Praying the un-prayable

As Christians we cherish the Old and New Testaments for many reasons. They teach us about God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. The prophecies and promises of His coming in the OT, and the revelation of Him through the Gospels, and then expanded teachings in the NT letters. 

There are many texts in the OT that you can read that point ahead to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Here are just a few (look up their fulfillment in the NT):

Gen. 3:15; 12:1-3; 15:1-6; Isaiah 7:14; 9:1-7; 53; Micah 5:2; Zechariah 9:9-10; 13:7-9

As part of our new relationship with God (saved, not condemned), God invites us to approach Him in prayer.

Praying

Jesus invites the hearers/readers/listeners to believe on Him and be saved. This includes forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, etc., and to approach God in prayer and to do so with confidence. In fact, we see in both testaments the encouragement to pray, the models for praying. Reading the Psalms can be great sources of praying, and learning about prayer.

For centuries Christians have grown in their prayer lives as they are influenced, guided, and directed by the Bible.

Praying can be hard

As we live in this world that is scarred by sin, it doesn’t take us long to hit the brick wall of difficult prayers. I don’t mean simple prayers, but those prayers that are so agonizing that we can’t even express ourselves. Words seem to fail us.

Having lived through decades of agony, fear, inability to change circumstances, I can’t even count how many times I was flat on the bed, floor, ground, crying out loud, “How long!?!” One Psalm captures that extreme sense of loss, abandonment, despair.

God does not leave us in that condition. And it is a good thing. Perhaps the pain of what is happening is monumental,  and we stutter, frozen in a failure to even pray. God promises that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in that exact spot:

At the same time the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we don’t know how to pray for what we need. But the Spirit intercedes along with our groans that cannot be expressed in words. The one who searches our hearts knows what the Spirit has in mind. The Spirit intercedes for God’s people the way God wants him to.  (Romans 8:26-27 GW)

What a comfort that God helps form our prayers even in those difficult, trying times.

Praying the Un-prayable

But now we come to the most difficult part. Trying to pray the un-prayable. This is the extreme condition when praying even seems unspeakable. When the pain is beyond description. To even say words at that point would mean that even God would be offended!

Psalm 137 comes to mind. It begins with a lament.

So far, this seems like a normal lament. But notice how this ends:

That is startling!! A few years ago I read one commentator who wrote strongly that this is “sub-Christian” and should never be uttered by anyone! Or in the words of this subheading: Praying the un-prayable.

I would offer that this prayer is precisely a Christian prayer, a faithful prayer. For the Jew writing this, the agony of seeing Jerusalem and the temple destroyed was overwhelming. The agony of deportation to other lands (not just Babylon, but also Egypt). The death of many family members and friends boils in the backdrop of the mind. The Psalm is not written with a “peaceful, pretty, gentle” background. The raw emotions of the Jewish people comes through very clearly.

But God… and this is key… But the Psalmist who utters this prayer brings the full brunt of the desperation before God. Notice, however, that the Psalmist does not act on this violence, namely “smashing babies against the rocks.” Rather the Psalmist is praying in faith before God. And that faith is such that God can handle the anger, the frustration, the hopelessness. The worst of all imaginable words, yet the Psalmist brings those emotions, hurts, losses, and now even words before God.

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A word about justice:

The Psalmist does not take matters into his own hands. His heart is open about what he wanted to do—before God. But justice was not in his hands. God raised up others (namely, the Persians) who conquered Babylon. Was it instantaneous justice? No, but it was far better than one person trying to take on personal vengeance.

In the case of the sexual abuse scandal at MSU, USAG, and OSOC, God raised up people to address not one abuse incident—remember that many were not aware how extensive it was—but the larger scheme. Therefore, God raised up Rachael, Morgan, Makayla, and many others to become the voice that shouted “no more!”

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina in the courtroom allowed those many voices to be heard. The voice was no longer one lonely, fearful voice, but a combination of hundreds of voices, angry voices of women who were finally being heard. The Psalmist of 137 gave way to God’s greater justice. And now that same process is being played out. Justice is being served.

And the voices of others who have been abused are now catching worldwide attention: Abby Honold and the law named after her in Minnesota. Sammy Woodhouse who survived the Rotherham abuse ring is telling the story through her book and personal appearances. 

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Hope in Praying the Un-prayable

In praying this way, we are not offending God by our words. Rather we are actually trusting Him to hear, and respond in His perfect way. Not our way, not the expedient way, not the way we planned, not in the time we demand, but in His perfect way and perfect timing. We do so, knowing His promises to hear and to act.

Over the years when the ongoing turmoil was moving beyond 30 years, and part of it was our one son was missing for 18 years, life was beyond messy—it felt like the Babylonian captivity. It was what I described privately as “hell on earth.” That was the strongest way to describe it. Was God offended? No, he welcomes the prayers that are un-prayable. My heart was broken into a million pieces, my words inadequate. But, God listened.

My prayer of lament, the un-prayable prayer, was answered in a dramatic fashion two years ago. What I struggled to utter during those decades was answered in a way I didn’t think possible. But God…

Abused, broken—
prayers for them and with them

As I think about those who have been (and are being) abused, I think of Psalm 137. We can pray their un-prayable prayers for them and with them. We can open our mouths before God to say the difficult words, express the hurt, anger, rage, frustration. And we know that God can handle it.

That is one reason I began the daily prayer on Facebook and Twitter for #PrayerSurvivorsConquerors who suffered (and still do) under the abuse by Larry Nazzar, MSU, and USAG, USOC, etc.

But now, we can expand that to pray for the many who have suffered abuse in so many ways. I think of Madeleine Black, Abby Honold, Lori Ann Thompson, Sandy Beach, Mary DeMuth, and so many others. And prayers for those who care for and minister to those who have been abused.

When we pray for them, we do not in any way minimize or diminish what has happened, what they are experiencing, the anguish, despair, sense of being forgotten. Rather, we pray in light of all that, we pray that God brings what we cannot.

Let’s storm God’s throne of mercy with un-prayable prayers, for the sake of our sisters and brothers.

Our prayers continue
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Unbelievable Sacrifice

The first liturgical reading for the 1st Sunday in Lent is challenging in light of the events of this past week. In Genesis 12:1-3 and 15:1-6 God had given great promises to Abram [name changed to Abraham in Gen. 17] about having a son, even in advanced age for himself and his wife Sarai.

After this son, Isaac, is born (Gen. 21), God asks him to do the unthinkable. Note specifically how God addresses Abraham:  “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” Abraham follows through with God’s instruction. But God stops him before the sacrifice of his son is done. God addresses him in the same way as v. 2: “you did not refuse to give me your son, your only son” (v. 12). God provides a ram instead for the sacrifice.

What God did not allow Abraham to complete, God eventually does. He offers His Son as the perfect sacrifice.

10 Yet, it was the LORD’s will to crush him with suffering. When the LORD has made his life a sacrifice for our wrongdoings, he will see his descendants for many days. The will of the LORD will succeed through him. 11 He will see and be satisfied because of his suffering. My righteous servant will acquit many people because of what he has learned ⌝through suffering⌟. He will carry their sins as a burden. (Isaiah 53:10-11)

The Gospel reading for Feb. 4 (Transfiguration, Mark 9:2-9) occurs in the middle of Jesus’ earthly ministry, emphasizes this sonship (and love) of Jesus again.

Then a cloud overshadowed them. A voice came out of the cloud and said, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Note the prelude to that sacrifice in Mark 1:9-15 when Jesus is baptized (Gospel reading for this Sunday).  “You are my Son, whom I love. I am pleased with you” (v. 11).

And then the final piece of the sacrifice comes in Mark 15:34.

At three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

The beloved Son is now the rejected Son, abandoned even by His very own Father in heaven. By doing so, Jesus carried the sins, not just sticks of wood to the mountain (i.e. Isaac), but with His own suffering and death. After His resurrection from the dead, God’s approval and love is complete—Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s plan of saving sinners.

This is true because Christ suffered for our sins once. He was an innocent person, but he suffered for guilty people so that he could bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18)

When we believe Jesus is our Savior, then God has some wonderful words for us to hear and remember.

Before the Passover festival, Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go back to the Father. Jesus loved his own who were in the world, and he loved them to the end. (John 13:1)

Don’t love money. Be happy with what you have because God has said, “I will never abandon you or leave you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

God our Father loved us and by his kindness [grace] gave us everlasting encouragement and good hope. (2 Thessalonians 2:16)

Especially pertinent in light of the agony and affliction many have experienced recently, Paul writes about the significance of God’s love.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (Romans 8:35 NAS)

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:37 NAS)

May this love be yours in Jesus Christ. May you live in light of that love, hope, and encouragement.

An unbelievable sacrifice through Jesus becomes the believable sacrifice for us, for salvation from sin, for new life, for cleansed conscience, and the promise of eternal life, with no pain, sorrow, loss, death, or tears.

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Genesis 22:1–18 (GW)

1 Later God tested Abraham and called to him, “Abraham!”
“Yes, here I am!” he answered.
2 God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.”

3 Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut the wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place that God had told him about.  4 Two days later Abraham saw the place in the distance.  5 Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the donkey while the boy and I go over there. We’ll worship. After that we’ll come back to you.”

6 Then Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to his son Isaac. Abraham carried the burning coals and the knife. The two of them went on together.
Isaac spoke up and said, “Father?”
“Yes, Son?” Abraham answered.
Isaac asked, “We have the burning coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, Son.”

The two of them went on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had told him about, Abraham built the altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied up his son Isaac and laid him on top of the wood on the altar. 10 Next, Abraham picked up the knife and took it in his hand to sacrifice his son.

11 But the Messenger of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Yes?” he answered.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you did not refuse to give me your son, your only son.”

13 When Abraham looked around, he saw a ram behind him caught by its horns in a bush. So Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 Abraham named that place The LORD Will Provide. It is still said today, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”

15 Then the Messenger of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time 16 and said, “I am taking an oath on my own name, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not refused to give me your son, your only son, 17 I will certainly bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of their enemies’ cities. 18 Through your descendant all the nations of the earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

The unthinkable becomes reality

Romans 5:6-15 is the epistle reading for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 18, 2017). The pervasive reality of sin had always been an obstacle for humans relative to God. No amount of work or effort or wishful thinking could remove that barrier.

The barrier between God and humans existed because of sin that was inherited from the sin of Adam. Every person is born as a sinner, we never have to teach someone to sin let alone how to sin. There are two aspects to the barrier:

  1. The positive demand to be perfect could not be met by human sinners. (Matthew 5:48; James 2:10)
  2. The negative consequences of sin meant that the sinner had to die to pay the penalty of sin.

Left to their own devices, sinners could never satisfy either part of that demand. That meant that sinners were helpless. As Paul writes in our text, Jesus was the solution to both aspects. He  lived that perfect life (2 Cor. 5:17) in the midst of temptation to sin (Hebrews 4:15). In our text, he wrote: “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

Note the consequences: “declared righteous,” “saved,” “reconciled.” All of this is entirely God’s gifts to us. And that is worth singing about:

Let the whole earth shout triumphantly to God! Let the whole earth shout triumphantly to God! Serve the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. (Psalm 100:1-2)

Romans 5:6-15 (CSB)

6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. 8 But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 How much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by his blood, will we be saved through him from wrath. 10 For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all people, because all sinned. 13 In fact, sin was in the world before the law, but sin is not charged to a person’s account when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin in the likeness of Adam’s transgression. He is a type of the Coming One.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if by the one man’s trespass the many died, how much more have the grace of God and the gift which comes through the grace of the one man Jesus Christ overflowed to the many.

By faith in Jesus, we have a perfect standing before God, forgiven, restored, and waiting for that final salvation.

Wonderful news to ponder daily and give thanks.