Honest Expressions of Pain: Lessons for Prayer from the Psalms

“Grief is better than gaiety
For through a sad countenance the heart is improved”
Ecclesiastes 7:3

“Jesus wept.”
John 11:35

The question seems simple enough, but the answer seems elusive:  When things go horribly wrong, how should a faithful follower of Christ pray?  Life, as the saying goes, happens; loved ones pass away; friends betray us; disaster strikes; illness paralyzes.  How does one respond?  Fortunately, the book of Psalms teaches us how to pray by modeling prayer for us.  Here are just a few brief points of advice on learning to pray through despair:

1.  It’s OK to be honest.  When we hurt, It can be tempting to proof-text our way into denial.  After all, Paul does tell us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4).  So, if we’re in pain, we still ought to be smiling and belting out “praise the Lord!” to every stranger on the street, right?  Well, , actually, the book of Psalms is full of expressions of pain–there are more lament psalms than psalms of any other type.  And these psalms of lament are brutally honest:

  • “How long, oh LORD? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps 13:1)
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Ps 22:1; cf. Matt 27:46)
  • “Oh god, why do you cast us off forever?” (Ps 74:1)
  • “But now you have cast off and rejected  .  .  .  you have renounced the covenant with your servant” (Ps 89:38-39)
  • “Out of the depths I cry to your, O Lord!” (Ps 130:1)

In short, the prayers in the psalms don’t try to gloss over life’s pain.  They give a full, robust, and honest expression of the anguish that sometimes grips us frail humans.

2.  Let your pain lead you to hope expectantly in Adonai.  There is a movement across the book of Psalms from lament (which dominates the first 89 psalms) to praise (more prominent in Pss 90-150). This same movement can be found in the individual psalms of lament; with only one exception (Ps 88), the sixty-some prayers of lament all end on a hopeful, expectant note.  When we begin our prayers by honestly acknowledging whatever it is that ails us, we can then move on to ask God to intervene, praising and thanking him for hearing our prayer.  Let the hope that God will hear and act for his glory and your ultimate good overshadow the difficulties that you are facing.  Now, part of the lesson here is that we rob someone of the opportunity to move to point two (let your honest cry lead to expectant hope) when we gloss over point one (be honest).  The other side of the coin, however, is that our hope in God should ultimately move us past the pain. 

Grace by Eric Enstrom

3.  Pray through the Book of Psalms. 

How, exactly, we pray in the midst of pain will depend upon the situation that we are facing, and the book of Psalms gives us examples of many different situations.  Sometimes our pain is our own fault, and we need to find the words that will help us to express our feelings of sorrow, regret, and repentance (e.g., Pss 32; 51; 74; etc.).  Sometimes, our pain is a direct result of enemies making our life difficult (Pss 3; 7; 35; etc.), or physical sickness (Pss 38).  Whatever it is (at the risk of sounding cliché), “there’s a psalm for that.”

When we pray through the psalms, our patterns of personal prayer are shaped and molded to conform to a biblical model for prayer.  This is part of the spiritual exercise whereby we believers can be “transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:2).  Through this exercise, we can grow in our understanding of prayer and pain to move past the trite clichés of a superficial, suger-coated, pop-theology.  The psalms can teach us how to honestly express our pain, and they show us how to move past the pain, expectantly looking to God to respond to our prayer.

“Adonai has heard my plea for mercy;
Adonai accepts my prayer”
Ps 6:9

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About hjimkeener

Education: B.A.: Moody Bible Institute GCTS: Knox Theological Seminary M.Div.: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Ph.D.: Baylor University Ministry Experience: I have served as a Youth Minister, Associate Pastor of English Ministry, and a pulpit supply preacher. Teaching Experience: In addition to teaching in various volunteer and professional ministry settings, I have taught as a University Professor (Teaching Fellow; Baylor University) and as a Seminary Professor (El Seminario de la Iglesia Presbiteriana de Bolivia). I have also given lectures and sermons in Spanish.
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3 Responses to Honest Expressions of Pain: Lessons for Prayer from the Psalms

  1. Bonni says:

    Well said!!! Why people think we cannot be honest with Him when we are hurting, rejected, or angry is beyond me! He created us; He knows us better than we know ourselves!!! Trusting Him to be with us through the difficulty is the key!

    • hjimkeener says:

      Thanks, Bonni! I remember when I was a teen reading through the Psalms feeling a bit uncomfortable with all those lament psalms, in part because it was so outside of the sort of things I was taught to pray, and in part because it felt gloomy and depressing to me. As I got older and faced the harsh realities of life, that changed for me. I think age and maturity brings a very different perspective; in my experience, it is the spiritually mature people who are willing to admit and articulate their pain to God.

  2. Pingback: Praying Honestly | For His Lovingkindness is Everlasting.

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