Closer to God Starts Here: Ruth Bethany
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Prayer: It can be a duty, a means to an end — or the conduit to pull closer to God in connection you crave. Ruth Bethany offers ideas to drive prayer deeper.
Closer to God Starts Here: Ruth Bethany
Ruth: Prayer is based on the foundation of relationship: it is simply, and yet profoundly, the reality that we get to talk to God and listen to Him. And prayer—in a sense because of that—prayer is the living out of our identity of being reconciled to God.
Shelby: Somewhat anxious—always authentic—this is Real Life Loading... I’m your host, Shelby Abbott. Our desire with this podcast is to help guide you toward the life-changing power of Jesus for relationships in a constantly-shifting culture. We're called Real Life Loading..., dot, dot, dot. And those three dots at the end of our title describe being in process—we haven't arrived—we're very much in a state of loading. It's my job to be a trusted friend to come alongside you and help you walk closely with God in the humor and hardship of life.
Well, today, I'm talking with my good friend, Ruth Bethany. Ruth and I have known each other for several years, and our families have served alongside one another at the Ocean City, Maryland, Summer Mission for the last five years. One of the ways Ruth has really challenged and encouraged me is in the area of prayer. Frankly, I kind of stink at the discipline of prayer; but Ruth has helped me to see it from a relational aspect in ways that have taken the stereotypes and the lofty language out of what I thought prayer was. I can honestly say that I love Jesus more because of the ways Ruth has taught me, and others, how to pray.
So today, we're going to talk about: setting couches on fire as a college student/yes, literally; why prayer even matters; that we, as Christians, are not employees of God; and how prayer is essentially a living out of our identity as God's child. We're going to reshape the narrative today on how we think about prayer. You're going to love my time with Ruth Bethany.
Shelby: I want to start by asking you this question—you and I are both Hokies—
Shelby: —we're from Virginia Tech.
Ruth: Yes, we are.
Shelby: “What's your favorite Hokies story from being in Blacksburg for the last several years? Both as a student and a staff, can you think of like one favorite thing?”
Ruth: Yes, the first thing that came to mind was—I think I was a sophomore—and it was down-pouring rain. A message went out to a group of people, just saying, “Hey, we're going to go play kickball in the drill field,”—which is, you know, the huge/the major quad there in the middle of campus. We're just going to play kickball; and it was/I mean, we're getting soaked. We made this rule that you could only score if you slid into this ginormous puddle. [Laughter] That's what it was: so we're just wet, and we're running, and the field is mainly mud, and you're sliding into a ginormous puddle. That's like one of the highlight memories from—it's not deep—but it was just like, “This is fun. This is what college students do,” “We do; we just go play”; yes.
Shelby: “This is what we do,”—yes—“This is what we do.” I love that.
I remember there was a gigantic snowball fight one time on—not on the drill field—but on another quad, where people just started a snowball fight. I remember looking into the air, and it looked like just constant things were flying—like little meteorites were falling to the ground all the time—I remember that.
And then I remember, my freshman year, there's this notorious infamous dorm called Pritchard,—
Ruth: Oh, yes. [Laughter]
Shelby: —which is was all dudes at the time. I'm not sure what it is now. Is it all guys now?
Ruth: It's not; it's coed.
Shelby: So it’s co-ed now; okay, so I'm sure it's a lot more tame.
But they had lit a couch on fire and were like pushing it out the window to the ground. I was like, “That's a piece of furniture, that's on fire, falling to the ground.” [Laughter] I was like, “What is that? Why are we rioting?” There was nothing going on—there was no like football game—it was just for “fun.”
Ruth: Yes; I mean, it's like the boredom that leads to creative ideas—[Laughter]
Shelby: Creative ideas. [Laughter]
Ruth: —air quotes: “creative.”
Shelby: —creative ideas amongst the dudes; yes. Because now, that it's co-ed, I'm sure the place is a lot more safe, a lot more.
Well, you and I have spent a lot of time together. Our families have been doing a summer mission together in Ocean City for the last four years. One of the things that I really enjoy about you, that's unique to you, is that you have—not only gained a heart of prayer yourself—you have been this infectious way of helping other people gain a heart for prayer.
I wanted to ask you a few questions, specifically, about prayer; since that's such a huge part of who you are, and what your ministry is about. “As followers of Jesus Christ/as Christians, why?”—let's start with the obvious question—“Why does prayer even matter?”
Ruth: Yes, it's such an important question. I feel like there's layers to why it matters. I think about/I'm going to kind of think through three categories of just:
- Relationally, why it matters, as a follower of Christ.
- Looking at the life of Jesus, and why it matters as we follow Him.
- And then, our utter dependence on Him.
I think, at the foundation—and what I'll probably keep coming back to as we have this conversation—is that prayer is based on the foundation of relationship. We are followers of Christ because of what Christ did on the cross for us. But what He did on the cross for us—the good news of the good news/the pinnacle of the gospel—is that we are brought into relationship with God. It's not:
- We're just not forgiven, and we can go on our way;
- or we're forgiven or we just, even are employees of God.
That we are brought into relationship with Him—that's the foundation of prayer—is relationship. It is simply, and yet profoundly, the reality that we get to talk to God and listen to Him.
And prayer—in a sense because of that—prayer is the living out of our identity of being reconciled to God. It's living out the identity that we are sons and daughters of a living, relational, intimately-connected God. It's an expression of that identity. So I think the main thing I think of is, relationally, why it matters; but then, also, yes, I could keep going on. So I don't know, like in terms of—
Shelby: Not a lot of people think about it that way. They just think: “This is something that I have to do in order to check off a list,” or “…the things that I need to ask of God.” They think of it as a duty; or they think of it as: “Let me go make my requests to God.” They don’t, typically, think of it—and maybe, some people do; sure—but like not many people are thinking through the grid of relationship.
And when you connect that to human relationships—you don't just like have this initial interaction—people don't just get married and then approach each other for like stuff later on, right?—every now and then, I need to talk to you: “Go get these things at Walmart® for me,” or “Let me do my daily duty of like saying, ‘Hello’; and then, I turn my back and go about my day.
Yes, nobody would think about it like that in terms of like a human relationship, or a friendship, or like a familial relationship; you're not like that with your parents. It's more grounded; it's more intimate. Prayer is the means by which that happens. So obviously/we'll keep expounding on that.
“How have you personally seen God move through prayer? Can you give us some examples of how you've seen Him work?”
Ruth: Yes; it's/I mean, so many different ways He has moved through prayer. I think one of the things I kept thinking about is, when you know people are praying for you, and how you can experience/and I've experienced a peace that transcends all understanding, the peace of God that is coming through the covering of prayer.
There was a time—where we were going through a lot of/I was going through a lot of health things after I just had our fourth baby girl—life was not good, circumstantially. I was having to have like this emergency surgery, and we had a newborn baby and three other daughters. And I experienced peace; and I was like: “There's no earthly reason why I should experience peace right now,”—but I did—and I knew: “There are so many people, who are praying over our family.”
So experiencing that peace that comes through the covering of prayer.
I have also seen God—there's just been different times I've asked Him for opportunities to share the gospel—I know I'm going into places; I'm like, “God, would You just open doors?” Some are more obvious than others. But some have been what feel like on a silver platter, of Him, just—walking into a room—and my coworkers, when I was a waitress, talking about heaven and hell. One of my coworkers just saying, “Well, I'm destined to go to hell; because I've already sinned, and where is there hope?”
Shelby: Oh, wow!
Ruth: And I'm walking in on that. That was right after I had just prayed, “God, would You give me some opportunities to share the gospel at work?” [Laughter] Then, I was like, “Hey, you know, there's actually another option.” And so things like that, just watching Him move in that way.
I think one of my favorite stories—this was over time—but my grandmother, who is now 94, she was someone that we prayed for—for decades—to come to Christ, decades. And so there was many times where that prayer just felt like it wasn't answered, like, “God, I know You love her even more than I do. Why are You not answering this prayer?” But seeing her just singing—like thousands of prayers prayed over her—and then, on her 90th birthday, she came to Christ. I truly believe it's, ultimately, God; but He uses prayers to soften the hearts of people.
Yes, I could keep going on in terms of how God's moved through prayer; but those are some of the ways that first come to mind.
Shelby: That’s so beautiful.
So obviously, we don't want to just guess at what we're supposed to pray. We want to be intentional about grounding our prayers in a specific way; and obviously, the best way to do that is through Scripture. “Can you think of any passages of Scripture that have informed your view of prayer as opposed to just kind of pulling ideas out of the sky?”
Ruth: Yes, and this is a huge plug for Scripture in terms of growing in prayer. [Laughter]
Shelby: [Boldly] “Shout out to Scripture!” [Laughter]
Ruth: “Shout out!”
I keep thinking about how Scripture has been absolutely crucial in informing prayer and strengthening my prayer life because it reminds me of the nature of God. So even, when I don't feel like praying, Scripture can provoke me to pray when I don't feel like it.
Yes, I think when I know—talking at the very beginning, just how, foundationally, “Why does prayer matter?”—is that we have been restored into relationship with God. Some of the passages of Scripture that helped me in prayer is remembering: “What is that relationship like?”
I think of the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus, and He's teaching about prayer. I remember reading that, and thinking, “He's teaching His disciples in the midst of a crowd. What does it mean to follow Him?” He talks about prayer, but that He begins, teaching them how to pray—and He just says the phrase: “Our Father,”—and it hit me afresh of: “It's not just ‘Father’—you know, collective ‘Father,’”—it's Jesus saying to His followers, who, also, were brothers and sisters to Christ, which is mind blowing—He's saying, “’Our Father.’ So in the same way that I [Jesus] relate to God, I'm inviting you into that intimate relationship.” That's what prayer is meant to be; it's to say: “Our Father.”
And so that title really shifted things in how I view: that's the kind of relationship that Jesus invites us into. And in the context of prayers, He’s like saying, “The way that I commune with the Father/the way that I relate with Him, you can call Him ‘our Father,’ He's a shared Father.” That was critical, and that was in Matthew 6. And then, similarly—speaking about identity and how that informs prayer—Romans 8 is a powerful passage of Scripture, but that talks about the Spirit's role in affirming our identity as children of God. And so even just knowing the Spirit inside of me is crying out, “Abba Father,” like that is His nature inside of me. And so prayer is coming into the alignment of what the Spirit is already doing inside of me, crying out, “Abba Father.”
And then, even later in that chapter, where it talks about how—even when we don't know what to pray—that the Spirit is interceding for us. And that, for me—it's such a comfort—it's like I don't have to know what to pray. I can just turn my posture towards the Lord, and the Spirit is already interceding; and I'm joining in the conversation that's already happening. And so what comfort/what relief—it's not like all on us—you know, to pray the right things kind of thing.
Shelby: That’s great. That's really, really good.
[Best of; Worst of]
Shelby: And now, it's time for “Best of; Worst of” on Real Life Loading... This is where I share with you my opinions about some of the best and worst things in specific categories. And since we're closing the chapter on the year 2022, I thought I'd tell you what I think were some of the best things about this year and some of the worst things.
Some of the best movies I saw this year were both in the theater and on streaming; I'll give you a combination of the two. One of the best movies I saw in the theater was Top Gun Maverick. It was a throwback to classic movie making and I loved it. Plus, it inspired me, and every other dude in the country, to grow a mustache. I did it for about ten days until my wife suggested/made me shave it off.
Another fantastic movie I saw, not in the theater, but on Netflix®, was Enola Holmes 2, starring Millie Bobby Brown. The first Enola Holmes was good—it was fine—but this just took it to another level. I like mystery movies, especially when they're combined with great action and interesting dialogue; and this film ticked all those boxes for me; loved it.
And lastly, on the “Best of” category—when I joined Family Life a few years ago, I began, regularly, listening to their daily podcast called Family Life Today. I don't catch all of them because there's like five episodes a week, but my favorite series this year was when they had Brant Hanson on as a guest. His three-part interview about how a believer has no biblical basis to hold onto anger was the most provocative collection of episodes I heard all year on Family Life Today.
I'm going to have Brant Hanson on Real Life Loading... in just a couple of weeks from now. I can't wait for you to hear what he has to say about the biblical argument for always putting away anger.
That was “Best ofs.” What about the “Worst ofs” of the year, 2022? Well, here's my short list:
Worst MCU movie of the year: Thor: Love and Thunder. It was such a step backward for the character of Thor. I love humor as much as anyone, but this movie was just dumb for the sake of being dumb. Sure, there are a few amazing moments in it; but in general, I was super disappointed with how the whole thing turned out. Sorry.
Next and finally, worst movie theater candy that I had this year has got to be Sno-Caps. Okay; the problem is that the chocolate isn't sweet, or rich, or creamy; and the little crunchy sugar balls on top of the semi-sweet chocolate chips add nothing to the flavor. It feels like you're chewing a handful of unsweet brownie batter that's been coated with sand—so they lose—the worst candy I had this year.
This has been “Best of; Worst of,” 2022 edition, on Real Life Loading.... Now, back to my time with Ruth Bethany.
Shelby: What is your journey with God in prayer? Can you give us some—practically, what have some rhythms of prayer looked like for you on like a day-in and day-out basis? Because we can get these examples from Scripture. You're, obviously, someone who I feel is/this is a spiritual gift of yours. “Can you give us some practical examples of what your journey of prayer has looked like and how that flows on a day-to-day basis?”
Ruth: I mean/I think a huge part—like I, in that question of just the journey of prayer—I kept thinking about a very formative season in my relationship with God and how that, in a lot of ways, catalyze viewing it as relational lifeline and not just a thing I need to do.
It's like: “No, this connects me to God, who is life.”
A huge part of that, for me, was I struggled with an eating disorder for seven years of my life, starting at age fourteen until college. It was kind of all consuming; it was really intense. But that's where there was the facade of any kind of what prayer ought to look like or what I ought to say was just thrown out the window because there's just no room for it—the facade was taken away—and how God showed me that He invites all of ourselves to be before Him, that we don't have to hide anything. And how, yes, Scripture very much informs how we relate with Him/how we know Him. That was very critical in terms of viewing relation or prayer as like a relational lifeline and connecting me to God.
One thing, practically, that I do is I see prayer as a response to the presence of God. And one of the things I pray, and like to pray even in the morning, is just: “Lord, make me aware of Your presence. Help me, by the power of Your Spirit, to make me aware of Your relational nearness.” And so then, prayer is a response to that. And then, even just being aware of what numbs me to the presence of God, because God is way more available than we/I think He is or believe He is: “So what numbs me to the nearness of God?”—and just being aware of that. So practically, even when I first wake up, not going to my phone right away; because that's like, instant, in a way, numbing; I'm going in a different direction. “What does it look like to just be aware of the presence of God?”
And then, I have places—I call them my prayer-trigger places—which I know that's like a negative connotation to it—[Laughter]—but it's not. But just, in these places—like my car is a place of prayer—because that's something that I do all the time. That's where I'll just start praying, and talking to God out loud, whether I'm alone or whether my kids are in the car—that they just see that: that we just talk to God—and it could just be about our day, surrendering to the Lord; or it could just be like—“What's on my mind?” “What's on my heart?”—as I get into the car and I'm going someplace. “How can I just move towards the Lord?”
Shower, too—it's like random—but it's/those are my places of prayer that happen on a regular basis, and remind me, like, “Okay; God's here, and I can respond to Him.”
I've also partnered with other people in prayer. This can just be finding other people whom, you know, you both want to grow in prayer, and just setting a time to pray together. It's amazing what God can do when you just show up with an intent to seek Him. That has looked different over the years: whether it's a group of people; whether I'm taking like a class, and there's prayer through that.
But yes, so those are some of the ways, practically, what that looks like. And then, obviously, Scripture, I think, is one of the most beautiful ways/avenues of prayer, that as we're praying:
- The Lord can reveal stuff in our hearts. We can just bring that to Him in prayer and talk to Him about it.
- Or if there's beautiful things that we see about Him, that can just form into praising Him through prayer and Scripture.
Scripture is a huge way I also connect with the Lord through prayer, just kind of praying back what I see in Scripture.
Shelby: I want to ask you a couple of follow-up questions that/one of them is: you mentioned, earlier on, with your eating disorder—which I knew about—you're talking about how prayer was able to tangibly get you through that. “What were some of the experiences that you had—in both like good moments and like harder moments—where you were able to cry out to Lord?”
Because I can remember certain times in my life, like being in so much pain one time—which you know this about me with my nerve pain—because of the disc in my back. Like I remember lying in bed one night and being in so much pain, and tears were coming out of my eyes, and pooling into my ears as I was crying—I was like, “God, I know that You could take this away. Just please do it now. Could You do it now? Could You please do it now? I just want relief from this,”—and Him saying, “No,” to that at the time, and me being like confused and upset; but at the same time, I was taking my desires to God.
For you, in those moments: “Like what were some of the good moments and some of the hard moments as you were wrestling through something that is very real to so many young people right now?”
Ruth: Yes; I mean, it was long—you know, seven years—and it varied in intensity. But yes, I mean, I just remember being raw with God. I think about my prayer life, before then, in granite. I was 14 when it began; but I was just like, “I think this is what I'm supposed to pray,”—and I would just pray—and there was nothing pressing.
But then, it was like I found such comfort in the Psalms, and seeing how the psalmists talked to God; and I was like: “God put this in the Bible. He, obviously, invites this kind of raw relationship with Him”; and so then, it gave permission. I remember, distinctly like I never—thankfully, I never felt suicidal, in that time—but I just remember thinking like the quality of life was so poor, just like looking around me, the quality of life felt so—I was like: “God, why? Why am I alive? If this is it?”—I remember asking Him that. Or even just telling Him: "I don't like this,”—like just being really honest and saying—"I don't like this.”
I mean, those were some of the low points, where it's like, “I don't think You can bring any good out of this, because all I see is destruction.” Some of it, I'm choosing myself; but all I see is that, and telling that to Him, through prayer, is that: “There's no way You're going to redeem this,”—kind of mocking God and taunting Him in that way.
But then, also seeing His faithfulness—that He never left me, even as I said that; and He gave space for that—but then, I think about, in those times of prayer, because I would often journal—and then, Scripture is very intertwined in that relationship—and just reading a passage of Scripture, where it's like: “You are speaking to me right now in this moment, and so I can't doubt that you're near, even though I don't understand why this is prolonged.”
Things like Psalm 73:26, where it says: “My heart and my flesh may fail, but the Lord is the portion of my life and my heart forever.” And just being like, “Okay, I do feel like my heart and flesh are failing, and God speaks to this; and yet, He says He is the portion of my life.” Yes, sweet moments in those really hard places; but seeing that God would meet me there, that He holds space for that kind of honesty. And then, He doesn't leave me, but He stays close.
Shelby: Yes, that's—and these are times that you're talking about here/these are times not like— you became a Christian before that. You were a Christian, very young.
Shelby: And so a lot of people think: “I'm not allowed to be broken, or messed up, or depressed, or have an eating disorder, or wrestle with anxiety, or be/have mental health issues—or all these things—after I become a Christian. These were all in the context of being a Christian already.
Shelby: I think a lot of people would look at that, and go, “Well, get your act together; you're a Christian.”
Ruth: Oh, yes; I felt that way. [Laughter] I was like I felt that way: “Ruth, get your…” I mean, that was, again, something that even God was highlighting was how performance-based [I was], even my relationship with Him. And it was like, with that, the mess couldn't be contained. Looking back—I mean, obviously, it's easier to look back and see that; it was like that was, actually, a mercy of God that He was plunging me/thrusting me into grace that is unmerited favor—and experiencing that.
Yes, it was absolutely after I accepted Christ; but then, I chose to get baptized at 13; and then, started struggling at 14. It was like it was right after that.
Shelby: Yes, yes; I think that's a really important thing for all of us to know—and in particular, for young people to know—because the resounding default, from an older generation, is: “Get yourself together,”—or like you said—“Coming from my own heart: ‘Why can't I get it together?’”
And then, you're able now, on the other side of that, to look back at it and understand: “Oh, I probably knew what the definition of grace was back then.” You could say, “Oh, it's un-merited favor/undeserved favor, from God, extended toward me.” But then, you were able to experience it in a way that you're like, “Oh, now I know what grace is,”—like—"I knew what grace was, up in my head; but now, I understand it because I have experienced it.” And that is a thing of beauty.
Thank you for unpacking that. That’s, obviously, tender and a part of your life that it's beautiful to see God's faithfulness—not only in how He's redeemed you—but how He's used you to redeem others. The dark parts of life and the beautiful parts of life sometimes overlap; and when they overlap, this is often where God moves and works in a number of incredibly profound ways.
The other thing that I wanted to mention to you is you said, “trigger.”
Shelby: Maybe we could call it “springboard” or like “launchpad” or something like that.
Ruth: Thank you; thank you. [Laughter]
Shelby: Just rework it. I don’t know; I was trying to spin some more positive language there.
Ruth: I know; I know. I was like, “There's got to be a better [word], but that's what comes to mind.” It's like it does—it prompts me—maybe, “prompted” is better.
Shelby: —“prompts”; yes, “prompt”; yes; yes. I like the word, “trigger,” anyway; I'm not making fun of you.
Ruth is such a kind and authentic person, who helps me see that prayer isn't something that I should do, but more of something that I get to do, as a Christ-follower. And in the getting to do, I'm able to connect more deeply with the heart of God and see my life changed, more and more, into the image of His son as a result. So, so good.
And we've got more with Ruth Bethany, again, next time. So make sure you check us out when the next episode of Real Life Loading... drops for Part Two of my time with her.
If this episode with Ruth Bethany was helpful for you, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend. And wherever you get your podcasts, it can really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading..., if you'd rate and review us. It's way easy to find us on our social channels; just search for Real Life Loading..., or look for our links in the show notes.
I want to thank my producers, Josh Batson and Bruce Goff. I’m Shelby Abbott. Happy New Year, and we’ll see you back next time on Real Life Loading…
[Singing to the tune of Auld Lang Syne]
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