Wednesday, November 3, 2010
tear prayer (pouring out our soul)
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No form of prayer is more important than the one we’ll discuss tonight, and yet no form of prayer is as foreign to the church as the one we’ll discuss tonight – and that’s deeply emotional tear prayer, or “pain prayer,” or lament. For the most part, we really don’t know what to do with our negative and dark emotions, and so most of us do one of two things. We stuff them, or we’re enslaved to them.
A lot of people stuff their feelings of pain and disillusionment, which often comes with life in a fallen world. In fact, I think religious people are especially prone to this. Religious people tend to think that God blesses good people, and “good” people aren’t supposed to feel rage, depression, and disappointment, and so when those feelings begin sneaking up, religious people stuff them. Bury them. They pretend they don’t exist. A lot of people stuff their feelings.
But on the other hand, a lot of people are utterly controlled by their feelings. The prevalent view in our society is that feelings just need to be expressed, or acted upon. And so whenever someone tells you they just need to vent, this is the logic they’re working with – that just letting their feelings flow like vomit will somehow bring about healing. But venting our emotions is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. It helps nothing, and to the extent that we think that it does, it actually harms us because it keeps us from getting the proper treatment that we need. And so stuffing our feelings is not the way of Christ. But venting our feelings is also not the way of Christ. And so what we need is a middle way – a Biblical way – through these two options. We need to learn to pray our feelings, especially the dark ones. And so with that in mind, let’s look at our reading from 1 Samuel.
1 Samuel 1: 4-18 (some verses omitted)
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
Now on the surface this story looks like a cheesy episode of HBO’s Big Love. There’s one husband, Elkanah, and he has two wives – Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah has lots of babies and keeps getting pregnant; Hannah is barren. To make matters worst, Peninnah – who doesn’t like Hannah – is constantly rubbing her face in the dirt about something she can’t control. And so the first thing we need to see is the depth of Hannah’s pain. Our reading says Hannah is “irritated” but you and I know, given the context, that “irritated” is a weak translation. In fact, the Hebrew word means, “to thunder or roar as in a storm.” In other words, what 1 Samuel suggests is that because Hannah can’t have children, she’s as torn up in her soul as the sea is in the midst of a hurricane. Because she’s barren Hannah’s soul thunders with pain, disappointment and shame.
Hannah can’t have kids – I don’t get it, what’s the big deal? That’s not the worst thing that could happen to a person. Actually, in Hannah’s day – for a woman – it was. You see in Hannah’s world a family’s prospect was completely tied to the number of children they had. Children meant income, status and security. The more children – the more hands to work the field; the more warriors to protect the village. On top of that, if you didn’t want to starve to death, you needed children to take care of you when you got old. The ancient Israelites didn’t have nursing homes or social security. Your only way to die securely was to have children, and practically speaking, if you wanted to have 3 or 4 live to adulthood, you needed to have at least ten – that’s how high the morality rate was. And so having lots of children was literally a life or death issue for a family and for a nation. And that’s why women who bore lots of children were considered heroes, and barren women, like Hannah, were considered failures. You see Hannah felt useless because her culture said, “if you don’t have children, you are nothing.” Hannah felt useless. Peninnah told her she was useless. Her culture told her she was useless. And because of that, Hannah’s soul thundered with pain.
That’s pretty oppressive. Thank God we don’t live in a culture like that, right? Wrong. We do live in a culture like that. Every culture, including our own, is just as oppressive as Hannah’s. You see every culture has a game – a happiness value system if you will – and the rules of the game are simple. If you have X, then you have worth. But if you don’t have X, you are nothing. And so sure – barren women in our society aren’t judged. No one here will take a big social hit for not having children. But maybe you will for not having designer jeans. Or if you don’t wear a size 2 or look like whoever’s on the cover of Star Magazine. And of course it’s the same for men, who have their own expectations they’re supposed to be living into. A happiness value system is imposed on each one of us, and to the extent that we play the culture’s game, our soul will thunder. Let me give you some stats. 400 Christians involved in a campus ministry at the University of Texas were surveyed a few years back. In 2008,
• 72% of women felt bad about how they looked at least once a week and 13% struggled with an eating disorder
• 34% of men were addicted to pornography
• 20% had suicidal thoughts at least once a semester – that’s one out of every five
Let’s get real for a second – only an oppressive culture can create those kinds of statistics. Remember, those surveyed were Christians – people trying to anchor their lives in Jesus Christ. And like us, most of them found it difficult to be faithful and joyful. And so what I want us to see is that Hannah’s culture was no more oppressive than ours. Every culture plays the game. Every culture gives us a happiness value system and to the extent that we buy in our soul will thunder with pain. Now, I’m not saying our culture is the source of all our pain or even most of it, but it was the source of Hannah’s pain, and it’s the source of a lot the pain we feel, and that’s why I mention it. And so what does Hannah do?
Well, our reading tells us Hanna “rose” but the Hebrew word is implying more, that she finally “took a stand.” Hanna took a stand against finding meaning in her culture’s happiness value system and she decides to turn to the Lord. In other words, Hannah takes the mess her life has become and she decides to resolve it in prayer. And notice how emotional Hannah’s prayer is, so emotional in fact that the high priest Eli had never seen anything like it. He thought Hannah was drunk! But she’s not. In Hannah’s own words, she’s “pouring out her soul before the Lord.”
“I’ve been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” This is the middle way we’ve been looking for. We don’t stuff our emotions, and we don’t just vent them. No, we pour them out before God. Or to put it differently, we pour them in to God’s reality. Let’s look at one more Bible passage, which sheds a little light on how we do that.
Psalm 126: 4-6
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
I have to say, I love the psalms – they put us in touch with and help us to pray through the deepest emotions of the human heart. And most of the psalms, believe it or not, are “laments” – i.e., pre-reflected prayers of great pain and anger towards God. And this psalm in particular helps us see three things when it comes to our tears. It suggests that we should expect them, plant them, and pray them. In other words, expect tears. Plant your tears. Pray your tears.
First, we need to expect tears. A lot of Christians walk around with a myth that goes something like this. If I’m good then God won’t let anything bad happen to me. But the psalmist compares what his people are going through to the Negev, which was a lifeless dessert. Who knows exactly what his people are going through – perhaps a plague or a military defeat? But either way, what he’s saying to God is “our life right now is like the driest of deserts.” And so first, Christians should expect tears. In fact, to the extent that we grow in Christ we’ll actually cry more. The prophet Ezekiel says that God takes hearts of stone and turns them into hearts of flesh. What that means is that as we grow our heart becomes more like God’s heart, which is the softest and most tender heart in the universe. You see hearts of stone encounter evil and it just bounces right off. They feel contempt or anger towards the evildoer. But not people with hearts of flesh. They absorb the pain. They absorb the evil. They feel it deeply – like God.
And isn’t this what Jesus did? Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” And one thing we know about Jesus – he was always crying. His soul thundered in the face of the sin and sickness and faithlessness of the people he encountered. And just in case we’ve bought into the lie that God won’t let anything bad happen to us if we’re good, think of Jesus. He was pretty good and, well, things ended badly for Him. And so lesson number one. Expect pain. Expect tears. Not every day. Not every season of life. But there will be days, and there will be seasons, where weeping is par for the course. And when that happens, please know it’s not because we’ve done anything wrong or because God has abandoned us.
To the extent that we know that, we can (2) plant our tears when they come. Listen again to what psalm 126 says. “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” In other words, our tears need to be seen as an opportunity for growth. The image the psalm gives us is that of a farmer, and it’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening. Either, the farmer is weeping on the soil and his tears are supposed to be the seed, or the farmer has planted seeds and is watering those seeds with his tears. Either way, the point is the same. What this psalm is saying is that if our tears are planted in God, then in the end we’ll reap a harvest of joy. In other words, we’ll be more joyful, more loving, and more gracious than had we never wept in the first place. In and of themselves, tears will do us no good. But planted in God, they yield a harvest of joy. Paul puts it like this, “for we know that this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” What do tears planted in God do? Prepare us for an eternal weight of glory beyond anything that we can measure.
And if we know that, (3) we can pray our tears. We won’t stuff them. We won’t just vent them. No, we’ll think deeply about what we’re feeling – our anger and fear and disappointment and failure – and we’ll pour it out before the Lord. We’ll pour our pain into God’s reality, but in order to do that, we have to understand the reality of God. First, we have to know how great the grace of God is. This is something Hannah understood. You see Hannah had faith that the broken heart of one obscure little woman, whom the culture deemed a failure, mattered to God. That’s part of what’s implied when the Bible says Hanna “rose.” She took a stand against her culture’s nihilistic view that said she didn’t matter and she poured her soul into God’s greatness and God’s mercy because she knew that to Him she did matter. She mattered greatly. And so to pray our pain the first thing we need to realize is this: “it’s safe.” Our deepest, darkest emotions and fears can be expressed to God without shame. We don’t put before God what we think should be inside us. We put before God what actually is inside us, even if it’s messy. But to do that, we have to know how great the grace of God is.
Second, we have to pray our sufferings with a vision of the cross. We have to know that, the night before he died, Jesus said, “his soul was sorrowful even unto death.” In other words, Jesus knows what it’s like to cry out in pain and to hear nothing but silence. He understands. He knows. He experienced that for us.
Finally, we can only pray our tears to the extent that we know the glory that awaits us. Like the psalm says, those who sow with tears will reap songs of joy. The Book of Revelation says that in the end God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. In fact, psalm 56 says that even now God keeps our every tear in a bottle. In other words, every single tear matters to God. Every tear planted in Him will eventually reap a great harvest of joy – a harvest much greater than had we never cried in the first place.