Chapter 10: Prayer and Peace of Mind

Prayer and the Common Life
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 10: Prayer and Peace of Mind

We have through several chapters been tracing the foundations of prayer, trying to answer some questions about it, offering some suggestions as to ways of praying. It now remains to say something more about the fruits of prayer, both within the individual and in the social whole.

"Why," it may be asked, "leave this discussion to the end of the book? Why not start with it? What people want is peace of mind, not theology or techniques!" This is a legitimate challenge. It is undoubtedly true that most people are more interested in the effects of prayer -- however arrived at -- than in understanding its foundations and methods. Nevertheless, the fact that this is true may be one reason why there is not a greater amount of devout, reverent, vital, and psychologically effective praying.

Psychology and Prayer

We have maintained throughout that the psalmist had the right perspective when he wrote, "I have set the Lord always before me." Prayer must be God-centered, or it is not prayer. There are many forms of self-examination and psychotherapy that do good -- some of them great good -- but they are not prayer and ought not to be confused with it. The main reason, therefore, for putting a psychological analysis late in the discussion is to keep the emphasis and sequence true.

Nevertheless, we ought to understand ourselves, and anything that can be learned from psychology ought to be gratefully welcomed. Since this is one world, anything that is true in psychology must also be true in theology and religion. It is partial truths, or untruths, that appear to clash. There is great loss to the public in the fact that religious leaders have so often fought shy of psychology while psychologists in turn have viewed religion with disdain. Fortunately, there are signs within the past few years of a much closer meeting. (Among these signs are the great vogue some ten years ago of Henry C. Link’s The Return to Religion and now Joshua Loth Liebman’s Peace of Mind. Within this period a considerable number of excellent books dealing with the relations of religion to mental health have appeared. The clinical training of ministers has taken long steps forward, and most of the seminaries now give courses in counseling.)

If anyone who reads this book is afraid that to understand psychologically what happens in prayer is to banish faith, let him put away his fears. Not psychology, but the materialistic assumptions of some psychologists, have tended in this direction. One may study astronomy and be prompted the more reverently to exclaim,

The heavens declare the glory of God,

or physiology and say,

I will give thanks unto thee;

for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:

Wonderful are thy works;

And that my soul knoweth right well.

Comparably one may study human nature and what happens in it through prayer, and be the more challenged and awed at the awareness of God’s wonderful works. There is a certain inconsistency in the fact that persons who accept without question the presence of God in the physical universe so often wonder if there is any reality in it when the processes of prayer are examined.

Yet this does not entirely answer the question. The situation in prayer is not wholly analogous with that in astronomy and physiology, where God is not expected to speak except through his handiwork. The real nub of the question for many earnest minds is whether the voice of God is anything other than our own psychological processes.

Much as I sympathize with the questioner, I believe the question presents a false alternative. The answer hinges upon whether God is himself personal, which is to say, upon one’s basic theology or philosophy of religion. If God is the personal, loving, righteous God of Hebrew-Christian faith, the Creator and Sustainer of man as well as of the universe, present within man as the Holy Spirit and ever waiting to impart power, then when God speaks, he has no need to speak from without. It is through our mental and moral processes but not in identity with them -- as it is through "the starry heavens above" but not in identification with the heavens --that God makes himself known to us. God’s relation to man as he acts within and through the processes of the human mind is more intimate than any other form of God’s self-disclosure, and the fact that he speaks from within us makes it impossible to draw any absolute line of cleavage between our own thoughts and divine inspiration. Yet it is "the Beyond that is within" that speaks, and in this sense God’s disclosure of himself through the inner voice is as objective as anything in nature.

The question remains as to whether all the processes of prayer can be psychologically analyzed. Are there some things about it that ought not to be tampered with? And if our psychological knowledge were complete, would it all be explained away and the mystery disappear? Since this is usually put as a double question, a double answer is necessary. To the first it may be replied that there is no aspect of prayer before which a "No Admittance" sign must be put up to debar inquiry. As in even the most intimate of human relations there are facts for psychologists to discover and use towards man’s self-understanding, so there is no limit to what may be found out about what happens in prayer. The more we know of man’s mental and moral processes and total psychic life, the better channels these can be for the hearing of God’s voice.

To the second question -- whether mystery will vanish in psychological simplification -- the answer is that only an oversimplification of the issue could possibly lead to this conclusion. As long as love and loyalty, aspiration and hope, faith and dedication remain among men, so long will there remain an ultimate mystery in the divine-human encounter.

The fact that God does not speak by audible sounds or through "signs and wonders" but through our conscious and subconscious mental life raises another question, more ethical than psychological. How are we to know the voice of God when we hear it? How distinguish between our own evil and erring impulses and God’s word of assurance or command?

The line cannot be drawn so sharply that we can afford to be dogmatic about it. The tendency to "hallow the relative," or give absolute divine authority to our own desires and opinions, is one of the commonest forms of human perversion. Nevertheless, this need not make us give up the attempt to discover God’s voice. Any strong intuitive conviction must be subjected to two tests: First, does it square with what we know of God through Jesus? Second, if acted upon, will it lead to better living for ourselves and others? These are not simple tests, but they are workable ones. If we accept them, we must look to Jesus for our ultimate standards of judgment and at the same time keep on estimating relative values and probable consequences within the common life. What this means more concretely we must now observe regarding certain major human problems.

What Thwarts Peace of Mind?

No attempt will be made here to give any complete analysis of human nature. The book lacks the space, and its author the wisdom. Since this chapter deals centrally with peace of mind, we must now ask what stands in the way of it.

God does not send unhappiness and inner unrest because he wants men to suffer. Whatever may be believed about divine judgment -- and some things need to be believed about it -- it can hardly be thought that the God of Jesus inflicts pain maliciously. Where peace of mind is forfeited, we had better look to human causes which God stands ready -- far more ready than we -- to help men to control and correct.

When one starts to make a list of the things that upset peace of mind, the catalogue is almost endless. Failure to get the material goods, the recognition, the honors, the comforts, the adornments, or the luxuries one desires; thwarted ambitions and vocational misfits; frustrated love affairs; domestic tensions; the strain of having to work or to live with people "who rub you the wrong way"; moods of self-pity, envy, anger, discouragement, rebellion against fate; inferiority and loneliness; regrets over wasted years or opportunities; a multitude of fears, in particular fears of the loss of affection or prestige, fears of economic insecurity, of illness, of incapacity for work, of old age; sometimes the actualization of these fears; anxiety for those one loves; clashing outlooks upon life among those who love but do not understand each other; physical excesses and their aftereffects; bodily pain; incurable disease; the shock of bereavement, especially if death comes suddenly and apparently without purpose; life amid conditions of poverty, squalor, hunger, and the acute denial of opportunities; the separations, sufferings, and devastations of war, and then war’s dreadful aftermath. Permeating all of these is the knowledge of one’s own inevitable death, if one stops to think of it, and fear of the future of mankind in a world far more precarious than secure.

The bare enumeration of such obstacles to inner peace suggests the weight of unhappiness that oppresses men. It is seldom that the same person has his peace of mind upset in all of these ways, but the convergence of these factors in the lives of some individuals is appalling. And even the person who seems outwardly to "have everything" is never completely happy, for inwardly something keeps gnawing or tugging at his heart. If prayer can do even a little to alleviate this state of affairs, it is enormously important.

The above list does not pretend to be complete. But perhaps the reader noted a conspicuous omission from it. What of a sense of guilt? Is not this too a barrier to peace of mind?

It certainly is! That is one thing on which psychiatrists and discerning religious leaders agree, though there is less agreement as to what to do with it. Yet guilt stands in a somewhat different category from these other sources of unrest. To sin by an act or attitude of rebellion against God or to do an injury to one’s neighbor is not the same thing as to be frustrated or fearful. Furthermore, to sin and to feel guilty are not synonymous terms, for often the worst sinners feel least guilty. We shall speak presently of both sin and guilt, but first let us look at some other common causes of inner unrest.

It is obviously out of the question in this chapter to deal separately with each of the obstacles to inner peace noted above. Nor is it necessary, for although their social causes are manifold, they appear in the individual in a few dominant forms. We shall discuss them under the heads of frustration, fear, loneliness, grief, and guilt.

Prayer and Frustration

Frustration is a term that has fairly recently taken its place in the popular vocabulary; yet it stands for an experience as old as the human race. It comes from the Latin frustra, which means "in vain." To be frustrated is to desire something in vain. Adam and Eve were frustrated when they desired to stay in Eden but were driven out. Throughout human history man has been getting the apple he wanted and losing the security for which his soul longed.

Many people are frustrated without knowing it. Everybody knows, of course, that there are things he wants and does not have. This may be a passing mood, or a mature acceptance of the inevitable. But when a person chronically pities himself, rebels at fate and thinks the world or the Lord has a grudge against him, gets angry over trifles and scolds or swears at the people around him, frustration is likely to be at the bottom of it. (Frustration also shows itself frequently in drinking and other physical excesses which are engaged in to secure a temporary illusion of achievement. Important as these are, I omit discussion of them to keep to the main lines of expression). There are hosts of frustrated individuals who go through life suspecting that somebody has done or is going to do them an injury, and saying whenever some minor flurry on life’s sea hits them, "That’s just my luck!"

Frustration is the main cause of the familiar inferiority complex. When a person tries one thing after another without having the success or getting the recognition he craves, he is apt to decide he does not amount to much and the more he avoids being stepped on the better. This can take the form of shyness and withdrawal, or of bragging, bluster, and a bold front.

How do we get that way? The well-fed, gurgling infant in his crib looks as if he had everything he wanted. He may sleep all night, laugh and play all the time he is awake, and be considered a very good baby! But let him be pricked with an open safety-pin or bumped, deprived of his plaything or his dinner, and the angelic cherub becomes a squalling mass of angry protoplasm. He is having his first lessons in frustration.

As time goes on he gets frustrated a great many times. Other children get the attention or the toys he wants. On the playground he wants his own way, gets it some of the time, but also gets snubs that are worse than his bloody nose. At home he is likely either to be coddled too much or cuddled too little. At school he is scolded by the teacher or ridiculed by his peers, and begins to crawl into a shell of secrecy. As adolescence comes on he wants a girl, but the girl he wants prefers someone else. He wants excitement, but the thrills wear out, and he tries more daring exploits and gets himself in trouble. Meanwhile there are battles with his parents over this and that. By the time he can leave school and go to work -- at a job which does not interest him at all but pays him some money -- he is likely to have a long start toward being a chronically frustrated individual.

What is to be done about it? We shall pass over the problems incident to the rearing of children, a task so difficult and critical that it is hard to see how any parent could venture to undertake it without prayer. When a person has come to adulthood and knows himself to be frustrated in deep desires, what can he do?

In any such situation three possibilities are to be canvassed. To overcome frustration it is necessary to fulfill, to limit, or to redirect desire.

To fulfill desire is to achieve what one sets out to do. This can be on the plane of getting money, comforts, power over others, prestige, sexual satisfactions, thrills, or other forms of immediately pleasurable experience. It can also be on the higher plane of family love, vocational adjustment, enlargement of interests, creativity in work or avocation, acquisition of knowledge and skills, and their use in service to God and man. The second type of fulfillment, though it does not solve all problems, is obviously more conducive to lasting peace of mind than the first. When one has it, he is seldom seriously frustrated.

To find peace of mind through fulfillment of desire it is necessary, first, to ask oneself whether one’s goals are worthy, and, second, whether some headway toward them is being made. Nothing which narrows and cheapens one’s own personality or harms another can give lasting satisfaction. But granted that one’s aspirations are in the right direction, some failures must still be expected. To expect perfection, whether in oneself or the outer situation, is to be miserable over not finding it. Nobody does a perfect job of managing his business, his personal relations, or himself. The thing needful is to achieve some measure of success, and keep moving ahead.

To limit desire is to accept the inevitable. Everybody has to do this in order to be happy. One of the earliest and hardest lessons a child must learn is that he cannot have everything he wants. If he does not learn it by the time he grows up, he is in for trouble.

A great many adults make themselves unnecessarily unhappy by crying for the moon. Native endowment sets limits to what one can do. The writer of these pages decided a long time ago that she would never be a Metropolitan Opera singer or a Hollywood star, and therefore is not troubled by failure to arrive! The social situation may be adjustable, but there are limits beyond which it is not. In a monogamous society when a man marries one woman he cannot marry another, and much trouble would be avoided by accepting this fact. Time, health, strength, and many other factors set limits. When a person is old, he is no longer young, and nothing is more incongruously pitiful than to see December trying to imitate May. An arm cut off or an eye plucked out will not grow again. When death comes, no amount of yearning will bring back a beloved form to the life on earth.

To redirect desire is to sublimate one’s spontaneous, unchosen desires to chosen ends. Some things we want to do or to have are desires that come without beckoning. It is natural and right for a young person to want to be popular with the opposite sex and to marry. It is not easy, but it is possible, to discover that even when this desire is denied, life is not futile. It is natural to want to be healthy. Yet it is possible to struggle with a defective body and still find something worth while to achieve. It is natural to want to be well fixed and comfortable. Yet some of the greatest literary and artistic masterpieces have been produced in poverty. If a person has an inner capacity to sublimate desire to chosen ends, no outer disaster can be completely devastating.

What is the place of prayer in this? Its primary function is to enable the frustrated person to take one or another or all three of these necessary steps. To "offer up our desires unto God for things agreeable to His will" is to do precisely this. To offer up our desires under the light of God’s will as we find it in Jesus is first of all to ask whether what we are desiring is what we ought to desire. It is then to ask God to help us move toward fulfillment if we ought to have it, to accept denial if we must, to find some worthy work to do for him in any situation.

Experience reveals that hosts of defeated individuals have through prayer found guidance and strength for the overcoming of their frustrations. When it is asked how God does this, the answer is not that God speaks through audible words from on high or imparts powers not already latent in the individual. What God does is to take us as we are, and speak through our conscious and subconscious minds to clarify our vision and make available hidden strength. It is he who does it, yet it is we who do it. This sounds cryptic, but it is true to experience. Paul says something like it in the testimony, "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." (Gal. 2:20, King James Version.)

Paul knew nothing of such language as frustration, fulfillment, or sublimation. Yet he gives a perfect example of what prayer can accomplish in this field when facing death he writes from a Roman dungeon,

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.