Order Jennifer Barnett’s book on prayer: First Freedoms. This post by Jennifer Barnett is an adaptation from the “Family on Mission Workshop” at Church of the City in Spring Hill, Tennessee, on August 20–21, 2021. Used by permission. Recently, I dropped off my firstborn child at college. And while he is only 7.2 miles away, which is a 12-minute drive from my house, I still feel the distance. I’m not ashamed to say that I wept twice that day. Later that week I was driving and had the radio playing in the background. Stevie Nicks’s classic song “Landslide” came on with the lyrics: “Even children get older, and I’m getting older too.” Immediately I went from normal driving to sobbing profusely. Tears were more than delicately streaming out of my eyes—I was ugly weeping. So I’m driving and sobbing and amused by myself and my undone emotions, wondering, “What is wrong with me?” Those big emotions of loss seemed to come out of nowhere. For the people who drove past me and saw a crazy lady sobbing in her car, that was just the response of a parent who felt the new loss of connection in proximity even though her son was only 7.2 miles away. We can sometimes feel this way in our relationship to God. Let me unpack this a bit.
Calm Yourself Like a Weaned ChildHave you ever watched a baby between the ages of nine to fifteen months who temporarily gets passed to another adult from their mom or dad’s hands and they start to wail uncontrollably? They begin screaming and crying at high velocity because that relatively mild separation with parents still in sight seems like a scary distance. They don’t like it and make that fact loudly known. If you have not observed that in a while, I invite you to check it out. Go watch parents who have children in that age range drop a child off at the church nursery on Sunday mornings. That Sunday morning drop-off looks and sounds like a crime scene; it’s as if parents are depositing those babies into the most traumatic, most horrible room ever. And watch—and I have been this parent—as the parents walk down the hall, and then immediately turn around for the walk of shame back to the nursery because they know the child is going to be completely inconsolable until they return. As a result, the baby stops screaming immediately when placed in the arms of the parent, mst often the mother. The psalmist understood this dynamic when he said:
“I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content” (Ps. 131:2).
This passage teaches we are supposed to be like a child who leans on their mother, unworried about things too big for them, unworried about their next meal, and who completely trusts in the safety and provision found in the peaceful closeness. We are created to be like that before God. But how often, if we’re honest, are we like the screaming, wailing babies in the church nursery while we’re attempting to walk the Christian life? Inwardly we are distraught, and we become so used to it that it feels normal. So we navigate our Christian journey separated from God. But the psalmist said it was never supposed to be that way.
Abiding is connecting.
And we cannot truly rest unless we’re connected. Like those babies who are frantic to get back to their parent’s arms, leaning against their chest, we cannot rest as the children of God unless we have close proximity. Yet we tend to navigate life away from him, and we wonder why we’re so tired and so overwhelmed and why we feel that we’re sort of halfway navigating our lives. We just can’t quite find peace because we haven’t stepped into nearness with God. We have to cultivate connection to find rest, and we have to cultivate connection to stay firmly planted in the place of abiding.
Connect to GodMatthew 7:23 is one of the most sobering passages in the Scriptures. It says, “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” And that verse is talking to us. It talks to church people who are doing church things. They are doing really impressive “A-plus in an honors class” kind of church things, but then Jesus says, “But I never knew you.” That’s sobering. All of the impressive scurrying that I might be doing doesn’t matter if knowing God in the place of close rest is not front and center on my “to-do” list. The possibility that he might not know me shakes me to my core. We have to cultivate connection to stay connected and to know and be known, and we have to cultivate connection so we don’t grow cold. Another verse that convicts me is Matthew 24:12, which says, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” With this warning, Jesus again talks to the church. I see this coldness growing right now. Do you see it? Do you feel it? I’m a pretty visual person, and I’m an empath. So I’m careful about what I watch and connect to. For instance, I don’t watch the news anymore. Watching the news can quickly make me cold. So I understand how this verse holds weight. I used to read this verse even ten years ago and wonder, “How can that happen? How can the people of God grow cold?” And here’s the reality: We will grow cold if we’re not connected because we will become numb. We can’t hold the burdens around us. We can’t carry the weight of wickedness that we’re either participating in or looking at. It’s too much. That’s why Jesus beckons:
“Come to me all you who are weary.”
He continues, “I’ll give you rest. Take this yoke. The one you’re carrying, the one you’re taking in. It is too much for you to carry.” Especially while you’re at a distance, hurried and frenzied and overwhelmed. You must come near. You must lean on your beloved and trade in the heavy load for the light one. That’s the only way the American church will survive this pandemic season. I see this growing cold not only in my own church but also in many churches across the country where people are walking away. And you see it too. You see this pattern; it’s why you’re here this morning as leaders. You have some people here who have one foot in the door and one foot out, and they’re leaning more and more out. If our hearts are not connected, then they are in danger of growing numb and cold. Then sometimes those numb and cold hearts walk out the door. But if we’re connected to God, he is too good to walk away from. So we must cultivate connection because leaning on our beloved is what keeps us warm. This warmth will enable us to offer life to a world that’s cold and lawless.
The Antidote to Growing ColdHebrews 10:22 gives an antidote to growing cold. By the way, I love this verse because I love any verse that is about connection, as you’ve probably figured out at this point. The verse says, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.” That verse is jam-packed. It’s got a lot to it, right?
Drawing near is a specific action for sons and daughters of God.
Think for a moment about your own prayer life when you allow yourself to think about God. Some of you might pause and question, “I don’t know if I think about God.” We just sort of launch into prayers sometimes maybe even while hurrying to work: “God, would you please watch over my children? Take care of this person who is sick. And help get …” And we don’t pause even to think about him. When you approach God in prayer, how near are you? Does he feel like he’s galaxies away? Do you know in theory that you’re supposed to be near to him, but in reality it feels like four hundred football fields of distance? You can sort of see him way out in the distance? Most of us often go to the Lord, and we don’t even take time to think about him and our proximity to him. And we haphazardly launch prayers into the heavens, hoping they land somewhere. But in every important relationship you have to get face-to-face to talk and communicate. What would it look like if you did life with your families and friends and you never looked them in the eye? If you never got more than maybe eight feet close to them? You must have nearness for a strong relationship. You have to be near to stay connected. So drawing near is a specific command.
You must get near to God. You must lean. You must be like a weaned child who is close by and covered, who is safe with a sincere heart.
A sincere heart is free from pretense and free from deceit. It proceeds from genuine feelings. It says what you really mean and really feel and doesn’t hide anything. It’s not dishonest; it’s wholehearted. There’s no exaggeration, nothing is off-limits, and it has unreserved devotion. When’s the last time we came to our Father like that? Unfortunately, we often come to God like we’re coming for a job interview. “Hey, God, I’m good. And my worst sin is that I’m a perfectionist, and I’m doing so much for your kingdom. But I’m good. I’ve got this.” That’s how many of us come to God. But inwardly in the secret, closed-off space of ourselves, a little part of our heart goes:
But I’m grieving, and I’m disappointed, and, God, I know what’s true about you here. But my experience of you says otherwise, and I don’t even know what to do with that. So I’m gonna stuff it in and close it off like an attic door that doesn’t ever get opened. Because, God, in my mind, you can’t see the part that’s disgruntled or that’s disappointed or that carries this little bit of hatred for something or this deep wounding that makes me stay at a distance. Not just from you, God, but from most people. But I’m good, and I’m working hard for you.And eventually that striving collapses because we are not sincere.
But nothing is off-limits for God.
He knows every crevice of our hearts. And this verse says to come close like a child to a parent, with a sincere heart where nothing is off the table. This verse invites us to come and say, “Here’s my heart, and all of it is exposed, and here are the good things that I’m walking in and clinging to. But here are the pieces where I am hurting and I feel lost. God, please speak to that.” That’s drawing near with a sincere heart.
The Faith Bank AccountThat second half of Hebrews 10:22 says, “With the full assurance that faith brings.” If we’re honest, most of us walk half-assured. We know what’s true theologically. We know the salvation story and the goodness of the gospel. But when we get quiet and let ourselves think about the Father, we start to expose our heart. All of these false beliefs and worries and fears start to trickle out, and we’re only really half-assured. We say:
God, I know you meet people, but are you going to meet me today? Am I important enough for you to pay attention to me? Because I don’t think I am. I feel like I’m on the “B team” or the “C team.” I’m not super spiritual, and I’m not good at praying. I actually don’t know if you’re going to show up and commune with me and abide with me as if we are at the table face-to-face, laughing and crying and everything in between. I don’t know if you’re going to do that because I don’t know if I’m worthy enough. I’m worried you’re still mad at me about that thing I did in 1992. So I’ve stayed at a distance. I don’t know if I can come fully assured.But this verse says you can come fully assured. And your faith, which is a fruit of the Spirit by the way, gives you this assurance.
Therefore, bravely and courageously wholeheartedly connect to God in prayer and know he is present and real.
For those of you who have experienced Freedom Prayer, you might say something like, “I met him like that, and all my arguing and fear and worry can’t hold a candle to the reality of communing with him in real time.” The first time you connect in that way actually builds your faith bank account. You can make deposits in that faith bank account and build on it and build on it and build on it. I have watched people encounter God for over 25 years, and that account in my bank is pretty full. I walk into my faith bank and say:
I know I am unqualified, but, God, you have the keys to the kingdom for this person. And I am going to watch you show up because that’s why you made us. That’s why you sent Jesus. It’s about communion and connection. Everything else is gravy.If you begin abiding with God, all the other issues tend to work themselves out.
Abiding is where that relationship gets set.
You can step into fuller assurance, you can have greater faith in your response, and more importantly, God’s response to you is to make a deposit into that faith bank account. You can step inside the faith bank and say:
God, I can come to you, and I know you’re going to heal this place. You’re going to speak to this false belief that tries to lead my life. I know it’s false, but it feels true. I am confident you’re going to do that because you did it last Tuesday. You did it yesterday, God. And I am depositing into this account that I can come with full assurance that my faith can become stronger here.Begin making your own deposits into your faith bank account by connecting to God. Deposit daily into time waiting on the Lord and asking him questions. Deposit with time committed to drawing near and beholding him. Those moments that can feel awkward at first are like pennies dropped into a container daily over years. Eventually those pennies add up and produce substantial savings. Those deposits made in connection matter.
Draw Near to God to Find ContentmentJust as I still grieve a child who left the nest for college and just as those Sunday morning babies wail until they are back in a mother’s arms, we all long for connection. We were made that way. We crave it whether we recognize it or not. God designed us to rest well near him, and throughout Scripture he invites us to draw near. We go looking for other sources to fill our need for connection, but the invitation to truly knowing God is in the place of close abiding. Just as a baby feels distance immediately, our spiritual wiring should sound an alarm the moment we stray and distance ourselves from God. We must cultivate connection so we hear the alarm when it sounds. As a child resting without worry in his mother’s arms, we were made to navigate the Christian life “in the shelter of the Most High” and “under his wings” (Ps. 91:1, 4).
Connection breeds contentment, and contentment is found close to God.
Read Jennifer Barnett’s First Freedoms to learn more about cultivating a wholehearted prayer life in close proximity to God.