Walking by his daughter’s room one night, a young father overheard her repeating the alphabet in an oddly reverent way. “What on earth are you up to?” he asked.
“I’m saying my prayers,” explained the little girl, “but I can’t think of exactly the right words tonight, so I’m just saying all the letters. God will put them together for me, because God knows what I’m thinking.”
Do you ever feel like this little girl? That you want, or need, to pray but just aren’t sure of the words to say? Maybe you feel like you don’t know how to pray the “right” way. It’s a trap we all fall into; thinking that God wants to hear certain words, phrases, or emotions in our prayers; and that some prayers are better than others.
And yet, scripture tells us a different story. There are prayers throughout all of scripture; but one of my favorite places to look for guidance is in the book of Psalms because each psalm is a prayer or hymn written by us to God, and gives an account of some kind of human experience and emotion.
There are prayers of praise, like Psalm 150: “Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”
And psalms of thanksgiving, like Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into God’s presence with singing . . . enter God’s gates with thanksgiving!” These psalms of praise and thanksgiving roll off our tongues because we want to give God thanks and praise.
But what about those times when our lives aren’t filled with praise and thanksgiving? For these times, we look to the psalms of lament, like Psalm 13: “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?”
Lament psalms are filled with pain, grief, and anger. Did you know that there are more psalms of lament than any other kind of psalm in the Bible? This assures us that we are not the only people to have ever felt this way.
Being a child of God is not easy. We might be tempted to think that it is, that because we call ourselves Christian, have been baptized, or go to church, our lives should run smoothly and be well-oriented. And yet, we find again and again that this is not true. Some days we are angry, we doubt, and we might not trust God.
I believe that the psalms in the Bible are important for several reasons. First, they reassure us that it is human to question God, to be angry with God, to bargain or threaten, because faithful living is hard. These psalms exist to remind us that it is okay to feel this way.
Second, they give us words for those dark nights, nights when the bottom drops out and the pain seems too much to bear. We are reminded that even our pains and angers are words that God wants to hear, that they are dimensions of our lives that are also prayers.
And third, they tell us that God is big enough for everything we’ve got our pain, our anger, our questions, our doubts. They remind us that we can be genuine in our faith and have moments of doubt. And that God is present with us precisely when it feels like He isn’t there.
God is listening. And when we sing songs of praise and thanksgiving, God offers the harmony. But when we feel alone, God offers salvation. When we sing songs of despair, God offers grace. When we face death, God offers life; and when our hope despairs, we find that, in God, despair still hopes.