What the Desert Fathers and Mothers taught me about bringing pain to God

Written by Jesse Kane

Ever since I heard about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I’ve been fascinated by them. They isolated themselves amid the sands of antiquity to commune with God.

They gave up family, friends, and wealth to spend lonely years in solitude. But their ascetic lifestyle was not in vain; the Desert Fathers and Mothers left us with a trove of wisdom for contemplation and reflection, especially when it comes to prayer.

Abba John was one such Desert Father. In Desert Banquet: A Year of Wisdom from the Desert Mothers and Fathers, David Keller quotes Abba John’s account of retaining sanity within a fortress of prayer:

“I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy.”

During the lockdowns and isolation due to Covid-19, we may find ourselves assailed by evil thoughts that seek to hold us down, crush us, and destroy us. I know I have. Judging by his illustration, I doubt Abba John wanted to pray all day everyday during these mental assaults. After all, he compares the experience to being attacked by a horde of snakes. Yet when he took refuge in God, he was saved from the enemy.

Was Abba John using God as a holy escape-hatch from temptations and intrusive thoughts? I doubt it. If you’ve ever prayed for God to take a thought or temptation away, it’s unlikely it simply vanished as soon as you prayed. Instead, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself holed up at home, exasperated with yourself, begging God for help.

God isn’t a life hack. But He’s given wisdom to many people and given us abilities to research and learn. Over time I’ve learned about therapeutic methods that have helped me understand my brain. Combined with prayer, the result has powerfully impacted my ability to cope with emotional pain.

As I press through periods of isolation, one of the most helpful tools I’ve discovered has been “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.” ACT is a way to accept your thoughts and feelings rather than getting tied down fighting them. One of the essential ideas in ACT is that focusing on an unwanted thought or feeling won’t make it go away.

For example, if I were to tell you not to think of a purple elephant for as long as you possibly can, what’s the first thing that leaps to your mind? ACT draws a similar conclusion with emotional pains like solitude and grief. The harder you try to avoid them, the more intensely you will feel them. 

While ACT is a secular therapy, our Christian faith offers us something deeper: a unique way to acknowledge our suffering through prayer. Prayer mindfully attends to the presence of God amid our darkest nights. It tunes our attention beyond accepting our feelings into an appeal to a listening ear.

Abba John threw himself into God’s hands in prayer when he faced intrusive thoughts and feelings. He focused on doing exactly what he had journeyed to the desert to do. This is just like practicing valued action in ACT, which means acting toward a meaningful life direction.

Yet we aren’t acting alone. The Message translation of John 1:14 says, “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

God reveals Himself to us as one who moves into the neighbourhood of our suffering in solidarity with our pain.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this stellvertretung, or place-sharing. Christ coming to earth is the ultimate illustration of God’s mission to humanity. He overcame our separation from Him by being crucified. God meets us through Jesus in the hard soil of our suffering.

Carrying our crosses never feels good—whether we experience direct persecution or the more general groanings of creation. But as we practise moment by moment communion with God in the middle of our pain, we can be swept up into a story that gives our suffering meaning and orients our action toward something bigger.

ACT has helped me face painful thoughts and feelings with acceptance. Adopting this acceptance in my prayer life has brought a renewed intimacy with God, too. By acknowledging and accepting my pain in the presence of God I can sit assured that my life is in safe hands, even when it hurts.

This seems to be what Abba John was practising alone in the desert, seeking God while being assailed by evil thoughts. God is with us when we’re alone and in anguish. He will meet us in prayer too, maybe like he met Abba John.

If you’re interested, here’s a step-by-step guide for bringing your pain to God in prayer:

  1. Take a deep breath. Remember where you are, notice three things you see, and listen to the sounds around you.
  2. Notice any strong thoughts or feelings you are experiencing. What do they say? Where do they sit in your body? Do they sit like a lump in your stomach, or weigh on your shoulders like a cape? Try describing them out loud to someone else.
  3. As you notice these thoughts and feelings, observe that they are not you, but rather passing experiences. Watch them pass like a cloud in the sky.
  4. Remember God’s presence with you while you open yourself up to your thoughts or feelings for 30 seconds. If you’d like, read something Jesus said in Scripture to help anchor yourself to Him.
  5. Thank God for being present with you in your pain and on the cross.

Repeat this whenever you find yourself assailed by painful thoughts and feelings.