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This little series on prayer comes out of Praying with the Church: Developing a Personal Prayer Life, which I am hard at work on my off days now. The section I wrote yesterday, on hope, will be changed, as may this section today, on honesty. But here it is in its present shape.
The singular disposition for effective prayer is to be honest with God. There is no real prayer without honesty, and genuine honesty before God is always a prayer – even if it is words spoken to others.
To be honest with God in prayer is to say what you mean and to mean what you say. If you are mad with God, say that; if you are happy with God, say that. If you love your life, tell God. If you despise your life, tell that to God, too. If you don’t like your roommate, as I sometimes tell my students, don’t tell God that you like her or him.
From the time we were first conscious of mom or dad googling at us over the banisters of our cribs, we have learned to read the response of others in their eyes. When we became toddlers we learned to do what those who loved us wanted us to do, and we learned at the same time not to do what they didn’t want us to do. And when we were carted off to school, we learned to say and write and perform the things that our teachers thought should be performed, and if we did, we’d get good graces and be successes and if we didn’t we’d get bad grades and be failures – or so we were taught. What I’m saying is this simple: we have been programmed by our world to do what others approve of and not to do what others disapprove of.
For this reason alone, prayer is a struggle. If we try speaking to God in order to get God’s approval or if we say only things we think God would like us to say, and if we avoid saying words we think God would find distasteful or worse, we’d be failing what God wants us to do in prayer. And the place we learn this is in the Psalms.
There are lots of things in the Psalms that people in high positions in the Church expunge from Church liturgies and prayer books. But, they are in the Psalms for a reason: because the Psalms are the most honest book in the Bible. In this book we find poet after poet saying things that to us may be a little too strong or even extremely unacceptable.
There are many examples, but I can give only a single example. One of the most beautiful sets of words in the history of the world can be found in Psalm 137, but that set of words suddenly turns ugly. Notice this prayer, to which I have attached brief commentary (in italics):
The children of Israel find themselves in Babylon as captives and find themselves contemplating Zion, the City of God. It leads them to tears. This is how they felt.
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
Their captors now taunt them. They felt those taunts and remembered them.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
The poet answers back for those who were weeping. Here again, the honest heart speaks.
How could we sing the LORD’S song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
And now it gets ugly as the children of Israel go over the top. But this too is from an honest heart.
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Plenty of Westerners feel quite unhappy about the last paragraph of this psalm, and most churches don’t ever recite this one even if they do recite the Psalms. Sensing that this sort of language is not fit either for public consumption or is unworthy of a Christian response to captivity, the words are usually expunged.
This is a mistake – not because I think cracking baby skulls is good. In fact, it is heinous and brutal and mean. No, it is a mistake to expunge these words because it fills a generation with the expectation that we should tell God what God wants to hear when we pray. Honest prayer tells God exactly what we feel. Psalms like these are not instructions in morals but instructions in how to express what we feel to God so that what we feel can be transformed through the graces that utter honesty can bring. Only when we tell God the utter truth can we begin to make progress in love and justice and peace and holiness.

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