how can I pray through this experience? 

Resistance comes from the Latin “resistere” which means ‘to hold back,’ to be unwilling to go “all in.”  Sometimes in prayer we meet (or are met by) a thought, a word, a worry, a memory, anything really, that causes us to stop,  to “hold back” (consciously or not) from this God with whom we are in a privileged relationship.    And yet, on the other side of whatever is holding me back is the God of greater freedom and deeper love – the feast God wants to give!

The first step in praying through resistance is to name it!  Only if we recognize resistance within will we be able to choose to engage it or not.  Some forms of resistance are “classic” and easily identified.

Am I procrastinating?  This is a “prime marker” of resistance in many. I will pray later.  I need to check my email now.  What was that text message which just binged on my phone?  I will do it right after I exercise(!). I need to check my Facebook page.  Oh- I wonder if my co-worker put that article in Google docs yet, let me check.  

Am I rationalizing? I could pray about this better if I talked with her first.  I don’t need to talk about that again!  God knows what I feel about all of that!

Am I trying to be self-sufficient?  I can handle this by myself…no need to “bother” God with something so small.  OR God must be tired of me saying the same thing, I’ll  just keep trying! I’m sure I can get this.

Am I afraid? (Often indicated by avoiding the topic altogether.) Oh- that, there are other things more important to talk about than that.   Let’s put it on the back burner for now.…

Am I convinced something else absolutely has to be dealt with first? As soon as this pandemic is over I can get back to more regular conversation with my God.  As soon as my husband gets a job…as soon as my daughter moves out of the house… as soon as…

In my own prayer the telltale sign of resisting is what I call “looking sideways at God.”  I go to prayer, but rather than meet God face to face, I kind of sit nearby and take sideways glances at God, without ever having to say what is really on my mind or in my heart. I talk on…  I seem to want to stay out of the way of that loving glance!   Otherwise I might go where I do not want to go, or talk about what I do not want to say anything about. 

Once I recognize the resistance,  I can begin to pray through it.  How?

Ignatius uses the term “agera contra” meaning to act against whatever impulses want to take you away from God.  In praying through resistance, Ignatius directs that we should  consciously choose to oppose that which leads away from God or blocks the communication between us.  

  • If I am procrastinating, moving against that would mean I get up and go to prayer.  
  • If I think God doesn’t want to hear something, I go against that and speak to God about it.  
  • If there is something I have done that I am ashamed of, I bring it to the light, to God.
  • If I think I should just keep trying I might go against that by yielding a little, allowing God to speak into my determined spirit to go it alone. 
  • If I am glancing at God sideways, I need to move around and have a face-to-face conversation!

Sometimes it is a real struggle to “go against” whatever resistance I meet. For this I look to the example of Jacob, who I think of as the “anti-resistor.”(Cf. Gen 32:22ff)  

Alone and struggling all night against an unknown assailant he not only gave it his all, but asked for a blessing from that which assailed him.  Before giving him the blessing, however,  the assailant asks Jacob his name, as if to say  “Who are you that meets me here in this place?” Only when Jacob has revealed himself can the angel reveal Job’s new identity.   

In praying through resistance God is often asking us that very question: Who are you that meets me here in this place?  Who are you really today? Will you let me know all of you?  It can take some time and some agera contra to answer that question.

Only at the end of the long night of struggle was Jacob able to become one who “saw God face to face.” 

God engages us- by inviting, loving, even challenging us.  There will be things to wrestle with as we move deeper into the relationship, but only so that we may be  drawn closer to God’s self.  God invites us to a banquet, a feast beyond our imagining!

 No eye has seen, no ear has heard and no one’s heart has imagined all the things that God has prepared for those who love God. ( 1 Cor 2:9)

Going deeper:

  • What do you know about how and when you avoid going to prayer or how you avoid dealing with things that come up in prayer? What are the signals that let you know there is some resistance in prayer?
  • What blessing(s) have your struggles in prayer given you?
  • What name or identity does God give you at this point  in your life?
  • Consider reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.  
  • Read more about agere contra during Lent here

Photo by Juliette F. on Unsplash.com

Sr. Janelle Sevier is a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, an international congregation of religious women who live and serve in 17 countries and on five continents. A native of Baton Rouge, and currently working there as a Pastoral Associate, she has also ministered in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Haiti, and in the United States: in the Archdiocese of Boston as well as Baton Rouge. Janelle has been involved in many areas of ministry: formal and informal teaching as well as faith formation and spirituality with a great variety of groups. Giving retreats and offering spiritual direction has been part of her ministry throughout. She has a passion for working with others to help deepen the experience of God within individuals and in our communities of faith, and especially with groups often overlooked by society.

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