Summary: In a world of injustice, it is appropriate to pray a prayer of anguish; God gives us memories of His grace to sustain when He seems absent, and may force us to rock bottom so that we can heal fully.
There is very little justice in the world. But that’s old news. People have felt from time immemorial that they were not being treated fairly. Just about everybody thinks that they deserve a better deal than they’re getting. There is very little justice in the world. But that’s old news.
Now you can either get frustrated with that, or you can shrug it off. You can either become a bitter and cynical person, who gripes that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; or you can accept reality and go on. But what you cannot do, what is unacceptable, is to stuff down inside forever the feelings that go along with injustice. If you think the world is replete with injustice, you can grumble about it or you can decide to work for something better; but the one thing you cannot do is hold all that resentment in. Feelings have to go somewhere.
So do not ask whether bad things are going to happen to good people. They will. Do not even bother with why bad things happen to good people. They just do. The laws of nature are very seldom suspended for anybody. My father-in-law, who was a pastor in Britain during the war, liked to laugh about the ladies from across the street who always wanted to crowd into his bomb shelter when there was an air raid. They had their own shelter, but they thought they might be safer close to the pastor! Well, not really. Bad things happen to all kinds of good people.
But when they happens to you, or to someone close to you, what will you do with that? How will you speak and where will you take your complaint?
We Christians have a stock answer. We know the correct answer to that. We say, “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” We say, “What a fellowship, what a joy divine, safe and secure from all alarms.” Our response is, “I must tell Jesus all of my trials, I cannot bear these burdens alone.” Loud and clear, when bad things happen, pray and pray some more. Pray.
But what if, to be honest about it, that doesn’t help? What if prayer makes no difference? Your prayer bounces off the ceiling, like talking to the air. What if prayer feels like my phone call the other day: I was talking happily to one of you, just gabbing on about things, and after about five minutes I realized that I was getting no response. “Hello .. hello ...” Nothing. Not even a dial tone. Cut off. I haven’t figured out yet whether it was a bad phone connection or you just had had enough! But cut off! What if heaven itself cuts you off. The ultimate cutoff is to pray and feel no response, no answer, not even a presence.
There is no more anguished cry in the whole of Scripture than the 22nd Psalm. Its shriek of abandonment echoes across the centuries and sends cold chills up the spine. If ever there was a soul in torment, this is it This is not just the winter of discontent; this is a blizzard of despair.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
I remember that as a boy I would get in trouble with my father. I would plead and beg. I would clamor to get out of being punished; I thought that punishment was a bad thing happening to a rather good little boy. And I would be angry that my father just wouldn’t hear me.
Behind this Psalm something bad, awesomely bad, has happened to a good person. It is bad because it erodes the spirit, it eats at the soul, it cracks open his relationship with God. This is horrifying! When bad things happen to good people and they cannot even get God to hear them? What shall we say about that?
First, when bad things happen to good people, prayers of anguish are not one of the bad things. Prayers of anguish are a good thing. Let’s make it clear that it is not wrong to pray with complaints. God will receive the prayer of complaint. God is big enough to handle this kind of prayer.
I’m struck with how many times the Psalmist comes through in this prayer with his worries and his woes. How up and down he is! He complains, and then he remembers God’s goodness. He complains again, and then he remembers how God brought him up as a child. Then right back to complaining once again, before he cries out in sheer desperation. Three times in one psalm he lapses into extravagant descriptions of his plight. Three times he cries out in the dark night of his soul. He just keeps at it. He voices his heart. He won’t shy away from his hurts.