Faith Matters: Praying in doubt and sorrow

Shutesbury Community Church
Last modified: 2/8/2016 3:51:57 PM
(Editor’s note: The following is a submission to The Recorder’s weekly column titled “Faith Matters.” Each Saturday, a different faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal religious perspective in this space. An accompanying sidebar offers a brief description of his or her place of worship. For information on becoming part of this series, email religion@recorder.com or call 413-772-0261, ext. 265.)

As a pastor in the historic Christian tradition, I have noticed that many church-goers feel their prayers must have positive and polite words — as if they are speaking to their boss. While reverence toward God is a good attitude, the God described in the scriptures knows us and our thoughts better than we know ourselves. For this reason, the book of Psalms (the prayer and hymn book of the Bible) does not try to hide expressions of deep sorrow and lament. In just one example among many, notice the raw emotion of Psalm 6:2-4, 6:

“Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long? Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. ... I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” (NIV)

The psalmist is in anguish. He is overcome with sorrow and wants to know why God does not relieve his suffering. People throughout the ages have experienced similar emotions and questions, and eventually every person must wrestle with sorrow and suffering. Suffering causes some people to grow in their faith, but it causes others to lose their faith. One way or another, the issue of suffering needs to be settled in our hearts for our faith journey to progress. But how can our hearts be settled, when we keep our hearts’ doubts and emotions from the God in whom we have faith? It’s as if we think we were meant to settle these questions alone, or that expressing negative feelings shows a lack of faith. But as the Psalms suggest, these negative emotions and doubts are meant to be brought to God because we have faith that God will walk with us in the sorrow and doubt. The God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is not a stoic, but a God who created humans as rational AND emotional beings.

The above statement reminds us that settling the issue of suffering also involves the mind. In more philosophical terms, we have been discussing the “problem of evil” (often expressed with the question, “If God is powerful and loving, then why is there suffering?”). While many suggest running to the great philosophers to help settle the issue, the Psalms suggest running to God. Whether the doubts and sorrow come from the heart or mind, the Psalms’ simple refrain is to lift up these messy issues to God.

In my personal journey, Jesus Christ’s identity and work have helped me settle the issue of suffering in my own heart and mind. If the beloved Son of God endured suffering and sorrow, then the presence of suffering and sorrow in my life does not mean God has abandoned me. Intellectually, Jesus Christ has allowed me to be settled in the “unsettled” — in NOT knowing why a particular person is suffering or evil is happening. I can give God the benefit of the doubt because he earned that trust through his ultimate display of self sacrifice in Christ. God has proven himself trustworthy on this issue by giving himself over to the suffering of crucifixion to secure eternal life for his people. In light of all that, I am content in not knowing for the few short years of my life. Nevertheless, I am sure my trust will be tested and unsettled again. When that happens, the Psalms instruct me to run to God, not away from God, with these doubts and questions.

We don’t need to pretend with God. God knows our emotions, and the true faith that God desires involves all parts of life: our hearts, our minds, our emotions, our decisions, and our actions. True worship is offering up our whole selves and trusting that God will work in that process — no matter how messy. In the process of getting real with God in prayer through complaining, despairing, and expressing sadness, God enters into our faith journey and leads us into deeper faith.




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