I’m sat before Him, poised, ready to speak. I feel a tiny bit proud of myself, I mean, this is what I should be doing, this is what Christians do isn’t it? I open my mouth expectantly, knowing that after this I should feel better, at least that’s what I’ve heard. I go to speak, longing to find some kind of higher spiritual ground above the mess I find myself in right now. I take a breath, expecting the words to simply flow from me, for His spirit to take over, but nothing comes out. Silence. My mute posture before Him fails to reflect the storm raging inside me. I know I should talk to Him, but I’m afraid the words I’ll use are too raw. I’m not going to thank Him for this, I’m not going to ask for Him to use me to help others, I’m not going to praise Him for the hope of heaven, I’m not going to ask Him to give me more faith. I don’t want to. I’m too angry. So what do I say?
I’ve sat like this so many times, a complete disconnect between what I know I ‘should’ do and what I actually want to do. Knowing, in my darkest moments, I should find the faith to pray, a small jewel of hope within me still believing I might feel better after it, accompanied by a generous helping of Christian guilt reminding me of what I should be doing and how those with more faith would have been on their knees for hours by now. You may all be silently judging me right now, but I’m okay with that, I guess I’m confessing that my first thoughts in the face of pain are not the kinds of phrases you see printed on a poster with a fluffy kitten or a rainbow behind them.
The other week I watched a fantastic video with Eugene Peterson and Bono talking about the psalms and it reminded me about what they’d taught me about prayer over the years of loss and heartache, summarised perfectly in one sentence by Eugene Peterson, ‘praying isn’t being nice before God.’
‘praying isn’t being nice before God.’
I remember the first time the psalms helped me to pray. I was at a prayer meeting run by Spice, the spouses group at Ridley Hall, where my husband Dave was training to be a vicar. We’d just moved to Cambridge but I already wanted to leave. I’d arrived there desperate to be a mum, having already had three miscarriages followed by two years of not being able to conceive and suddenly found myself surrounded by the women I’d been successfully trying to avoid – mothers. They were everywhere, pregnant, holding children, feeding them, talking about them, I was completely out of my depth, their confidence and joy in their role whispering over me my greatest fears, that I didn’t belong here, that my life had no meaning. I’d left my job in Chester as part of the move and was struggling to find another one, my husband’s joy at being given the opportunity to study and explore his calling made me resent our new life even more. I didn’t want to pray that night, I hadn’t actually prayed for a while, it didn’t seem to make much difference. But when I read the sheet of paper handed to me that night, I saw something I connected with. It was a psalm, I didn’t read all of it, just the beginning. It was angry and I loved it so I copied those sentences into my notebook and felt a bit better. Picking up my the Bible next to me, I found the psalms and searched them for angry words, copying them down. I became frantic, searching, copying and moving on to the next chapter. That night I returned home a little bit smug, believing I’d managed a whole prayer meeting without praying. But now I realise I was wrong. Praying isn’t about being nice before God, it’s about being honest.
Now the psalms aren’t just angry poetry, there’s more of a balance to them than the way I prayed that night with a room full of super-fertile future vicar’s wives. The psalms are more of a dialogue, an utterly real conversation that insists on two things – being completely honest about the feeling of abandonment and not losing sight of the facts about God you know are true. Now, I don’t know about you but when disaster strikes my prayers don’t normally feature both sides of the conversation, I’m either trying to fake the heavenly glow of peace to fit in with those around me or I’m ready to throw the whole faith in God thing down a very deep hole, along with the dungarees I could never pull off and every photo that ever existed of me with short hair – I got mistaken for a boy, it was a difficult time for me.
The Message translation of the Bible began with a psalm. Eugene Peterson, translated a psalm into everyday modern language and gave it to someone in his congregation who was going through a really difficult time because he wanted to help them to learn how to pray in the midst of their suffering, explaining ‘this psalms aren’t pretty, or smooth, or nice, but they’re honest and I think we’re trying for honesty, which is very hard in our culture.’ He then went on to say, ‘we need to find a way of cussing without cussing and the psalms do that.’ I personally have found that sometimes ‘cussing’ or ‘swearing’ as we say over the pond can also be helpful to really make sure God has grasped the reality of the situation, but that’s just my personal opinion.
‘this psalms aren’t pretty, or smooth, or nice, but they’re honest and I think we’re trying for honesty, which is very hard in our culture.’
I could go on and on about the need to be honest before God and how He’s big enough to take it because I think it’s something we’re really bad at and without honesty our faith and worship can lack reality, but that would only be one side of the conversation. The psalms are a dialogue and somehow in the midst of the mess we need to find truths to cling on to. Walter Brueggermann, describes the psalms of lament as psalms of disorientation and the dialogue that occurs in them, as a process of orientation, of reminding ourselves of God’s order, of His faithfulness, His power and His promises. I imagine these truths as tiny lights, flickering in the darkness, guiding me out of the pit. Reorientation can take on different forms for everyone, for me it was a mix remembering God’s faithfulness and provision in the past, resting in the love and care of those surrounding me and putting my hope in the truth of redemption – that nothing, no experience, no matter how bad, is irredeemable. Now this reorientation isn’t easy, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally, it requires grit and determination that your heart will not turn bitter from your present situation and faith in God’s saving activity.
‘we need to find a way of cussing without cussing and the psalms do that
Church can be good at reorientation, reminding us of truths about God, worship songs can help too but in order for our worship to be genuine, I believe we also need to make space for lament. But you can’t just jump from one to the other, our hearts don’t work that way, they take time to heal. Besides I don’t think worship was ever meant to be an escape from reality, but the opportunity to connect God in the midst of where we’re at.
Psalm 58 is a particularly good one when feeling immensly cross with the world. Pity it never turns up in the Common Worship lectionary. Xxxx
a wonderful video but also an honest article. And sometimes you really do need to get angry, lose your temper and swear at God
I totally agree!!! 🙂
Thank you for your honesty. Even reading phrases like …..’suddenly found myself surrounded by the women I’d been successfully trying to avoid – mothers’ …. made me laugh out loud. Because you give words to the unspoken and unacknowledged feelings that subconsciously shape my world.
When I recently miscarriaged after IVF and 6 yrs of ‘trying’ I prayed the prayer of praise I knew I ‘should’ as a Christian. But that night after a friend called me with her exciting pregnancy news I prayed a different way. It involved many profanities. They were the only words I knew could sum up the utter anger and injustice of it all. I hope many people never get to that place in life. But for those of us who have….we understand the Prayer of profanities. That night I wanted to smash every plate, cup and dish in my kitchen. I just wanted to show how I felt inside. If I lived in an area without neighbours I probably would have. But my Englishness provailed. And then I read the words is the Psalms.
…’I am broken like pottery’.
There without any profanities were the words of my brokeness. Thank God for the honesty of the Psalms.
Emily, sorry it’s taken so long to reply, the notifications seem to be broken at the moment. Thank you so much for your comment, you explain so brilliantly what it’s like to struggle with grief in this way and yes, smashing stuff and swearing are definitely things I’ve done in the past. I’m so sorry to hear of you loss after so many years of trying and then to receive pregnancy news after that is a really difficult thing to have to process. Thank you for your honesty, I have no doubt God is so proud of your faith throughout your struggle. With much love Lizzie xxx
Thank you….I needed to read this today. I may only have cross words with God right now but feel at least I am communicating and right now that’s all I can manage. Thank you for your honesty.
Hi there, thanks so much for your comment and for your honesty. Just keep telling him how you feel, he can definitely handle it. Lots of love xxx
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Interesting article, I have often thought that I should accept my situation if trying for a baby ( 2 natural miscarriages and 1 failed IVF) for last 9 years and not get angry, as God is in control of my life.
But recently I have been struggling not to get angry because I don’t know who to be angry with, as someone has to be to blame.
Will be looking at the Psalms
Thanks for your comment. I can totally understand the struggle to know what to do with our anger. I think one of the big struggles comes from the fact that with infertility and miscarriage there rarely is anyone/thing to blame. Part of the frustration can often be because we’re overwhelmed by the lack of control we have over our lives, our fertility and our pregnancies and it’s hard to know what to do with the emotions we feel. I think the Psalms can be really helpful, also there’s a few books that have helped me immensely: A Grace Disguised and A Grace Revealed both by Jerry Sittser and The Louder Song by Aubrey Sampson. Lots of love xx
I have been living Psalm 88 the last 21 years. In all those years I have never heard a single sermon on it, not even a passing mention. And I have sat through a lot of sermons in those years.
Most of the laments in Psalms turns to praise and hope halfway through, but not this one. That’s why it speaks to me
The last line sums up my life perfectly: Darkness is my only friend.
Hi Thomas, thank you so much for your comment. I think you’re right that the Psalms aren’t really talked about when they are such a helpful resource for Christians when life is painful. I think Psalm 88 is the only Psalm that remains in the pit. Praying that there is a day when you’re able to claim a new Psalm for your life where it leads to light, life and hope. There’s a great book called The Louder Song by Aubrey Sampson about lament and the Psalms that might be helpful. Lizzie