Prayer is time spent on and in our relationship with God. It can be conversation, contemplation, meditation, or activities offered to this end (in the same way that we work on our human relationships through self-growth, fixing hinges or dinner, working to support our spouse and children, etc.). Truly profitable relationship-building demands that we be ourselves—authentic and transparent—but what does this look like in reality? Is there any benefit, perhaps even value, in presenting a self that may not be wholly accurate in the moment?
Putting Our Best Foot Forward
Let’s look at examples in romantic relationships. Although eventually we will be known as we are, starting a relationship with the “best foot forward” approach is not malicious or particularly troublesome in and of itself. We want to be the best version of ourselves, and love helps draw that version out. It’s when we act contrary to our nature, not when we elevate our nature, that trouble arises. Holding in a curse word when you are cut-off with your sweetie in the passenger seat is a good change for the sake of the other. (A good litmus test is whether or not this is something you not only could do, but would do when by yourself in the name of self-improvement.) Pretending to enjoy sushi while gagging internally is a neutral posture. At best, the benefit is practice in dying-to-self in order to gift an enjoyable experience to the one you love, (though if she loves you back, chances are she would prefer to know that you are miserable). Agreeing that “you’re not a baby person either” when you long to have children is a harmful and false representation of self. Eventually, this misrepresentation will fatigue your relationship, if not break it entirely. It’s not a more virtuous response or one you wish to be natural in the future, nor is it a response that does no harm or causes only temporary discomfort. It’s a response that hides a fundamental truth about who you are and a good and natural desire of your heart—all in order to preserve or manipulate a relationship.
On a smaller scale, presenting a kinder, more present, patient or selfless face than you may actually feel in the moment is a good and loving response. It’s not always necessary, but adjusting your response to suit the needs of another (versus your own momentary needs) is honorable. Listening when you’d rather not, calmly addressing a flaw when you want to explode, staying when you want to storm out, and engaging when you want to hide in shame all go against our “natural” inclinations, but they are not acts contrary to nature but acts that elevate nature: heroic acts of the will that overcome natural habit in favor of a more perfect response.
Acting contrary to nature and acting super-naturally are very different. Where one will erode a relationship, the other will enrich it. While one depletes you, the other strengthens you.
The decision to tell a friend that you are doing fine when you see that she is close to tears and needs it to be about her, opting to share your burdens later, is a gift of self. Smiling in gratitude and devouring the burnt pasta your children made you for breakfast on Father’s Day is not fake, it is responding to the heart of the gesture rather than the packaging. Saying “thank you” when you wish to feel thankful but don’t is not dishonest, it is admirable. Recognizing that what we think and feel is not always justified or appropriate and acting instead according to what we should think and feel is good practice for healthy relationships. We can and should communicate the nagging disconnects, for honesty’s sake as well as for support and perspective, but our “self” in the moment need not always be broadcast.
Being Honest with the Lord
What does this mean, practically, in our relationship with Christ? It’s not an either/or but a both/and. Between “I trust you Lord” and “My anxiety is choking me, you have abandoned me” lies “Jesus, I want to trust you. I know you are here, but I do not feel you. Help me see your hand in this; walk with me through my fear.” In the Gospel of Mark (9:24) we hear a father cry out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Like this father—desperate to trust in Jesus but with a very real, very sick child at his feet—we often find ourselves caught between what we know to be true and what we feel in the moment.
It’s not a lie to worship God because we know him to be worthy of worship, even when we feel no connection to his grandeur. We do not inhabit a false self when we lay our petitions before God but internally doubt his ability or willingness to respond. There is a war between the spirit and the flesh, and the flesh is not more paramount or true. We are being saved; we are not there yet.
Show God who you are—honest and vulnerable—but treat him as he is—the Lord of All Creation. This is the crux of the matter. We need not pretend to be who or where we are not, or are not yet, but this does not necessitate a relationship in which we do not recognize God for who he is.
Just as respecting and responding to the dignity in every human person can require an adjustment of self, respecting and responding to the majesty of God can require a humbling of self.
Adopting a posture of humility in prayer and acknowledging that the mysteries of God reach beyond our comprehension does not limit genuine conversation, it sets the groundwork for an authentic and fruitful relationship grounded in a truth that neither virtue nor vice, thoughts nor feelings can constrain.