When We're Mad at God, How Do We Pray?

If our prayers were hooked up to a polygraph during certain seasons of our lives, we’d be revealed as liars.

We pray, “Our Father...” but feel like God’s a dead-beat dad.
We sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” but think he’s become our foe.
We mouth words that magnify the Lord when we’re really mad at him.

@@How do we pray to the God who seems blind to our pain, deaf to our weeping, mute to our pleading?@@ It’s by no means an ivory-tower theological question. It’s as real as the weight we’ve lost from the stress of our divorce. As real as the bottle of antidepressants on our nightstand. We believe in him. We love him. But every voice inside us and every shred of evidence outside us points to his abandonment of us in our hour of deepest need.

So, how do you pray to God when you want to scream, “Where the hell are you?”

The Church Gets an “F” When it Comes to Teaching Lament

In the church today, with rare exception, we’ve failed miserably when it comes to answering that question for suffering people. @@We teach prayers appropriate for sipping tea with gray-haired spinsters when we need prayers at home in the religious equivalent of a barroom brawl with God.@@ We’re like people from the South who say “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir” to God and hold the door open for good ole Almighty when he steps inside to wreck our lives.

What’s more, our hymns and songs are almost exclusively focused on praise and encouragement and victory and other positive themes (this song, “Dark,” by Haley Montgomery is a fantastic exception). And even when we speak or sing the psalms on Sunday, the PG-13 and R-rated ones rarely if ever make it into our hymnals or worship folders. And don’t even get me started about the fact that the only tiny clump of verses we hear from Lamentations (“…great is your faithfulness,” etc. 3:23) is about .05% of a book that’s mainly berating God for stomping upon, spitting upon, and making Jerusalem hell on earth.

Pastors, leaders, and musicians—we need to do better, much better, at teaching suffering people how to pray to the God they’re mad at, feel betrayed by, and think has forgotten them. In short, we must recapture the practice of lament.

Four Suggestions for Recovering Lament

I have a few concrete suggestions, and I welcome readers to add more in the comment section below. These, at least, will get us started on the road to recovering the biblical practice of lament.

1.     Stop Pretending You’re Happy with God. The God to whom we pray doesn’t want brown-nosers. He hasn’t made us fakes. He’s made us children. And children often get mad at their dad. It’s not only okay to be upset with our Father, confused by him, or feel like he’s sleeping while we’re hurting, but completely expected. We are emotional creatures. God made us that way. He didn’t create stoics. We’re going to experience a whole range of emotions, especially when our lives are falling apart. And our Father expects us to pray emotionally when we talk to him.

2.     Pray the Psalms of Lament. You’d never know it from our hymnals today, but about 40% of the OT Hymnal (the Psalms) is lament. About 60 of the 150 psalms are individual or corporate laments. My suggestion: immerse yourselves in the psalms. Here is a chart that will take you through all 150 per month. These ancient prayers will put words in your mouth that express the darkest emotions in your heart. You’ll say things to God that are true, but sound on the verge of irreverence. But that’s okay, because the psalms are God’s gift to us—his words to us that become our words back to him.

3.     Pastors and Worship Planners: Have Services of Lament. In modern history, the closest some of our churches have come to having a true service of lament was immediately after 9/11. That was 17 years ago. When hurricanes or floods or fires or tornadoes strike, schedule a service of lament for the congregation and invite the community. If, God forbid, there’s a school shooting in your city, have a service of lament. On the anniversaries of disasters, have a service of lament. Use the psalms or write an appropriate lament for the situation (such as this one for hurricane victims). People learn how to pray, instinctively, by how they worship. If our worship is never focused on lament, how are believers to learn how to pray laments?

4.     Use Lament in Individual Cases of Pastoral Care. Pastors, especially, when you’re providing care for people going through a divorce or serious illness, battling addiction, suffering loneliness or despair or guilt or shame, teach them how to lament from the psalms. Give hurting people the structure they need from these prayers when their own lives feel like they’re swirling in chaos. We need peace, yes. We need forgiveness, yes. We need hope, absolutely. But we also need wounded language, bleeding prayers, that give our broken hearts nouns and verbs by which to address the God we’re angry with, disappointed in, or feel has thrown us away like trash.

@@We have a long way to go to recover lament in the church today, but these four suggestions are a start.@@ If you compose songs or hymns, I’d urge you try writing a rhymed lament that’s as bold and raw as one of the psalms. If you’re a preacher, don’t shy away from biblical texts that are in this genre.

There’s a time for “Amazing Grace” and a time for Lamentations. We neglect the latter to our own spiritual detriment. Together, as the church, let’s relearn how to lament.

Our broken hearts need that ancient voice.