Last night my Bible study did something a little different. One of the girls in my group led us in a session of “guided prayer” which, if you are unfamiliar, involves visualizing your prayer. The guide leads you through a series of steps by which you ultimately encounter Jesus and share your requests, anxieties and cares. I found the exercise to be incredibly peaceful and powerful. It’s a helpful way to remember the relational aspect of prayer instead of praying in some vague, upward direction. It was also an answer to a recent prayer of mine.
Lately I’ve noticed that my relationship with God has been sustained by knowledge more than love, a pattern that can become spiritually tiresome. Once I noticed the problem, I began praying that God would restore my joy and love for Him. I wanted to taste the sweetness of true intimacy with God again, and enjoy a renewed passion for Him.
Then last night happened.
My friend began the exercise by asking us to visualize a place where we remember being truly thankful. The first place that came to mind was a beach in North Carolina where Ike first told me he loved me. It is a precious memory to me. That day was terribly windy so we had to crouch behind a sand dune to escape the stinging onslaught of sand. It was there, as we sat on our towels huddled next to one another, that Ike leaned over and whispered into my ear, “I love you.”
We now refer to that spot on the beach as our “love dune.” And it was the perfect moment.
“Now imagine that Jesus is there with you, standing nearby.” That was the next step of the prayer. And what an incredible thought! As Ike and I first shared our feelings for one another, it almost made me cry to think of Jesus close by, taking in this beautiful moment that he himself had orchestrated. I had never thought of that event as a divine gift, but that is exactly what it was.
As the guided prayer continued, we were instructed to visualize walking over to Jesus and telling him whatever thoughts or questions were on our minds. For me, there was only one thing I wanted to tell Jesus there on that beach–THANK YOU! Thank you for my life, thank you for Ike, thank you for my family, thank you for all the good things in my life and thank you for sustaining me through all the bad. Amazingly, as I imagined this whole scenario in my mind, my heart was BURSTING with gratitude. God has been so good to me! How did I forget it??
Having expressed ourselves to Jesus, the members of my group were given a moment to imagine his response, and I knew just what Jesus would say to my overwhelming gratitude: “Of course, Sharon! I LOVE you!”
During that time of prayer I finally remembered just how magnificently God loves me. In addition to the big happy memories, there are also countless little acts of love that He tucks into my every day. And of course my response to Jesus’ love was love in return. I couldn’t help it. How can you stand in the presence of someone so perfect and kind and patient and good who loves you unconditionally, and not fall madly in love? Finally, I found the love I had been asking for. Ironically, my prayer was answered with prayer.
As the time of guided prayer drew to a close, I was reminded of 1 John 4:19 which says, “We love because he first loved us.” This verse is tough to truly understand unless you have experienced it. If you’ve never loved God before, or if you have forgotten the beauty of His love, it’s easy to read it as a command, as if I should love God because of His great love for us.
But this verse is a description of the Christian experience, not a prescriptive command. While there are times when our love for God is a disciplined choice (as it is with any other relationship), love begins as a natural response to His great love for us. The more we understand it, the less we can resist it. It is a delicious, exquisite kind of love that swallows you up and sweeps you away.
No matter how you feel about God today, whether you feel distant or ashamed or bitter or dry, don’t burden yourself with the work of conjuring up emotions that simply aren’t there. Instead, make space to remember Jesus’ love. Perhaps you can pray through the same exercise I described above, and imagine seeing Jesus face to face. What would you say to him? And what do you think he would say to you? I have no doubt it would be a word of love, so soak it in. An encounter with Jesus is where Christian love always begins.