I’ve never been very good at long-distance relationships. I often cringe when my phone rings, no matter who is calling. I can take days, weeks, or even months to return a call or even a text from a friend I haven’t spoken to in a while. And often, when I finally bring myself to reach out, I feel angst throughout the conversation, even if it is a pleasant one.
Based on these reactions, you might think, “She must not enjoy interacting with people or think relational engagement is that important.” Nothing could be further from the truth! The fact that I am a vocational counselor should tell you that I think it is of the highest importance. Talking with people is actually one of the most fulfilling and energizing things I do! But ironically, when it comes to long-distance communication, I am often tempted to avoid people, even those who are important to me. In fact, it is the people I cherish most that I have the hardest time connecting with when they are not physically present with me.
I have analyzed these perplexing patterns for years and pondered why long-distance engagement is so hard for me. Here are some of the observations I’ve made.
For one thing, long-distance communication takes more work for me than in-person communication. It requires intentionality to plan a time to talk or persistence in playing phone tag until we both happen to be available. And it requires more attentiveness. Miscommunication is much more likely when I can’t pick up on someone’s body language or miss something because of poor cell phone reception or internet connection. Knowing this makes it harder for me to put my anxieties to rest.
But I’ve found that there is an even more significant reason why this is hard for me: it reminds me that we are apart. I deeply long to do life side by side and these conversations make others feel so far away. Paul captures it well in Romans 1:11 when he says, “I long to see you…that we may be mutually encouraged.” John expresses a similar sentiment in one of his letters: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12). Likewise, when I connect with someone who is far away, my joy is incomplete. It is mingled with grief because we are still apart and cannot speak face to face.
But why am I telling you this? I am telling you this because I have similar struggles communicating with God, and maybe you do, too. Prayer is hard for me. I know that Jesus’ spirit is in me, yet my inability to see and touch him makes him feel far away. I have a hard time prioritizing conversation with God, and an equally hard time staying focused when I do speak to him. My guilt from avoiding him tempts me to stay away longer, and when I do approach him, it can take me a while to envision his surprisingly warm and gracious countenance. Above all else, prayer reminds me that there is some measure of distance between us, and again, I grieve that we are not yet face to face.
Nonetheless, I still strive to pray. What is my comfort despite these things?
- I know that prayer is a spiritual discipline and, as with any discipline, it may not feel gratifying but it does bless me and often becomes more enjoyable and easier as I stick with it.
- Jesus empathizes with my grief because he shared my experience. He left behind his intimate, face-to-face fellowship with his Father to enter into our human existence, meaning he experienced him as distant (Ps 22:19; 71:12) and hidden (Ps 27:9; 102:2). He knew what it was like to have his heart in two places—his heavenly home and his earthly one.
- God is patient as I struggle with speaking to him. He has compassion on me and even invites me to start the conversation with sharing why I find it difficult. He is delighted to hear me ask for help with prayer.
- I know the day is coming when I won’t struggle anymore. I will see God face to face (1 John 3:2) and I will no longer resist speaking with him.
I don’t imagine I will ever be a prayer warrior. But God is still at work in me. I can now share honestly with him about my conflicted feelings, and I am comforted that weakness and vulnerability are more precious to him than strength. And though my preference to speak face to face does not naturally draw me to the activity of prayer, I am increasingly drawn to the Person who hears my prayers.