The Honesty of Prayer

Knobby tree.

As I read my way through the psalms, I sometimes get caught with a wrenching in my heart at the difficult words the psalmists pray.

In this morning’s reading, for instance, I was met with several pleas in the pages of the psalms for God to annihilate enemies, to ridicule them and bring them to shame. The Message version of the Bible describes these pleas in particularly creative ways. 

These pleas make me really uncomfortable. 

Some of you know that I’ve been on a long and winding road for about four years into the heart and ethic of nonviolence. And this isn’t just a philosophic inquiry for me. It’s not something from which I stand apart and observe, criticizing history and culture in some detached and formulating way.

It’s something that wrecks me. 

I read about torture happening in Guantanamo Bay, and I break down in sobs. I read about the Iranian government tear-gassing and killing citizens nonviolently protesting the outcome of an election, and I begin weeping, only to end up on my bed in the middle of an afternoon, curled into a fetal position and drenching my pillow in tears. I watch Dead Man Walking and break down in the final scene.

When I respond this way, I’m crying for the “enemy” — the one who inflicted the torture, the governmental authorities who decreed the use of weapons and tear gas, the man who sat in the execution chair.

I weep for them. 

I long and ache and plead for their redemption.

I grieve the loss in their souls.

And so I have a hard time reading the psalms sometimes. All those prayers for God to destroy enemies in unendingly creative ways … I just can’t stomach it.

But what helps is the perspective of prayer. 

The psalms are exactly that: written prayers demonstrating the breadth of human experience offered honestly to God. When David says of his enemies, “They’ll die violent deaths; jackals will tear them limb from limb,” or when he says, “The God of the Arrow shoots! They double up in pain, fall flat on their faces in full view of the grinning crowd,” it helps to remember that I’m getting more of a picture of David in that moment than anything else. I’m getting to see the depths of his pain. I’m getting to see him at his wit’s end. I’m getting to see his heart for justice and his clamor against injustice. I’m getting to see his belief in a God who loves and saves and preserves him.

Most of all, I’m getting to see his honesty — his bare-faced, unashamed, unfiltered honesty — before God. He lets his deepest cries come up, articulated from the depths. He’s not afraid to go there with God.

Are you willing to “go there” with God in your prayer life?