I recently gave a series of talks on prayer in which I taught a method of prayer based on the “discernment of spirits” from Saint Ignatius Loyola. Prayer is more than the exterior act of saying prayers. Through a quite human process of understanding and evaluating the spiritual “direction” of my own interior thoughts, feelings, and desires, I can experience God in a more interior and personal way.

To oversimplify: when I notice a certain thought or desire moving me in an enduring way toward a loving and trusting relationship with God, in that experience prayer is coming alive as a living relationship as between two persons, between God and me. Some people call this “relational prayer.”

Frequently during the talks I gave, it became clear to me that the main question wasn’t merely the method of this type of interior process (e.g., “Is this type of interior experience possible?”). The sticking point for many was God’s goodness, i.e., his willingness to come to us and to move within our own hearts. The question is, “Does God function as a tyrant?” and “Can I trust God this much?”

This question arises in the second of a four-part process of prayer, in which I relate to God what it is I experience interiorly.

For example, I notice that I am feeling lonely and wanting to avoid work so I can go hang out with friends. Before taking action one way or another, I spend some time quietly offering this feeling and desire to God, perhaps meditating on Jesus’ loneliness in the Garden of Gethsemane. This move leads me to two further steps of receiving from God and responding in a fresh, grace-filled way.

This second move of relating to God is by definition a vulnerable one. Here I expose myself in a potential weak spot to Another. I relate my weakness to someone who is stronger than I through a trusting self-revelation. Even though the process is deeply interior, it requires real trust. If I don’t think God will respond positively or quickly, I won’t engage in this process. I may reflect on myself, but I won’t relate myself to God.

Thus the question: is God a tyrant? A tyrant is someone who rules through violence and brute force without proper concern for the well-being of his or her subjects. If my view of God is that he is some created power in the universe with whom I am locked in a zero-sum game—and therefore a tyrant or rival—I’ll tend to not trust him unconditionally in this vulnerable way.

But the whole rich Catholic tradition maintains something strange about God. He is not some big being in the universe with whom we communicate like any other thing. God is the creator of all things. To use technical language, he is the uncontingent ground of existence, which means God is not dependent on anything outside himself for his existence. This means there is no nook or cranny of the world that is outside God’s creative generative action. This includes bugs, stars, and smoothies, but it also includes the interior stuff of the human heart: my thoughts, feelings, and desires.

It’s common to ask is God a tyrant with respect to exterior things that seem negative, such as criminals, hurricanes, and hang nails. But in some ways the question is even more pressing with respect to interior things that seem negative, such as loneliness, confusion, and feelings of hatred. Is God a tyrant for holding those things in being? Is he teasing, toying with, or terrorizing us in such things? Is it best to do what the atheist Ludwig Feuerbach recommended, by “growing up” from childhood fantasies about God’s goodness, because the “no” to God is the “yes” to man?

I find helpful C.S. Lewis’ argument from desire:

every innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that satisfies it; but there exists in us a desire which no creature can satisfy; therefore there must exist something uncreated that can satisfy that desire. If this is true, than my own interiority becomes a privileged place where I can experience the presence of God through my own thoughts, feelings, and desires (given the proper discernment given by St. Ignatius Loyola).

When the conclusion of this barebones argument is fleshed out in the interior experience of prayer, it looks something like what Jesus describes in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 7) as a loving and tender father, not a tyrant. “What Father among you would give his son a snake when he asks for a fish? If you who are wicked know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will my heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!”

The upshot of this is the fundamental question that both believers and non-believers alike face in each moment: is God a tyrant or a father? In the experiences of my own heart, do I hold that he is a masochist with a magnifying glass over his squirming bugs, or a good father who responds quickly to his hungry children?

The former leads us to never ask him for gifts—to never relate to him the stuff in our hearts—and thus into a deep self-imposed alienation. The latter opens us to experience God as a loving father who responds lovingly and quickly to our needs. The key to second move of trust is summed up in Jesus’ challenge to us who are tempted to think of God as a tyrant: ask him!

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