Monday, 16 July 2012

Praying with Scripture - Part Three - "Negative" Emotions

Is prayer just for praising God and asking politely for things we'd like? Maybe that is what happens if we think God is an Englishman - we can't go round showing emotions, can we?

The "stiff upper lip" doesn't seem to have been an Israelite trait. The Psalms are full of direct, searching questions, born out of frustration, fear, loneliness, desperation and other "negative" emotions:

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer..." (Psalm 22:1-2, NIV)

"Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;  there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin" (Psalm 38:3, TNIV)

"O Lord, all my longing is before you;  my sighing is not hidden from you." (Psalm 38:9, ESV)

"O God, listen to my complaint. Protect my life from my enemies’ threats" (Psalm 64:1, NLT)

"Our God, why have you  completely rejected us?  Why are you so angry  with the ones you care for?" (Psalm 74:1, CEV)

"Listen to my prayer, O Lord, and hear my cry for help! When I am in trouble, don't turn away from me! Listen to me, and answer me quickly when I call!" (Psalm 102:1-2, GNT)

It is not just the Psalmists that are so frank with God about how they are feeling, others do it too:

"O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me... Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?" (Jeremiah 20:7, 18, NIV)

"'It's too much, Lord,' he prayed. 'Take away my life; I might as well be dead!'" (1 Kings 19:4, GNT)

"'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Everything is meaningless!'" (Ecclesiastes 12:8, NIV)

Yes, it is true that in many instances these feelings are turned around and a positive attitude of faith then follows. However, this does not mean that the initial feelings didn't occur, were invalid or inappropriate to bring to God. The turning point seems to have come after these emotions were voiced.

So, how honest are we about our feelings in prayer? Do we tell God how we really feel or hide behind a veil of piety, saying what we think we are "supposed" to say?

© Joe Lenton, July 2012


  1. I do agree that we are far too 'English' in how we pray at times. I have found that the more honest I am with how I really feel when I pray, the more God can actually do something with me. If I get angry and so on with Him or with a situation I am in and I pretend to Him I'm OK I am lying to Him and He can't really start to deal with me, or the situation.

    When I go to Him in truth and honesty then He takes me from where I am. He listens to my tears (Psalm 56:8 NLT "You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book") and then helps me change what I am thinking/feeling. With some situations I have to do this constantly, every day coming to Him anew with the same thing until it is dealt with completely.

    Being honest with my negative emotions keeps me sane although I do often forget this and bottle it up inside. It is when I remember to let it out to God that the change really starts.

  2. Thanks, Lynda. I certainly relate to what you're saying. My feelings don't seem to get changed until after I've articulated them to God. Trying to jump forcefully beyond our "negative" feelings can do more harm than good sometimes - repressing emotions can often lead to a gradual build up that poisons us inside. Real relationships need honesty and frankness about how we feel. How can we claim to have a healthy relationship with God if we pretend to be something we're not?

  3. I think there is also an area of confusion between praying privately, and praying aloud in groups. I might get angry with God in private, butin groups I sometimes feel I address God as if He was a headmaster in the sky. I would certainly find it very difficult to "give it to God straight" about how I'm really feeling in a group context! So this English "politeness" thing is really more about what we fear others might think of us. How can we overcome this problem? I'd welcome your thoughts on this, in regard to prayer in groups.

    1. An excellent and difficult question! The Psalms weren't a private prayer book, but something used corporately. Yet, that doesn't make it easy to mimic them in our public/corporate settings.

      Perhaps it is something that would be a slow counter-cultural process of change. It might be that church leaders could exhibit a greater range of emotion in prayers led in services, for example. Could our intercessors start using words like "we are angry that these people are going hungry", "we are almost paralysed with grief at losing our friend", etc.? Maybe if people start to get used to seeing it and in contexts that set the tone, they may grow to emulate this themselves?

      It might be that within a small group setting we could use an appropriate Psalm read together to express our feelings as a group about a matter. The Psalm may lead into expressions in our own words, perhaps.

      There will always be a risk of people not being of one mind. Something to avoid would be "prayer wars" - one person praying "negatively" about something then someone else attempting to "correct" them by putting a positive spin on it!

      If we can begin to share with one another our true feelings, then perhaps it can become easier for that to spill over into our prayers without surprising people too much. I don't think there is a quick fix to this issue, but a process of (deliberate) cultural change. This change would be facilitated by everyone buying in to the desire to move forward - perhaps helped by teaching on the topic.

      Long reply! Hopefully some of it useful. Thanks for a great practical question.