Who Let that into God’s Prayer Book?
7/8/2020 Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
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Reading Psalm 137 is alarming. This is how it ends:
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks. (v. 8 -9, NIV)
Who let that into God’s prayer book? It’s scandalous! Understand that this psalm was written during the period of the Babylonian exile. Prophets were killed, many of the people were deported to Babylon, and the Temple was destroyed. Life for the nation of Israel had changed due to evil and violence. Their loss and grief were profound. But they were mad as hell and full of hate for their enemies. So what do you do with all those raw, real, understandable negative feelings when they arise?
I think there are only three things we can do. One option is to push our pain and negative emotions down. We can pretend our anger and even hate is not in us. This requires a lot of energy and inauthenticity as we slap on a happy face and act nice and pretend the pain and loss and anger of being hurt and abused didn’t happen or at least that it doesn’t impact us. Denying our feelings means denying our humanity. This is a common solution for many, but it doesn’t really work. It leads to inner turmoil with bitterness, resentment, and a kind of slow self-destruction.
A second option is to push our pain and negative feelings out by transmitting it to others. We see this all the time in relationships and in the news. How many people justify hateful words or even acts of retaliated violence because the other people deserved it? Maybe they do, but hate and anger pushed out doesn’t usually resolve our feelings or our circumstances. It usually serves as fuel for the fire, and can often make things worse. When the Israelites were captives in Israel, they were not in a position to retaliate or they would be killed. So what do we do?
The Psalms reveal a third alternative. We can push our feelings up to God in prayer. This real, raw, authentic prayer names the evil for what it is and is honest about the pain and the feelings that the messiness of life can bring. It’s taking our head out of the sand and acknowledging that there is real evil in the world where people are killed, trafficked, abused, and victimized in many ways. We live in a world where pain is real, where people are hurt and suffer and grieve, and sometimes it is so bad it fills us with anger and hate. These strong, even negative feelings, can serve to knock us out of our complacency and make us aware that we really care.
It’s helpful to see that the psalmists were angry people. They show us that taking our real feelings to God in prayer is the best thing we can do. In his book Answering God, Eugene Peterson writes, “The way of prayer is not to cover our unlovely emotions so that they will appear respectable, but expose them so that they can be enlisted in the work of the kingdom. It is an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously. Hate, prayed, takes our lives to bedrock where the foundation of justice are being laid.”
As one spiritual director says, “Pain that is not transformed, will be transmitted.” Pushing our pain down or out transmits our pain to ourselves or others. But pushing our pain, anger, even hate up to God is a way we open ourselves to God so that he can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves—transform us into his image. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you.” Only God and his love and power can change us into people who can do that. But he can and he will as we take it the Lord in prayer.
On June 21st Pete urged our congregation to recover the lost art of lament during our study in the book of Psalms. Our worship leaders have curated this Spotify playlist as a tool to help us express our hearts to God in an age of trouble. Together, let us bring our lament to God.
For those who don’t have Spotify, you can find Youtube links by downloading the PDF document below.