Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Praying your way out of the depths

I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble… Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life. Psalm 142:1-2, 5

Psalm 142 is quite short – just seven verses, in fact. Yet in those seven verses the words “I”, “me” and “my” occur twenty-eight times. If my sums are correct, that’s an average of four times per verse.

That’s a lot! Once I had done the totting up I found it quite surprising.

We are often told that, when we pray, our prayers should be God-centred rather than me-centred. And that, surely, is right. But this little psalm (and there are plenty of others like it) puts a different angle on it. Let’s put it bluntly: there are times and places for self-focussed prayer. (I’m avoiding the word “self-centred” because it has such a negative feel.) Putting it more gently: it isn’t wrong for us to pray for ourselves.

I read an article in a Christian paper in which a prominent Christian was interviewed about his life. Among other things, he was asked about his prayer life, and one of the things he said was: “I never pray for myself”.

At first this made me feel pretty depressed. How spiritual this man must be! What a giant! And by comparison what a feeble, miserable failure I must be – because while I certainly aim to pray mainly for others, I must admit I have never had any qualms about praying for myself.

But after thinking about it for a bit I actually began to feel quite cross with that man. I found myself wondering if his claim was really a bit of spiritual one-upmanship, a touch of the holier-than-thous. Was he claiming to know better than the Bible? Was he saying that he knew more about prayer than the psalmists, the prophets and the apostles? More even than Jesus? For all these, beyond any doubt, prayed for themselves at various times.

So why shouldn’t we?

Just to be absolutely clear… Yes, it is bad if our prayers ever become completely self-absorbed. You might say that the writer of Psalm142 teeters on the brink of that in verse 4. Is he in danger of slipping into self-pity? “… there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.” Poor me!

But whether that’s so or not, there’s a lot in this psalm that can help us, especially when we’re finding the going hard. In verse 1 he tells us that he “cries aloud” to the Lord, that he “lifts up his voice”. Can you hear him? In verse 2 he tells us that he “pours out his complaint” to God. Can you picture him, perhaps down on his knees?

The psalmist’s self-focussed prayer is obviously very emotional, and its great merit is its total honesty. He doesn’t seem to worry about upsetting or offending God; he believes that God’s shoulders are broad enough to take it.

I wonder if many of us, when things begin to pile up on us, have a tendency to bottle it all up. If so, perhaps, like the psalmist, we sometimes need an “outpouring” session, a conscious attempt to unburden ourselves – to get it all off our chest.

Is it time you had such an outpouring session? A time when you aim to be undisturbed? A time to throw off “holy” language, the sort that perhaps we normally reserve for prayer: time to “tell it like it is”. (God knows anyway, remember.)

It might even be helpful to jot down on a piece of paper a list of all the things that are causing you distress or anxiety. It might be good to return to this list every day for a week or so to keep it fresh in your mind. And then, when you feel that you are “prayed out”, to destroy it in an almost ceremonial way, perhaps by putting a match to it? As if to say, “Right, I’ve laid all these things before God – they’re gone! And by his grace I won’t let them trouble me anymore!”

Just a thought.

Whatever, take hope from this psalm. True, it doesn’t rise to any great heights at the end, but the writer does a have real glimmerings of deliverance to come, especially in the final lines: “the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me”. He knows his prayer will be answered!

I don’t know about you, but I find it encouraging and heartening to picture him: smiling, liberated from his misery, and surrounded by his friends.

God will bring you through! There will be a happy ending!

Lord God, help me, by your grace, to hold on to you in the hard times. Amen.

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