Last updated: January 5, 2022
After being married for 20 years, Dr. Brian Russell found himself suddenly divorced. As he struggled through the next year with overwhelming anxiety, fear, guilt and shame, he discovered centering prayer; or as he likes to say, silence and solitude found him. He experienced God’s love, grace and healing in new ways as he sat with Jesus without expectation.
“God used that silence and that silent meditative prayer to essentially heal me of my hurt and grow me in love,” Dr. Russell said. “Basically, in the silence, I experienced greater encounters with God’s love in a sense that God was inviting me into deeper and deeper experiences.”
Dr. Russell has practiced centering prayer, or what he calls the next step in his sanctifying journey, for the past 11 years. At the start of this season, he recalls that his heart was so broken, he found it difficult to sing in worship services, but as he sat in God’s presence, he realized God was healing him and growing him in love.
While simple to describe, centering prayer takes practice. It is essentially sitting with God in silence and not allowing our own thoughts to interrupt. Unlike Eastern forms of meditation that focus on looking within, this ancient, contemplative practice invites us to focus on the God who loves us so much that He died for us. Dr. Russell recommends sitting in silence with the intention of being with God. Since our minds are in perpetual thought loops, as these arise, remember the four “r’s” of this practice: resist no thought, retain no thought, react to no thought and gently release your thought with your prayer word (Dr. Russell recommends saying Jesus.
“When you say ‘Jesus,’ you’re saying, ‘Jesus take this for me,’” he said. “Because a lot of times, when we sit in silence, we will see realities about ourselves that we wish were not true and we are tempted to condemn ourselves. Here’s the key thing, God already knows what you’re thinking. He’s just waiting for us to trust him enough with our darkest secrets or deepest pain.”
As Dr. Russell sat before the Lord, he re-lived past wrongs, deep pain and all the accompanying emotions. Instead of suppressing these, he learned to release them to the Lord, and gently returned to stillness with his prayer word. Through this time of surrender, Dr. Russell found healing through God’s grace, as self-imposed blocks of shame, fear and guilt were removed.
“My core wound growing up was that I always had to prove that I was worthy,” he said. “And that’ll tear your spiritual life to pieces long term. Then, there’s the shame that I’m not good enough, coupled with guilt that I don’t do enough and that I’m just not enough.”
While not a perfect metaphor, he likens centering prayer to physical exercise. Not every session seems like it produces results, but over time the practice of jogging or lifting weights results in a healthier body. Like exercise, the only way to “fail” at the practice is to not engage it. For example, if you had to use your prayer word 50 times during a 20-minute session, you might feel like you had failed in your intention to sit in silence with God. Instead, you are actually saying 50 times that sitting with the Lord is more important than what is going on in your head.
One of the gifts of the practice Dr. Russell has experienced is a new understanding of God’s grace. For him, it was like he experienced God’s saving grace all over again, as he realized in new ways God’s unconditional acceptance and love despite mistakes, hurts, and even successes. He became calmer, less anxious, less reactive, freed of past wounds, and a better listener in the presence of others.
“Centering prayer lets you see yourself the way that God sees you and that is healing,” he said. “That’s what it did for me.”
In Fall 2021, Dr. Russell released Centering Prayer: Sitting Quietly in God’s Presence Can Change Your Life to help beginners and seasoned practitioners gain new insight and practical knowledge into this ancient practice. He hopes that by sharing his own experiences and inviting others into this practice, readers can engage in deep, transformative peace and inner healing so that they can manifest God’s holy love to others. You can hear more about his experiences in his episode of the Thrive with Asbury Seminary Podcast.
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