Of all the questions God might ask me, one in particular fills me with dread. It’s important. It’s crucial. In fact, it might be the most penetrating, vital question of all. But because my potential answer reveals so much about me, because it makes me feel naked emotionally and psychologically and spiritually, I’m afraid to respond. And, I suspect, you are too.
When I need to pray the most is usually when my tongue tucks its tail and runs away. I’m left wordless. Rather than a prayer warrior, I feel like a prayer deserter.
We talk about having personal things. We employ a personal trainer to help us shed pounds and get that coveted beachbody. We open a personal bank account to manage our finances. And, please, keep your hands off our personal property and your eyes out of our personal diary.
In the most chaotic times of life, we maintain a white-knuckled grip on anything that remains predictable. It might be a close friendship or a gym routine. It might be something simple like how you fold and stack the towels.
The auger spun its way beneath the city street. Red Oklahoma dirt churned at its end. Danny eyed its progress. He had kissed his wife and their two lovely daughters that morning, and drove off to work. "I'll see you tonight, girls. Love y'all."
When God comes to us, He brings more than we expect. Our expectations are tiny, His gifts large. We ask for a drop, He pours an ocean; for a morsel, He spreads a feast.
I remember an explosion of light in my face. Then blackness. Then my friend slapping my head over and over as I rolled in the dirt. But still nothing but blackness. And screaming, and pain, and someone picking me up to carry me away, I knew not where.
Christianity is easily twisted into spiritualized etiquette. We learn how properly to eat at the Lord’s table. We learn how respectfully to address him. We learn how politely to carry on a conversation with him.
Our children learn the Sunday School song, “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham.” But we would do well to teach them to sing, “Father Abraham had many sins, and many sins had father Abraham.” For though he was a patriarch and prophet, Abraham also left behind a legacy of deceit.
I finally climbed all 109 mountains. My journey began out of desperation, fueled by anger and fear. I didn't how how long it would take, nor the toll it would take from me.
I simply climbed, some days an inch, other days a few feet. And sometimes I fell backwards.
Looking back from the final peak, I realize more than ever that this journey was a gift of God.
These mountains are the 109 towering words of Psalm 13. Your tongue can speed through them in less than a minute. But to voice them with your heart and soul and mind, to pray them with blood and sweat and tears, to drag your body over each towering word—that takes time.
It took me ten years.
Are you suffering? Are you angry at God? Does your life seem like a bottle that’s toppled off the shelf and shattered into a million shards—broken, irrecoverable, useless for anything but something to fill up more space in the trash?
Do you keep asking yourself, "How can I ever move on with a life not worth living?"
Then, I beg you, as a fellow beggar, to consider the gift of Psalm 13. The Spirit's gift to us. And to begin your journey from its opening question to its closing affirmation.
The opening two verses are these:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
As you crawl into the cold, vacant bed and your body shakes. As your eyes rain tears, you cry, “How long?”
As company after company turns down your application, as the cancer continues to eat its way through your body, as your child sinks deeper and darker into the cavernous depths of depression, you scream, “How long?”
Every emotion conspires together to convince you that your Father has forgotten that you are his child. Or worse, you suppose he has turned his back on you, written you off as a lost cause, hidden his face from you.
Rather than praying a lie by pretending all is well, this psalm places upon our lips a truthful plea. A godly complaint. These are God’s words, given as gifts to you, by which you can speak back to him. Voice your misery. Speak the truth to your Father. Climb these mountains.
The next two verses are these:
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
The highest mountain to climb in these verses is the tiny word, “my.”
He is not God but my God. He is not the Lord but my Lord, my Father, my one and only life when death looms nigh.
When our eyes are wet with tears, darkened by doubt, wide with fear, then our eyes look to our Father for aid. “My” is the possessive of faith, the evidence of things not seen. It is the hand that clings to God, the Jacob that won’t let go of the Lord with whom he’s been wrestling all night.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," Jesus himself cried out. And we, in him, pray the same. He, in us, prays the same. And because our prayer is his and his is ours, we are heard by the Father we both address as "Our Father."
Lest I give up, carry me, my God. Lest every foe I face overwhelm me, fight for me, my God.
Claim him as yours, for he is. He has claimed you in Christ, hears you in Christ, and will answer you in Christ.
God says of you, “My child,” and you say of him, “My Father.”
The final two verses are these:
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Here you have reached the summits of joy, where light drives away the darkness. There are no more questions. There are no more complaints or demands or petitions. There is trust, love, rejoicing, singing.
On this mountain you stand with Noah exiting the ark, Jonah spit forth from the fish’s belly, and Jesus walking out of the tomb on Easter morning for you.
Here God answers your question of “How long?” And he affirms that he never forgot you. He held you in the palm of his nail-pierced hand. He cannot forget the one for whom he died. He will not turn his back on the one for whom his back was whipped and pressed into the wood of the cross.
His love is steadfast, never wavering, never retreating, for he is your God and you are his child. He will deal bountifully with you. It may take years, but in those years of darkness and doubt and seeming death, he will stick by your side, shielding you with his mercy.
He will climb every mountain with you. As your high priest, he will pray every word with you. Indeed, Psalm 113 is the prayer of Jesus, as every psalm is. It is his prayer before it is ours. And it becomes ours only in him.
More suffering will come for all of us. This vale of tears is never free of crosses. As there is a time for laughter, there will always be a time for weeping.
So let us pray Christ's prayer, Psalm 13. Climb all 109 mountains in Jesus.
Question, petition, rejoice in him. And remember that one day, we will climb a far different mountain. We will ascend Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, where sorrow and sighing will flee away, where death has been swallowed up in victory, and where we, with resurrected bodies free of suffering, will behold our Lord, our God, who carried us every step of the way.
You can say one thing for James and John: they took Jesus at His Word. “Ask and you shall receive,” our Lord promised, so they asked with the full expectation of getting what they wanted. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No hemming and hawing around. Not even a “Thy will be done,” thrown in to sound pious. Just this: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Simple enough, a straight-to-the-point request to the One they believed is the giver of all good things. It’s easy to wag our fingers at these two brothers. “Just look at ‘em, elbowing their way up to the top. Good grief! Ought to be red-faced, those two, but there they are, not a smidgen of doubt, chests puffed out like they’ve already plopped down on those two seats.” But notice, if you will, who else is wagging their fingers in this story. It’s not Jesus. He has a few words of correction to say, all right, but the only accusatory fingers that are shaking are those belonging to the other disciples. They are the ones all put out by James and John. In fact, Jesus is the essence of patience with them. Correcting? Yes. But chewing out? No. Those indignant are the ones who feel ambushed, who not-so-secretly covet those seats for themselves and who just hadn’t got up the gumption yet to ask.
To their request that day, Jesus replied that they had no idea what they were asking. And, in that, James, John, and all of us are stuck in the same boat. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought. We’re like five-year-olds, begging for Oreo cookies and ice cream at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We want what is sweet; we want comfortable lives, happy families, secure jobs; we want our sports teams to win, to get a close parking spot at Wal-Mart, just enough sunshine and just enough rain. And, if it’s not asking too much, we wouldn’t mind a little more money, a nicer car, college degrees for our kids, and smiles on the faces of our grandchildren. Although we might not voice prayers for such things, if our hearts spoke to heaven, these are some of the things they would say.
And—hear me well—there is nothing wrong with desiring and praying for these things, for they are well and good, in and of themselves. James and John may have been told “no,” but they weren’t chided for making their request. Bold and audacious though it was, it was indeed a prayer of faith. They may not have known what to ask for, but they knew who to ask. And that’s what matters. Knowing exactly what God wants us to ask for isn’t what matters; what matters is that we ask Him. What matters is that we know that God invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that boldly and confidently we may ask Him as children ask their father, even if that request is for Oreos and ice cream for breakfast.
When you make such requests, know that God is going to give you what you ask for, or He’ll give you something better. Something better for you. My three-year-old son might not think oatmeal is better than ice cream, but I, his father, know that it is. So I give him what is best for him, because I love him. Now if I, an evil sinner, know how to give good gifts to my child, how much more will our Father who is in heaven give good things to you who ask Him?
To James and John, our Lord gave the cup from which He Himself would drink and the baptism with which He Himself would be baptized. To their lips would be pressed the chalice of martyrdom; they would receive the baptism of blood. The sword of Herod baptized the body of James. He was the first of the twelve who died as a witness to Him who died and rose again. And in that, James truly is preeminent. He received his crown.
In so doing, James received something of an answer to his request. What James really desired was to be beside his Lord Jesus. He wanted to sit not twelve seats away, not six, but smack-dab beside him. And so it was, yes, even better. For not only was James beside Christ, he was in Him and Christ was in James. He was conformed to the death of Jesus. He died in Him and rose in Him. He was crucified with Christ so that it was no longer James who lived, but Christ who lived in him. James learned what it means to come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a testimony to Him who gave His life as a ransom for many, as a ransom for you. James did not sit down at the right hand or the left hand of Christ; he sat down on the throne with our Lord, as do all those who are baptized into the body of the king of kings and the Lord of lords.
So now James, along with all the heavenly host, prays for you. They enjoy their Sabbath rest, but they also know of you who still labor, who still ask for Oreos and ice cream, who still don’t know what to pray for. So they ask the heavenly Father to give you what is best. And He does. He gives you Himself. He gives you a baptism with which to be baptized. He buries you into His flesh and resurrects you via that same flesh to a new life. He places a cup to your lips and bids you drink of the blood given and shed for you. He has given His life as a ransom for you, so that you are now His own. He has bought you at a price. You are His. Bold and impetuous as James, meek and bashful, young and foolish, old and foolish—it doesn’t matter who you are, but whose you are. You are His, His beloved child. And nothing in heaven or on earth can change that.
Sometimes I pray the psalms, but most of the time, the psalms pray me.I discovered this truth again last night. As my wife will testify, on most nights, as soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m out. My body relaxes, my breathing deepens, and I’m off to the land of the sleepers. But not last night. My mind was a storm-tossed sea, with waves of frustration and doubt and fear and pity all lapping against each other. You’ve been there. Some of you experience that sleep-depriving storm almost every night.
To calm the waters, I tried to pray. “Who knows, maybe God can help,” I thought.
I tried to channel my frustration and doubt and fear and pity into a prayer. I needed one that communicated exactly what I was experiencing, that could translate my emotions into the language of petition. I know a few psalms by heart, so I decided to give them a try. But none of them said exactly what I felt. It was like I was praying someone else’s prayer, reading someone else’s mail.
I went looking for a prayer to pray, and, along the way, I found a prayer that prayed me.
Over and over, I forget what prayer is. It is not so much me speaking to God, as it is the Spirit within me speaking to the Father through the Son. Yes, I pray, but it is the Spirit who prays for me, in me, through me. I no more make up my own prayers than I made up the English language. I inherited my native tongue; it was taught to me, word for word, sentence by sentence, as I grew up. So it is with the language of prayer. It is my speech but it is truly God’s speech, divine language.
Thus I never truly pray alone, for prayer is always God talking to God in me.
Last night, the Spirit helped my lips form the words to the third psalm. In it, David laments how his adversaries have increased. Tens of thousands of his enemies surround him. They mock him and his God. And how does David react? Does he brandish shield and sword to fight them? Does he lay out a strategy, launch counter-attacks, mow them down? No, he says that God is his shield, his glory, and the one who lifts his head. Then, he goes to sleep.
I went looking for a psalm to pray, and found a psalm that prayed me, that transformed my liquid emotions into its solid truth.
David closes his eyes and slumbers. It’s an amazing act. While his adversaries increase, while they mock him and his God, while they threaten his life, David says—or, rather, the Spirit says in David to the Father through the Son—“I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustains me.” He becomes as a babe in the arms of his father, who is so certain of paternal protection, that he can sleep through the fiercest storm.
So Psalm 3 prayed me, even as I prayed its words, and those words had their way with me.
I lay down and slept, for the Lord sustained me. He told me that He is my shield, who protects me from the fiery darts of the evil one. He reminded me that He is my glory, despite my shame, despite my fears, despite everything, He is the one who is my victory. He will arise and smite all my enemies on the cheek. He will shatter the teeth of the wicked. Indeed, Christ has defeated them all in the battle to the death upon the cross, for when He died, He took down all my foes, including death itself.
This morning, I awoke, for the Lord sustains me. And He has taught me, once again, through His Spirit, that I am His child, and He my Father in Jesus Christ, my Lord.