Should you ever decide that you want your prayers to be more biblical, I suggest that you first learn how to fight. Sign up for a kickboxing class. Or jiu-jitsu. Or just find a good, old-fashioned bar brawl this weekend. Give and take a few punches to the face. Roll around on the ground with another sweaty, wild-eyed opponent. Maybe break your nose, blacken your eye, get mad, and wake up feeling like you got mauled by a bear. Then, after those happy experiences, you’ll be a little more prepared for praying biblically.
If you think I’m exaggerating, you’re obviously not very conversant with the psalms.
Yes, of course, there are sweet and gentle psalms whose words Grandma stitched with needlepoint onto canvas and hung in front of the toilet. But there’s a whole passel of psalms that are too bloody, snot-covered, tear-stained, and fist-clenched for pious embroidery. If anything, such psalms look like the graffiti of the angry spray-painted on heaven’s high wall.
Like Psalm 39. In 13 verses, David accuses God of being an insect, stomping all over his life, and turning a blind eye to his tears. And—as if that’s not enough—he finishes his prayer by telling God to give him a break, to stop looking at him, and to just leave him alone so he can die in peace.
Like I said, if you want to pray biblically, you best learn how to fight.
Throwing Dishes at God
David put a rock in Goliath’s big head and sent many another Philistine to the morgue, but he feuded and battled with God more than any earthly foe. David reminds me of Job who, once you get past the opening two chapters, sits there on his ash heap with his pus-oozing sores, and launches a full-frontal assault at heaven. He too, like David, prays that God would leave him alone and just let him die (7:19).
As has often been noted, Job talks to God, but his three loser “friends” talk about God. As Peter Kreeft puts it, “Job stays married to God and throws dishes at him; the three friends have a polite non-marriage, with separate bedrooms and separate vacations.” Amen to that!
David and Job both know that prayer puts a cigarette lighter to all prim and proper books of religious etiquette. It is honest. Heated. Emotional. Raw. And the psalms are packed with it.
Psalm 39 is but one example among many. David can’t win for losing. His inner, fiery anger explodes forth in words when the wicked surround him. Nothing seems to improve. His life is but a breath. We all walk about like phantoms. God plagues us. He’s like an insect, God the Moth, who hides in our closet and eats holes in everything precious to us. We’re like strangers to this strange divinity. Just passing through. And all we ask is that the Lord stop looking at us that we might have a chance to smile again before we die.
How’s that for a prayer? It’s not very optimistic. It’s not very sweet. It sure doesn’t sound like the kind of prayers we hear in church. But you know what? It does sound like the kind of prayer that is brutally honest. That doesn’t tell God “what he wants to hear.” This psalm, like so many biblical prayers, is not interested in brown-nosing God, groveling before him like some sycophantic coward.
You can only pray like this, when the God with whom you fight is the God you trust.
The Rhythm of Crucified Love
That’s the irony here: these R-rated prayers are not signs of a weak or non-existent faith. “Oh, if only you believed more, you’d never ask God to leave you alone.” Quite the contrary: faith is bold, authentic, transparent, and direct.
Because we believe that the God to whom we pray is the God who is ultimately on our side, we can bang our fists on heaven’s doors when it feels like he’s not on our side.
Because we believe that God actually does hear our prayer, we can shake him with our petitions when it seems like he’s gotten drunk and is sleeping off a hangover (yes, that image *is* in the psalms; see 78:65).
Because we believe that God has actually become one of us in Jesus, has breathed our breath, sweated our sweat, bled our blood, felt in the oceanic depths of his soul our angst and anguish and agony—because our God is also a human being named Jesus we can talk to him as our Brother.
And this Brother hears. He not only hears; he does something infinitely better: he joins our prayers to his and his to ours. Every psalm becomes our prayer and Jesus’s prayer combined. He in us and we in him, praying to our common Father through the Spirit.
Since this is true, we have confidence to say both “the Lord is my shepherd” and “leave me alone.” We have confidence to say both, “God is our refuge and strength” and “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” We can praise and we can fight. We can exclaim, “Hallelujah!” and we can cry, “Where the hell are you?”
Why? Because God is for us. Despite our grief and disappointment and heartache and all the stupidity of life in a stupid world where stupid things happen—despite all this, in the end, all will be well. The Lord will one day make everything sad come untrue, as Tolkien says. And in the meantime, he will hold us as we fight; love us as we weep; and continue to give us the words of the psalms that translate the untranslatable agonies of our scarred hearts.
He will hear for his own heart beats to the rhythm of a crucified and resurrected love for us that will never end.