Living on Holy Saturday

It is Holy Saturday, the day in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.

It’s a day of waiting.

It’s a day when we anticipate new life.

It’s a day when we cry out to God to right the wrong.

It’s a day when we prayerfully entrust to God our deepest wounds, with the hope that he can and will heal.

We live much of our lives on Holy Saturday. That’s why we need to remind ourselves of the promise articulated by the psalmist:

The LORD is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:18

It’s why we turn the psalmist’s words into prayers like this one:

“God of compassion,
you regard the forsaken
and give hope to the crushed in spirit;
hear those who cry to you in distress
and bring your ransomed people to sing your glorious praise,
now and for ever. Amen.”

If this is a prayer that speaks to you, remember that Sunday is coming. Resurrection is near. And Jesus is with you. Always.

Pardon and Peace

While I was doing the morning office, one of the prayers was for the assurance of forgiveness following a prayer of confession. It goes like this:

Grant to your faithful people, merciful Lord, pardon and peace; that we may be cleansed from all our sins, and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer (2019)

What struck me were the words “pardon and peace.” Because both are important. Pardon refers to God’s forgiveness of our sins. Peace refers to the assurance of forgiveness.

God doesn’t only want to forgive us; he wants us to know we have been forgiven. He invites us to live in this forgiveness. We needn’t hang on to our sins–through shame and guilt–after we have made confession and received God’s pardon. Receiving his pardon and peace means we can rest in his presence, knowing nothing stands between us.

Psalm 103:12 says that As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

1 John 1:9 says If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Have you ever continued to feel guilty or ashamed after you’ve confessed sin?

Have you ever tried to work a little harder at serving God to pay him back for what he has freely given?

Here’s the truth: We owe God everything; we can give God nothing. At least nothing he needs.

More to the point, we give him our need, our thanks, our praise, and our love. Yes, we serve him. Not to earn his gift, but to express our gratitude for it.

So let’s not hold on to what God has removed. Instead, let us move ahead joyfully because our Redeemer Jesus has indeed given us pardon and peace. Take to heart Jesus’ own words when he says Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. 

Feelings, Facts, and Faith

I don’t always “feel” spiritual.

Whatever that means.

Not only that, sometimes I feel positively unspiritual.

Again, whatever that means.

But maybe you can relate. You pray, but it feels like you’re talking to yourself. You read Scripture, but nothing springs out of the text as a joyful surprise or as a source of conviction. You go to church week after week, but wonder, “Is this it?” Your faith and church just doesn’t seem to be working for you like it once did.

I think if we’re honest, we all experience this sort of thing as Christians. Though possibly in different degrees. For some, the experience feels spiritually debilitating. Others have a short season of the spiritual blues.

There’s a word for this: Blah. Or maybe malaise. At more serious times, melancholy. It feels like God is absent. Theologically, it’s called by some “a dark night of the soul.”

I think of Psalm 42:5:

“Why, my soul, are you so dejected?
Why are you in such turmoil?

Feeling this way doesn’t mean we should give up on talking to God, let our Bibles gather dust on a bookcase, or stop attending our church. Even when we don’t experience meaning in our usual spiritual practices, we shouldn’t conclude they are meaningless in themselves. Much less should we give up on the Christian faith.

Trust me, I know what it’s like to be spiritually weary, to wonder if God is still doing something in my life and through my ministry. I understand what it means to feel an inward sigh when thinking about all the stuff related to church.

So I suppose the real question is what do we do when we go through this sort of thing?

Start with this. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

Put another way, our feelings don’t always tell us the truth about reality.

I recall Timothy Keller once saying “Doubt your doubts.” You have permission to doubt what your feelings are telling you about God, prayer, church, Jesus, the gospel, and the Christian faith. Feeling like God is absent doesn’t mean he is. Feeling like church is pointless doesn’t mean it is.

I heard a sermon today in which the pastor encouraged us to remember Jesus’ resurrection whenever we find ourselves experiencing a long night. We all need to hear this because we will all experience a long night of one kind or another.

So the first thing is this. Jesus’ resurrection is fact. He who was dead and buried was raised from the grave and is now alive. Whatever I am feeling, I can cling to this. I can cling to him. Because his resurrection means hope. It means eternal life. It means peace and assurance and comfort in the face of life’s difficult times. It means my feelings aren’t always right.

Even so, our feelings are sometimes an indication that there is something which needs attention in our life. So I’m not saying ignore your feelings. But be careful not to let them have their way with you.

It could be there are unsettled spiritual or theological questions rummaging around in your mind. It’s wise to address these questions carefully and prayerfully.

There’s the possibility that some unconfessed sin has created a barrier between yourself and God. Not always, but be aware this might be so. Be willing to fess up; but if you pray and wrack your brain and can’t think of an unconfessed sin, don’t make this into an extra unnecessary burden.

It’s also possible that no matter how hard you think about it, there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason for why you feel like you do.

Here are a few suggestions about how to respond to such an experience in no particular order:

  1. Talk to a close Christian friend or your pastor. Speaking your struggles normalizes them and often is a relief. Just having someone listen–really listen–and respond with understanding and grace will help you realize that you’re not alone and that what you’re going through isn’t as weird or unusual as you might think. Maybe find a prayer partner who would be willing to meet with you a few times a month.
  2. Tell God how you’re feeling. You don’t need to clean yourself up or hide your feelings when you pray. Not. At. All. There’s a whole category in the Book of Psalms called psalms of lament, where the psalmists cry out to God with their feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. Pray them as your prayers. Here are a few examples: Psalms 42, 74, 79, 85, and 88.
  3. Mix things up a little. In other words, try doing your devotions differently. Start a prayer journal. Draw on resources like the Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer. Find good, theologically sound books that talk about the spiritual life and what it means to have an intimate relationship with God. Go for a prayer walk. Let God speak to you through his beautiful creation. In other words, change your spiritual routine. If all you’ve been using for 20 years is the Our Daily Bread devotionals, maybe it’s time to try something else.
  4. Keep on praying, reading Scripture, and being connected to a worshipping Christian community. These are the basics of the Christian life. Everything else we do connects to these things in some way. Scripture tells us who God is. Prayer is asking God to be who he is in your life. And community reminds us that we don’t do any of this alone. Consider that you might not be the only person in your church feeling the same way. Maybe if you ask, God will lead you to that someone and you can bear one another’s burdens.

I think the most important thing in all of this is to remember that God is with you no matter how you feel. Your emotions don’t determine how God looks at you or feels about you. Countless saints and believers down through the ages have gone through what you’re going through. Some are going through it right now.

Here’s the thing: if you’re going through something like this, it could be an indication that God is inviting you into a deeper experience of his presence. Perhaps he is trying to grow your faith, to help you mature. Actually, I think he’s always trying to do this with us. Finding yourself in a spiritual wilderness might be God prompting you to walk more closely with him. He seeks to discipline us and to remove from us all the other stuff we can find ourselves relying on except him. Moment of truth: sometimes that’s painful for us.

I know there’s a great deal more that could be said by others who are smarter and wiser than me. Still, I hope some of this helps someone in some way and touches upon genuine truth here and there. In the meantime, here’s a Collect for the Spirit of Prayer:

“O Almighty God, you pour out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Learning to Pray from Scripture Part 3: How the Psalms Teach Us to Be Ourselves in the Presence of God

How open are you about expressing your emotions? Do you typically hide your feelings from others? Or do you find it difficult to put how you are feeling into words? Maybe you’re not someone who is, as they say, in touch with their feelings. Perhaps you find the outward expression of emotions–be it anger, sadness, grief, disappointment, or fear–awkward and uncomfortable, even around those closest to you. It’s possible your upbringing trained you to see letting your feelings show as inappropriate. Our specific culture and family of origin play a profound role in this sort of thing.

What about in the context of your relationship with God? When you pray, are you the sort of person who wears your heart on your sleeve or do you couch your prayers in especially reverent language? Not that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive, but you get my point. That is, as we enter God’s presence intentionally with our prayers, what role, if any, do our emotions play? Put another way: is it somehow irreverent or inappropriate to come before God with feelings of anger or sadness, weariness or worry? Do we need to compose ourselves first, so to speak?

To get some answers to these questions, there is no better way than to turn to the Psalms. The Psalms are the prayer book and hymnal of the Bible. Even a cursory reading of a handful of psalms demonstrates that the psalmists did not hide their emotions from God in their prayers. Well-known pastor John Piper says that “One of the reasons the Psalms are deeply loved by so many Christians is that they give expression to an amazing array of emotions.” He’s exactly right. And because of this the Psalms give us permission to do likewise.

So let’s look at some examples. First, in Psalm 25:16 we read this: Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am alone and afflicted. Here the psalmist, David, is honest about his loneliness. I am alone, he prays. While our lives are much different than his, each of us knows loneliness. But for some, loneliness is an especially profound struggle. Whatever David’s reasons for loneliness are, he feels wholly free to bring what he’s feeling to God. He genuinely believes God cares about how he feels and can do something about it. Turn to me and be gracious to me, David asks.

This example alone reveals how we are free to come to God and tell him how we feel. We don’t do so in order to provide God with information about our lives; no, we do so to draw on the comfort of his presence, to seek grace from him.

Grief is another example. David helps us there too:

I am weary from my groaning;
with my tears I dampen my bed
and drench my couch every night.
My eyes are swollen from grief;
they grow old because of all my enemies.

Psalm 6:6-7

Again, for our purposes here the circumstances of David’s grief are not our chief concern. Instead, take note of how vulnerable he allows himself to be in the presence of God. There is no gap between how he feels and what he prays.

Let’s not forget who David is, either. David was a king and therefore a military and political leader. He knew how to handle himself on the field of battle. He took down Goliath as a young man, when the entire Israelite army cowered in fear.

At the same time, David was a poet, and a man after God’s own heart. He is the author of the majority of the Psalms. He was incredibly self-aware of what was going on in his heart. He was willing to dance before God with abandon, unconcerned with what others thought about such devotion. He had no problem coming before God with honesty, with being real or authentic, as we might say.

So David wept, and he brought his tears to God in prayer. So can we. I love what Gandalf says at the end of The Return of the King: “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

Here’s the thing. When as people of faith we experience the more difficult emotions, what do we do with them? What do we do about them? Do we pretend they’re not real? And what if we experience a difficult emotion about God himself? Consider this prayer from David:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 13:1

Here we see disappointment, confusion, uncertainty, doubt. A prayer in the form of questions. I wonder how many Christians find themselves experiencing a feeling like this, but at the same time feel as though they cannot express this to God. And all because doing so is not truly reverent or proper.

I think that when we have such feelings of disappointment or uncertainty about God, and do not allow those feelings into our prayers, it negatively affects our faith and our relationship with God. Think of hiding something you feel deeply towards a loved one from that loved one. If a husband or wife, for instance, hides their feelings of disappointment in their spouse from their spouse, how might this impact their intimacy, their trust in one another? At the very least, the feeling doesn’t simply disappear because we keep it to ourselves. It will continue to eat at us. At worst, it results in an unhealthy emotional distance. In such a situation it’s worth asking ourselves: “Why am I avoiding sharing how I feel? Don’t I trust that my relationship–my spouse–can handle it? What does it say about our relationship if I don’t think they can?”

Let me be bold and say that the same holds for our relationship with God. If I avoid bringing my feelings to God in prayer, including feelings of disappointment with him, what does this reveal about how I feel regarding God’s trustworthiness? Am I afraid of being that honest in his presence? If so, why? What about doing so makes me uncomfortable?

The difficult emotions don’t end there, of course. Psalm 137 expresses profound grief over the exile of Israel to Babylon. Through exile Israel lost her identity as a nation. She found herself in utter ruin and despair. For this reason this Psalm includes some of the most difficult words in all of Scripture.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who pays you back
what you have done to us.
Happy is he who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:1, 8-9

These words are in the Bible. We can’t avoid them. Psalm 137 is perhaps the most angry and hopeless psalm of lament in the entire psalter. The words are violent and vengeful. And not without reason, considering what Israel had been through. The question is what do we do with a psalm like this?

Psalm 137 isn’t alone. One of my favourite passages in all of Scripture is Psalm 139, but there are some verses in this psalm that seem almost out of place. They go like this:

God, if only you would kill the wicked—
you bloodthirsty men, stay away from me—
who invoke you deceitfully.
Your enemies swear by you falsely.
Lord, don’t I hate those who hate you,
and detest those who rebel against you?
I hate them with extreme hatred;
I consider them my enemies.

Psalm 139:19-22

I’m not going to pretend I have easy answers for how to apply such words to our lives as we seek to follow Jesus. I do not. I’m not altogether sure how to square such poetry with the biblical admonitions to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.

But I think there is something we can say.

Take note that while the psalmists in 137 and in 139 are expressing a profound anger, they bring this anger to God. In other words, these psalms are not teaching us to act out on our anger. We’re not being instructed to take vengeance on our enemies or those who have done us harm. No, we are being shown that the best place to bring such angry and vengeful emotions is to God in prayer.

In fact, praying such words of angry lament are an act of deep trust that God is a God of justice and righteousness. By asking God to kill the wicked the psalmist is effectively leaving the matter in God’s hands. Such prayers become, therefore, a safe place to vent our most troubling thoughts and emotions, a prayerful space where we can process our feelings that justice has been violated and something needs to be done–something only God himself can do.

Now, if we find ourselves wondering why we would ever be in a position to pray like this, might I suggest this is because we live in an especially privileged position? For those, however, who personally know the realities of injustice, such prayers may indeed be an important part of addressing their circumstances. Consider that approximately 70% of the Psalms include words of lament–what Bono of U2 once refered to as the blues music of the Bible:

That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God— “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?”

Bono

There are other difficult emotions, of course. Fear would be another. But in every case, the Psalms show us that we are free to come before God with the whole of our humanity. In doing so, our intimacy with God grows and deepens, and becomes more honest, grounded, and resilient.

The late Eugene Peterson says this about the Psalms:

Praying isn’t being nice before God. The Psalms aren’t pretty. They’re not nice. Faith often isn’t smooth, nice, or pretty, but it’s honest, and I think we’re trying for honesty in our faith, which is very hard in our culture.

Eugene Peterson

I think he’s absolutely right, both about the honesty of the Psalms but also about how difficult it is for us to be honest in our prayers.

Now, after all of this, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the Psalms only give voice to difficult emotions. Not at all. There is also joy and celebration, thanksgiving and praise, all through the Psalms.

You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and new wine abound.

Psalm 4:7

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
to declare your faithful love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
with a ten-stringed harp
and the music of a lyre.

Psalm 92:1-3

That’s the other thing. When it comes to prayer, our neglect is of an equal opportunity sort. We’re also not so open to being effusive in our joy and thanks. Often even our praise to God is muted. And it shouldn’t be!

I know that when it comes to my church experience over the years, emotions have been less expressed than not. I have been a Baptist pastor for nearly 20 years, after all. Like I said at the start, this in part is because of our culture. Travel to churches in other parts of the world (or to other churches!) and you won’t necessarily see believers holding in their emotions during prayer and worship.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be about what we see but what God sees. Because what we’re talking about is being honest–completely vulnerable–before God. In other words, we’re talking about being ourselves in the presence of God, in all of our messiness and brokenness, including when we pray. Actually, especially when we pray. Because if the Psalms teach us anything about prayer, it is this.

Thoughts on Prayer: Learning to Pray from Scripture (Part 1)

There is a wide variety of literature in the books of the Old and New Testament: poems, historical narrative, letters, and Jewish apocalyptic writings, to name but a few. And, amazingly, God in his grace and wisdom divinely inspired the various authors of the Bible to reveal himself and his purposes through all of them. Indeed, Scripture is our all sufficient well-spring of truth to draw from to be obedient people of faith.

And woven throughout many of the books of the Bible are passages of a particular kind that, while not a genre of literature all their own, have the power to inform and transform our relationship with God. I speak here of the many passages that feature people praying or that talk about prayer. Prayers feature in many narratives, prophetic books, epistles, and books of wisdom. Abraham prays, Samuel prays, Hannah prays, Jacob prays, Hagar prays, Job prays, Isaiah prays, Jeremiah prays, Moses prays, Miriam prays, Deborah prays, King David prays, the apostle Paul prays, Elizabeth prays, Mary prays, and, of course, Jesus prays.

And we can learn from their prayers.

We even have a whole book of the Bible that consists of prayers: The Book of Psalms. These 150 chapters of praise, confession, lament, and petition are themselves enough to keep us busy learning about prayer.

Jesus, of course, teaches his disciples to pray by giving them the words of The Lord’s Prayer. He also instructs his disciples about prayer in other ways.

So over the next few posts, I want to suggest three ways we can learn about prayer from Scripture.

The first is this: we learn about the God to whom we pray. This is no small thing. Often when our prayers are hindered by confusion or doubt or worry, it’s in part because we fail to grasp the character of the God of Scripture. If we are worried that God is angry or disappointed with us, this will affect the manner of our prayers. If we think that God doesn’t care about the everyday details of our lives, we will likely avoid praying altogether or pray without any assurance that God hears us.

To take one basic example, look at the prayer of praise and thanksgiving of Psalm 136:1:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His faithful love endures forever.

Psalm 136:1

Here we see that God is good. His goodness is a reason for gratitude, because his goodness means, in part, that he seeks our good. He is therefore trustworthy. His will towards us is not ambivalent, much less malevolent; rather, he looks upon us with love.

And not only that, but he embodies faithful love. That is, his love is not dependent on us or our circumstances. It’s a reliable, consistent love, not the sort that’s fickle or subject to the whims of the moment.

Think about praying while knowing these things about God. Here is a God who you can trust with the deepest cries and longings of your heart. He cares for you. Such truths ought to instill our prayers with confidence. Knowing that God is good and loving ought to open us up to prayer. Think about what the apostle Peter says:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you.

1 Peter 5:6-7

However, if the picture of God in our heart and mind ever begins to drift away from these foundational aspects of his character–his love and goodness–what would happen to our prayers? Maybe we would find ourselves asking: “Will God listen to my prayers?” “Does he really care about me?” Who God is matters to how we pray.

But there’s more. Scripture also reveals that Christian prayer is trinitarian in nature. That is, we pray not to some vague, non-descript God, but to the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. We see this, for instance, in the prayers of the apostle Paul:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit,  and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

All three Persons of the trinitarian Godhead participate in our prayers. And we can’t fully understand what it means to pray without knowing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father in the name of the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our God is irreducibly personal. He is intrinsically relational. He is not the impersonal Force of Star Wars.

The basic Old Testament affirmations of God’s goodness and faithful love (that we see above in Psalm 136:1) also come to full flower in passages such as the one from Ephesians. Here Paul expresses in a beautiful, profound way that we can know and experience the fullness of God’s love only through the Son; and that it is the Holy Spirit who makes that love real to us.

So when you and I pray, we pray to a personal, relational God who is actively seeking our good, who seeks to pour out and make known his love for us, and who wants his love and goodness to be the driving force of our prayers for ourselves and for others.

In other words, we don’t have to convince, persuade, or manipulate God to listen to us. He is firmly predisposed to listen. He is the listening God. He is infinitely inclined to listen; and the more this reality takes root in our hearts, the more inclined to pray we will be.

This leads us to a third way we learn about God from the prayers in the Bible. Scripture shows us the good news that God seeks to have intimate fellowship, a genuine relationship, with us.

Consider the language of Genesis 3:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.

Genesis 3:8

Though this happened after the man and his wife had listened to the serpent, the portrait of God here is of one who seeks out human beings. He came to the man and woman even after they had disobeyed him. Not even their sin would ultimately keep God from graciously reaching out.

This is also true for us. Sometimes we think that because of stuff we’ve done, things for which we feel ashamed or embarrassed, that we’ve cut ourselves off from God. Now, in a sense that is the case. Sin breaks our fellowship with God. It becomes an obstacle to the intimacy he seeks to have with us. Yet just as God reached out to the man and woman in Genesis, he also reaches out to us. In the Scriptures we also see that through the good news of Jesus God makes possible the restoration of this fellowship.

When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then God has made you an heir.

Galatians 4:4-7

Based on what Paul tells us here, God the Father sent God the Son into the world precisely in order for us to receive God the Spirit so we could have this most intimate and personal of relationships with the very One who created us and sustains us.

So, in other words, God redeems us through Christ and he does this so that we might be adopted as sons (and daughters) and enter into a profoundly personal relationship with him. The Holy Spirit prompts us to cry out to him as a child would to a loving, reliable parent.

Notice Paul says that those who receive the Spirit will cry out Abba! Father! The term Abba is an Aramaic term for Father that has a much more informal, personal tone, like “Daddy” or “Papa.” It is the word for Father that Jesus uses when he is in the Garden of Gethsemane before going to the pain and humiliation of the cross: And he said, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what you will.”

Put another way, being adopted as sons and daughters of God the Father means sharing in the intimacy that exists between the Father and the Son through the Spirit.

Imagine trying to pray without the knowledge that God is good and loving, that he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that he even entered his own creation to restore the relationship he has always intended us to have with him.

Here’s the thing: we needn’t imagine such a scenario. Because our prayer can rest on the bedrock of what Scripture teaches us about him. This is the good news.

And this is why our understanding of God needs to be the foundation for our prayer.

Next time I’m going to look at how in Scripture we learn what we are to pray about.