Growing up, my Christian teachers said that I could—and should—talk to God conversationally, just as if I was talking to a friend. (Although my Dad also cautioned me against speaking to God too casually, because God is more than a buddy) All this good advice was unsurprising, since I grew up in a church that valued extemporaneous instead of written prayers.
The corollary to this teaching was that I could—and should—tell God everything and anything about my life. Again, this is sound advice, if the Psalms are any indication of what prayer can all include. But this is also where things get difficult. If it’s truly good and appropriate to speak to God as if speaking to a friend—that is, by telling God everything and anything about our lives—what about praying to God the dark, unsavoury parts of our lives? In particular, what about the anger and hatred we sometimes feel towards others—can we dare to pray these painful, dangerous expressions? To put it baldly, as God’s people should we pray our anger and even hatred? Or is such praying itself a kind of sinning?
The New Testament offers many teachings about anger. Jesus says that anger, insults and name-calling are akin to murder; they smoulder and destroy lives (Matthew 5:21-22). Jesus’ brother explains that human anger does not achieve God’s purposes (James 1:20). Similarly, the apostle Paul instructs the early Christians to “put away…all bitterness and wrath and anger” (Ephesians 4:31); but he writes this only after he also telling his hearers to “be angry but do not sin…” (Ephesians 4:26). Remarkably, “be angry” is an imperative, not a suggestion.
And that takes me back to the Psalms—the church’s and Jesus’ tutor in prayer. What many people find most difficult and even offensive in the Psalms are the prayers of rage and hatred. Consider these examples from Psalms 10:15, 11:6, 17:14, 21:12, 53:5, 58:6, 69:28, 83:15, 109:18, 110:6, 139:19, 22.
Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers…. // On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. // May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them…. // For you will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows. // For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them. // O God, break the teeth in their mouths…. // Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous. // …So pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your hurricane. // [The wicked person] clothed himself with cursing as his coat, may it soak into his body like water, like oil into his bones. // [The Lord] will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth. // O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me…. I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
The final stanza of Psalm 137 is the most distressing of all:
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’ O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
Expressions like these seem entirely inappropriate for followers of Jesus because he always responded to evil with good. Not surprisingly, most churches omit verses like these during Sunday worship services!
I suggest, however, that we not try to be more pious than the Scriptures. Jesus himself, speaking through tears, used the closing words of Psalm 137 to lament God’s judgment on those who didn’t recognize that he had come to them on God’s behalf (Luke 19:41-44). I believe that Jesus’ tear-soaked use of Psalm 137 invites us to join the ancient Hebrews by praying even our hatred and anger.
Praying our hatred is a healthy first step toward living as Jesus’ followers—but it must never be our final step! Listen to several of Eugene Peterson’s comments on praying our hatred:
our hate needs to be prayed, not suppressed. Hate is our emotional link with…evil. It is the volcanic eruption of outrage when the holiness of being, ours or another’s, has been violated. …Hate is often the first sign that we care. …It is easy to be honest before God with our hallelujahs; it is somewhat more difficult to be honest in our hurts; it is nearly impossible to be honest before God in the dark emotions of our hate. …In prayer, not all is sweetness and light. The way of prayer is not to cover our unlovely emotions so that they will appear respectable, but expose them so that the can be enlisted in the work of [God’s] kingdom. (Answering God, pp. 98-100).
When our first step is to pray our hatreds—instead of first acting with violence against others or ourselves—we can progress to the next step, and the next, and the next. When we pray our rage to God, we relinquish the burning issue to God. We submit to God’s way and timing for righting the wrong. And thus we may eventually come to the step of praying for, blessing and even loving our enemies, because our struggles are ultimately “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
I knew a person who raged to me about an estranged family member. A wise Christian woman encouraged this person to pray for their ‘enemy.’ Over many months, that way of praying helped replace the aggrieved person’s anger and bitterness with compassion and softness. That experience showed me that naming our rage and even hatred to God (or to a Christian friend or spiritual director who represents God to us) is a valuable first step towards learning Christ’s countercultural ways of peacemaking instead of violence.
I’m therefore wondering how we might pray to God anger and hatred about family members who hurt us, employers who mistreat us, enemies who malign us, and others. In the memorable words of a wonderful Kenyan friend after she had been swindled by her roommate, “I will report her to God.”
May God “lead us not into times of trial but deliver us from the evil one,” so that instead of being destroyed by our hatred, we will be brought through our anger into peace.
P.S. Because of other writing commitments, I will take a hiatus from this blog until fall.
As resources for prayer, here are two books and a set of questions for personal reflection.
If you’re looking for summer reading about praying the Psalms, I recommend these books:
Bruegggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984. (This book is more scholarly. So feel free to skip through the most dense sections, which you can revisit on future occasions.)
In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of emotions in prayer. Further to that post and this one, I’ve come to view prayer as a wonderful way of lovingly interrogating one’s difficult emotions. I therefore offer the following questions, which you may find profitable for reflection, journaling, spiritual direction, and prayer.
- What am I feeling? Express those feelings to God, however raw and unfiltered they may be. (If, like me, you sometimes have trouble recognizing your emotions, the emotions tree may be helpful.)
- What’s the injustice behind my anger? The loss behind my grief? The threat behind my fear?
- What do I desire instead: for example, justice, comfort, protection.
- Now stop and listen. What is God praying, feeling and/or desiring with respect to my experience? (The Lord’s Prayer might give some clues to answering this question.)
- With respect to my particular situation, how do my prayer, life-direction, feelings, choices, and/or actions change as a result of listening for God?
Sources of photos are provided in the original blogpost.