Prayerfulness as Faithfulness

In Deuteronomy 5:32, Moses says, “So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left.” Moses addressed these words to Israel. We know history. We know that they did turn to the right, left, up, down, in every possible direction, variation and combination.

How can we be careful so as to not turn aside to the right and the left?

As always the answer is prayer. But it is not just prayer, rather it is prayerfulness. Prayer is an act, but prayerfulness an attitude. Prayerfulness is a way of being marked by “ceaseless prayer” as Paul says in Thessalonians 5:17.

I was reading about Origen’s thoughts on prayer, “those who give themselves continually to prayer know by experience that through this fervent practice they avoid innumerable sin and are led to perform many good deeds.” Prayerfulness is about filling up our consciousness with ceaseless prayer to God. Such prayerfulness is the mark of the life of a Saint. Such prayerfulness is the source of all virtues.

There are 3 aspects to this way of prayefulness.
1.Prayer places us before God.
2.Prayer reminds us that God is present and looking at us.
3.Prayer changes our disposition.

When we are filling up our mind with ceaseless prayer, then the mind has little space for the seeds of sin to germinate. A mind filled with the sense of ceaseless prayer is focused, it is not distracted to the right or the left.

In the life of Israel, anytime they were stressed they were prone to turn to the left or the right, away from the straight path. When Moses did not come down from Mount Sainai, they decided they would figure out a way to recreate God’s image and made the golden calf to worship it. During times of stress and trail people of Israel channeled their anxiety into things, as in Golden Calf, that took them away from God.

We too do something similar in life – when we are faced with some stressful choices, financial anxiety, fear of rejection, shame about the past. To palliate our negative feelings, we are tempted to turn to the right or the left to distract ourselves using a range of compulsive behaviors from watching TV to giving in to addictions. In these stressful situations, being prayerful means that we channel our energy into praying to God. Stresses an anxieties of life channeled into prayer deepens our identity in God, changing our disposition, making us more faithful to him.

The way to live the Deutronomy 5:32 life of faithfulness is through prayerfulness, practicing ceasless prayer. If we are stressed about something, instead of trying to find relief from the negative emotions by compulsive behavior, we channel this energy into prayerfulness, the cornerstone of our faithfulness.

Motivation towards Freedom

Proverbs 16:12 says, “All a person’s ways seem pure to them but motives are weighed by the Lord.”

In the book Why We Do What We do, Edward L. Deci speaks about an experiment done with moneys. The moneys are given a puzzle to solve, but without any external rewards. He found that moneys kept doing that puzzle over and over again just because they enjoyed the process of solving that puzzle. The monkeys did not need some external reward, they were satisfied with just the process of solving the puzzle. They monkeys had “intrinsic motivation.”

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Intrinsic motivations are one which are not dependent upon external rewards. Intrinsic motivation is about seeing something as being worthy in an off itself, without concern for external personal rewards. In the book Edward L. Deci says goes on to say that little children often display this kind of pure intrinsic motivation. They are motivated by curiosity, and the desire to learn about the world, so they are happy to touch and taste everything, exploring the world.

When Jesus says that to enter the kingdom of God, one has to be like little children. I suppose one could say children have an innocent in as much as they have ‘intrinsic motivations.’ If they become extrinsically motivated – as in wanting to do something to get cookies, then they would be tempted to take short cuts, lie, manipulate to get the desired external outcome. It appears that intrinsic motivation is a kingdom value that is amply evident among little children.

This brings up the question as adults can we ever reach the stage of having pure intrinsic motivations?

Deci says in the book that intrinsic motivation is seen in adults when they engage in leisure activities where it be fishing or reading or gardening – it is enjoying something for the sake of itself. Doing something for the sake of itself is the very of worship. West Minister’s confession says, “The Chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

How can we attain this state of being?

Proverbs 16:13 gives the answer, “commit to the Lord whatever you do.”

To commit whatever we do to the Lord is to commit our efforts to the glory of God and let God handle the outcome.

In stead of committing our efforts to God, if we are driven by a compulsion towards outcome orientation, then that is when we end up with impure motivations. In a spiritual context outcome orientation can mean many different things. For Christians in leadership, outcome orientation takes the form of obsessing over numbers – how many people came to Church this week? For Christians who are lay members, this outcome orientation can take the form of expecting to have some ‘feeling’ as an outcome of worship. To go into worship wanting an outcome that can be qualified merely in terms of feeling is an impure motivations.

As Christians, who follow Proverbs 16:13, we have to relentlessly commit every one of our actions to God. How do we commit every action to God?

I take 10 seconds to quickly pray about whatever I am doing, and commit it to God so that my actions, regardless of my personal outcome, brings glory to God. This sets my intentions aligned towards intrinsic motivation. When I pray to committing all I do to God, I find myself in a place of freedom in Christ.

An example… Even as i am writing this post, if I am outcome oriented then I may be concerned about a whole range of questions from – How many people will read my post? Will people like it? Will people be benefited from this? This is the way of slavery. If on the other hand, my motivations are not related to any personal eternal outcome, if my motivation is intrinsic – that is, my motivation is to write for the sake of glorifying God, then I am freed to express myself to glorify God without care for any external impact/outcome. This is the way of freedom.

Proverbs is a pointer to the way of wisdom God knows our motivations and will reward us for our motivation. Proverbs 16:1,2 tell us that way of wisdom is keep our motivations intrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is achieved by taking 10 seconds out of hour to pray committing our effort to God’s glory, regardless of personal outcomes. Compulsion towards seeking external personal outcomes leads to slavery. Our intrinsic motivation to glorify God leads to freedom in Christ.

Call to Self Transcendence

When I am stuck in a place where I am pre-occupied with my own emotions in a way that is detrimental, then in order to transcend out of it, I listen to say Bach’s Fuges. Being from the Baroque era, Bach saw his music as a reflection of God’s glory. So his music had the multi-faceted majesty of God’s glory. When I listen to Bach’s fuges I am transcend out of my self-absorbtion to a place of apprecation for the majesty of his music.
I have been reading David Brooks new book The Second Mountain. The book’s central thesis is that everyone climbs their first mountain, usually some career goal, driven by personal ambition. Then after they get to achieving their goal, they find that something is still missing, the first mountain wasn’t satisfying after all. Then they have to figure out how to climb the second mountain. This second mountain takes the form of ‘care for the other.’
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The first mountain is often one driven by hyper-individualistic motivation and fancy restaurants. People who are the second mountain people give off themseleves freely, they are exhausted, but still they have a sparkle in their eyes. Brooks mentions a lady from Houston, Stephanie Hurek, who teaches kids after school – she thinks of every hour she spends with the kids as creating a better future for them.
Brooks is not a Christian. But the principle of the second mountain had some interesting Christian parallels. The kind of second mountain’s giving of the self for the sake of the ‘other’ is akin to Paul saying that he find himself being poured out as a drink offering 2 Tim 4:6. The call of the Bible is the call to a place of giving off of oneself to the love of neighbor.
Every person, Christian or not, has common grace. So everyone has the ability, up to a point, to give of themselves to serve the weak and the vulnerable around them. But special grace enables Christians to serve others even in the most desperate situations. Etty Hillesum was a Christian jewish person who was in one of the Nazi concentration camps. When she was set to go to take the transportation to the death squads, she had a kind word for everyone on the way out. From the train she threw a postcard that had words written “Christen, The Lord is my high tower.” Brooks gives Etty Hillesum as a second mountain person.
Brooks calls people like Staphanie Hurek and Etty Hillesum ‘weavers.’ They are second mountain people who are have given themselves to caring for people around them. They ‘weave’ the social fabric. In a sense the cross carrying Christian is a ‘weaver’ of God’s kingdom.
Going from the first mountain to the second mountain involves going through a valley. The valley is where the hyper individualistic ambitions die. For Brooks, the valley came when he got divorced and he had to move to an apartment. There he realized though he was very successful in life life, he was drive by selfish ambition. It was his first mountain which was not satisfying for him at all. Then he had to learn what it means to give up his former life and climb his second mountain.
From a theological stand point this valley experience is what Jesus talks about in Luke 9:23 where Jesus say anyone who wants to follow Him has to deny self, then take up their cross daily and follow him.
The cross carrying that Jesus talks about is a call to the second mountain. It is a call to self-transcendence by the way of self-denial. Within the Christian life, the pathway to this place of self denial, aka the valley, is something that one does not have to walk alone. As Christians we have the help of the Holy Spirit to make it through the valley between the first and the second mountain.
The call of the cross is the call to self-transcendence. God sent Jesus to us to forgive our sins, and also, to call us away form our narcissistic self-absorbed first mountain lives, to the world of self-transcendence as ‘weavers’ building God’s kingdom by being the loving presence of Chris to people around us. Then Christians will be people with a “sparkle in our eyes,” as Brooks notes, sparked by the Holy Spirit.

Re-framing Regret Rumination.

It has been a month since I left Houston, I was supposed to have been back in Houston 10 days ago. But I am stuck here in India because during my trip to India, in following some immigration procedures, my visa was put on ‘administrative processing’ status. I cannot travel back to Houston until I get cleared. I have had 5 different visas before, but this has never happened to me. A 10 day delay may not be the worst of things, but I am responsible for some very time sensitive, critical work in Houston which I cannot do effectively from here.

 

Waiting time!

Waiting time is interesting because the kind of regular life activities that structure most people’s lives ceases to provide structure. It is like the GPS has stopped working so I am having to do extra work to locate myself. What I found is that this provides interesting data on the self.

In the Bible from Abraham to Moses to Paul involved periods of waiting, sometimes long sometimes short. All Christians experience some form of waiting time at different life seasons. We us some tried and true cliches like, ‘waiting time is not wasted time,’ which is helpful. But sometimes such cliques wear thin, they crumble under pressure.

Even as I kept myself occupied doing work remotely… preaching at different places, churches, a bible school, a radio station etc., I was crumbling under the pressure, so to speak. I found myself struggling to keep my mind from regressing back into a place of regret.

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Photo by omar alnahi on Pexels.com

Regret Rumination
The problem with thoughts of regret is that it is like opening a Pandora’s box. Once it is opened, it cannot be easily closed. It brings up a whole host of other regrets from the past. My mind keeps regressing into a rumination, regretting things that had nothing to do with the current visa situation, wondering about all the different roads not taken in points of prior life choices.

Kierkegaard says, “I say of my sorrow what an English man says of his house: my sorrow is my castle.”

Sometimes regret (sorrow) seems like an intimate companion, so we can allow ourselves to become too comfortable and familiar with it and retreat into it as though the sorrow and the ensuing self-pity is castle that protects us from the vagaries of the world around. The problem with regret is that it is like a dark pair of shades that colors that I see with a dark hues. Regret is like unwelcome moisture corroding and eating through the inner strength, the resilience.

Regret is a way of re-channeling the pain of the loss. Behind all regrets is perceived loss. When we make a life choice and lose something, we begin to regret the choice we made, wondering if a different choice may have obviated the loss. In my case I was wondering if I hadn’t made this trip to India, then I wouldn’t be in this soup (because I already had a valid work visa there). As the regret was corroding me from within, I was finding myself getting frustrated. My ability to enjoy movies and reading books was starting to take a toll. Knowing myself, when my heart is unable to drawn to a well told story, I know something is really off.

I know God works all things for the good, BUT that did not bring me to a place of peace for some reason. Why?

As I was thinking about why God’s assurances did not seem to be able to get me out of the pit. Then I realized that I was searching for a ‘why’ – a ‘why’ that would help me to endure the wait.

How did knowing the ‘why’ help me get out of this pit of regret rumination?

It happened while I was at the Church praying. I had the sense of the Holy Spirit reminding me of the truth that I needed to remember. The truth is this – God was using this unique, never before experienced, situation to teaching me the ALL sufficiency of Christ even in this situation. Only when we experience a loss of some kind we get the opportunity to allow our self to experience Christ’s all sufficient calvary-love in the space left by the loss. This was the ‘why’ I was looking for to make sense of my waiting time – My waiting time was happening so that I get experience the all sufficiency of Christ’s calvary-love in deeper ways.

The poet Christian Wiman says, “if crisis helps me get closer to Christ, then bring it on!”

My initial problem was that waiting time was becoming regret rumination time, drawing me into the pit of despair. But the Holy Spirit promptings helped me to re-frame my waiting time as a time of experiencing the all sufficiency of Christ’s calvary-love in deeper ways than before, moving me to a place of hope in becoming Christ-like.

How did I get to this sense of insight of the Holy Spirit speaking into my predicament?

It happened through 3 processes.

1.Being comfortable with lament:
Lament is about pouring out our hearts, along with its pains before God. Sometimes people say when they face disappointments in life, they have to respond with praise as an antidote. This is only a partial view of how the Bible deals with disappointment. When we look at the Psalms, we find that in the Lament psalms, David does not start with praise, he starts with his pain. He pours out his pain to God using language that makes sense to him. Then in the second half of the Psalm, after his pain has been poured out to God then he is free to praise God for who he is. The lament Psalms end with a renewed trust in God’s all sufficiency.

Applying this to me, when I was going through frustrating situations and the pain, I wrote down my own sense of laments in the form of the psalm…
a) pour out my pain
b) meditate on God’s character
c) receive God’s presence with grateful trust.

2.Asking for prayer from friends:
In addition to praying for myself. I asked my friends to pray for me… Prayer is the way of trust. It is a posture of faithfulness to God. A lot of the friends I asked prayer for are living all over the world so I asked them prayer over emails or texts. The spiritually attuned among them prayed and spoke the Gospel, reminding me of God’s nature. One of my friends shared in the email about how when she was waiting for something in her own life, God showed himself to be good no matter what. The phrase God is good no matter what spoke to a part of my regretting psyche that needed to hear that at that point. Getting me a step closer to getting to the ‘why’ of this wait.

3.Listening to the Holy Spirit:
John 14:26, Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit by saying that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth who reminds us of the Truths of God to counsel us and to comfort us. This is why it is important to be in a posture of listening. When we listen to the Holy Spirit we are looking for something new, rather, as John 14:26 says we are looking for the Holy Spirit to remind us of a Truth we know deep within, but have forgotten.

A mind clobbered with regret has difficulty remembering the truth. In my case,  going through the 3 steps above helped me to open up to the Holy Spirit reminding me the truth of the all sufficiency of Christ’s calvary-love in ALL life circumstances. This is the way to Christian maturity. Even Jesus waited 30 years to start ministry. His wait wasn’t just arbitrary. Hebrews 5:7-9 says that Jesus grew and matured in wisdom and learn obedience during the time of waiting.

As I am waiting on my visa admin processing to complete one of two things can happen. The admin processing may successfully complete and I may go back to the States and resume my life there. Or there may be a rescinding of the visa in which case, i will have to say goodbye to my life in the States.

Whichever way things go, in as much as I rest in the all sufficiency of Christ’s Calvary-love for me, I will be fine. This gives me hope! In as much as I do not rest in Christ’s all sufficiency, I will regress in to castle of regret. 

In one of the renderings of the myth of Pandora’s box  at the bottom, after all the evil has been released, the final thing to get released is hope.

Life a journey of reckoning the all sufficient calvary-love of Christ. And during this journey there are periods of spurt growth interspersed with periods of dormancy. Times of trial and crisis become times of deep dependence on Christ, if we are able to lament the loss, ask for prayer and listen to the Holy Spirit to find how to re-reframe the regret into hope. Right now, through this time of waiting, I am going through a period of accelerated growth in learning what it means to rest in the all sufficient love of Christ, maturing to become more Christ-like,  creating in me a hope to face anything tomorrow will throw my way.

What is the Best Antidote to Poisonous Worry?

Seeking God’s kingdom is the antidote to poisonous worry. The solution to worry is not to try to think or strategize oneself our of it or to escape from it by seeing tv shows or eating food or drinking liquer, but to perform an action seeking the kingdom of God. When we seek the kingdom of God we become sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s comforting presence! Then we will not get caught in the quick sand of catastrophizing-worry.

Seeking God’s kingdom is the antidote to poisonous worry.

Sometimes a sense of worry sets in, a worry about future safety. Your Boss was critical of you a couple of days in a row and you worry fearing if this would go south and you will lose your job and if you will have enough money for retirement. Psychologist call this way of thinking “catastrophizing” – meaning one small thing goes wrong and from then on your worry takes over and builds a mountain out of a molehole, before you know it you are dying on the streets homeless!

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The problem with this poisonous catastrophizing is that it robs us from enjoying the grace of the present moment because we are so worried about some extreme future scenario. It is this kind of catastrophizing worry is what Jesus talks about in Matt 6:25-34 asking, “will you be able to add one hour to your day by worrying?” Conversely, by this king of catastrophic worrying you end up loosing hours in the day.

I lost over an hour in my day. I was worried about something and I started try to think my way out of it, which made it worse because it kept making me go down into the quick sand, deeper into my catastrophizing-worry. Then my other strategy was to escape from catasrophizing-worry by seeing 2 episodes of Big Bang Theory, quite mindlessly I should add.

Then I caught myself and asked, what can I do get out of this mind rut?  Good new is that Jesus provides the answer in verse 33, but seek first the kingdom of God.

To seek the kingdom of God is NOT merely a cognitive exercise. Seeking is an activity. The antidote to catastrophizing-worry is not to think oneself out of it – it is to act oneself out of it, seeking God’s kingdom in the present moment. This is what psychologists call “behavior activation.”

Seeking the kingdom at the moment of catastophizing-worry is to do something, even if small, increasing our sensitivity to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our life. For some of us, this seeking can take the form of going for a quick prayer walk, or listening to a worship son that increases our sensitivity to the Spirit of God, for me, yesterday, this meant reading Mme. Guyon’s book Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ.

Matt 6 is a part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, describing the kingdom ethic for Christians. How to deal with worry about future is a key part of kingdom ethic. So Jesus addresses this deeply existential issue of worry by asking us to seek first His kingdom.

Seeking God’s kingdom is the antidote to poisonous worry. The solution to worry is not to try to think or strategize oneself our of it or to escape from it by seeing tv shows or eating food or drinking liquer, but to perform an action seeking the kingdom of God. When we seek the kingdom of God we become sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s comforting presence! Then we will not get caught in the quick sand of catastrophizing-worry.

 

Spirituality as Purging Beauty

The question this lays in front of Christians is this – do we wanted to be shaped by a consumerist style of beauty of the world or by God’s Wabi-sabi style of purging beauty? To appreciate this sparse spiritual beauty one has to step away from one’s frenzied narcissistic time into deep time which is the realm that God operates in slowly, patiently, Wabi-sabi style, removing all that is non-essential, charging us with a new Christ-like character, created through purging beauty!

Disclaimer: This is my 3rd and final reflection on my road trip to the Grand Canyon last May. Special thanks my friend, mentor and cheerleader, Doug for lending me one of his cars to take on this trip. The first post was on deep time, the second one was on renouncing frenzied time.

Wabi-sabi, the Japanese art style, is one where art follows the way of the natural world. When a tea cup is made wabi-sabi style, hot water is poured into the cup, over many days in some cases, to have its color change gradually. Then some parts of the cup is chipped off, presumably to give it a unique character! It takes a deeply intuitive eye to be drawn to such beauty. When I was at the Grand Canyon, created over hundred of millions of years, by erosion from the forces of water and wind, I couldn’t help but realize that at the Grand Canyon, God had engineered the forces of nature to play some wabi-sabi.

Opposite of the Wabi-sabi style is the western consumerist style, which is being adopted all over the world today. In the consumerist style of decoration things are beautified often by addition. The consumerist style is a way of seeing beauty in plenty, whether it be adding notes to a chord, color to canvas or cosmetic lather on skin. The wabi-sabi style of beauty is one of seeing beauty in the purging.

When I went to the Grand Canyon this Summer, I wasn’t quite prepared for the stunning beauty of a purged landscape. I couldn’t quite grasp the idea of how something can becomes so beautiful because it had purged off stuff through millions of years of sculpting erosion. The purged beauty of this landscape was such a paradigm shift to my consumerist sensibilities of beauty. My eyes were being re-trained to appreciate a new form of beauty… purged beauty!

I am not alone in appreciating this purged beauty. The Desert Father and Mothers, who are the founders of the monastic movement that kept Christianity alive through the medieval times knew how to appreciate this beauty by removal. Like Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, the desert fathers and mothers spent much of their lives communing with God in the desert, allowing their spirituality to be shaped by the sparse landscape, devoid of the distractions of the world.

These Saints stood for the principle that when the excess trappings of life are removed, this purging makes space for a new kind of deep spiritual beauty that the consumerist world can never grasp. This counter-cultural beauty was their way of witness to their Roman world; it worked! In our world our excessive consumerist sensibilities have caused us to be unable to appreciate the beauty of purged simplicity because to seeing beauty in the very process of loosing things goes against our survival instincts.

The purging process of beautifying the Grand Canyon attests to one key aspect of the way God makes His children beautiful. Grand Canyon became beautiful Wabi-Sabi style – by taking stuff out, not adding stuff to it in the consumerist style. Jesus in the Gospels often talks about self-denial (Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) which the purging beauty of the Wabi-sabi style aligns with. In fact, the Desert Fathers and Mothers followed Jesus’ way of self-denying desert spirituality – sometimes to a fault! Their counter-cultural work bore great fruit that we still read and talk about them.

Appreciation for a simplistic beauty brings a key question – do we wanted to be shaped by the world’s consumerist style of beauty or by God’s Wabi-sabi style of purging beauty? To appreciate this sparse spiritual beauty one has to step away from one’s frenzied narcissistic time into deep time which is the realm that God operates in slowly, patiently, Wabi-sabi style, removing all that is non-essential, charging us with a new Christ-like character, created through purging beauty!

On Why Solitude is so Difficult! Solitude as Sabbath

For people living in culture of compulsive productivity, solitude is so difficult because it is as unproductive as is Sabbath. The way of out of such compulsivity is to treat the practice of solitude as Sabbath. Sabbath rest is where we learn to rest in God’s presence. Augustine said, “we are restless until we find our rest in Thee(God).” We come to experience true freedom in resting in the presence of Christ instead of being addicted to our compulsion to productivity. Spiritual practice of silent solitude helps us to learn to trust in the God’s provision and rest Christ’s love instead of being addicted to our need for productivity. 

To jump on the bandwagon of cyber candidness I have to confess that the past few weeks I have not has my weekly spiritual practice of solitude. I have been wondering why I haven’t been making time for spiritual solitude. I realize that the reason is: I am addicted to Productivity

The past few weeks, I have allowed myself to get spread too thin doing too many projects ranging from church planting planning to mapping out book plan outlines to working on Star Wars vlogs, all for the sake of the Gospel of course! But it meant that I was in a productivity binge owing to which I kept postponing my solitude time weeks on end.

I decided to break the streak and go sit at Herman park meditating and praying, resting quietly in the presence of the Spirit of Christ. It occurred to me that the principle behind solitude is really same as the principle behind Sabbath. The principle behind Sabbath is one of learning to trust God. Sabbath was instituted as an exercise of faith – that one can have a zero productivity day trusting that God will provide. 

 

Opposite of this Sabbath trust in God’s providence is modernity’s compulsive productivity mindset. As a kid I used to be told repeatedly, “you can’t go to heaven in a rocking chair,” meaning one has to be hard working productive individuals to be loved by God. Apparently productivity is not merely the domain of economics, even religion has fallen down to worship the god of modernity: productivity improvements! 

Sabbath is instituted as the second of the 10 commandments because it is the counterpoise of this compulsion to productivity. The spiritual practice of solitude, even as unproductive as it seems to the modern eyes, is precisely the disciple that helps us not worship the counterfeit God of productivity at all costs. 

I sometimes hear people say how much they love solitude because it helps them relax and rest up so that they can hit the ground running and be super productive at work. This type of reasoning completely misses the point of Sabbath which is that we are commanded to be unproductive so that know what it means to rest in a state of consciousness of truly trusting in God’s provision. 

For people living in culture of compulsive productivity, solitude is so difficult because it is as unproductive as is Sabbath. The way of out of such compulsivity is to treat the practice of solitude as Sabbath. Sabbath rest is where we learn to rest in God’s presence. Augustine said, “we are restless until we find our rest in Thee(God).” We come to experience true freedom in resting in the presence of Christ instead of being addicted to our compulsion to productivity. Spiritual practice of silent solitude helps us to learn to trust in the God’s provision and rest Christ’s love instead of being addicted to our need for productivity.