by Kees van der Knijff
Too often these days, I find I am unable to pray more than a few words: “Lord, have mercy.” Overwhelmed by all that is happening in Lebanon and all around the world, everything else seems shallow, superfluous.
Other mornings, I hear myself pray for justice, and I think: “Do I even know what I am praying for when I am praying for justice?” Some blatant injustices are easy to point out. We all know about them and struggle with their consequences every day. But most of them are not so obvious. Knowing my own heart and knowing how much there is wrong in the world in almost every area of life, do I really dare to pray for justice?
In many ways, the crisis situation in Lebanon is challenging all of us. But one of the questions we, as believers in Christ, should not neglect is the challenge to our spirituality, and especially to our prayer life. Is our spirituality robust enough to endure the deep uncertainty of these times? Are our prayers real enough to look unflinchingly at the world around us and still “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16)?
Addressing ‘valley experiences’ is not among the strengths of contemporary evangelical theology and spirituality. Evangelical spirituality is regularly being accused, and sometimes rightly so, of being ‘escapist’: with its strong focus on eschatology it might convey the impression that all that counts is escaping this hard life to be eternally with God in heaven.
Now, of course, believing in a future in which all will be made right gives strength to endure the hardships of our present life. Yet, this belief can and should not stand on its own. The hope of being with God in the new heaven and new earth must be balanced by a deep conviction that God is with us, here, today, in our darkness.
One thing I am convinced we need these days are helpful and healing practices of lament. Learning, as individuals but also as churches, to honestly express our pain, our grief, our questions. Daring to bring our darkness into God’s light.
I come from a tradition in which singing the psalms was a key part of every Sunday service. We sang other songs, but the Psalms were a major part of our spiritual diet. Back then, I did not always appreciate and understand this preference for the psalms. At times, they seemed to lack New Testament tones of victory, of resurrection life. But these days, I miss the honesty and the rawness of the psalms. Is it possible that, with all our emphasis on confidence and victory, with all our praise and hallelujahs, we are not as honest and as real with God as the psalmists were?
Throughout the ages, the church has valued the crucial role of the psalms for Christian spirituality. Some traditions pray through the Psalter every month. Others sing the psalms regularly in their worship services. But where are the psalms in contemporary evangelicalism? Why don’t we appreciate and use these ancient words given to us by God, especially in circumstances where we are searching for ways to express our sorrows, our griefs, our pain? Songs of lament are the most common type in the book of Psalms, yet it seems we are hesitant and unexperienced in expressing our laments.
I see two main reasons we tend to undervalue these honest prayers handed to us. The first is that they are at times a bit too honest for our taste. The anger, the doubt, the grief, the pain, the desolation: we are not entirely comfortable to make the intense words our own. But, believing that the Bible is God’s word, perhaps we should reverse the question: are we not at times too polite with God? Do we feel free to express our inmost thoughts and feelings, do we dare to bring our inner darkness into His cleansing light? For I believe that is what happens in many of those ‘dark’ psalms: they transformed the psalmists in their bitter experiences, and they still hold the same transforming power for us and our bitter experiences. No doubt our God can handle our honesty. He even welcomes it.
The second reason I see is the widespread conviction that we are most ‘real’ when we express things in our own words. Why use ancient words or words written by someone else when we can express our thoughts and feelings in fresh words, in words that befit our personal preferences? It is not my intention to diminish the importance of free, personal prayer. But I strongly deny that we are in any sense more ‘real’ when we do so than when we use other forms of prayer. The importance of, among others, the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms in the Christian tradition support this.
Based on our gender or cultural background, there might be a third reason: expressing our raw feelings, especially when done in front of others, can be felt as a sign of weakness and a reason for shame. There is, of course, no need to display everything we feel and think before others, as long as we feel free to do so before God. But in the church, where we confess that we are all sinners depending on God’s grace, there should also be no reason whatsoever to feel ashamed of acknowledging our vulnerability and confusion.
In times of darkness and confusion especially, I am grateful that not everything depends on my own personal faith and my own personal words. I am grateful to be invited to come and stand in the faith of the church throughout the ages and to utter words that have proven their strength for centuries. These days, when I lack words, I am happy to turn to the Psalms and to make their words my own. When I don’t know what to say, I am grateful for the ancient prayers of the church that are handed to me by tradition. Sometimes, I stumble upon words that are perfect in our present situation. Recently, I read an extended and moving meditation on an old evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. It felt like the prayer was written for our times. Nowadays, I am happy to end my days with words I am gradually learning to make my own:
Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
Give rest to the weary;
Bless the dying;
Soothe the suffering;
Pity the afflicted;
Shield the joyous;
And all for your love’s sake.
Kees is a systematic theologian from the Netherlands and a member of the faculty of ABTS.
Thank you for this encouraging essay! It seems to me that the Lord could be moving the Church to return to practicing lament–at least those traditions which seemingly lost it. My family situation in the past year heightened my awareness of the need for lamenting to God. And, I should say, to LEARN HOW to lament Biblically. Besides the richness of lament in the Bible (how did I not realize there was so much?) … the liturgy and the prayers of those who’ve gone before (even 15 minutes before) are like oxygen to my soul. You may know this, but there is a recent book entitled, “Prayer in the Night: For those who work or watch or weep,” by Tish Harrison Warren. Peace.
Thank you for your encouraging reply. And indeed, I share your feeling that among evangelicals there might be a movement back towards ancient practices and prayers and the richness they contain. The book you mention is indeed a beautiful elaboration on the prayer I end with. Thanks for sharing!