A Bedtime Prayer from John Calvin

“O Lord God—who has given man the night for rest, as you have created the day in which he may employ himself in labor—grant, I pray, that my body may so rest during this night that my mind cease not to be awake to you, nor my heart faint or be overcome with torpor, preventing it from adhering steadfastly to the love of you.

While laying aside my cares to relax and relieve my mind, may I not, in the meanwhile, forget you, nor may the remembrance of your goodness and grace, which ought always to be deeply engraven on my mind, escape my memory.

In like manner, also, as the body rests may my conscience enjoy rest.

Grant, moreover, that in taking sleep I may not give indulgence to the flesh, but only allow myself as much as the weakness of this natural state requires, to my being enabled thereafter to be more alert in your service.

Be pleased to keep me so chaste and unpolluted, not less in mind than in body, and safe from all dangers, that my sleep itself may turn to the glory of your name.

But since this day has not passed away without my having in many ways offended you through my proneness to evil, in like manner as all things are now covered by the darkness of the night, so let everything that is sinful in me lie buried in your mercy.

Hear me, O God, Father and Preserver, through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.”

A Prayer to Close Your Day

As our evening prayer rises before you, O God, so may your mercy come down upon us to cleanse our hearts and set us free to sing your praise now and for ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

Where are your thoughts at the end of the day? Is your mind still occupied with the cares of the day? Is your heart still weighed down by your fears or by discouragement? Or do you perhaps have feelings of gratitude and joy welling up from within?

Each of us can probably point to both highlights and low points from our day. The real question is: what is God saying to me in the midst of all that I’ve gone through in a given day? What has God been up to in my life? Can I look back and see moments where he was present? Or is there a moment when perhaps I wasn’t as sensitive to his presence as I might have been?

I firmly believe that God is both interested and active in all aspects of my life each day. He cares even about those little things we think are insignificant. Because God uses all of our experiences, big and small, profound and mundane, to form and shape us. He’s at work in the little details to draw us nearer to himself.

There is an ancient tradition in the church called the Daily Examen, which means taking time at the end of a day to ponder and pray about how you have experienced God’s presence. One website outlines the practice this way:

1. Place yourself in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s great love for you.

2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is acting in your life. 

3. Review your day — recall specific moments and your feelings at the time. 

4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God, or further away? 

5. Look toward tomorrow — think of how you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan. Be specific, and conclude with the “Our Father.”

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes: “True wisdom consists in two things: Knowledge of God and Knowledge of Self.”

The Daily Examen enables us to grow in our knowledge of each. I don’t use it every day, but once in awhile it is helpful to grow in self-awareness and our awareness of the presence of God.

Humility

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.

C.S. Lewis

True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.

Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

I am far from a humble person, for I am filled with thoughts of myself. Sometimes these thoughts are driven by an insecurity that, while having lessened over the years, remains a part of me. It’s as though I can still be that scared, afraid to be unnoticed, stuck-on-the-outside-looking-in adolescent boy. This is the inner-sense of feeling like I don’t belong or fit in.

On top of that, I am also aware of an inner pride. Of how in subtle ways I can regard myself as better than others. It might not happen through conscious thoughts, but rather that I will occasionally “feel” myself to be–intellectually, spiritually, etc.–above others, or maybe this person in this moment. But I may not realize in the moment that this is what I am doing or what it means.

So, there’s my confession for the day.

The quotes from Lewis and Keller above express well what genuine humility is. Keller, in particular, articulates well how a lack of humility operates: by making everything about me. We can do this through insecurity or pride; they’re two sides of the same self-occupied coin.

No doubt many of us aren’t self-aware enough to realize this is what’s going on much of the time.

Keller speaks of humility as the “freedom of self-forgetfulness.” Imagine not only not worrying about what others think of you, but not even having it occur to you. Not because you think you are better, but because you’re not really thinking about yourself at all.

It’s almost counter-intuitive. We become more of ourselves when we’re not so pre-occupied with ourselves.

It doesn’t always help that I am an introvert. I can very easily end up living in my head. There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, of course, except that when insecurity or pride get in the way what’s going on in my head is anything but healthy or life-giving for myself or those around me.

Put simply: I have at times in my life found myself wallowing in self-pity or worry or fear, my thoughts and emotions stuck going in the wrong direction. Not a great place to be. Though I have also found myself rationalizing it. Thankfully, in more recent years I am a little more self-aware when this is happening. Thankfully, too, I have a wife who has the wisdom to bring me out of such a stupor.

This is, by the way, why humility is not equivalent to thinking less (or poorly) of yourself. Thinking poorly of yourself is still thinking of yourself, even if poorly. And even if Jesus doesn’t want us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, he’s also not looking for us to beat ourselves up constantly. That’s not what being humble means. Being humble is not being a doormat. It’s not about ignoring our emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. Perhaps we could say it’s about having a healthy, honest estimation of oneself.

Humility is a fruit of the Spirit, even if it doesn’t make Paul’s famous list in Galatians 5:22. Only God by his Spirit can more and more fully free me from myself in all the ways that needs to happen. Humility is the freedom to step out into the world knowing who you are in Christ and being able, because of that, to see people for who they are. Or I think that’s at least part of it. I think humility leads to an openhanded generosity towards others because we’re not constantly playing a comparison game.

And I think it begins by taking our eyes off of ourselves and putting them on Christ, who is our life, our hope, our joy, and our peace. We don’t grow in humility by focusing on it directly. Instead, it grows in us the more we take time to let Christ into our lives and hearts. The more we look at Jesus, and the more what we see, know, and experience of him transforms us, the more we will look at ourselves and others with healthier eyes and hearts. I think that’s what it means to grow in humility.

And I know I am not there yet. But it’s where I want to go, where I want to end up.

Feelings, Facts, and Faith

I don’t always “feel” spiritual.

Whatever that means.

Not only that, sometimes I feel positively unspiritual.

Again, whatever that means.

But maybe you can relate. You pray, but it feels like you’re talking to yourself. You read Scripture, but nothing springs out of the text as a joyful surprise or as a source of conviction. You go to church week after week, but wonder, “Is this it?” Your faith and church just doesn’t seem to be working for you like it once did.

I think if we’re honest, we all experience this sort of thing as Christians. Though possibly in different degrees. For some, the experience feels spiritually debilitating. Others have a short season of the spiritual blues.

There’s a word for this: Blah. Or maybe malaise. At more serious times, melancholy. It feels like God is absent. Theologically, it’s called by some “a dark night of the soul.”

I think of Psalm 42:5:

“Why, my soul, are you so dejected?
Why are you in such turmoil?

Feeling this way doesn’t mean we should give up on talking to God, let our Bibles gather dust on a bookcase, or stop attending our church. Even when we don’t experience meaning in our usual spiritual practices, we shouldn’t conclude they are meaningless in themselves. Much less should we give up on the Christian faith.

Trust me, I know what it’s like to be spiritually weary, to wonder if God is still doing something in my life and through my ministry. I understand what it means to feel an inward sigh when thinking about all the stuff related to church.

So I suppose the real question is what do we do when we go through this sort of thing?

Start with this. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

Put another way, our feelings don’t always tell us the truth about reality.

I recall Timothy Keller once saying “Doubt your doubts.” You have permission to doubt what your feelings are telling you about God, prayer, church, Jesus, the gospel, and the Christian faith. Feeling like God is absent doesn’t mean he is. Feeling like church is pointless doesn’t mean it is.

I heard a sermon today in which the pastor encouraged us to remember Jesus’ resurrection whenever we find ourselves experiencing a long night. We all need to hear this because we will all experience a long night of one kind or another.

So the first thing is this. Jesus’ resurrection is fact. He who was dead and buried was raised from the grave and is now alive. Whatever I am feeling, I can cling to this. I can cling to him. Because his resurrection means hope. It means eternal life. It means peace and assurance and comfort in the face of life’s difficult times. It means my feelings aren’t always right.

Even so, our feelings are sometimes an indication that there is something which needs attention in our life. So I’m not saying ignore your feelings. But be careful not to let them have their way with you.

It could be there are unsettled spiritual or theological questions rummaging around in your mind. It’s wise to address these questions carefully and prayerfully.

There’s the possibility that some unconfessed sin has created a barrier between yourself and God. Not always, but be aware this might be so. Be willing to fess up; but if you pray and wrack your brain and can’t think of an unconfessed sin, don’t make this into an extra unnecessary burden.

It’s also possible that no matter how hard you think about it, there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason for why you feel like you do.

Here are a few suggestions about how to respond to such an experience in no particular order:

  1. Talk to a close Christian friend or your pastor. Speaking your struggles normalizes them and often is a relief. Just having someone listen–really listen–and respond with understanding and grace will help you realize that you’re not alone and that what you’re going through isn’t as weird or unusual as you might think. Maybe find a prayer partner who would be willing to meet with you a few times a month.
  2. Tell God how you’re feeling. You don’t need to clean yourself up or hide your feelings when you pray. Not. At. All. There’s a whole category in the Book of Psalms called psalms of lament, where the psalmists cry out to God with their feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. Pray them as your prayers. Here are a few examples: Psalms 42, 74, 79, 85, and 88.
  3. Mix things up a little. In other words, try doing your devotions differently. Start a prayer journal. Draw on resources like the Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer. Find good, theologically sound books that talk about the spiritual life and what it means to have an intimate relationship with God. Go for a prayer walk. Let God speak to you through his beautiful creation. In other words, change your spiritual routine. If all you’ve been using for 20 years is the Our Daily Bread devotionals, maybe it’s time to try something else.
  4. Keep on praying, reading Scripture, and being connected to a worshipping Christian community. These are the basics of the Christian life. Everything else we do connects to these things in some way. Scripture tells us who God is. Prayer is asking God to be who he is in your life. And community reminds us that we don’t do any of this alone. Consider that you might not be the only person in your church feeling the same way. Maybe if you ask, God will lead you to that someone and you can bear one another’s burdens.

I think the most important thing in all of this is to remember that God is with you no matter how you feel. Your emotions don’t determine how God looks at you or feels about you. Countless saints and believers down through the ages have gone through what you’re going through. Some are going through it right now.

Here’s the thing: if you’re going through something like this, it could be an indication that God is inviting you into a deeper experience of his presence. Perhaps he is trying to grow your faith, to help you mature. Actually, I think he’s always trying to do this with us. Finding yourself in a spiritual wilderness might be God prompting you to walk more closely with him. He seeks to discipline us and to remove from us all the other stuff we can find ourselves relying on except him. Moment of truth: sometimes that’s painful for us.

I know there’s a great deal more that could be said by others who are smarter and wiser than me. Still, I hope some of this helps someone in some way and touches upon genuine truth here and there. In the meantime, here’s a Collect for the Spirit of Prayer:

“O Almighty God, you pour out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”