Praying With Our Eyes Closed

“My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.” 1 So begins Housekeeping, the highly praised first novel by Marilynne Robinson, who was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, Gilead. The story takes place in Fingerbone, a small town set on a glacial lake, and is told through the teenager Ruth, whose hesitant voice is often understated.

For instance, notice in her one sweeping sentence not only what has been said, but also what has not been said. That is, where is her mother? Where is her father? And what do we make of “when they (her great aunts) fled? ” Thus Ruth’s words both reveal and conceal, taking the form of both confession and denial, as she carefully reconstructs her life story to keep from being swallowed by the dark undercurrents of loss and confusion. “Memory is the sense of loss,” says Ruth, “and loss pulls us after it.” 2

Undoubtedly, the sentences we speak about our lives to others, and especially to ourselves, shape our understanding of who we are and who we hope to be. This is no less the case in prayer. The words we utter when we come before God are a reflection of what we believe and what we hope from Him. Yet this reflection is like seeing ourselves refracted upon the surface of a lake: it is not quite accurate. “Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings,” suggests young Ruth. 3 Similarly, Christian philosopher Esther Lightcap Meek writes, “We labor under the misimpression that we see what we see, that seeing is believing, that either I see it or I don’t.” 4

Several years ago I purchased Catherine Marshall’s book Adventures in Prayer as I wanted to give more thought to this spiritual discipline. I vaguely recall reading the first chapter, “Prayer Is Asking,” commenting to myself, “Well, of course it is,” and setting it aside. I now see that that simple truth—prayer is asking—compels us to bring our whole hearts before God: to name our questions, longings, and fears. But I was not ready to do this with any specificity.

Ironically, however, I labor with this truth daily because one of the first tasks of apologetics involves the law of identity, which states that everything that exists has a specific nature (A = A, or “a cat is a cat”). Hence, this law requires us to identify and spell out a particular assumption or question. For example, when someone remarks, “Sure, I believe in God,” it is critical to ask, “Who is this God you believe in?”—the God of the Bible, or the Koran, Hindu Vedas, etc.?

Then last year I picked up Marshall’s book again and came face to face with these sentences in her first chapter:

Soon we discern that asking involves more than verbalization. Our lips do not always communicate accurately the heart’s true cry. In some instances, that’s because we are so out of touch with our own emotions that our prayers deal in unrealities. Sometimes we are divided within ourselves about what we actually want, so that we cannot ask wholeheartedly. Or perhaps we do not even know enough about our hopes and dreams to make our asking specific. 5

In other words, our prayers may resemble Ruth’s glossing over her family’s history. Our words are witnesses, both revealing and concealing our hearts. For a true measure of our prayer life is not merely what we say to our Heavenly Father, but also what we don’t say to Him. This then begs the question that Marshall begins to respond to: Why don’t we verbalize certain hopes and fears to God, or paradoxically, even to ourselves?

I would suggest that there are no simple answers, and further, that each of us may arrive at them differently. Or perhaps you are thinking that this question is not at all relevant; you freely speak to God about everything. Allow me, then, to introduce this observation that I encountered while reflecting on this concern: “Were a portrait of man to be drawn, one in which there would be highlighted whatever it is most human, be it noble or ignoble, we should surely place well in the foreground man’s enormous capacity for self-deception.” 6

The late Greg Bahnsen, who was a brilliant Christian apologist, wrote of self-deception, “There is something of a cognitive mess at the core of our lives. We are inconsistent in our choices, incoherent in our convictions, persuaded where we ought not to be, and deluded that we know ourselves transparently.” 7

Moreover, the Scriptures bear witness to this reality repeatedly. Jeremiah laments, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9, ESV). This stark description is preceded by a prophecy from God concerning curses and blessings: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from God…. But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream” (vv. 5, 7-8a). God promises that our self-deceived hearts of stone can become fertile soil where we begin to flourish and be fruitful when we entrust ourselves to Him and depend on Him for our sustenance.

Similarly, the apostle James writes,

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does (1:22-25).

We hear an echo of James and Jeremiah in the opening chapter of John Calvin’s Institutes: “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Calvin observes that we come to know ourselves only as we know God, and we come to know God as we take to heart the knowledge of ourselves evidenced in his Word and the Holy Spirit’s work in us. Knowledge is relational; it is mirrored in relationship with Him. We know as we are known, and “we know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 2:3). Or, in Jesus’ own words, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31b-32).

If the truth sets us free, then why do we sometimes feel so at home in the prison of self-deception? For surely such a dwelling looks out upon the landscape of mistrust and fear, and is constructed upon the foundation of denial. Who would feel safe in such a place? Or do we no longer recognize it for what it is? Indeed, did not the Israelites long for the bondage of Egypt rather than the Promised Land after many days of manna and seemingly overlooked prayers?

I do not want to suggest that this conundrum is easily understood or resolved, and particularly within the confines of this brief article, but at one level we see that self-deception, like every sin, involves a choice. Bahnsen writes,

We at times hear people declare “I cannot believe that” (e.g., a close relative has been convicted of a heinous crime), but we all realize that the “cannot” here should be interpreted as “will not”—because one does not want it to be true, cannot emotionally afford to admit it, thinks it is his duty to resist it, or lacks the intellectual energy to rise to the occasion. 8

Notice that denial—not wanting to believe—serves to protect the individual from the painful reality before him or her. Denial keeps us from looking directly at the truth, whether it involves our recurring fears, unrequited questions, or even long-awaited hopes. Denial allows the skeptic to resist God, though “his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived every since the foundation of the world” (Rom. 1:20), and it offers rationale to the believer to give in to sin.

In his now classic book Self-Deception, Herbert Fingarette calls such self-deception “intentional ignorance”:

A person becomes explicitly conscious of something through an intentional act of “spelling out his engagements in the world.” Sometimes, though, there are overriding reasons for a person to avoid spelling out these engagements, as when doing so would be destructive of his self-conception or the personal identity he has achieved. Lest the effort to avoid spelling out the engagement itself reveal the engagement, one must avoid spelling out that effort as well. Self-deception thus involves adopting an avoidance policy whereby one purposefully chooses to stay ignorant of some engagement in the world. 9

The self-deceived person avoids “spelling out” what he or she wants, fears, or knows to be true for any number of reasons, yet particularly to shield oneself from the knowledge that threatens one’s protected, albeit distorted, view of the world. Deception safeguards further self-deception. My colleague Stuart McAllister suggests that this is evidence of the distorting power of sin and its irrationality.

Additionally, Scripture tells us that “we do not know what we ought to pray for” (Romans 8:26). It follows, therefore, that often we do not know what we ought. Certainly self-deception is at one level a conscious choice—we choose to resist and deny the truth. However, it is important to note that we are also unconscious of certain deception and may live with it for years before we see its power in our lives. To be deceived, after all, is to be unaware.

So how do we become self aware and resist the trap of self-deception? The question is too vast for the scope of this article, attested by the numerous works on this subject. Hence, here I speak only from my own experience and study. Such knowledge is born of intimacy in relationships.

To be sure, looking squarely at our unresolved longings, fears, and questions elicits only further questions, and moreover, difficult emotions we may have attempted to deny. So one author quips, “The truth makes us free but first it makes us miserable.” 10 Thus we need the fellowship of those who love us and who are able to speak into our lives, gently setting before us what we cannot—or do not want to—see. Those who are able to sit with us when we weep, and work and wait with us through our doubts. Those who are able to speak the whole story to us. As my pastor is fond of saying, “We are far more sinful than we ever dared imagine, but through Jesus Christ we are far more loved than we ever dared dream.”

When we begin to verbalize our struggles, we are then compelled to ask ourselves what we have done with them. That is, have we instead given voice to our unstated doubts and unrequited hopes through hopelessness, pride, or resignation masked as “godly contentment”? What emotions have accompanied these false views of reality? And have these struggles over time eroded our trust in God’s goodness and sovereignty in our lives?

We find some answers to these difficult personal questions in Scripture, particularly in the Psalms:

The Psalms help us understand that every emotion is a theological statement…. The psalmist disrupts our denial that we are angry or afraid. He disrupts our pretense that our anger and fear are not directed against God. “The problem is not the situation that provoked your fear and anger,” he tells us. “The problem is that your heart is opposed to God.” Yet even as he exposes the depths of our hearts, the psalmist does something quite odd—he invites us to question, doubt, and rage against God…. The Psalms invite us to question God. But they do this in the context of worship. 11

In any intimate relationship, we express some of our struggles to those we love and others we may gloss over or avoid altogether. In my own life I am realizing that what I have chosen to voice to God in prayer, and especially what I have left unsaid, has been a fairly accurate reflection of what I believe and what I hope from Him. My theology would resist such a description of God, but my halfhearted prayers speak otherwise. I have prayed with my eyes closed—to the dark undercurrents of life, but in turn to depths of God’s redeeming love and promises. In closing my eyes to the darkness I have also closed them to the light.

That is why our self-deceived souls so desperately need the mirror of God’s Word, for ultimately it is the one true and trustworthy reflection of who we are and who we are becoming. Here we are exhorted and comforted, chastened and encouraged by the One who loves us and can speak into our lives like no other. We can “set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:19b-20). We can bring our longings, fears, and questions before his throne of grace and let the light of Jesus’ presence shine into every dark and confusing place in our lives. For God does not gloss over our stories, as the prayers of Scripture so readily reveal:

There are tears, anger, exaltation, thoughts of revenge, worship, tenderness and confusion; all these are embraced in the life of prayer and praise. Far from being an expression of unreality, prayer draws us into the fully real; it draws us into the knowledge that we are human beings, men and women created in the image of God. 12

And when we find ourselves at loss for words or wisdom, we can speak aloud his Word and ask Him to pray on our behalf, even as He has promised: “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, ESV). Then we can find comfort that God is opening our eyes to his light and love, and pray like Catherine Marshall, “Lord Jesus…You are the One summoning me back to reality”—beckoning me to a more intimate relationship with you. 13

Danielle DuRant is research assistant at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries

1 Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (New York: Picador, 2004), 3.

2 Ibid., 194.

3 Ibid., 116.

4 Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 99.

5 Catherine Marshall, Adventures in Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1996), 17.

6 Herbert Fingarette, Self-Deception (New York: Humanities, 1975), quoted by Greg Bahnsen in his article “The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics” in Westminster Theological Journal LVII (1995), 1-31. Available online at http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa207.htm.

7 Bahnsen, ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Fingarette, ibid.

10 Sandra Wilson, Released from Shame, quoted by Diane Komp, Anatomy of a Lie (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 9.

11 Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1994), 34-35, 37.

12 Viv Thomas, Second Choice: Embracing Life As It Is (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000), 64.

13 Marshall, 18.

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