Think about the people you know who are in terrible pain right now. Violence, death, loss, trauma, or physical or mental illness has touched them, even destroyed them. (Perhaps this person is you.) If they should come to worship, is there an appropriate context for them to acknowledge their pain before God and to experience the corporate church supporting them in prayer?
As our churches have shifted from lament and praise to petition and thanksgiving, we have flattened the emotional tone of our worship and also have prevented people from sharing their deepest selves before God in worship. The psalms of lament make space for the expression of our painful feelings in public worship. They dare to trust God with our most bitter feelings toward God and the enemy. The people of the Psalms know that nothing is hidden from God and that only truth will be acceptable in their treasured covenant relationship. Far too often contemporary worship may petition God for general good, but it avoids any suggestion that we blame God if we experience tragedy.
Consider how much more vital our experience of worship would be if people could bring their deepest pains and most bitter complaints to worship. Picture the comfort they could find in worship if they could feel their brothers and sisters in the faith joining them in lifting up their heartfelt feelings to God in prayer. Ironically, almost a third of the Psalms, our prayer book in the Bible, consists of complaint-filled words with the strongest of emotions that we are now reluctant to include in our experience of worship. It was in corporate worship that the Israelites brought their deepest concerns, most bitter complaints, and deepest desires and laid them before God. Because they were able to do so, they also were able to bring their most ecstatic praise to God.
The closest most people come to bringing the negative experiences of life to public worship is in the confession of sins. While confession is important in our lives, it usually does not include a time for us to vent to God our bitterest feelings against the way that life, and therefore God, has treated us or what in our darkest moments we really desire to have happen to our enemies. Both types of feelings were given full expression in the worship of Israel.
The failure to have a place in worship for confession of sins forces many people who have bitter feelings either to absent themselves from the experience of worship or to deny their feelings and therefore present a false self before God when they worship. The word “liturgy” has the original meaning of proclaiming the work of the people to God in praise. Since our strongest emotional responses are often shaped by our workday world, to deny a place for those emotions in worship would suggest that what we do in worship is often less than complete liturgy. In our culture we have been taught to fear the release of our emotions. It would be very difficult for most of us to enter a public worship experience and unload our feelings. What we need is a framework through which we can channel our feelings in a way that is acceptable to God. The Psalms provide this kind of framework into which we can pour our deepest feelings so that these feelings do not run rampant but are rather held within the context of prayer. Because that framework has been provided to us by God through the Scriptures, it not only serves to order our worship but also to assure us that our feelings are an acceptable offering to God.
The alternative to being honest with God about our darkest feelings is pretending that we are greater than God and can handle feelings that God cannot handle. The alternative is to build a relationship with God based on dishonesty and filled with secrets. To tell God of our desire for vengeance on an enemy is to give those feelings over to God. This is a sign of trust that God can handle in a transforming way that which would only become destructive in us. It is also healthier to give these feelings over to God so that they do not become a cancer within us. By giving all our feelings in total honesty to God, we can leave vengeance to God and be open to reconciliation.
We must remember that prayer is not communication from one who knows to one who does not know, as if we are bringing new information to the relationship. God knows what we ask before we ask it. God also knows what we feel, even if we do not express it. Yet we are often reluctant to share our most negative feelings with God as if by not expressing them we could hide this part of ourselves from God. Prayer is the nurturing of a relationship through communication or a communing together. Our covenant relationship with God, like that of Israel before us, is weakened by deceit and strengthened by our willingness to trust God with our truth, even the truth of which we are ashamed. Part of our reluctance to trust God with this truth may reflect our own unwillingness to acknowledge these feelings even to ourselves. Yet without doing so, these negative feelings will seek their own destructive release. It is only by giving them to the God who loves the whole of us that we can be open to God’s healing.
This post was adapted from Experiencing the Psalms by Stephen P. McCutchan.