How might you describe your conversations with God? What words would you use to characterize your tone or approach? For those of us who have spent any amount of time within a Christian subculture, our prayer lives are often the first thing to get stale – we shift from true piety in our prayers to mere politeness.
And it’s this phenomenon I want to explore and address in this article. By polite prayers, I do not mean reverent, respectful, somber prayers. Polite prayers are those prayers which externally use much of the right language but are not marked by true engagement with the living God; polite prayers are those that resemble more an awkward conversation with a friend we haven’t seen since high school in the aisle at Target than a conversation with the Creator of all things who intervened in history to save his people.
These polite prayers can be traced to two distinct, yet related, sources. The first is perhaps the more common: A settling into ‘proper’ language that loses its significance through repetition. A classic example of this is the Lord’s Prayer, which, despite being the model for prayer taught by Jesus and replete with theological meaning, is repeated thoughtlessly in churches every week. Our prayers become polite when they are a formality, something to mumble through rather than engage with. Imagine something akin to that conversation in Target with a friend you haven’t seen in years: polite, but not revealing.
The second reality driving our polite prayers is something deeper than formality; it is fear. We are fearful of that feeling of deep anger within us, or we are fearful of saying the wrong thing the wrong way. Our prayers become polite in this sense when we are so terrified of saying the wrong thing or so anxious of phrasing our prayers just right that we never quite get around to saying anything at all.
To be frank, when our prayers devolve into polite words and nothing more, we are not praying. In fact, we may be actively hurting ourselves and others when we trade true piety for mere politeness. Now, of course, this begs the question: What is true piety in distinction to polite prayer? For the purposes of this article, true piety is a devoted, consistent posture of reverent awe that seeks to glorify and enjoy God. Polite prayer, as described, is a hazard to true piety – it is the opposite of true piety! Polite prayer is not a devoted, consistent posture of reverent awe, but is instead the means by which we, intentionally or otherwise, sanitize our prayer life.
And these polite, sanitized prayers fail us when life hands us those things that seem unmentionable to God: miscarriage, job loss, depression, cancer diagnosis. Although our sanitized prayers might initially begin as expressions of piety, they eventually die on our lips as feeble incantations with no real power in the face of a desperately messy and painful life.
Luckily for us, the Bible knows of no such sanitized prayers. You see, one of the most beautiful things about our holy Scripture is its unflinching honesty. The Bible paints a true picture of God and a true picture of ourselves. Whether in story or song, poetry or prose, the Bible as God’s very Word reveals, and reminds us of, truth.
And the Bible is replete with prayers, prayers that tell the truth about God and the truth about ourselves. These are no sanitized prayers. The prayers of the Bible have to do with death and disease, fear and famine, sin and salvation. In particular, the book of Psalms has been used throughout the history of the Church. The Psalms, sometimes called Israel’s prayerbook, is a book of 150 songs and prayers by individuals and congregations. These prayers and songs, presented as poetry, vary in their style. Some are songs of praise, others are songs of thanksgiving. Others are songs and prayers of lament. Still others are songs of cursing.
One of the psalms which confronts us most directly in our shallow, polite prayers is Psalm 77. Any of the psalms would help us in our goal to pray more honestly and beautifully, but it is Psalm 77 that exposes us to a sort of prayer that can only be described as fierce. Once again, it is important to define our terms. Fierce prayer is prayer which is “furiously active or determined” and “marked by an unrestrained zeal.” Moreover, it is the type of prayer Jesus describes in Luke 18 in the parable of the widow who persistently “bothers” a judge until he gives her a just ruling. Fierce prayer is unflinchingly honest, revealing the heart of the one who prays.
1 I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
4 You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
6 I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
10 Then I said, “I will appeal to this,
to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
11 I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
you have made known your might among the peoples.
15 You with your arm redeemed your people,
the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16 When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
the skies gave forth thunder;
your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
The words of the psalmist remind us that God is big enough for our fiercest prayers. Polite prayers that mask the reality of doubt, pain, confusion, hurt, and complexity are not prayers at all. They are merely another way of hiding, hiding as Adam and Eve did in the garden.
The first nine verses of Psalm 77 give the reader fierce words with which to pray. These fierce words are expressed in a tone of desperate, loud cries. The repetition of the phrase “aloud to God” is meant to emphasize the tone of the psalmist’s approach. It is not a polite, hushed voice. Instead, out loud and with emotion, the psalmist cries to God.
These first few verses tell the story of real physical and emotional anguish. The psalmist is experiencing insomnia – verse four tells us as much. Surprisingly, he locates the cause of his insomnia in God himself. God is personally present to the psalmist, and yet this presence is experienced very much as discomfort. To the psalmist, it feels as though God is using his fingers to keep his eyes open so he cannot sleep.
He tries to remember his old songs, to meditate on truth in his heart, and yet, all he can come to is his questions. And this is in many ways the crux of psalm. How often do you ask questions of God in your prayers? Questions in our prayers do a number of things. For one, asking questions in our prayers reminds us of the conversational nature of prayer; we tend to ask questions of those who are capable of answering. Asking questions in prayer, then, assumes that God answers. Further, questions at their very foundation are proof that we do not know all things. In other words, questions in our prayers cultivate humility. Questions are a means of expressing our uncertainty, while acknowledging God’s power and knowledge.
Lastly, asking questions in our prayers leads us to emotional vulnerability. Look at the questions in verses seven through nine of the psalm. These questions invert rich theological truths, entreating God to affirm the truth of them. Scripture again and again affirms that God is gracious, that he remembers his people, that his steadfast love will never cease (cf. Exodus 34:6-7). This is objective truth in the eyes of the psalmist, and yet his subjective experience tempts him to believe something else. In his commitment to praying fiercely, the psalmist does not minimize or ignore his experience; he doesn’t paper over it with trite theological answers. He poses questions which expose to himself and to God the true depth of his emotional anguish – because he believes God is big enough for it.
Think about your own prayers in the midst of distress, fear, and grief – or your prayers for others. How quick are you to ignore these true feelings and rush forward into theological truth? Now, it is important to note that this can be a healthy response at times. There is wisdom in repeating what is true even when we can’t quite grasp it with our hearts. There is, however, a real danger in glossing over our emotional experience in favor of repeating theological truth. It is all too easy to move from claiming truth in faith to claiming truth out of fear. When we refuse to be honest with ourselves and with our Maker about the true depths of our suffering, terror, and frustration, our pious expressions are in reality empty words that enable us to hide from God.
We cry out, “God, great is your faithfulness!” And yet, we harbor a real fear that God has at last abandoned us. We pray, “Lord, your steadfast love endures forever!” And yet, we have real doubts that God’s steadfast love will endure our latest sin. We sing, “God, you are gracious!” And yet, it seems as though he has shut up his compassion from us.
Psalm 77 teaches us to reject a form of polite prayer that pays lip-service to theological truths while enabling us to hide our suffering from God, ourselves, and others. Psalm 77 invites us to embrace a form of fierce prayer that wrestles with God as Jacob did: “I won’t let you go until you bless me” (Gen. 32:26).
The words of this psalm are fierce in the first nine verses. There is a decisive turn in focus and tone in the second half of the psalm, but a careful reader of this psalm must realize something. If one looks only at the words on the page, this psalm makes the distance between deep hopelessness and renewed confidence appear to be no longer than a space between paragraphs. The psalmist goes from searching, agonizing questions about the goodness of God to (apparently) suddenly remembering all that is good and true. This is indeed an important turn, but it’s one that might not be as quick as it looks.
The distance between verse nine and verse ten in each of our stories will vary greatly. If you’ve ever been through a period of grief, you know this. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to it. The questions can last for days, weeks, months, yes, maybe even years. But this psalm, in addition to teaching us to use fierce words, teaches us to know our fiercely good God. As will be clear in the second half of the psalm, God’s goodness is older than your grief. Because God was good before your grief, and because God promises to be good after your grief, God is good in your grief because God is with you in your grief.
If the first half of Psalm 77 gives us a look at the fierce words with which we can pray, the second half reminds us to have a fierce memory. This memory, however, is not an individual memory unique to the psalmist. This memory is actually a communal memory – it is a memory that only makes sense in the context of community. The psalmist turns suddenly to consider God’s faithfulness to his people, remembering God’s saving acts towards this covenant people. It is this grand remembrance that provides hope for his individual situation.
In verse ten, the psalmist says, “Then I said, “I will appeal to this, / to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
What are the “years” he speaks of? His tone shifts and, in verses 11-14, the psalmist is building toward something. By verse 16, his direction is clear: the psalmist is poetically remembering the exodus of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. This is a history that is intensely communal in nature. The psalmist could have returned to the more individual relationship between God and Abraham, or God and Jacob, to remember the promises made specifically to those men (although even these relationships have more than the individual in view because the promises to these individuals were promises to their offspring). Instead, the psalmist remembers God’s faithfulness to his people. The context of this fierce memory is the community of God’s people.
Beyond this communal context, a careful reader of Psalm 77 will note that the memory spoken of in verses 11-20 is a memory of an objective historical event.
It’s popular today to see faith as something that helps us in hard times because it gives us a reason to be vaguely optimistic or gives us some abstract peace. This understanding of faith would have been utterly alien to the author of this psalm. There is nothing vague or abstract about the faith expressed in this psalm. The psalmist is fiercely remembering a true event, an event that only has power in that it actually happened.
This is crucial to recognize. If the exodus did not happen, the bold questions in verses seven through nine remain unanswered. At this point in history, God’s faithfulness was proved by many works, but the nation of Israel would return again and again to the exodus as the defining event of redemption. The exodus, when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, was the clear and irrefutable demonstration of God’s power, strength, compassion, and love.
It was in the exodus that the people of Israel saw most clearly God’s wrath on sin, injustice, and oppression. God executed terrible judgment against Pharaoh and the people of Egypt for the sins they committed. From the perspective of the Egyptians, the exodus was like living in a horror movie: their greatest river turned to blood, a deep darkness over the entire land, the instantaneous death of every first-born child.
And yet, we know that this was the righteous judgment of God on an unrighteous and unrepentant people. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, and Exodus 2:23 tells us that the Israelites cried out to God for rescue (cf. Psalm 77:1). The exodus was God making good on his promise to people of Israel to truly be their God. The exodus, then, was where God’s perfect wrath and love met.
Though the exodus happened long before Psalm 77 was written, it was crucial to the psalmist’s conception of God, of his community, and, as a result, of himself. The exodus was not a moral fable to inspire people when life got hard. As a historical event, the exodus proved God’s faithfulness in the past and gave the people a reason to expect God’s faithfulness in the present. This is the psalmist’s rationale in recounting it. It is the foundation upon which he stands in his prayer; the exodus is even the reason why the psalmist feels such incredible confidence in praying.
What about us? What is our story – as Christians – of God’s faithfulness? First, the exodus story is our story too. We can claim the real story of God’s real victory over a real Pharaoh by the real splitting of the sea to rescue a real people. We are able to do this – to stand in continuity with the story of ancient Israel – because of the reconciling work of God in Christ.
It is precisely here that Psalm 77 also provides a framework for how any believer can engage in fierce prayers from their particular standpoint in redemptive history. As Christians, we realize that we are in a different place in redemptive history than the psalmist was. In this, it must be maintained that we have a greater exodus, the fulfillment of the first exodus, to which we look.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, one can see yet again where God’s perfect wrath and love meet. Today we look not only to the exodus, but we look to Christ, who, though he is God, shared in our flesh and blood, and partook of the same things as we, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death. Today, we look to Christ, our great high priest, who sympathizes with our weakness and was tempted in every respect as we are, and yet was without sin. In Jesus, we have the one who in the days of his flesh offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death.
Because Jesus was like us, we hear his prayers in the garden and realize those prayers can be for us as well: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” We can know his agony in prayer, agony that led to earnest prayers and sweat like drops of blood (Luke 22:44). We can hear the cry of Christ on the cross, asking God why he has been forsaken. Jesus was not content to project a false piety through polite prayer. Why are we?
As we hear the questions of Jesus in the garden and on the cross, we read the questions of the psalmist in Psalm 77 with fresh eyes. The psalmist looks to God’s great acts of redemption to answer his questions. We know that the story did not end with the exodus. As we learn from the psalmist, and pray fiercely as he did, we too look to God’s great acts of redemption, and his greatest act of redemption: we look to Jesus.
We can pray the very words of Psalm 77 and we can further pray prayers that remind us of Jesus.
Prayers like those found in Psalm 77 instruct us of truth and help us know how to pray. We can use Psalm 77 as a model, a guide, as we seek to articulate our hearts to God. This is what our prayers might sound like as we seek to orient ourselves to the truth of God’s faithfulness in history.
Then I said, “I will surely appeal to this,
to the years of the lowliness of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of my LORD,
yes, I will remember the wonders of water to wine,
of sight for the blind.
I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your life-giving words.
“Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden,
I will surely give you rest.”
You are the God who works wonders;
you call the wind to cease, and the dead to live.
You, with blood dripping from your arms, redeemed your people,
The children of Jacob and Joseph.
When the gates of hell saw you, O God,
When the gates of hell saw you, they were afraid;
Indeed, the stronghold trembled.
On that day, darkness covered the sun;
You breathed your last,
The earth shook and the curtain was torn.
You breathed your last,
And your breath brought life to the dead.
The tombs shook and the dead rose.
Your way was through death,
Your path through the dark tomb;
Yet your footprints led out of the grave.
You led your people like a flock.
And with your nail-scarred hands, you lead them still.
As we engage with God for who he is and what he has done, we are brought out of the rut of polite prayers that encourage hiding more than honesty. We are confronted in prayer by the Spirit of the living God and invited to pray fiercely because God is big enough for our prayers.