When I pray, I feel schizophrenic. The voices in my head are many and competing, each shouting to be noticed: “Don’t forget the dry cleaning.” “What shall I have for dinner?” “Do something with your hair.” Sometimes, I just want to stand, like a teacher, on the desk of my forehead and instruct all the voices to sit down and be quiet. Ssshhhh!
What’s all the noise about? What would I find in a quieted mind and soul? Author Margaret Guenther suggests that, once silent, we “simultaneously yearn and fear to hear: ‘One thing is needful.’”
In Luke 10, Jesus disciplined Martha for her distraction, while her sister, Mary, did the needful thing; she sat as His feet. I do yearn to push out the cacophonic clutter and make room for Him. When I do try to focus on God, I get distracted with dry cleaning, dinner and my “do.”
In my spasmodic attempts of prayer and stillness, I realize that my soul is small. These little things take on great importance. Pastor John Piper suggests that the soul “expands to encompass the magnitude of its treasure.” I need a treasure worth the whole space of my soul.
Soul stretching, like running, requires effort. When I’m training for a race, I build from a base of miles, and then I push out farther each time. My endurance and capacity expand. So does the territory I can cover comfortably.
Soul stretching is no less. “What the Lord does is enlarge us to possess,” writes Miles Stanford in The Green Letters. “[He] takes us by some way which means our spiritual expansion, and exercise of spirituality so that we occupy the larger place spontaneously.”
But what means expand our souls? When I am romanced by the sight of a golden birch and the vista prompts awe, then my soul expands. Certainly grief and longing grow us. But so do hope, worship and mystery. Conversely, control, miserliness and trivial entertainment can shrivel us.
In prayer, my capacity for Jesus grows. But it happens incrementally. It helps to consider this principle of God’s means of Israel’s territorial expansion: “But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Exodus 23:29,30).
Little by little, God grows us. And as I create the space and time for Him, He pushes out the trivial and the trite “animals,” like drycleaning and dinner. Most importantly, He makes room enough for my soul’s greatest treasure: Jesus Himself.