Clenched Fists and Open Arms

Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence?
 God, your plans are incomprehensible to me! Their total number is countless!
 If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand! If I came to the very end—I'd still be with you.

Psalm 139:7, 17-18 (CEB)

Have you ever been anxious or frustrated about something and without realizing it your body became tense and your hands contracted into fists? Contrast that with a time when you saw someone that you loved and hadn’t seen for a while. Most likely you greeted them not with tense bodies and clenched fists but with open arms and hands in a loving embrace.

In his book, With Open Hands, Henri Nouwen wrote that these are the two ways that most of us approach God in prayer. Often, perhaps without realizing it, we approach God with fists clenched and bodies tense – figuratively if not actually. We want to pray, or perhaps feel that we should pray; but we don’t want to reveal too much of ourselves and our needs to God. Our bodies, minds, and spirits are closed to God as when our bodies take defensive postures due to anxiety, frustration, or anger.

The other posture for prayer, Nouwen reflects, is like that of the person who sees one they love after a long separation. Their arms spread wide and their hands open in expectation of a warm embrace and of sharing after an absence. When we pray in this way we open ourselves with all of our needs, frustrations, and failures to God as we would with a person we entrust with our deepest and most intimate selves.

How do you approach God in prayer – with clenched fists or open arms? The answer to that question is vital. We can know all sorts of techniques for praying, but if we approach God as with clenched fists we will be no closer to building the relationship with our Creator that is the reason for prayer in the first place. Nouwen wrote:

"To pray means to open your hands before God. It means slowly relaxing the tension which squeezes your hands together and accepting your existence with an increasing readiness, not as a possession to defend, but as a gift to receive. Above all, therefore, prayer is a way of life which allows you to find a stillness in the midst of the world where you open your hands to God's promises and find hope." (p. 154, With Open Hands)

As we prepare for Lent – today thinking about the spiritual discipline of prayer – Nouwen invites us to bring the same vulnerable hearts to prayer that we explored last week in relation to our reading of scripture. It is an invitation to recall the words of the Psalmist that remind us that we are never outside of God’s presence regardless of how tense and guarded our posture becomes. Further when we come to the end we are still with God and God with us.

The Psalmist and Nouwen offer an invitation into relationship with a God who loves us, who knows us intimately, and who will never abandon us. Nurturing this relationship with our God is what prayer is all about. As you prepare for Lent and pray, relax “the tension which squeezes your hands together” and “find a stillness in the midst of the world where you open your hands to God’s promises and hope.” (p. 154, With Open Hands)

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