Prayer should make us feel good, right? There is plenty of thinking when it comes to our prayer and spiritual life, but when we imagine the far reaches of the mysteries of prayer (isn’t prayer mysterious fundamentally?), it includes how we feel. And it helps us feel good.
Knowing God, being known by God, and having a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ is a good feeling. We could call it ecstasy. Ecstasy isn’t used a lot in the Bible—but we know people are having it. When they talk about visions, or being caught up in spiritual experiences (like Pentecost in Acts 2), you might call that an ecstasy. You might need to think about it as a place—like paradise—that you enter in. “I’m in ecstasy.”
You might think of ecstasy when you graduate, or fall in love, eat a great piece of cake or chocolate, watch your favorite sports team win a championship (I know I did in 2008 when the Phillies won the World Series), have an orgasm is the du jour example of ecstasy for many of us. Spiritually, it can happen in worship—being brought to tears, speaking in tongues, and so on.
You might need to have that good feeling all the time; to feel all the pleasure you can. Think about Miley Cyrus right now—listen to the chorus of her song. You’re seeing her desire to stay up all night long, partying, maximizing her ecstasy!
On the other hand, you have the Kurt Cobain types. He seems about fed up with all of the emotions of the world, as he describes teen spirit in this classic. The last thing he wants to do is stay up all night and party. Listen to how non-emotive he wants to be here.
You probably aren’t like Miley or Kurt really—maybe somewhere in the middle. But I don’t think Jesus wants us to be in the middle—or even extreme—but a whole new thing. He eases our pain and he helps us feel again. The feeling and experience has reference points in my old self and my former way of life, but it is completely new, too, because Jesus has introduced me to God. The ecstasy that comes with knowing God may scare you or make you feel so skeptical that you want to run away from it. But it is also constantly enticing. We long for it.
I resisted ecstasy in worship when I was younger. Most of my emotions were painful to me, so I didn’t want an emotional connection with God (the Father, particularly). I steered clear of overjoyed Christians (I just didn’t believe them), and Pentecostals altogether. I was more like Kurt Cobain (at least I thought I was that cool). The kids who partied on the weekends? Capital L Losers.
I missed out and had to allow myself the ecstasy later in life. It’s still a battle I have. To demonstrate ecstasy with my physical body? That’s hard. Waving my arms, dancing? Even if we’re singing about it, I’ll do it in my seat.
I think a lot of us have that difficulty. They even invented a drug that was nicknamed ecstasy. Originally patented by Merck as a drug that stopped soldiers’ bleeding, MDMA was resynthesized by Alexander Shulgin to use with psychiatric patients. The feeling of euphoria that it imparts made it popular in the 80s and 90s as a street drug.
When we substitute manufactured ecstasy for the real thing, I think it can damage our spiritual life. Pornography, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as many other things can damage our souls. God can certainly compete, but He might not!
So what do we do if we want to avoid substitutes and get the real thing?
Don’t be afraid to suffer—it might unlock ecstasy. Henri Nouwen is known for talking about the connection of joy and sorrow. One of the problems that we often face is the idea that we should never suffer—and if we do, we are being bad Christians. Some Christians will even tell you that suffering is the result of your sin. Nouwen offers a different perspective:
“Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our lives. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness . . . But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.”
Henri Nouwen is referencing Jesus when he says the “no one will take away our joy.” I don’t think most of us think that suffering will never happen to us. And we might be beyond the point of thinking it’s because of our evil. With that said, we might not think joy, beyond it being manufactured, is possible. We might be like Kurt Cobain—joyless, and laughing at the Miley Cyruses of the world. Nouwen tells us to encounter our pain and our death and be filled with the joy of the promise for eternal joy.
Receive ecstasy in our own way. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul says he was “caught up.” We don’t make it happen, it happens to us. But we can ask for it. And we can put ourselves in a place to have it happen: prayer (especially when we are losing ourselves in meditation), worship (especially when we are letting go and connecting) are main disciplines for feeling good. But ecstasy also comes upon us when we love, when we tell the truth or hear it, when we create beauty and experience it.
We have ways we can make ecstasy not happen. Paul will not take it in his own hands. He isn’t like Miley Cyrus or Christians who want to the best experience each Sunday or something. And he will not avoid it like it never happens – or like it is coincidence or serotonin. We make it not happen when we boast in it like we made it happen or it gives us special value. We make it not happen when we think we warrant it and we evaluate how much joy we have. We make it not happen when we forget where it comes from and drum it up by making ourselves go out of control, or just conquer an orgasm. God can compete with those things, but he might not, you might have to open yourself up to him.
Paul told the Corinthians that he spoke in an ecstatic prayer language more than any of them, but in public he connected in love. Love has priority over my experience and where joy will come from. There is always a thorn in our flesh. If you never want ecstasy to happen, never be weak and need strengthening, never get depleted so you need to experience God’s comfort, always feel resentful that you hurt, always maintain independence from others and never experience God with them.
Thanks to Rod White, again, for his inspiration and influence in this post.