How to pray, when life’s not ok

A photo of Dawn, in a photo by DawnPraying the Laments

The Lament Psalms are complaints, often bitter complaints, against God. I recently preached on Psalm 13 because I think we need to understand the power and the treasure of the Lament Psalms.

This was a sermon but I have adapted it a little, into written form.

This message is dedicated to the memory of my friend and mentor, one of the greats in the kingdom of Heaven, Dawn Sollars.


How to pray when life’s not ok.

Many of you knew Dawn Sollars. Most of you are aware that she was a very dear friend to me.

Dawn taught me a lot. I was very privileged to have spent a lot of very high-quality time with her during her life and I will always remain grateful for it. The most prominent gift I feel I received from Dawn, among many others, was the art of prayer. As you may know, Dawn would come forward for prayer after church most weeks. Often it was because of the terribly painful ulcers on her legs, which were there for years. Being confined to a wheelchair meant that the circulation to her legs was restricted, hampering the healing process.

So we would pray! I would ask the Lord to heal her legs. And nothing would happen.

The next week, I would ask again, and nothing would happen.

The next week, nothing.

I started actually feeling awkward about it, almost hoping she would stop coming forward. But still she would come. I didn’t know what else to do, so I’d pray!

I also hung out with Dawn at her house and we read the Bible together. We would often pray together, too. I’ll never forget the time I ran out of prayers…

It was the best thing that could have happened of course, because my heart just broke, and I began to cry, but I kept on praying. Through my tears, I forgot all pretence. I dropped  the “prayer language” (you know what I mean!), and I just started to complain to God.

I started asking, “how much longer, Lord? It’s been long enough! Dawn has suffered enough! Just come! Heal her! Where are you? Don’t you even care?”… and so forth.

Then we were both crying.

Presently, I remembered God’s wonderful peace, his goodness, his place over all the universe, his promises, and my sure trust in him. The prayer didn’t seem complete without it, so we prayed about that, too.

Suddenly!

… nothing happened. Dawn’s ulcers were still there.

But despite this, she assured me that God had just heard our prayer in a way that she hadn’t felt before, and she was very grateful for it. Emotionally, it was almost as though she had been healed, but she hadn’t in fact. I knew something had happened, too. I just didn’t fully understand it at the time.

Shortly after that, I discovered the Lament Psalms, Psalm 13 is one of them.

It goes like this:

 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

 

Look on me and answer, Yahweh my God.

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

 

But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

for he has been good to me.

 

– Psalm 13

I’ll be showing you how this prayer has three elements: a complaint, a request, and a confession of faith.

Complaining

It is worth stating something right up front: It’s ok to complain to God.

Psalm 13 is “A psalm of David”. Now, that might well mean that King David wrote it, but it could also mean that it is written with David in mind as a kind of patron. Whichever it is, when it is prayed it is supposed to invoke the legacy of David, and have us, the ones praying, thinking about David praying it.

In this passage, David bitterly complains to God.

See the first two verses?:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

The underlying assumption here is that this situation is God’s problem, and that the time has surely come for God to resolve it. “How long?”, repeated four times, is a serious complaint against God, isn’t it?

There are several psalms that include complaints. They’re called “lament” psalms. Obviously the psalmist was allowed to pray like that, but are we allowed to pray this way in New Testament times…?

I ask that because Paul says, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God” (1 Thess 5:18). Does this mean that complaining was ok before Christ, but is no longer appropriate today?

Didn’t Paul also say that he has learned the secret to being “content in all circumstances” (Phil 4:12)?

But we are talking about something different here.

Consider what the writer to the Hebrews says of Jesus:

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death”

– Hebrews 5:7

And what about Revelation 6, and the “souls under the altar”?

They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

– Revelation 6:10

That strikes a chord with Psalm 13, in the “how long?” complaint, doesn’t it?

It means that there is a rightful place for the “how long?” complaint against God, now just as ever before.

Relationship

David has a relationship with God, which gives rise to a whole range of expectations and assumptions:

  • He is assuming that his enemies will not triumph forever.
  • He is assuming that God will remember him.
  • He is assuming that God will turn his face.
  • He is assuming that there should be peace in his heart.
  • He is assuming that God cares about his enemies gloating over him.

In that whole series of assumptions, he clearly feels justified in asking, “how long?” But how can David assume these things? What gives David the right to assume so much?

David knows that God has promised such things, so in fact, this complaint is an expression of faith in the promises that God has made. Complaining, properly done, is faith.

Here’s a helpful way to think about what David is doing:

If I asked you, “how long before you wash my car?”, you would be mystified by the question. It’s invalid. You never said that you would wash my car.

But if I ask you, “how long before you understand my point?” it makes sense. Here you are, reading this post, and we both assume that I’m trying to make a point.

So David saying, “how long…” is a clear indication that he is expecting God to be addressing problems like this as part of the relationship. That expectation is built up as part of the relationship, and forms David’s assumptions.

Are you confident in complaining to God?

Look at the four things David complains about. Have you experienced these problems?

  • Do you feel forgotten by God?
  • Do you wrestle with your thoughts?
  • Do you have sorrow in your heart?
  • Do you have people who constantly get the better of you?

If I was a betting man, I’d bet that for each of these things, there are at least some people saying, “Yes”. If you do feel any of these things, or if you have any other complaints against God, I want to pray with you in just a little while.

We need to cultivate this mode of prayer, which is so life-giving in our community. Without it we lose our authenticity, and we can be tempted to think that our problems don’t even matter!

But you do matter!

So make your complaints to God.

But where would it leave us if we did nothing but complain? Surely the point is not to become a complaining people!

Request Action

That’s why when we complain, it’s also ok to request action from God to address the complaints.

Verses 3 and 4 pivot around a specific request for action: “Look on me and answer”.

Let’s read it, remembering that is comes off the back of all those, “How Long” questions.

Look on me and answer, Yahweh my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

In other words, “do something, Yahweh”, because otherwise it’s not going to end well. My enemies will triumph, and I will be humiliated!

Look at, “Yahweh my God”, sometimes written in the Bible as “Lord my God”. I’ve replaced that with the original “Yahweh” here, because it helps to understand the passage better. Now, this is not just “Yahweh, the God of the universe”, but more specifically “Yahweh my God”.

This is David claiming relationship. He is saying, “we have a covenant. You made certain promises. I’m calling them in. Do something”. God had promised to establish and keep David. That’s why David is able to say, “Look on me and answer, Yahweh my God.

When God has made promises, you can take them to the bank. It’s ok to make requests of God based on our relationship with him, because God’s promises are not idle.

An Illustration from Life

You have the right to say to your MP, “you are my elected representative”, and expect that they will represent you.

You have the right to say to your employer, “you are my employer”, and expect to be paid for your work, or kept safe in the workplace.

When you are married, if you are unloved, un-cherished, or dishonoured, you have the right to say, “you are my spouse”, and expect the situation to be addressed.

David says, “you are my God”. He says it with respect to the promises that God has made. David has the right to expect God to protect him, to ensure that his enemies do not triumph, because that is what God said he would do. By praying this way, David, and all the people who have repeated this prayer in liturgies over the ages, are affirming God’s place as covenant provider.

This kind of petition to God is a declaration that God is your provider.

So when you pray, complain away! But then tell God what you want him to do  about it. Be specific! Otherwise your complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction and ingratitude. But if you call for action, your complaint is an expression of faith.

  • If you feel forgotten by God, say that you want to be remembered.
  • If you wrestle with your thoughts, say that you want him to take those thoughts captive.
  • If you have sorrow in your heart, say that you want to be restored to the joy of God’s Salvation.
  • If your enemies are getting the better of you, say that you want to be vindicated.

Ask God to do something.

But then, once you have complained, and asked God for action, there is one more important thing to remember: You are in this relationship because you have faith. So it is important to state your faith. Speak it out. It matters! You are justified by faith, so proclaim it.

Proclaiming Faith

In Psalm 13 we have seen complaint and then request, but we then find quite a change of mood in the final two verses:

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What happened here? What changed, from that bitter complaint that came before? Did God answer David’s prayer?

No, he didn’t. Not yet, anyway.

David is remembering God’s goodness, and there, he is finding a reason to trust. He is confessing his faith.

You see, God doesn’t ask for blind faith.

Constantly, throughout the Bible, God has called his people to “remember” the great saving things that he has done for them. What God demonstrates about himself is considered very important. The act of bringing the people out from Egypt, for example, is referred to countless times across the whole Bible, including in the New Testament, as something to be remembered, as a source of reassurance that God loves his people.

An Illustration from Life

Think of it this way:

What is the most important thing you need to know about someone you are hiring for a job?

Sure, you need to know what training they’ve experienced before. Sure, you need to know that they can manage the practical tasks. But the most important thing, the thing that ends up deciding who will get the job, is what their performance has been like in the past.

Your past performance says something about the kind of worker you are. It says something about how you go about things. It reflects something of your character, and so it can indicate how well you will do in the future.

God has given us his resume.

We can look for ourselves, and learn his character, and observe his past performance. Based on that past performance, we should trust his faithfulness now, and in the future, too.

Our faith is not blind. But our faith is based on trust. It is a confession.

So when you pray, and you complain, and you request action to right the wrongs, also remember what God has done for you in the past. And confess your faith.

Remember Jesus.

Remember his love, his compassion, his teaching, his kindness, his goodness.

Remember that, brutally flogged and nailed to a chunk of wood, he was still loving and blessing people, and forgiving them, so that you could be reconciled to God.

Remember how dire your fate might have been, had he not saved you.

Confess your faith in him.

Our prayers, even if they start in bitter complaint, have every reason to end with that expansive thought, “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.”, as we confess our faith in the Good God of Heaven.

The Privilege of the Gospel

It’s important to realise that in fact, we have a better, clearer view of God than David did. Our relationship with God is closer than David’s ever was, which brings me to my fourth point:

David was God’s chosen king;

We are God’s chosen children.

David prayed to his tribal and national God. We pray to our Father God. You see, because of Jesus, it has been granted to us to know God as our father. By addressing God as “Father”, we are pronouncing ourselves sons and daughters of God!

Paul spells it out this way in Romans 8:

‘the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…’

– Romans 8:14-17

 

“Abba” is the Aramaic expression for “Dad”, or “Daddy”. It’s like someone from the Deep South, saying, “Pa[w]”. Jesus also taught his disciples to pray, “Our father in heaven…”, and when he prayed, he began with, “Abba…”

You see, Jesus makes a difference. There is no record of anyone before Jesus praying to God as their “father”. Because nobody was entitled to, not even King David.

When Jesus claimed God as his father in John 10, the Jews wanted to stone him for blasphemy. He said, “I and the father are one”, and he went on to clarify that not only was he saying, “the father is in me”, but also, “and I in the father”. His opponents rightly pointed out that he was claiming to be God, so they set about to kill him.

This really matters.

It matters because, as I pointed out just above, in Christ, we also can pray to God as our father. In Christ, we have a more intimate relationship with God than King David ever dreamed possible.

An Illustration from Life

I think of it this way:

My kids refer to me as “Dad”, and sometimes, “Daddy”. What’s the difference?

I notice that “Daddy” is what they’ll use in a crisis, or when they want special attention. Why is that?

It’s because this term, “Daddy”, contains within it the notion of a protective, nurturing, affectionate, providing relationship – everything a father is. Simply by using that term of address, my kids are positioning themselves as the beneficiaries of that relationship.

When they say, “Daddy, can you help me?”, they are really saying, “You have certain implicit obligations in our relationship, and I’m calling on them here”. Of course, I respond to that. My kids are entitled to invoke their access to me. God’s kids are entitled to invoke their access to him.

So, how might we address God?

Far beyond David, we not only know God’s personal name, “Yahweh”, but we rarely need to use it! My children only use my name when they are giving my details to someone else. God is our father. We can call him, “Dad”. Even more importantly, like my kids addressing me, we can call him, “Daddy”!

I often just sit silently in prayer with my “abba”/father/dad/daddy/pa, enjoying the sense comfort, approval, affirmation, and protection there. Praying out loud with other people, though, I most often address my prayer to “Father”, because I want people to know that I am God’s son, and that he is my father.

Anyone can pray to, “God…”, but only his children would dare pray, “Father…”

Addressing God as your father reminds yourself, and him, that he is responsible to you as a father is to a child. That means you can pray, “Daddy, help!”, and know that you have his attention!

Conclusion

Dawn is a giant in the kingdom of heaven. I have often said that I am well blessed to have been her student. She taught me how to pray when life’s not ok. I saw this “Lament” form of prayer actually provide real relief and comfort for her, which translated to courage and determination to endure for another day.

The Laments are actually a liturgical form of prayer, which our faith communities generally seem to have dispensed with. I suspect this is because we simply don’t suffer enough! But the Laments have encouraged and sustained the faith community through tragedy, trauma, and unimaginable opposition. This is a form of prayer that we need to cultivate and to invest in. Without it, the faithful will be ill equipped when we face our Trials.

Lament psalms are prayers of superlative hope in the darkest of times.

Let’s pray.

 How long, Father? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

 

Look on me and answer, Daddy!

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

 

But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Father’s praise,

for he has been good to me.

 

Amen

 

Stop Press:

I more recently preached again on this psalm, and instead of saying the same things, I took my hearers on a lament journey. I recommend coming along:

 

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