There are books which are interesting, some are even thought provoking. And then there are books which don’t just illuminate a subject or unlock a treasure trove, but demystify something to such an extent they have the potential to utterly transform your life, if you let them. Gerard Hughes’s book God of Surprises is one of those books.
As we ended our previous meeting the DDO said that she would send me a book on prayer to read and write about ahead of our next meeting later this week. Knowing that such a book was on its way I had been thinking about what prayer is.
Prayer, for me, was sitting still in silence and having a conversation with God where I’m doing most of the talking, occasionally stopping for a few moments to see if God wants to say anything. Often all I hear is silence and my mind bringing up more things to worry, think or pray about. Prayer, in short, has too often been about me and not about God.
I have generally prayed as things come to me, often just as a thought held in my heart but not always or often consciously addressed to God. Maybe it is because I know that He is always listening. It feels like I am being lazy and taking advantage of God. Maybe that is why I have never been particularly good at finding a sustained period of quietness to pray. When prayer is essentially sending a shopping list to God it doesn’t give Him much opportunity to speak to us, or at least to hear Him if He is saying something.
Though God of Surprises deals with prayer it is not a book about prayer. Instead it is about discerning what God is trying to tell us, what things that He wants us to deal with, and what decisions that He would like us to make. Prayer is simply one of the tools he uses, the other being imaginative contemplation on scripture, within prayer and within simply living each moment of the day. These tools are ones that we can use to get to know God and God’s will better, and as a consequence get to know ourselves better too.Gerard Hughes’s thinking and observations in the book are is based on the work of Inigo of Loyola, who founded he Jesuit order of which Gerard Hughes is a member of. Later known by the name of Ignatius Loyol, he noticed that when he daydreamed about winning the love of a woman he felt bored, empty and sad afterwards. However, when he daydreamed about outdoing the saints he was left with a feeling of happiness, hopefulness and encouragement. His contemplations on that fact led him to realise that we have experiences buried in our subconsciousness that influence our actions and emotions both positively and negatively.
With so much of our actions and thoughts influenced by things we aren’t particularly aware of, it is naturally important that we seek to understand what is locked away down in our subconsciousness or our inner life and soul as Ignatius and Gerard Hughes refer to it. If we let fear of what we might discover, and the consequences that may follow, from preventing us to looking we will forever be held in an invisible prison, held back from experiencing true freedom.
He isn’t just talking about understanding ourselves better either. As we seek to understand ourselves more we end up understanding God and His will better as well. God uses our lives, past and present, to reveal things to us. He uses and speaks to us through the good, the bad and the ugly within us to help us find our purpose and direction in life.
Through the book Gerard Hughes suggests a number of methods of how we can do all this, each focused around imaginative prayer and contemplation, often using passages from the Bible. I found this slightly ironic given that he also says that we should not let ourselves be controlled or dominated by other people’s suggestions about how we should pray. Rather than find it ironic, the better approach would be to view the humility within Gerard Hughes that his statement also suggests. He isn’t saying the ideas in the book are the only way, just that they are a way.
Imaginative reading of scripture involves reading a passage, then imagining the scene as if it were happening right now and that we are active participants in it. It may be that we find ourselves as an observer, or as one of the people in the passage, but if we engage with this method the feelings and thoughts we have can be very telling. They can give a fresh perspective on, and understanding of, a piece of scripture and can reveal issues that we need to take back to God to deal with.
I found this to be true when, prior to reading the book, I was encouraged to do such an exercise on John 21 and was shocked by the answers I gave when imagining myself as Peter (see my post State of Love and Trust). The consequence of that experience affirms what Gerard Hughes says. Through that moment I realised that God wanted to help me deal with the issue of trust between us. God spoke to me in a fresh and direct way through a piece of scripture written thousands of years ago, and helped me to strengthen my relationship with him as a result.
Within the book there are a number of exercises to try, and a number of recommended passages of scripture to use. Gerard Hughes suggests that if a phrase from the passage stands out we shouldn’t try to analyse it. Instead we should hold it in our thoughts, listen to our inner voice and the feelings and thoughts that arise. As, he says, God speaks to us through that ‘inner voice, we shouldn’t ignore our the promptings it gives us!
As an aside, but an encouraging one for me at least, when I practiced reading one of the passages of scripture he suggested (Isaiah 43:1-5) the phrase that stood out was “I have called you by name”. The cynic and doubter in me says that of course that phrase would stand out as I am exploring God’s calling on my life. Yet Gerard Hughes says I would be foolish to discount it, instead I should continue to dwell on it and celebrate that God has indeed called me by name!
Imaginative prayer and contemplation is not that different but without the focus of scripture distractions can become even more prevalent. Previously I had been told or read that when a thought pops into your head whilst praying you should write it down and return to it later. That never worked for me. I found that I became even more focused on the distraction as I wrote it down, and even less focused on whatever I had been praying about or over.
Gerard Hughes’s approach to distractions during prayer is much more helpful. Instead of dismissing them for later he suggests that we acknowledge them there and then but return to the focus of our prayer. If we can’t refocus it may be that God or we need to deal with that issue first, it isn’t something we should beat ourselves up about! To not dismiss it and not acknowledge it can, as he says, leave our prayer little more than superficial. The richness and depth that prayer can offer us in our relationship with God is something that I am much more aware of thanks to this book, and I do not want to go back to the superficial payer life I have so often experienced.
Responding to that inner self and inner voice takes confidence and we won’t always get it right. I take confidence from knowing that God sorts the wheat from the chaff, that if it is from Him there will be fruit and if it is not it will not find fertile ground in which to root itself. Hopefully, if we’re sensitive, there won’t be adverse repercussions either if we get it wrong
When I have responded to that inner voice, to a word or picture I feel is from God, I have felt nervous for sure but I have also felt at peace, and later encouragement. When I haven’t responded, often because I worry whether it is from God, I have felt uneasy and disappointed, knowing that I should have spoken to that person or given it to someone to decide whether it should be shared within a church service or prayer meeting. I consequently take great comfort from the book when Gerard Hughes writes that such feelings suggest someone whose core being is directed to God.
Gerard Hughes also says such feelings help us to discern God’s will. If, after a period of prayer, we find consolation in one outcome and desolation in the other it is likely that the former is God’s will. He expands to say that things which console us are things which draw us towards God, whilst desolation lead us away from God. As such it doesn’t mean that a decision won’t be painful or easy it is God’s will, for following God isn’t easy or without difficulty.
God of Surprises was just what I needed and I am so grateful for the DDO sending it to me. More than a self-help book or a series of instructions to follow, the book affirms me, my path and my relationship with God. It guides me to ways that I can, if I choose to and am disciplined enough, to deepening that relationship and enrich my journey.
God has graciously spoken to me in the distant and recent past. That I have heard Him when I did was due to being in the right spiritual place at the right time. Gerard Hughes has given me much more confidence to know and hear God speak to me daily. Whereas I used to put the onus on God in prayer I realise that the onus is on me to spend time with Him reflecting on life and scripture. Prayer has been redefined to me by this book and I am looking forward to spending time putting into practice what I have learnt.
The book comes to a close talking about discerning God’s will, something that I am incredibly keen to do regarding whether I should be ordained or not! Gerard Hughes own conclusions is that the decisions we make will only be according to and inline with God’s will if we are detached and indifferent to the outcome of that decision. In other words, if we are only prepared to accept a specific outcome we will not be letting God be involved or be in control. Unless we hand over control to God we cannot be sure that the outcome that arises is what God willed or what we caused to happen through the decision.
I am happy to accept whatever outcome arises out of my exploration of ordination. I would much rather not be ordained if it is not God’s will than to be ordained and it not be. That would be disastrous to me and my relationship with the Lord, and not much better for any congregation I may lead!