Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

The Life of a Prayerful Person: Honesty

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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Kerry Doyal

posted September 10, 2005 at 11:42 am

Thanks Scot – I am preaching Ps. 13 tomorrow – ugly stuff.
“Happy ending” but rough journey – an honest one.
Psalm 13 – NIV
For the director of music. A psalm of David.
1 How long, O LORD ? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
4 my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.

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Stacey Littlefield

posted September 10, 2005 at 11:43 am

Scot, there is no doubt that the Psalms can be a bit “embarrassing” at times (at least when seen as instruction rather than poetry). I agree, however, they are honest. I have sometimes likened the OT to country music and the NT to Top 40 (Revelation lends itself more to heavy metal!). Country music is terribly honest. Top 40 is more uplifting and positive. An over-generalization, I suppose. There is certainly hope in the OT and honesty in the NT, but you see what I mean.
There is a hunger in the psalmist from 137 that things be made right, justice be done, or even for revenge. We know that hungering after revenge is not where we should be as followers of Jesus, but the freedom to be honest about these feelings in prayer to God is a wonderful example which I try to follow (and encourage others to follow) in their prayers to God. We long for the Kingdom of God. And when that Kingdom is not manifested in our lives and world, I believe our honesty and pain laid bare before God is an act of worship and true devotion. What loving parent doesn’t long for a relationship with his or her children in which trials and dissapointments as well as joys can be freely brought, discussed, agonized over and, yes, even celebrated?

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Scot McKnight

posted September 10, 2005 at 11:58 am

I just quoted Ps 13:1-2 in my ms — just a few moments ago added those lines to the book. Blessings on your sermon.
I agree completely.
That is why the psalms of re-orientation or what I call the Return of Shalom are so important. My favorite one like that is Ps 77. What a gem it is for me.

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Royal Farris

posted September 10, 2005 at 7:45 pm

One of the reasons I am so grateful for the Psalms is that to be honest with God we have to be honest with ourselves. Most people are not willing to look at the dark or the wrong in their lives and the light had to be shined there first to see it. So even when in the attitude of confession we really don’t see what is there to confess so we are not really honest.
I know sometimes I have a hard time being honest with God. When I am having that hard time, (denial) I can read a psalm out loud, be in agreement and repentance and actually use the confession of the Psalm to prime my own confessing pump. (I might have just made up that mechanism)
God wants to help us be godly. We just have to be honest enough to know that we are standing in the way.
God Bless and thanks for sharing and listening

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Dana Ames

posted September 10, 2005 at 10:03 pm

Amen, Scot.
BTW- I didn’t know that Google was around when you were a baby in your crib- how old are you again? :)

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