Current Challenge from Doug Knox.
Call to Prayer, Part 7
The Danger of Praise without Grief
Recently I attended the funeral of a young father who had committed suicide. That tragedy was bad enough, but worse was the fact that the presiding pastors discouraged any show of grief.
I do not remember anything that either of the two pastors said in their sermons. What I do remember is a service dominated by praise music that became more and more frenzied as the service went on. When the family grieved, the music amped up.
I left in the middle of the service.
The Loss of Grief in Contemporary Christian Culture
Modern Christian culture has lost far more than the ability to empathize with the grieving. We have tried to outlaw grief. When someone grieves, we throw platitudes at them like these.
· “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
· Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
· “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17).
On the surface, passages like these encourage us to trust in God. When we use them exclusively, they become missiles to shoot down honest pain among our brothers and sisters.
The problem is not that we lack the answers to the difficult questions. We can be compassionate without having to know the answers.
The problem is that we have become unwilling to subject ourselves to the questions. Western Christianity has numbed itself to pain for so long that we have lost the ability to offer comfort to others who are in pain. We have turned grief into an out-of-bounds area. Even funerals rush through grief to get us back to “the joy of the Lord.”
Unfortunately, joy that denies grief is nothing more than a grinning mask.
Why We need Grief
In truth, grief is more important for the Christian life than we realize.
If there were no other reasons, we need grief because the Lord has blessed it. It is the means by which God calls us to seek him. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount opens with the grace of grief.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…”
Jesus blesses those who mourn because the grieving seek God’s face more intently than anyone else can. Grief bears fruit that no amount of praise for praise’s sake can produce. Grief grounds us in our need for God’s grace.
· It causes us to acknowledge out true feelings before God.
· It makes us admit that we do not have the ability to manufacture praise at will.
· It lets others know that a problem exists that must be addressed.
· It draws us to the Lord in a far deeper way than praise alone can.
· It drives us to show compassion when others suffer.
God’s Special Place for Grief
Consider this fact. The most frequently occurring category in the Psalms is not praise. It is lament.
Laments are expressions of grief set to worship. They are deliberate and loud, and they call God to honor his covenant among his people. Psalm 102 is an example of one of the many psalms of lament. It begins,
A PRAYER OF THE AFFLICTED, WHEN HE IS FAINT AND POURS OUT HIS COMPLAINT BEFORE THE LORD.
Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!
This is the language of a man who needs God. Almost all the psalms of lament begin with this kind of cry to God.
The psalmist continues with a description of his suffering:
For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning, my bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl of the wilderness, like an owl of the waste places;
I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
The laments have no time for pretend praise language. They must do business with God, and until the business is finished, the lament-er refuses to shut up.
The Enemy on the Outskirts
Almost all the laments mention an enemy. In the psalms of confession, the enemy is the writer. Sometimes the enemy is God himself. Psalm 77 is an example of such a psalm.
Most often, however, someone stands on the outskirts. He is seldom named, but he always obstructs. Here is how Psalm 102 describes the enemies:
All the day my enemies taunt me; those who deride me use my name for a curse….
He has broken my strength in mid-course; he has shortened my days.
--Psalm 102:8, 23
The enemy gives legitimacy to the lament. When he prevails over the saints, God’s name suffers. He makes the problem real.
Trust amid Complaint
The psalmists know where their deliverance comes from, however. This is why they are so bold in their complaints. When God rises up to deliver, the world will witness the truth.
But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion;it is the time to favor her;the appointed time has come….
For the LORD builds up Zion;he appears in his glory;
he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.
--Psalm 102:12-13, 16-17
The Return to Praise
The expectation of the laments is for God to deliver, and when he does, the Psalmists are ready to offer praise for his deliverance. Usually, this occurs as a vow, with the form, “I will tell his praise in the congregation.” In this psalm, the vow is expressed as a wish.
Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD;
that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven, the LORD looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die….
The psalms of lament always anticipate a return to praise, because God makes his name great when he delivers
Call to Prayer, Part 8
The Meaning of Praise in Prayer
The Complimentary Relationship between Joy and Grief
Last week, my wife and I visited my brother and his family in North Carolina. We met our grandnieces, ages 8 and almost 4, for the first time. When we left Friday morning, our younger grandniece cried. I was certain that someone would try to soothe her, but thankfully, no one tried. Had anyone done so, the effort would have destroyed a moment that was magic. Her sorrow at our departure framed our collective joy in each other’s presence.
The Problems with One-sided Praise in Prayer
Our prayer relationship with our heavenly Father contains the same relationship between sorrow and joy. Grief is not an emotion to be avoided. It gives weight to joy. Unfortunately, modern Western Christians have come to insist on a praise-all-the-time mentality. In doing so, we have lost sight not only of the value in grief, but of the strength of genuine praise as well. I see three fundamental problems with the all-praise-all-the-time mentality. First, it simply is not biblical. The Apostle Paul is clear about the universal reality of suffering.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
This passage goes on to show the counter-intuitive truth that hope grows best in barren soil. When we mourn, we look to God for better promises. When everything is happy all the time, we lose any reason look for something worthier. Second, the always-praise mentality places impossible expectations on the one who suffers. When only praise is permitted, the person who grieves becomes the person at fault. His faith must be weak. His attitude brings down the whole group. Therefore, he must decide what to do to fall into step with the rest. Finally, the always-praise mentality builds a wall between us and the plight of our brothers. If the problem belongs only to the one who mourns, the rest can stop listening and stop caring. Forced praise causes us to pursue the lie on every possible front. It compels us to abandon the biblical reality of grief, it prevents the grieving from being able to be honest about their grief, and it smothers our ability to empathize with those who suffer.
Genuine Deliverance from Desperate Situations
Does this mean that we must abandon praise?
Not at all. We simply need to understand praise from a biblical perspective. The psalmists approached praise in much more immediate terms than modern believers. Our worship culture is dominated by adjectives. God is amazing. God is wonderful. God is awesome. God is…well, you get the picture. The psalmists use adjectives as well, but they attach them to reality. In the Psalms, praises are never just happy words. They are concrete declarations that declare who God is and what he has done. And because of his deeds, we know that he is a good God. Consider these words from Psalm 116.
Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; our God is merciful.
The LORD preserves the simple [that is, those who trust him]; when I was brought low, he saved me.
How does the writer of this psalm know that God is righteous and merciful? Because he has experienced God’s righteousness and mercy. He expresses his joy in simple words. “When I was brought low, he saved me.” Praise in the Psalms always remembers the laments. It never forgets the sorrow that drove the believer to prayer in the first place. The whole reason to praise God is because he has delivered from grief. Psalm 116 begins with this declaration.
I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”
This is praise testimony at its best. The psalmist loves the LORD because he has heard and because he has listened. Death threatened him, and he cried to the LORD.
The Fulfillment of the Vow of Praise
In the previous segment, I mentioned the vow of praise in the psalms of lament. All the laments of the individual either mention the vow of praise explicitly or imply it. Psalm 116 is a fulfillment of the vow. The psalm carries a profound sense of relief from the disaster that once threatened. Now that God has saved the psalmist from death, he ponders how to express his gratitude.
What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD,
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.
--Psalm 116:12-14, emphasis added
The psalm concludes with these words on his preparation to present his testimony.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD.
I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the LORD!
The bond between praise and lament is both organic and indestructible. It allows an empathetic bridge to grow between those who rejoice and those who suffer. When the ones who rejoice can remember their suffering, they can give genuine encouragement to those who grieve.Meanwhile, the ones who continue to suffer can gain a foothold in hope, because they have a concrete reason to hope
Call to Prayer, Part 9
Laments of People and What They Do
The previous three challenges have explored individual suffering and the value that God places on it. In every case, the psalmists’ suffering is real. They begin in private pain, and they make no effort to sugarcoat it with praise. Most of the psalms of lament involve individuals’ prayers directed to God. A small number of the laments pray on behalf of the people. When a national crisis occurs, for example, a psalm of lament of the people often accompanies it. While the laments of the people share many of the characteristics of the laments of the individual, they are much bolder in the way that they present their case before God. If the laments of the people storm the gates of heaven, the laments of the people attack them with a battering ram. The laments of the people teach us much about how to pray for others. If we want to become serious about prayer that intercedes for others, we will do well to understand how important the laments of the people are to God. Starting with this segment, the next few studies will look at this important subject.
Psalm 44 and the People’s Case
Psalm 44 is a classic example of a lament of the people. Historically, it occurs late in the Old Testament, probably during Jeremiah’s time in sixth-century BC, when Babylon prepares to invade Judah. Like Britain preparing to defend itself against Hitler’s blitzkrieg during the opening months of WWII, Judah trembles before the Babylon. The new superpower threatens the nation’s existence as a people. The psalm is a plea to God to deliver his people and their worship from annihilation. The psalm unfolds in three stanzas, each with the same structure: Affirmation of a truth, Contrasting statement that highlights its opposite, Reaffirmation of the truth. The first two stanzas are short—verses 1-3 and verses 4-8. The final stanza, verses 9-26, presents the people’s case before the LORD.
First Stanza: A Historical Prelude
The psalm begins with the history of God’s establishment of Israel just after the Exodus, when he brought them to live in the land of promise. The main point of this section—and the truth that they will use to leverage their plea to God—is that Israel’s deliverance was a solo act. God alone bought his people into the land. The psalm unfolds like a hymn sung in a cathedral. It is a stately march with a cadence that calls us to consider each line.
O God, we have heard with our ears,our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old:
you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free…
The writers then reinforce the truth by stating its contrast:
…for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them…
Finally, they bring the stanza to a close by reaffirming the original truth:
…but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them.
Israel’s early history is sacred to the people. Their deliverance from Egyptian slavery is as important to Israel as Jesus work on the cross is to modern Christians.
Second Stanza: The Beginning of the Plea
The second stanza moves from God’s prior work to the people’s plea. It imitates the first stanza’s structure. Its opening affirmation calls on God to work as he had done in the past.
You are my King, O God; ordain salvation for Jacob!
Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
The statement, “You are my King, O God; / ordain salvation for Jacob,” is important. Four hundred years before, when Israel first called for a man-king to rule over them, part of the chosen king’s defined duties was to “go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20). Here, the psalmists affirm that their true king was not the man on the throne, but God himself. They wait for him to go out and fight their battles for them. Already the leveraging has begun.
The contrasting statement in the second stanza imitates the one in the first stanza. Now, however, it reflects the people’s situation, which is dire.
For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
This statement is as real as it gets. Judah’s paltry army has no chance to resist Babylon. Their bow and sword will be powerless against the military giant that threatens them. The reaffirmation of truth in this second stanza is a reiteration of their faith as well as their corporate vow of praise.
But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us.
In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
Where the People Stand
These words do not represent happy-faith declarations that say, “No matter what happens, we will continue to trust you.” They have no second-best options. The people’s lives are in jeopardy. They are about to become slaves in a foreign land. Unspeakable cruelty faces them. Under these circumstances, happy faith is whistling in the dark. At this point in the psalm, their prayer is only beginning. The last stanza will pull out the stops.
For now, the take-home value is simple. Prayer in desperate situations is not about looking brave before an audience of our peers. It is about coming to God in private, when the only thing we have to show for our presence is fear. The next segment will look at the final stanza of this psalm. Here we will see what desperate prayer looks like.
For additional studies click on the links below:
May 2017 - Exodus 6:1-13 - Defeat, Not Failure
June 2017 - John 9:1-7 - True Discipleship
October 2017 - Ephesians 1:9-10 - God and the Work Ethic
October 2017 - Psalm 11 - Righteousness and Evil in the Las Vegas Shooting
November 2017 - Ephesians 6:5-9 - Practicing Value in Undervalued Labor
December 2017 - Psalm 77:19 and Psalm 131- Waiting on the Lord
February 2018 - Nehemiah 8:5-8 - Thinking Man's Warfare
March 2018 - Isaiah 1:18-20 - Authority and Reason
April 2018 - Deuteronomy 17:14-20 - The Life of David, Part 1
November 2018 - February 2019 - Genesis 37, 38 - Judah's Journey To Manhood
April 2019 - Call to Prayer
July 2019 - Call to Prayer 2