Teach Me How to Pray: Lament
January 24, 2017
By Konnie Vissers
Twice in the past week, people in our church have asked me how to pray. I stumbled through a haphazard response, trying to seem like I knew what I was talking about. And I pray often, I definitely know how to pray (there really is not a wrong way), but to distill it down and articulate it with words eluded me…which is a problem. Any pastor should be able, on the spot, to explain what it means to pray. Let me rephrase that, any Christian should be able, on the spot, to explain what it means to pray.
And so the title, “teach me how to pray,” is the prayer I pray alongside you.
But there is this mentality in the church that there is a right and wrong way to pray, and that you have to do it a certain way. Many of you who are reading this also may find a great difference in praying alone and praying with other people. To be honest, I still find it anxiety-provoking to pray in front of people…what if I say the wrong words?! Let me reiterate—I cannot say the wrong words in prayer and neither can you. And just as private prayer is necessary and foundational to the Christian life, so is corporate prayer, praying together before God and other believers.
So, for the next several weeks as we continue in this series “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus,” we will be looking at prayer and different types of prayer. I will walk alongside you practicing these types of prayers, but I will also attempt to explain them in a way that is tangible. Since this week’s sermon and passage were on that ever-exciting emotion—anger, I thought the natural “type” of prayer to cover this week would be lament. Prayers of lament are upset prayers, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes a combination of the two. But prayers of lament are essentially pleas to God that something is not right and ought to be different than the way it is.
Often, I hear Christians pray prayers that sound so nice. Prayers of lament are anything but nice…they are real. Prayers of lament fall on the ears of God our loving parent, who the pray-er deeply trusts with both their positive and negative emotions. Prayers of lament call on God in the face of injustice and suffering in a broken world, and ask for redemption. But they don’t skiff over the angry, justice-seeking part and jump to redemption, they sit with God in the mire of it all.
The author of the book Lamentations, which is a prayer about the exile of God’s people, does not mince his words. “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace! Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to aliens. We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows” (Lamentations 5:1-3).
Again, earlier in the book, he writes: “When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted—does the Lord not see it?” (Lamentations 3:34-37). In other words…God, where are you in this broken, sick, and violent world? Where are you Lord? Open your eyes!
Prayers of lament are not only present in the book of Lamentations, but are sprinkled throughout the Psalms (a book of prayers written by various authors, including David), and throughout all of the major prophetic literature (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc). Jeremiah writes this prayer, “O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance do not take me away; know that on your account I suffer insult…Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (Jeremiah 15: 15, 18). Jeremiah’s words are not nice. They actually blame God for some of his problems; but they also plead with God for justice.
Similarly, David writes this in the book of Psalms, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!” (Psalms 13:1-3a).
What do all of these prayers have in common? Prayers of lament are not neutered prayers, but real cries to God. They are unedited in the best sense. They are prayers of real pain, and real sorrow, and real stories being thrown up at an understanding and loving God, who can handle our intense emotions, perhaps the only one who can handle all of our intense emotions.
If this seems un-holy to you in some way, then read the Bible—cover to cover. It is full of prayers like these, real people being real with God; people in pain, expressing that pain to their loving maker in heaven. This, to be sure is not the only way to pray, but it is a great way to start when feeling the emotion of anger! Even when people cannot handle your rage (or shouldn’t have to), God can take it.
We know that this is not unholy because Jesus, Himself, prays prayers of lament. In Matthew 23, Jesus is denouncing the ways of the Pharisees and scribes in their hypocrisy, and ends that with a prayer, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matthew 23:37). Again, Jesus laments the loss of a friend, Lazarus, in John 11:28-37. Jesus prays prayers of lament in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his death.
Prayers of lament are proof that we trust God with our difficult emotions.
If you know how to get upset at injustice, then you know how to pray.
- What injustice bothers you more than any other?
- What would it look like to turn that over to God, and pray a prayer of lament?
- Read the following passages in the Bible, and try a modern translation like the NIV or a paraphrase like the Message: (Job 3:11-26, Psalm 6, Psalm 13, Psalm 22, the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah 15:15-18) What commonalities do you see in these prayers?
- Write your own prayer of lament in your journal.
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