Ugly prayer

Let me ask you a personal question. If or when you pray out loud in front of other people, do you feel the need to pray the “right” way, whatever that is? To use polite and respectful language? To say words that you only use in church but nowhere else? To avoid saying things you think might make other people uncomfortable?

I’m not suggesting, of course, that public prayer is an occasion to say anything that comes to mind. Anything done in community with others should take their well-being into account. But there are times in which our concern to “get it right” gives our prayer a performance aspect that distracts us from actually focusing on and speaking with God.

And let’s face it: there may be things we say in private to God that we would never say in front of others. Those who study the Psalms call it lament. I call it “ugly prayer,” filled with anguished and angry pleading, confusion and complaint, even curses leveled at enemies.

Some of them are actually composed as worship songs. But you’re not likely to hear these set to music and sung in a contemporary church service.

Psalm 88, for example, may be one of the most depressing songs ever written. In begins on this somewhat less than cheery note:

LORD, God of my salvation,
    by day I cry out,
    even at night, before you—
    let my prayer reach you!
Turn your ear to my outcry
    because my whole being is filled with distress;
    my life is at the very brink of hell.
(Ps 88:1-3, CEB)

The brink of “hell”: the psalmist’s word is “Sheol.” Our knowledge of Sheol is sketchy, but it’s not the place of fiery torment we think of when we hear the word “hell” (that came later in Jewish thought). If you know Greek mythology, Sheol is closer to Hades, the shadowy underworld populated by the wandering souls of the dead.

The psalmist, for some reason — perhaps a terminal illness? — feels close to death. Fearing that he will soon enter Sheol, he cries out to God, complaining that God is the one afflicting him and ignoring his pleas. The language is raw, desperate. By the end of the psalm, there’s no resolution, no reversal of fortune, no answered prayer. The psalmist is bereft and alone: “You’ve made my loved ones and companions distant. My only friend is darkness” (vs. 18).

Finis. Have a nice day.

Think for a moment. If you went to visit a friend in hospice, and they started praying like this, would you feel like you had to do something about it? Distract them? Cheer them up?

Correct their theology?

The fact that we have songs like this in the Bible suggests that God doesn’t have a problem with it. In fact, if we look for it, we might even notice the faith hidden in the complaint. For example, in the middle of the psalm, we get rhetorical questions like these:

Is your faithful love proclaimed in the grave,
    your faithfulness in the underworld?
Are your wonders known in the land of darkness,
    your righteousness in the land of oblivion?
(vss. 11-12)

In just two verses, there are four phrases pointing to death and Sheol (the “hell” of vs. 3): grave, underworld, land of darkness, and land of oblivion. But there are also four characteristics of God: faithful love, faithfulness, wonders, and righteousness. And linking the two sets of words are two verbs: proclaim and know (or possibly, to make known).

What the psalmist is asking repeatedly is whether God’s character is proclaimed or known in the shadowy realm of the afterlife. He’s not looking for an answer; he takes it for granted that the answer is obviously no. But the questions are meant to give God a motivation to answer his prayer: If I die, how can I make your character known? We see similar questions, with similar intent, in other psalms (6:5; 30:9; 115:17).

But the psalmist doesn’t give up. Immediately after the above verses, we read, “But I cry out to you, Lord! My prayer meets you first thing in the morning!” (vs. 13). As soon as he wakes up, the psalmist goes out to meet God in prayer, even when he feels God is hiding from him (vs. 14).

This is ugly prayer. And yet, in the midst of the desperation and despondency, there is a core of faith. The psalmist clings to the knowledge that God is faithful and righteous, that God is the one who works wonders and saves his people. He boldly accuses God of ignoring his pleas; he says things we might never say — let alone sing! — in public worship. But he still believes in the faithful love of God.

So go ahead. Pray ugly.

But believe.

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