Mental Health in the Pandemic – survey findings

“I am enjoying my relationship with the Lord better than ever”

Are you?

That was a statement on my recent survey into mental health in the pandemic. I was so excited to find that 32% of people who responded agreed with that statement! Better than ever. That is so encouraging. Our God is so great, that in spite of – perhaps even because of – all the stress and change, he has shaken us up and caused us to grow and change.

Huge thanks to all who completed the survey, I got 50 responses which gave a nice pool of data to dig into!

The key findings

Many are experiencing symptoms of depression

38% of people are experiencing symptoms of a depressive episode. This is a big increase on the score for depression in non-covid times of 10%, but is in line with national statistics for mental health in Jan-April 2021. If you’re interested in the statistics about how mental health has plummeted in the pandemic, this report on the Office for National Statistics makes interesting reading. If you are one of those 38% be encouraged. You are not alone.

What was striking in the survey results, was that overall 44% described their enjoyment of their relationship with the Lord as worse than usual. This statistic rose slightly in those reporting depressive symptoms. Why? We must remember that depression is a health condition, not that dissimilar to a physical illness, like back pain. When you are in chronic pain it is harder to get out to see people, and harder to concentrate. So it is with mental health. Only because mental health struggles are invisible, we often heap a load of guilt on top of our struggles – ‘I’m such a rubbish Christian’ – whereas we would be more patient with ourselves if there was something physically wrong with our bodies.

Christians are not immune to mental health struggles

One obvious conclusion, given that everyone who responded to the survey described themselves as a Christian is that being a Christian does not make you immune to mental health struggles. Christians feel down, struggle with feeling worthless, aimless, lacking motivation and lethargy. If you are in any doubt about this check out the psalms – 34, 42, 43, 77, 88, 102. For help in this area, check out Courtney Reissig’s book, Teach me to Feel.

Many, especially men, are struggling to enjoy their relationship with the Lord

It is worth noting that although men’s mental health was slightly better than women’s, 56% described their relationship as worse than usual, whereas 41% of women described their relationship as worse. Family and living situation did not make an impact on this statistic. Men need extra support right now to help them grow in their relationship with the Lord.

Depression can help us appreciate our relationship with the Lord

What was fascinating in the survey I conducted, was that struggling with depression made no statistical difference to whether your relationship with the Lord felt better than usual. Overall, 32% of the sample data said their relationship with they were enjoying their relationship with the Lord better than usual. Of those struggling with depression, this stat held firm, with exactly 32% describing their relationship with the Lord as better than usual. Though we may feel overwhelmed by low mood, God is not overwhelmed and he can help us to grow in our enjoyment of him, through any and all circumstances.

It’s important to remember that though our relationship with the Lord might feel better or worse, actually it is unchanged by our feelings and circumstances. Our security lies entirely in the fact that our Lord gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2v14). His sacrifice means our relationship is never better or worse, it is always the best it can be. He secured for himself a people his very own. He did it by his sacrifice. We contribute nothing but our wickedness. We can enjoy it better or worse but our status as his very own people is completely secure.

What changed?

Why is mental health so much worse after the pandemic? From a scientific perspective we need to consider what has changed, before we can hypothesise as to the cause.

  1. Isolation – we have been physically separated.
  2. Socialising – has been seriously limited. It has almost seemed like there are laws against having fun! Theatres, holidays, gyms, pubs, museums, restaurants, cinemas. It is harder to rest, relax and be refreshed when so many things we enjoy have been absent.
  3. Stess/pressure – job loss or insecurity, loss of income, key worker jobs being busier than usual, fear for health and safety of loved ones and ourselves, the list is endless as to ways in which we have been under more pressure.

What about the health of our relationship with the Lord? Why this change, so that 44% of people surveyed, and 55% of men are struggling more than usual? Again we need to remember what has changed.

  1. Physical church – lets be honest even if we are back to church, its not back to normal. We can’t sing, we are wearing face masks, sat at a distance and unable to talk indoors without feeling guilty.
  2. Singing – there is something significantly defiant about worshipping out loud. We are instructing our souls, we are getting truth stuck in our heads that we come back to later, we are encouraging one another. There is a loss here, which we should grieve. Though I also think that the persecuted church rarely have the freedom to belt out worship for fear of being heard so whilst this is a trial, it is not a new one for God’s people.
  3. Hospitality – the early church met together in homes and ate together. They also must have shared their needs with one another as we read in Acts 2v44 that they gave as anyone had need. You cannot meet a need less you know it exists. It has become all too easy to hide in the pandemic, to hide our sin, our needs and even our own selves. When someone comes into your home (or your space if you’re flat sharing!), they are seeing you, really as you are. In your native habitat. This is lost when we meet on neutral ground such as a park. We need to get back into the habit of letting one another into our homes and by extension our lives. Sharing the gritty stuff, wanting to fight sin and see victory over temptation. Check out Carolyn Lacey’s brilliant new book ‘Extraordinary Hospitality (for ordinary people)‘ for help in this area.

How can we grow?

Overall the survey data encouraged me. I think I guessed that many people were struggling, both mentally and in their walk with the Lord. But I’m encouraged that these two don’t have to correlate, that 32% of people through the changes in the pandemic have grown in their relationship with the Lord. I don’t know exactly why. What I do know is that attendance at midweek Bible study groups has risen by 1/3 in our church, I suspect a combination of easy access being online, lack of competing social engagements and a need for connection with others as many of us are wfh.

We cannot underestimate the importance of forming and maintaining supportive, warm, and trusting relationships with others. This is an area that I personally have been praying into, and working hard on recently. I hit a real crisis point (see this blog) over Easter and realised how introverted and lonely I had become as a result of the pandemic. God really challenged me through the story of David and Jonathan that I needed to cultivate honest supportive friendships in which I was willing to be vulnerable. I have been so encouraged by what a difference it has made to my whole life, connecting and investing in just 2-3 key friendships. This has looked like diarying in time and forcing myself to reach out when I’m struggling. It’s looked like meeting to pray on zoom each month, and forcing myself to meet people ftf even when I can’t face it (pardon the pun). God created us to need one another. That takes time, it takes organisation and it takes a willingness to dive onto WhatsApp rather than under the duvet when the mood dips.

I think for me, being more connected, relationally is the key way I could grow. I really want to be part of that 32% enjoying their relationship with the Lord better than ever. In fact more than that, I want to pray that figure would grow. That over the next few months we would all be able to say I am enjoying my relationship with the Lord better than ever!

How about you? In what ways are you, or could you, be growing personally through this time? I’d encourage you to take some time to ask ‘what’s changed?’ in your life. To see whether that has impacted your mental health and your walk with the Lord. And to consider what would help you to be able to say ‘I am enjoying my relationship with the Lord better than ever.’

Be fully present

Where was I, Saturday? I was at home with the kids. I was also at a theological conference in Wales. Where was I Monday evening? At a church business meeting whilst simultaneously in my kitchen unloading my Tesco order. Ten minutes later I was on two calls at the same time. One with the video off, the other with the sound off.

This is a relatively new phenomenon. It used to be that if I wanted to be at the theological conference, I would be in Wales. Which would be good because then when a kilo of yoghurt got spilled all over the kitchen one minute before Michael Reeves’ first talk, it wouldn’t be my problem!

It’s a familiar story, I’m sure with many of us struggling to be in two (or more) places at once. But are we really in two places at once? Isn’t it more like a game of Twister where my hand is on the red and my foot is on the green. I’m not fully present in either place.

As a result, I am beginning to find it harder to be fully present anywhere.

The joy of being fully present

I noticed that because I went away (exciting times). I went with Jonty back to Oxford, where we had studied as students. We were taking part in this service at St Ebbe’s. The last time we had been in that church was 22 years ago for our wedding. Vaughan Roberts married us, and fast forwarding on it was very strange because in some ways nothing had changed. Chapter One Jonty and Linda get married. Chapter Three the kids are old enough to be left on their own and Jonty and Linda return.

I say we were taking part in the service. There were three, and each was simply a repeat of the other. But curiously enough as I sat there in the service I felt content. I noticed that I wasn’t looking around to see who was there. I wasn’t distracted by what the kids were up to. Even though I got to the third rendition of ‘All creatures of our God and King’ and the sermon, I wasn’t bored. There was something about the significance of the day, being somewhere different, not having responsibilities towards people in the church that meant I just sat there and engaged. I was fully present. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I was glad to be in church. Glad to be led in worship. Glad to hear (for the third time) that Jesus was the answer to the homesickness in my heart.

I just sat there and engaged. I was fully present. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I was glad to be in church.

But it was such a strange feeling! I realised that I’m not sure I have been fully present anywhere for a long time. I’ve got so used to the feeling of being distracted that if I’m on a video call I often choose to also pick up my phone and update my Tesco order.

Multi-tasking?

We call this multi-tasking. It’s not. Multi-tasking is not something human brains are capable of. We are actually just like computers, we can only concentrate on one thing at once. We can do two things at once, like breathe and read, walk and talk but we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. This quote made me chuckle: “Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.” (Steve Uzzell)

Why? Because God created us to be limited. Our bodies limit us. We cannot be taller than we are, we cannot physically be in India and America at the same time. Whilst video conferencing is pushing us all the time to think we can be in two places at the same time, the reality is we are not.

Advances in technology like improvements in video conferencing have in many ways been a wonderful positive of the pandemic and relationally we are closer than ever to missionaries, wider family etc. We have to travel less which is of great benefit to the environment and it is wonderfully inclusive of those who are often unable to participate fully in church for reasons such as having a small child.

But video conferencing is not as good as actually being there. It doesn’t replace actually being there. As the Bible reminds us 2 John 12 “I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” Complete joy is found in being face to face. So although video conference, text and phone greatly enhance relationships, let’s not pursue them at the expense of face to face.

God is fully present everywhere

“There is no such thing as human omnipresence. Our newfound ways to mimic it are not the same as being there… They aren’t idolatrous in and of themselves but they can become so when we start believing them to be equivalent to actually being there. They are good gifts until we ask them to make us like God.” None like Him, p100, Jen Wilkin

God is the one who is fully present everywhere at all times. We are used to the idea that he is everywhere, but just think about that for a moment. He is not playing twister. All of him, his power, his knowledge, his essence is everywhere at all times. Of course we experience him differently in different places, most notably in hell where people experience his wrath. But he is fully present everywhere at all times. He sees all things, knows all things, fills all things and sustains all things.

Church is choosing to be fully present with God and his people

I’ve been reading through Chronicles in my Bible times, and this verse is so striking: “The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” 2 Chronicles 6v18 Solomon has just spent years building the temple, and at the climax, the opening ceremony, he reveals just how much wisdom God has given him. He knows that God cannot be contained by the temple he has built. We are contained by our bodies. God has no body, or house in which he lives. He has no limits at all.

But God does graciously choose to dwell in the temple. Just don’t misunderstand that localised gracious expression of his presence to mean that he is limited. Solomon gets this exactly right in his prayer.

And so it is with church. If God is omnipresent, why bother coming to church, why not just stay at home and watch the livestream since God is just as fully present there?

Well two reasons. One is that we are now the temple, the church. God lives in us by his Spirit and when we gather together on Sunday our omnipresent God is with us in a particular way. He has promised where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18v20. He instructs believers in Hebrews 10v22, 24-25 let us draw near to God… “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” This is a big theological truth we don’t have time for here but do check out Garry Williams on ‘The presence of God as we gather’ from the Together Conference (it’s worth the £5 and the same technological advances that trick us into trying to be in two places at once have the advantage of meaning although you weren’t there you still can listen!)

church is a great way to embrace the fact that I can only be fully present in one place at once

The second is that going to church is a great way to embrace the fact that I can only be fully present in one place at once. As I sacrifice my convenience, as I make the effort to travel to the place of worship, as I open up my diary to clear space for God and his people, those physical actions reinforce to me that God is worth it. He is the one I want to be fully present with. I choose to worship him. I choose to hear him speak to us. I choose to be with my brothers and sisters. I choose to be part of the temple where our omnipresent God dwells here on earth. What a privilege.

Where are you? Be fully present wherever you are. And make it a priority to be fully present with God and his people whenever you get the chance.

Pandemic-related relational problems

“I feel I spend a lot of my time apologising to people”

“It’s like you can’t make a joke anymore for fear that someone will take offense”

“I’m constantly censoring myself for fear of getting cancelled”

Those are just a few of the comments I’ve noted in my imaginary file labelled ‘pandemic-related relational problems’ (PRRPs for short). I think they highlight at least three main struggles we’re experiencing: (1) we are more sensitive than usual and easily hurt, (2) the value and danger of humour, (3) how quick we are to judge.

Let’s take them one at a time, and consider why we are struggling more than usual, and what, if anything the Bible has to say by way of helping us as we come across these struggles.

This extract from Ephesians goes a long way towards answering that, I think…

“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace…In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold…Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others upaccording to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you…walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved usand gave himself up for us.” Ephesians 4:1-3, 26-27, 29 – 5:2

Warped thinking

As we are isolated, or our mental health deteriorates we start to put two and two together to make five. Our thinking gets warped. I know because I did it last night and in my warped thinking, I got very irritable over something that actually wasn’t a thing. A good example of warped thinking is when you are walking down the street and you see a friend who appears to blank you. Healthy thinking is patient, bearing with that person, assuming they didn’t see you or were preoccupied and didn’t register it was you. Warped thinking jumps to the conclusion they did see you and deliberately blanked you to hurt you.

Without the easy opportunity to vent one’s frustrations about the day in informal chats over the office photocopier, a throwaway line in a conversation can easily get warped, and blown out of all proportion. This leads to us getting trapped in a thought spiral where harmless comments take on darker meanings, which could not have been further from the original intention of the statement.

Bitterness and relational breakdown are major by-products of warped thinking. Which is where Paul’s command in Ephesians 4v31 ‘get rid of all bitterness’ is so helpful and challenging. We get rid of bitterness by honestly asking the person in question, or by sharing our warped thinking with someone else. We get rid of bitterness by praying and asking God to help us forgive – see my previous blog post for more on this. We get rid of bitterness by resolving to ‘not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold

Without the easy opportunity to vent one’s frustrations about the day in informal chats over the office photocopier, a throwaway line in a conversation can easily get blown out of all proportion.

That’s hilarious. Not

I have been super grateful for comedy throughout the pandemic. The job of a comedian is to observe people, notice common themes, interpret why they behave that way and then draw attention to it. The best jokes are the ones where inside you’re head you’re thinking: “yes! I do that too!” I needed the gift of humour to interpret my grief, my frustration and my experiences in such a weird time.

But we need to be aware, firstly, of the previous observation that people are sensitive and in our isolation it’s easy to misunderstand comments. Secondly misunderstandings exponentially increase when we are not face to face. Video calls, emails, messaging and social media are places we need to be super careful.

Humour is a wonderful gift from the Lord, but we must draw the line at unwholesome talk. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others upaccording to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” writes Paul. If all of our jokes had the intention of building others up, understanding their needs and seeing things through their eyes we could enjoy humour in the way that God intended without accidentally hurting someone. If we do, we must be “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Humour is a wonderful gift from the Lord, but we must draw the line at unwholesome talk

Cancel culture

As people have spent much more time communicating online, ‘cancel culture’ has become a dominant censoring force. Cancelling is essentially ostracising and banishing someone from a social media platform for any behaviour that could be labelled as politically incorrect. In some ways a force for moral censoring is very helpful especially following the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Sarah Everard and the resulting awareness of long held prejudices and injustices. On the other hand, where it becomes a gratuitous and seemingly random humiliation of a stranger it feels more like the death of freedom of speech. As noted by Mishan in the NY Times Style magazine, ‘”cancel” is a consumerist verb, almost always involving a commodity or transaction. Readers cancel magazine subscriptions; studio heads cancel TV shows; bank tellers cancel checks to show that they’ve been exhausted of value.’ So the cancel culture is in danger of becoming more like sport, leading to social media users living in constant fear that they might be the next to be cancelled if they dare to deviate from the societal norm.

“Cancel” is a consumerist verb, almost always involving a commodity or transaction. Readers cancel magazine subscriptions; studio heads cancel TV shows; bank tellers cancel checks to show that they’ve been exhausted of value.’

Mishan, NY Times Style Magazine

Would Jesus have been cancelled? Quite probably. I have never met a man so quick to break societal norms – for example in John 4 asking a Samaritan woman for a drink. He stepped across the racial divide, he stepped across the gender divide and treated her as exactly equal to himself. So incredibly radical, he was almost immediately censored, banished and ostracised by the religious elite – the very ones you would have expected to welcome God’s promised Messiah.

Jesus would not have been afraid of cancel culture. But would Jesus have cancelled someone? Of course not, I refer again to the Samaritan woman, someone repeatedly treated as an object by men through her entire life (a string of five of them are detailed by John). Jesus never treated anyone as an object, in fact he gave the Samaritan woman the dignity of being the first evangelist.

In an extraordinary twist in the tale, consider with me whether he knows the pain of being banished? As he cried out from the cross “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He was experiencing the most terrifying banishment of all, the abandonment of his Father God. He was banished instead of us. For the offense we caused to God. Not in some trivial blood sport but in a genuine, extraordinary transaction driven by true justice. He took the death I deserve and gave me the perfect life I could never deserve. Because he was banished I never ever need to fear that I will be. Because the one verdict that counts is God’s and he will never count my sin against me. It has already been punished at the cross.

So the apostle Paul concludes: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you…walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” That’s not at all to say there’s no place for censoring people, but here’s the questions you ask to assess your motives and the way in which you do it: am I being kind, compassionate, forgiving and loving in this – essentially, am I being like Christ?

In all of our PRRP’s, let’s forgive others just as in Christ, God forgave us. Let’s not grieve the Spirit, but make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Let’s walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us.

Pray in the Spirit

I seem to be on a bit of a journey with the Lord regarding my prayer life. Actually it feels less like a journey and more like a ride on the pirate ship at Chessington! Lurching from one extreme to the other. In my last blog, ‘we do not pray because we do not plan to pray’, I explored how a system can be of massive benefit to one’s prayer life. I organised my prayer file, set my timer for the different sections and printed out helpful prayer prompts for worship, confession and intercession.

This week I’ve been digging into some writing (Living Water, studies in John 4) and a sermon (Praying in the Spirit) by Dr Martin Lloyd Jones. He has brought me right to the other extreme, thinking through the truth that prayer is an entirely spiritual activity, not something we do in our own strength – just like all of the gospel!

I don’t want us, in thinking about planning to pray, to take away from the fact that this is a living, dynamic expression of our relationship with our God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So here’s some quotes from Lloyd Jones to redress the balance:

“You see, this is not a question of learning; spiritual understanding has nothing to do with natural ability, nothing at all. Thank God for that, otherwise salvation would be the prerogative of a certain small company of people…the cleverness, the ability, all these things that are all right in and of themselves do not help us here. Indeed, they can be a veritable hindrance.” (Living Water, p38-39, Lloyd Jones)

“There is a terrible danger in having your so called quiet time in the morning and your attitude towards that being quite mechanical…there are people in the world today who have their wheels of prayer, they just go around and others count their beads. Now merely to go through a number of statements, or to offer up a number of prayers and petitions is not praying in the Spirit. It can be but it is a very dangerous thing to do because you are so intent upon the mechanical you tend to forget the spiritual.” (Sermon Praying in the Spirit, Lloyd Jones)

Let’s explore the spiritual nature of our prayer life by thinking through how the different persons of the Trinity help us to pray.

We pray ‘in Jesus’ name’

Perhaps in thinking about prayer you have felt woefully inadequate. My temptation is to organise my way out of this. But actually, what we need to remember is that the gospel is never about me organising my way out of my sin, but confessing it to Christ. As Lloyd-Jones puts it:

How do we overcome this difficulty in prayer? Praying in the flesh calls upon human ability and effort to push past the difficulty. ‘[Praying in the Spirit] starts with confession: we must admit our inability to pray as we ought. We must come face to face with our tendency to try to pray on our own. We start with the recognition that prayer is a spiritual activity, and the power of the flesh profits nothing at all. We should feel our dryness and difficulty and confess to him our dullness, lifelessness, and spiritual slowness and sluggishness’ (Living Water, 86). 

Prayer in the Bible has always needed a mediator since sin entered the world – sinful people cannot commune with a holy God. God taught his people to pray ‘towards this holy temple.’ When God heard them, he forgave their sin because they were praying though the place of sacrifice. Their sin could be atoned for and their requests heard.

So it is that Jesus tells us: “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” John 14:13-14 In practice this is far more than just rounding everything off with ‘in Jesus’ name I pray.’ Jesus is the basis on which we approach our Father, confessing how we feel about prayer, our cold heart, our indifference, our temptation to do it as a duty. Asking for his forgiveness and help.

He is the basis on which we approach, but also the one who sanctifies all of our requests. This is of huge practical importance. Last night I faced a familiar battle with sin. I found myself getting more and more irate about a situation. I recognised the pattern and in my anger, through gritted teeth, I hissed out a not-very-heartfelt prayer that God would change the situation that I was angry about. Do you know what? He answered that prayer! Instead of me having to shout about all that I was upset about, said person turned to me and offered to do exactly what I had got upset about.

Why did he answer such a sin-riddled prayer? Because Jesus sanctified it. He heard my sin-filled prayer in the name of Jesus. I was embarrassed, humbled, grateful and excited that God had won a huge victory over sin through Christ sanctifying the prayer that I had prayed through gritted teeth.

He heard my sin-filled prayer in the name of Jesus

We pray to ‘Our Father’

I’ve recently been reading Enjoying God by Tim Chester, and he uses an illustration (p20) about two kids. One makes breakfast for his dad each morning, and they chat for half an hour together while they eat. Later in the day they hang out together, going for a walk, kicking a ball around, reading a book. Meanwhile the older child is embarrassed by his father, he hangs out in his room all day with his music turned up loud. On the rare occasions that there’s call to communicate, it happens through dismissive grunts. How many sons does the father have? Two. What did they do to become his sons? Nothing. But only one enjoys a good relationship with his father.

Tim Chester makes the point that we become children of God by being born again, our status, our union is a gift but how much we enjoy that communion depends on what we do. Do we delight to spend time with our father, listening to his voice and responding to him in prayer? 

This is why, when Jesus taught us to pray, he taught us to start with ‘our Father.’ To remember that above all, prayer is about communion with God who has adopted us as children and invites us to spend time with him, our Father. 

Praying ‘Our Father’ means to pause as we start to think of who it is we are addressing, as Jesus taught us, to remind ourselves of where he is (in heaven), how great he is (hallowed be your name) and how sovereign (your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven).

Lloyd-Jones says that this father-child relationship means “it’ll be a warm prayer rather than a cold and lifeless prayer…He’s our Father and He wants us to speak from the heart, He wants us as children to address him.” (Sermon Praying in the Spirit, Lloyd Jones)

above all, prayer is about communion with God who has adopted us as children and invites us to spend time with him, our Father

We pray ‘in the Spirit’

Here’s a couple of really foundational scriptures: “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Ephesians 6v18 

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” Romans 8v26-27

Notice five things:

  1. We are weak. If you have read this and felt like your prayer life is a shambles, know that you are right. Romans 8v26 says that all of us are in the same boat (Lloyd Jones included 🙂 We are children, so of course we get things wrong! This is where the gospel starts but also how it continues. With a humility that says Father I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on you.
  2. The Spirit helps us. As we feel our weakness we don’t barge ahead and blast out our petitions, we ask the Spirit to help us. He lives inside of us, he teaches us to speak intimately with our ‘Abba’ Father. As Lloyd-Jones says: “we fail to realise this: we are ever reducing the gospel, making something small out if it, something we do, our practice of religion.” (Living water, p8)
  3. We do not know what we ought to pray for. We may have a list of who and what we are praying for, but we don’t know what they genuinely need. Praying in the Spirit here is described as wordless groans as he searches our hearts and intercedes in accordance with the will of God.
  4. We pray in the Spirit on all occasions – prayer is not confined to the quiet time, the cathedral or the crisis. We can pray when we are walking, trying to sleep, on our knees in church, on our knees because the kids are being so difficult, or on our knees in the garden. We always have the Spirit within us so we walk in step with him, to listen to his promptings and praying accordingly. Elinor Magowan told me how she makes a note of people that come to mind during the day, prays for them and messages them. I think that’s a wonderful example of what it means to enjoy a dynamic relationship with God through his Spirit, and it gives a real life and vitality to your relationship both with God and others.
  5. We pray all kinds of prayers and requests, but one especially helpful one is detailed in the context of this verse: take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times, with every kind of prayer and petition. Take up the Spirit’s sword by praying God’s word for people. This is a wonderful way of staying fresh in your prayer life as it means we are always praying something different, but always in accordance with God’s will. It also helps us when we are praying for people we don’t know well, eg people mentioned in missionary prayer letters or church prayer diaries.

We fail to realise this: we are ever reducing the gospel making something small out of it, something we do

Living Water, p8, Martin Lloyd Jones

First of all a man of prayer

In an extended introduction to one of Lloyd-Jones’ books Iain Murray writes: “Mrs. Lloyd-Jones was once present with a group of men who, in her husband’s absence, were paying compliments to his abilities. As she listened to them she evidently thought that they were missing the main thing and surprised them by quietly remarking, “No one will ever understand my husband until they realize that he is first of all a man of prayer and then, an evangelist.””

What a wonderful remark to quitely make about someone! First of all a man of prayer. May that be true of us as we seek to encompass both extremes of carefully planning our prayer life, whilst always and only enjoying it as our participation in the wonderful union we enjoy with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We don’t pray because we don’t plan to pray

I have a poor track record with plants. They look beautiful for a few weeks, but after a while they just shrivel and die. I think its a personality type – maybe I have discovered a new type of Myers-Briggs test? I suspect that, because my experience with plants tracks almost perfectly with my experience of prayer. It goes well for a time (after reading a challenging book, or attending a conference), but it slowly wilts, drops off and defaults to reeling off a list of names from my diary and asking God to bless them.

Our prayers need help

Revisiting Don Carson’s book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation (this extract I’ve linked to contains all the content I refer to into this article), I have been so helped by this quote: “we don’t pray because we don’t plan to pray”. I wonder if you could also argue the plants die because we don’t have a plan to care for them? Yes, I know they need water, and I am fairly consistent in this, but I never feed them. And a lot of them are attempting to brighten up dull corners of rooms which means they’re probably not getting enough light to thrive. It’s sad to think I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and still can’t apply GCSE level knowledge enough to keep a plant alive. I guess that reminds me – to milk this illustration to the limit – that you can have all the knowledge in the world but still fail to have a healthy relationship with the subject of that knowledge.

When I mentioned all this to my missionary brother, he immediately replied: ‘love that book, we have it in Russian as part of our internship programme.’ There you go, you see. I think what I need is an internal internship programme! I need books on prayer that each year I revisit to really feed, water and shine light on what I’m actually doing with this time I call ‘prayer.’

you can have all the knowledge in the world but still fail to have a healthy relationship with the subject of that knowledge

Our prayers need Christ

I take comfort from this TGC article, which helpfully reminded me of the age old truth I first learned from Calvin’s Institutes – that God hearkens to defective pray-ers. All my prayers have to be sanctified through Christ. Even with the greatest prayer plan conceivable, nothing I ever say to God in prayer will be anything other than riddled with sin and selfishness, save for the sanctifying work of Christ on the cross. Hence why we pray in Jesus’ name – it is only through his sacrifice that my prayers are acceptable to God. So I know that part of the answer to my prayerlessness is to rest in the finished work of Christ.

But the challenge remains, I want to pray, I want to pray more, I want to persevere and pray effectively like Elijah, commended to us in James 5v17 as a model to follow.

Developing a prayer habit

1. Be honest

In an SIM article recently, Steve Schmidt discusses this very problem. He recommends forming a prayer “habit” – which he claims statistically will take 66 days. I’m on day 2. Pray for me!

In reading these various articles, God showed me why I’m not really praying effectively. I don’t have a system that works. When I actually thought about it, I counted the people I’m trying to pray for and immediately realised I need to pray for less people if I want to really pray for them at all. I could also do with praying prayers of intercession for longer, but I also know that new habits have to be realistic, so I’m going to stick with my current timings but spread the people out through the month. I think I find the idea of forming a system pretty liberating. I had got stuck in this idea that because praying is spiritual, it therefore cannot have logic, reason, formulas, systems or basic maths applied to it. Turns out that is a lie from the pit of hell.

If, like me, when you’re honest about what your intercessory ‘prayers’ are, you are ashamed, I think the first step is probably working out who your people are. The people you care about, the people connected to you, the people you can reach with the gospel. A good place to start would be your contacts list in your phone.

2. Be organised

I realise that I am thoroughly re-inventing the wheel here. That there is even a brilliant app (prayermate) to help you to do this, to help you organise your people, organisations and countries in one place. But for me, I prefer not to use my phone in my prayer time, I just find myself too easily distracted. So a paper system is my preference.

Paper means you can also print and organise helpful prayer prompts into the system, whether thats a favourite hymn, set prayers or part of a confession of faith (I’ve found chapter two of Westminster confession of faith really concise and helpful). Don Carson recommends printing off missionary prayer letters and tucking them into your Bible or journal, a habit I’m hoping to copy. I’ve done it once so far, so I need to revisit this blog in a few months time to check if this system is being watered and fed!

3. Be realistic

I hesitate to write this down, because prayer is to be private. But I have been so helped by Carson’s honesty about his (excellent) (but I have to remind myself that his prayers also need sanctifying by Christ) (in spite of my mind now sanctifying Don Carson, haha) prayer system. I’ve been challenged and I’ve been humbled. Exposing my far-from-exemplary habits is my way of encouraging you to be honest about what your ‘prayer life’ really consists in, and make a plan to move it towards what you would like it to be. I am finding that the best way to make progress is to be realistic about what time you have and how much you can pray for meaningfullly. Organise what you pray for. Set an alarm to remind you to pray. If you need to, then set a timer (eg for 15 minutes if thats how long you plan to pray for) to make sure you don’t cut it off short because of some apparent emergency that needs your immediate attention (is that just me?!). Start to form a habit that you can sustain.

[Don Carson’s] prayers also need sanctifying by Christ

Above all, don’t believe the lie that praying will just happen. As Carson puts it, “God is not impressed by the kind of brevity [in our praying] that is nothing other than culpable negligence.”

We don’t pray because we don’t plan to pray. Will you make a plan and then commit to keeping it going for 66 days so that it becomes a habit? I warn you, you will regularly need to water, feed and shine light onto it (there was some excellent stuff about a prayer partner in Don’s book which we can’t touch on here, but I think that might help with the light-shining thing). Like the houseplants, these prayer habits have a tendency to shrivel, they need regular care.

Bored

I’ve noticed a number of common themes as I meet up with people in church, but perhaps the most prevalent right now is “bored.”

I’m bored of my job, I’m bored of my flat, I’m bored of doing the same walk over and over again.

There are variations on the theme – lacking motivation, lethargy, lost my joy, or as I prefer to put it (having missed been able to hop over the channel at any point in the last two years!) – I’ve lost that ‘joie de vivre.’

Why are we bored, and how do we combat boredom?

The apostle Paul, writing to the Colossians, encouraged them with these words:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3v23-24

Get a fresh perspective

We get bored of ‘whatever’ it is we are working at, when we let our gaze slip, from our Lord, to things around us. We are bored because our hearts and minds are set on merely human things. The same old routine of sleep, eat, work, repeat.

We get bored when we let our gaze slip, from our Lord

The antidote is to ask God to give us a fresh perspective on what we are doing. To realise afresh that it is the Lord Christ we are serving. Whatever we are doing, primarily we are doing it for him, whether that’s pairing socks and wiping noses, working on spreadsheets and closing deals, or operating on sick patients and helping them to recover. As we turn our eyes upon Jesus and look full in his wonderful face, the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. Gazing at Christ is what reorients our world so that we can rediscover the joy of doing things with all of our heart. Rather than doing the least I can get away with so I can get onto the next episode in the series… (yup I do that too!)

If we are doing it for him, we are also doing it from him – he is our model. He shows us how to wipe tears, care for the sick and…well, I’m not quite sure about how Jesus would have worked on spreadsheets but I know he would have done it with his whole heart and not allowed himself to get frustrated when it glitches!

I’m not quite sure about how Jesus would have worked on spreadsheets but I know he would have done it with his whole heart

Wholehearted work is for whatever, whoever, wherever

What I love about God’s word is that this advice is relevant whatever you are doing – whoever you are – wherever you are living. It is so inclusive. Whether your borders are closed, your family stuck in a country far from you, whether you have loads of money or none. You don’t need to leave London, be vaccinated or even be able to walk, let alone run, to lift your hearts and minds to Christ. No one is excluded.

We simply need to open up his Word, to see Christ. And I would commend to you the book of Colossians. I’ve been reading it each week with someone who’s recently become a Christian. We’re from different cultural backgrounds, different ages, different work settings and seeing it through one another eyes has been so refreshing! I’m not sure who has benefitted the most. It has just been so good to set aside an hour a week to gaze at Christ.

Plan to help one another gain a fresh perspective

In Colossians 3v23 the antidote to boredom is to look up and see it is Christ we are serving. To look up and see the way he serves. But reading on into Colossians 4, we see there is a horizontal aspect to it too. Chapter 4 is full of names – people who are praying for one another and encouraging one another’s hearts in Christ. For example Paul’s ‘dear brother’ Tychicus in 4v8, “I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts.”

Paul sends Tychicus for the express purpose of encouraging their hearts. He looks at the Colossians Christians, he sees that their hearts may be discouraged, getting bored, so he makes a plan. He plans to send Tychicus so that he can encourage their hearts.

Are you bored? Make a plan! A plan to encourage your heart. In fact what Paul did was made a plan to encourage someone else’s heart…

One of the ‘horizontal’ ways I have been encouraged recently, was by looking after the children of a widower for a few days so he could get a break. I think I thought that we were doing it to encourage him, but in Gods economy we always get far more than we give. I just found it so refreshing to be in someone else’s life for a while. His house was very clean and well-organised which inspired me to spring clean when I got back. His children were incredibly well trained, they did the chores without being asked, took themselves off to play sport and read books – an amazing testimony to the incredible job his late wife had done. Her legacy lives on as she inspired me that the role of wife and mother was surely one of the best gifts I can contribute to the general benefit of society.

If you are bored, make a plan that will refresh your perspective. Spend some time gazing at Christ through scripture. Perhaps you could do that with someone else who is different to you? Consider who you could encourage, knowing that even as you encourage their heart, you yourself will be encouraged too.

Whatever we do, let’s plan and let’s pray that we can work at it with all our heart, as working for the Lord.

The mental health scars of the pandemic

Three nights away seemed like the perfect plan after months of being stuck indoors. The familiar walk near our home was beginning to feel like the prison yard. I wasn’t sure I could cope with another ‘holiday at home’ and the Easter break was unusually long, at 2.5 weeks.

The first scar I noticed as I tried to prepare for time away was complete packing paralysis. Normally I enjoy gathering bits and pieces for a holiday – picking up a nice bottle of wine, or some sweets for the journey. Digging out the wetsuits, pausing to relish the slightly musty, but oh-so-evocative, smell of seaside holidays. Organising holiday reading for each member of the family.

I couldn’t bring myself to do any of this, ending up stuffing some items into the suitcase last minute and hoping for the best. I realised I wasn’t able to believe that it would actually happen. So much has been cancelled, plans unexpectedly changed by the threat of self isolation, or lockdown orders imposed by the government such as the last minute cancellation of Christmas.

Will anticipation and joy be gone forever?

Ordinarily catching the train, meeting my parents for a picnic outdoors then a trip round the shops would have been a nice adventure for the first day of holidays. Instead it became increasingly, to the point of overwhelmingly stressful. By mid-afternoon I felt myself descend into emotional numbness. No longer functioning well, I went into survival mode – how could I get out of the situation and back to the relative safety of indoors as soon as possible?

I haven’t felt like this for years – all ‘joie de vivre’ gone, I lost interest in eating, unpacking, couldn’t bring myself to care about how to spend the first evening of the holiday. I was consumed by the inner panic that dominated my body and mind. I couldn’t focus to read my Bible, and found my prayers revolving entirely around myself – it was all I could do to simply cry: ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’ (Luke 18v13).

Will I have to stay in the safety of my home forever?

Reflecting on the above experiences in my morning Bible readings I was encouraged by two scriptures – 1 Samuel 23v16 “And Saul’s son Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God” and 1 Samuel 30v6 “David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.”

When we are in distress, strength is found in the Lord.

And its OK to need help to get that strength. In the New Testament we meet a paralysed man who needs his friends to carry him on his mat to Jesus, in Matthew 9. Easy to see why he needed help, because his legs weren’t working. When we experience mental health struggles our mind isn’t working. It is NO different. You wouldn’t expect the paralysed man to be able to pull himself together and get himself to Jesus. Obviously he can’t. So it was with David in his great distress he needed his friend Jonathan to help him to find strength in God.

So it is that as we struggle with the scars of the pandemic, we need to know who our Jonathan’s are. Personally I find it incredibly hard to admit when I am in acute distress, and reach out for help. I’m a duvet diver, I pull up the drawbridge and suffer silently. This does not help me to recover. What helps is to send a text and ask a friend to pray for me. I always encourage missionaries to create a small support group who will pray for them when there is immediate and acute need. But I don’t extend the same advice to myself. I’ve realised I need to work out who my Jonathans are, and allow them in.

But be encouraged, that when Jonathan is unavailable, David still had the Lord, and against a backdrop of everyone and everything turning against him, he was still able to find strength in God. The simple prayer ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner’ is a prayer God loves to answer. Even in the acutest distress, feeling numb to everything including the Lord, we can rest not on what we feel but on what we know. That Jesus has promised “surely I am with you always” (Matthew 28v20).

Will anticipation, joy and happy times out be gone forever? I’ve decided that coming out of lockdown is a bit like couch to 5k. Yes I could stay on the safety of the couch, but if I push myself out of my comfort zone, if I take it steady, if I know that others are going through the same, eventually I will make progress. Sometimes you will push yourself too far and may have to take a few days off. But you can recover and try again.

The first day of holiday was hard, the second day was recovery but the last two days were wonderfully peaceful and refreshing. I haven’t yet got to ‘5k’ but already I feel so much better for having got out of the house, out of London and back into church, shopping and socialising.

Strike a balance of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and taking it steady. Work out who your Jonathan’s are, and look to God for the strength you need to put one foot in front of another.

Back to church

Back to church
Face to face is better but my capacity has shrunk so the thought of going back to church is overwhelming! This article gives four words characteristic of God’s loving leadership from Hosea to help us get back into church.

Scripture is very clear that we are created to be with one another: “It is not good for the man to be alone,” said God, as he created Adam in Genesis 2v18. At the other end of our Bibles, 2 and 3 John carry the repeated ending: “I have much to write to you but I do not want to use zoom (I jest, it says ‘pen and ink’). Instead I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face so that our joy may be complete.”

I’m not sure anyone is contesting the value of face to face. If we didn’t realise we need it, after a year of isolation most of us are painfully aware of how dysfunctional our perspectives become when we don’t spend enough time with real, three dimensional people.

I have much to write to you but I do not want to use zoom

But therein lies the problem, at least let me speak for myself, I have become a bit dysfunctional. It’s tiring to go to the Tesco local for a loaf of bread, let alone the thought of heading back out into the real world. I remember those days – meeting someone for coffee before work, heading to the office, followed by (can you imagine) a drink with a friend on the way to midweek Bible study, returning home at 10pm to collapse into bed before the alarm goes off again at 6am. That seems an adventure worthy of the box office right now!

Our worlds have shrunk, as have our capacities. Take for example Sunday. I had an exchange of messages with a friend who was struggling, cooked lunch then walked with another friend who was having a hard time. Our church administrator messaged to say: “I’m sorry but church is full this afternoon, would you mind staying home?” I messaged back, saying: (and I quote) “Actually in some ways that would be a blessing, todays been quite intense but having a quiet afternoon makes everything much more straightforward.” Intense? Really? A few text messages, a walk and cooking dinner for five people?

Our worlds have shrunk, as have our capacities.

So how do we go about getting back to church? Through the book of Hosea, we as a church have been looking at four hallmarks of God’s loving leadership. It’s proactive, compassionate, righteous and constant. These four words help us as we think about our reaction to getting back to church.

Proactive

The dictionary definition of this is: “creating or controlling a situation rather than just responding to it after it has happened.” Immediately my thought’s turn to God’s perfect proactivity – I do not create or control, he does. But I love that in his image he gives us control. Cognitive control.

I can prayerfully decide in advance when I will go to church. Then when all those anxieties (which characterised my Sunday) flood in, I know that church is not an option, its a decision already made. There is actually real freedom in that, because anxiety goes hand in hand with procrastination – should I, shouldn’t I? If the decision is made, then the question is not should I, but how should I? Should I message a friend to say I’m struggling? Should I get an uber to make it feel easier? Should I plan to leave straight afterwards as the thought of socialising is what is actually paralysing me?

I don’t think that means we have to go to everything straight away. A friend with health issues has told me she will go to church once she’s had her second vaccine. I respect that. Church is not something she decides to go to based on whether she feels like it. It’s a prayerfully considered decision balancing health concerns with spiritual benefits and concern for others. For others it might mean church once a fortnight at first to ease yourself back in.

Proactivity means prioritising – church is so important that you may decide to work from home Mondays for a while if you have that flexibility so that you have the capacity to come along without worrying about feeling exhausted by it.

Compassionate

In a recent blog, my boys’ headmaster wrote: “Everyone has got an opinion about COVID: about what should happen; what should stay open and what should shut; how the government should be handling the situation. It would seem that there are about 60 million experts living in Britain right now, all convinced that what they think should happen should happen.” His conclusion? Therefore we should listen to one another.

He is so right. We should listen to understand what its like to be in one another’s shoes. So that we can be compassionate. Compassion may mean helping someone to make a plan of how they are going to get used to coming to church again. It may mean staying in to watch the livestream with someone occasionally. It may mean challenging their thought of: “I can’t come, its too hard,” and going along with them.

Righteous

God’s concern is for us to do what is right, what he says. The devil would love to undermine what God says. So when you read that the word church means gather, he will remind you of the comfort of the sofa. When you are reminded that the Bible knows nothing of an individual Christian instead describing the church as a people, a body with many parts, a family, he will remind you of the safety of hiding behind the screen. When you realise sacrificing my comfort and going to church is what Jesus calls us to (“take up your cross and follow me”) , the devil will remind you of the ease of watching the You Tube livestream in your PJs.

We must beware of the devil whispering these thoughts into our head. Proactively recognising that even back before Covid I never felt like going to church. I just never had a reasonable alternative in the days when there was no livestream! Which incidentally may be why your church decides to eventually stop live-streaming. Because wonderful as it is for inclusivity it does make it gathering optional, which makes it much easier to find an excuse not to come.

Constant

I don’t know about you, but this year has been an emotional rollercoaster. Take this week as an example. Wednesday one of my sons is sent home to isolate for ten days, before the decision was overturned on the basis of a covid test result. Monday another of my sons is sent home, until I work out the boy in question wasn’t in my son’s class after all and manage to convince the Headmaster to revoke the decision. So all my holiday plans are cancelled. Now they’re back on. Now they’re cancelled. Now they’re back on. I got to the section in my staff review entitled “aims” and felt physically sick. Aims? I have no aims, or plans or hopes. Who knows what tomorrow holds – what’s the point of having plans?!

Only God is constant. This world, my life, my friends, my leaders are not. That has been a good truth to learn. More than that, I realise in conversation with my brother in Central Asia, that micro managing my diary is actually a very Western idea. For him, an event or even a plane flight is not really certain until you’re on the plane. And do you know there is good in this? Because it means we’re flexible. Jesus’ plans were all flexible. A blind beggar calls out and he stops. A hungry crowd need teaching and feeding so he postpones vacation and prayer for a time to focus on their needs.

Jesus was constant but that didn’t mean he micro managed everything. It meant he prioritised people over plans. He responded to need. What was constant was not what he did but the way he did it. So in all of our returning to church let’s put our roots down into our constant God and seek to do things from a heart that loves him and loves others. Let’s keep our diaries a little bit clearer so I can take that call when I need to, stop when my neighbour wants to talk. Constant does not necessarily mean I am at every church event. It means having a heart that always wants to gather, that always speaks positively of my brother and sisters, that upholds the decisions of the elders, that is tolerant of other experts who’s expert opinion on what the government or church should be doing is actually no less valid than my own expert opinion.

But permit me just to leave you with one expert opinion of my own, which for the record is not a Biblical opinion its just a thought that has helped me time and again throughout this pandemic. In fact it’s a mantra I live by.

Make hay while the sun shines.

I know churches that were very slow to meet again once lockdown one lifted, then in Autumn 2020 as the second wave hit, they were only just beginning to meet, so there were many members of the church that weren’t able to come for a whole year.

Our elders have been cautious, ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’, was a decision we took seriously in lockdown three when legitimately we could have met but we didn’t think it wise.

Make hay while the sun shines.

But as cases fall, testing is on the rise and people are increasingly practised at social distancing there is a strong case for coming back to church as soon and as often as you can. It’s probably safer than Sainsbury’s and this bread will feed you eternally. We don’t know what the future holds, we don’t know if there will be another wave to come over Christmas, we don’t know how effective the vaccination programme will be. Church face to face is not guaranteed to be constant, so come while you can!