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The Life of a Prayerful Person: During Confusion

posted by xscot mcknight

Sometimes life is confusing and we tell God that it is. This can take some practice because we think speaking harshly to God is somehow wrong. But if we are confused, we need to tell God about it. Life, as Walter Brueggemann states, “is also savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry.”
Divorce and bad relations with parents and friends and workers, economic downturns or the loss of a job, expectation for funds to come that don’t, sudden shifts in direction by our employers who make us redundant (a dreaded insensitive word), things going wrong at the wrong time for the wrong reasons with bad results, the experience of people in power manipulating themselves to the top, surrendering hope in the face of systemic evil and injustice, children being abused by parents or friends or siblings, failure to get the employment we knew was designed (by God) for us – and we could list more. The point is the same: sometimes life stiff arms us and leaves us reeling and gasping for breath. Again, Walter Brueggemann: “everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”
Confusion is nothing new the psalmists tell us. In fact, the Psalms are the one source in the Bible that encourage us to vent our frustrations and worries and to tell God how we feel – whether good or bad. God did not censor the psalmists and God won’t censor us. Come as you are, is the message of the Psalms. Ask “why?” and “where are you God?”
The question “Why?” is a psalmic question and the experience of Katrina is an event capable of intense exploration. I was troubled by all the finger-pointing and blame-naming, but I was even more troubled by the many who seemed not to care. Those who were staggered in confusion from injustices and who wanted to denounce someone or some institution who should have acted sooner will find more support in the Bible than those who sat back to ponder if this was God’s will or not (yes, there were blogs that explored that very question). To be sure, denouncing is ugly and some of those blamed were not to blame, but holy discontent or righteous indignation jumps from the pages of the Psalms because the Psalms give expression to the honest human heart.
In confusion all sorts of emotions and thinking come to the surface, including bitterness, bewilderment, doubt, accusation, blame, and hope for revenge. This may not all be where God wants us to end up, but if we experience injustice there is no reason to finish the sentence with a smiley face. Instead, it might be more useful to scorch the paper with a hot pen. At least that is what many of the psalms do.
Notice these words from the fifty-eighth psalm:
Injustice is what the people are experiencing, and they know the rulers are to blame. The poet now turns on the unjust rulers and turns to God with an honest heart and pleads for God to act and to end the injustice. The poet’s language is graphic.
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
This psalm wasn’t originally given for those in the south who experienced injustice, but the words must have worked for those who knew this psalm by heart. In our times of confusion we seek for justice, and the Psalms often give us the right words to say. Ugly thoughts and ugly feelings deserve ugly expressions.
Sometimes the confusion results in humans accusing God of doing nothing. This, too, is both honest and not uncommon to humans. Notice how often the psalmists ask this question:
“How long, O Lord?”
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
These opening words of the thirteenth psalm are the tip of the iceberg: often the psalmists wonder if God is the one they ought to blame.
Knowing words like this comes to those who regularly recite the Psalms. Many, so it seems to me, are afraid to use language like this when they speak to God, but a genuine heart will sometimes say to God “Do you care what goes on down here on Planet Earth? Why, if you do, don’t you do something about it?” I fear not those who ask this question but those who think asking such questions is somehow unworthy of humans who love and trust God.
Other Psalms expressing confusion
12—13, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79—80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129, 137



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Georges Boujakly

posted September 12, 2005 at 9:27 am


New to reading blogs.
I appreciate yours.
A couple of thougts:
1. There is a “discipline” of lament that needs to be explored. Bruegemann talks about what the church looses when lament is absent.
Growing up in the Middle East we had “professional mourners” who walked behind caskets and mourned the loss.
We also had poets who spontaneously addressed the subject of “when bad things happened.”
2. Lament is also a community event. I’ve never experienced this in North America. I have been here for the last 35 years of my life.
3. Finally: Those whose minds and spirits cannot formulate words (grief is that deep sometime)of lament simply resigns themselves to a posture of “have mercy, O Lord!” repeated often in the mind. C.S. Lewis said when you pray use words if you have to (paraphrase).
Many blessings, Scott. You are a blessing to me.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 12, 2005 at 9:32 am


Thanks, Georges. The confusion psalms of lament are part and parcel of what this little post is about — can’t say it all in short compass.



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dan

posted September 12, 2005 at 9:52 am


Scot, i hope you don’t mind if i leave regular posts in response to your words and the words of others here.
Georges, you are right to point out US American’s reluctance or perhaps disappearing ability to lament. The chaplaincy office of a regional children’s hospital in central CA hosted a two day ‘grief seminar(!)’ a few years ago. It was the highest attended seminar that office had sponsored.
One comment the seminar speaker made that struck me at the time was how he was fully against the elimination of the procession from the place of the memorial service to the cemetery. The procession makes the community stop and recognize someone has died and that members of our community are in mourning.
What is tragic is that the elimination of the procession is cast in economic terms… the family has to pay for traffic control escorts! sense municipalities don’t provide them anymore… because of the cost!
Scot, thanks for reminding me of what i’m hearing from those directly affected by Katrina.



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Kerry Doyal

posted September 12, 2005 at 10:29 am


Our avoidance of laboring in & under such heavy, but holy Psalms explains a measure of our immaturity.
It is ironic, as we seem to think those who feel the way Ps. 13 speaks of are obvioulsy not spiritually mature. Like Job’s “friends”, we just know there be MUST be sin in their life some where.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 12, 2005 at 10:35 am


Dan and Kerry,
Thanks for your comments. Both are spot-on.



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ted gossard

posted September 12, 2005 at 12:03 pm


I am trying to benefit through incorporating lament into my life as in Scripture. I need to better understand it and grow from it. Michael Card has a new book on lament and in his study guide he cites scholarly books that help us understand lament. I want to explore this. I for one, need this outlet.
I know a Christian who always has a smile, would hardly admit to being down, ever, as if that would be a lack of faith. Indeed sometimes my being down may well involve a lack of faith, but lament surely does not. Surely it is a legitimate expression of faith.
It is not so much what that Christian does in public; maybe it is more what they do not do. Surely pain and internal (and external) suffering is part of this life that must be expressed to God, thus holding on to him in faith (as Card puts it- the last phrase).
Thanks Scot for bringing this up and for the good words.



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