prayer of lament
Updated: Jan 30
Unanswered prayer can leave us full of doubt and uncertainty. We've sometimes been told that God answers prayer in one of three ways: Yes, No, or Not Yet. But the reality of our lives seems a bit more complex than that, doesn't it? Even more confusing, what do we make of Jesus's promises that "all things are possible" and that he would "give us anything we ask" in his name?
"And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." - Jesus [John 14:13-14]
"I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you" - Jesus [John 15:16]
"I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive..." - Jesus [John 16:23-24]
Our modern prayer culture often tags the words "in Jesus name" to the end of each prayer as a type of incantation we hope will open the gates of God's compliance. But Jesus's invitation to pray "in His name" is so much more than the utterance of these "magic" words. In the 1st century, one's name was a synonym for their nature. To that end, Jesus promises that prayers "in line with his nature" will be answered. Okay, fair enough. So wouldn't healing a dying baby be in Jesus's nature? Wouldn't a prayer to end atrocities of human trafficking be in line with Jesus's nature? Why do many of these prayers seem to go unanswered?
At our last EPL, we explored some of the complexities of that question. As described by Peter Grieg's book, God on Mute, some of the factors have to do with what Grieg categorized as "God's World" (the laws of the natural world in which we live), "God's Will" (his desires & motives in relation to all the other 'wills' at work), and "God's War" (the forces at work around us being not just physical, but spiritual as well). While we often don't know exactly why our prayers go unanswered, it is undoubtedly more complex than the "yes, no, not yet" adage. We discussed the implications of God's World, God's Will, and God's War in some detail and ultimately discovered our tendency to ask God to prevent hardship, more so than praying in a way that expresses how we feel and asks him to provide grace and strength to endure.
Now, it is good and right for us to pray for protection. After all, Jesus himself taught us to pray for God to "deliver us from evil" (i.e. "don't let bad things happen to us"). But what does it mean for us to have a "theology of suffering" that claims God's promises in our hardship? In God's world, will, and war, there are many factors surrounding his response to our prayers, but how do we lean in and engage with God in honest dialogue about our desires, questions, frustration, and hurt?
One step toward this is found in an ancient form of prayer called lament. The Psalms serve as a type of prayer book. It’s there to teach us how to pray. And over two-thirds of the psalms are prayers of lament - confusion, rage, disillusionment, venting anger, questions, and frustrated longing - to God. All in a posture, not of whining, but of worship.
"How much longer, Lord, will you forget about me? Will it be forever? How long will you hide How long must I be confused and miserable all day? How long will my enemies keep beating me down?"
"Please listen, Lord God, and answer my prayers. Make my eyes sparkle again, or else I will fall into the sleep of death. My enemies will say, “Now we’ve won!” They will be greatly pleased when I am defeated."
"I trust your love, and I feel like celebrating because you rescued me. You have been good to me, Lord and I will sing about you." [Psalm 13]
this week's practice
Put away any phones or distractions, and get into a comfortable, but alert position. Try to bring to mind an unanswered prayer or emotional hurt in your life, our community, or our world (personal, systemic, etc.) . With that in your mind, read Psalm 13 (above). Do your best to pray it, not only to read. Sit in silence and allow yourself to feel and lament in your own life, community, or world. Pray your own “lament psalm” to God. Try to be candid without censoring as you pray. Remember, prayer isn’t a place to be our best, it’s a place to be honest. Take time to reflect on Jesus who went through unanswered prayer and emotional pain in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. Thank Him for being a God that suffers with us and for His promises to us. If you are able, bring to mind His promises to you and end by expressing your faith in God in the face of unanswered prayer.
Over the course of the week, pick out other lament psalms, and use them as a “liturgy” to give voice to your prayers (some great examples: Psalm 10, 13, 60, 79, or 80). Practice prayers of lament as described above.
Consider writing your own lament psalm. Think of it as a letter of prayer to God where you can be completely honest about what you’re feeling. God already knows what’s in your heart! Feel free to write out your dreams, doubts, hopes, fears, questions, confusion, disillusionment, disappointment, etc. Then pray your lament psalm out loud to God. (adapted from Practicing the Way)