Praying Our Pain

Heavenly Father,
Guide as we open these ancient words tonight.
Teach us to hear you.
Teach us to speak to you.
Teach us to trust you.
Amen.

THE FIRST PRAYER

We’ve been working our way through through the book of Psalms—through this collection of songs and poetry and prayers and prophecy near the middle of the Bible.

We saw that Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 form a two-part introduction to these psalms:

Psalm 1 invites us to enter into the truly meaningful life—into the truly happy life!—by learning to meditate on the “law of Yahweh.” We’re called to recognize the grand story of the God of Israel revealed in life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus—and to live within that story.

Psalm 2 invites us to recognize that the reality of Jesus’ reign means that the bedrock of history isn’t chaos. History isn’t meaningless and neither is your life. God has established his anointed one—his Christ—as king. And one day all the nations and all of reality will be set right by the decisive revealing of his life-giving reign.

And now… we’re at the first real prayer of the Psalms—we’re at Psalm 3.

One of the leaders of the early church in the fourth century, Athanasius, observed that
most of Scripture speaks to us while the Psalms speak for us.

The Bible isn’t simply interested in telling us about God.
Scripture isn’t giving us the bald facts, as it were.

The Bible is interested in teaching us to live before God.
Scripture gives us permission to speak. Scripture is giving us a voice.

So let’s see what voice Psalm 3 gives us:

A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.

Lord, how many are my foes!
    
How many rise up against me!

Many are saying of me,
    
“God will not deliver him.”

But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
    
my glory, the One who lifts my head high.

I call out to the Lord,
    
and he answers me from his holy mountain.

I lie down and sleep;
    
I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.

I will not fear though tens of thousands
    
assail me on every side.

Arise, Lord!
    
Deliver me, my God!

Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
    
break the teeth of the wicked.

From the Lord comes deliverance.
    
May your blessing be on your people.

THE PAIN OF THE PSALM

On first glance, it seems like the first prayer that we’re given might just be a general for deliverance. And if it were, that would be great.

We all need help. We all need rescue.
We’ve all got people who mistreat us and wound us.

If we read this prayer generally, we could probably pull out patterns that this psalm gives us. It seems to:

1) invites us to call out to God,
2) invite us to remember who God is
3) invite us to be honest.

In prayer, we can — 
Call out. Remember. Be honest.

That would make a good three-point sermon, wouldn’t it?

That would be reading this generally.
But there’s really no such thing as a general prayer.

We pray in particular situations,
we pray with particular people,
we pray for particular faces.

Every prayer is particular.

The Psalms don’t open with a general, run-of-the-mill prayer for deliverance. 
The Psalms open with a prayer of David.
And to understand this particular prayer, we need take a quick glance at 2 Samuel.

David, you’ll remember, is the quintessential king of the people Israel.
And we remember Israel, of course.

Israel is the nation who descended from Abraham way back there in Genesis 12 and through whom God promised he would bless the entire world.

Bless the entire world, you say?
That sounds like a good promise.

Well, a 1000 years later, the God of Abraham was making even bigger promises to David:

“‘I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom… I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son… your throne will be established forever.’” (7:12b, 13b,14a, 16b)

God is promising that a descendant of David is going to rule forever.

Not only over the people of Israel or the land of Israel, but—according to Psalm 2:8—God is going to give him the entire world. All nations will be his inheritance one day.

Evidently God is sharpening the image of how he’s going to bless the entire world.
He’s going to do it through David.
He’s going to establish and protect the family of David.

That’s quite the promise—that’s worth celebrating.

The difficulty, however, is when you’re reading through the story of his life,
this promise to David almost gets completely overshadowed by the pain of David.

That promise is chapter 7, and by the time we get to chapter 11,
David is drunk on power and lust.

In what amounts to an incredible abuse of his kingship,
he forces himself on a married woman,
gets her pregnant
and murders her husband.

Hardly blessing the world, are you David?

The consequences are heavy. Not only does his son die a week after birth, but his life is never going to be the same. A prophet tells him that…

…the sword will never depart from your house (12:10)

This is going to ripple through the rest of his life.
His rebellion and choices have ruined his world.

In a rapid succession of chapters,
we see lust and power and murder come back to haunt David.

One of David’s sons, Absalom kills his half-brother, Amnon (13:28-29)
and flees the kingdom to a place called Geshur.

And Absalom did this, of course,
because Amnon had raped their half-sister Tamar (13:14).

So in over just a handful of years,
David’s got a daughter who has been raped and disgraced,
a son who was incestual, sex-addicted, and is now dead,
and another son with blood on his hands in exile.

Right?! Someone call Jerry Springer.
What do you do with that kind of pain?

At the end of chapter 13, the text says:

After Absalom fled and went to Geshur, he stayed there three years. And King David longed to go to Absalom, for he was consoled concerning Amnon’s death.

It’s like he’s lost two sons.

He’s longing and mourning and aching.
This is a real guy in real pain with real feelings.

This is years of pain. 
This is years of therapy.

Eventually David invites his son back to the kingdom. The text says that Absalom…

…came in and bowed down with his face to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom. (14:33b)

What David’s heart has been aching for—reconciliation.
The return and restoration of his wayward son.

But then the story gets uglier.

Absalom—the third-born of David—has returned,
but he doesn’t seem to have any trust or respect for his father.

In fact, four years after being welcomed back,
Absalom decides to overthrow the kingdom.

Go ahead and add coup d’état to Absalom’s résumé.
He took this second-chance and stabbed his father in the back with it.

David is forced back to where he was before he was king.
Back to the wilderness. Back to hiding.

Life seems to be going in reverse for David.

What is going on?
This isn’t the way things are supposed to be!

And his departing words aren’t very encouraging:

“If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see [the ark of God] and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.” (15:25b-26)

“If I find favor…”
“But if he says…”

Evidently David doesn’t even know if he’s on the right side.
In his mind there’s a possibility that he’s the problem.

THE PROMISE AND THE PAIN

We might have been tempted to think of this first prayer as a general prayer.
But there’s no such thing as a general prayer.

This is prayer
with grand hopes in God’s promises to protect and establish,
with realization that our rebellion and choices have ruined our world,
with escalating heartache, relentless disappointments, shattered second-chances,
with life seeming to be going in reverse,
and with uncertainty about whether we’re actually the problem.

In other words,
this is a psalm of David when he fled from his son Abaslom.

In hearing David’s story, in watching David pray,
there are indeed patterns we might learn from this psalm.

The one that stands out the most to me is the impossible shift of verse 3 away from “my foes” and “how many” and “me me me” and to saying “but you.”

In prayer, we’re invited to stop looking at ourselves and look to God.
And once we’re looking toward God, maybe that three-point sermon isn’t half bad.

This psalm seems to invite us to call out to God in a daring way—to tell him to ARISE and act on our behalf (v7). This psalm seems to be inviting us to believe and to remember the impossibly good news of what God is like—God is for us.

He’s a shield (v3). He lifts our head (v3).
He answers (v4). He sustains us and wakes us (v5).

Call out to God.
Remember who God is and what he is like.

But the story of David makes our third point pretty hard.
Pray honestly?

Well if I got honest, the story of David scares me.
The promises and the pain are all mixed up.

Perhaps you can get ready for the nations of Psalm 2 to rise against you (2:1-3).
I don’t think you’re ever ready for your son to rise up against you (3:1).

David’s son is both the carrier of the promise and the cause of pain.

We experience this, don’t we?
The promise and the pain—they’re all mixed up.

Family and foes, neighbors and enemies,
the ones we love and the ones we loathe,
it’s amazing how often those two categories overlap.

Just look at verse 1.
Those rising up seem to believe in David’s God and seem to know David.
They seem to know him enough to have made a decision about him—
they say, “God will not deliver him.”

This sounds a lot like what we experience.

They’ve seen something, they’ve heard something,
they’ve experienced something, and they’ve decided to write you off.
I think we’ve all experienced that, in some form or another.

But here’s where praying honestly is scary.
What is takes me in the other direction?

What if I’ve seen something, I’ve heard something,
I’ve experienced something, and I’ve decided to write them off.

It’s scary that I might not always be David.
I might be writing off David.
I might be rising up against the king.

How often am I the one saying, “God will not deliver them”?

It’s all mixed up.

PRAYING OUR PAIN

So what does prayer look in our mixed up lives?
This psalm doesn’t seem to give a good Christian answer:

“Strike their jaw.”
“Hit their cheek.”
“Break their teeth.”

If Scripture is trying to give me words to speak… well, I feel a little uncomfortable.
Why are our we invited—in this first prayer of the psalms—to speak this way?

Some scholars point out that enemies in psalms are often painted (cf. Ps 58:6) like wild animals—like beasts. Animals use their jaws and their teeth to attack, so some scholars link breaking teeth with stopping the attack.

Well, ok.
That helps some, I guess.
Except for the whole bit about me praying for someone’s teeth to be broken.

Think about it—David is asking for God to strike the son of promise.
He’s praying that the Son of David’s teeth will be broken.

Be careful what you pray for—because in 2 Samuel 18,

Absalom rides his chariot under a low-hanging tree,
gets his hair caught in some branches,
and winds up getting used for javelin target practice.

And that seems like good news, right?
This is answered prayer!
The enemy is defeated.
The children of Abraham can embrace their promised king and can bless the world.

Praise God—can’t you see the son of David dangling dead from that tree?

But David doesn’t seem at all comforted by his answered prayer.
He gets news of his enemy’s broken teeth, and there’s nothing rewarding about it.

The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (18:33)

He got what he prayed for only to realize he didn’t really want it.

A pastor named Frederick Buechner writes:

“[David] meant it, of course.
If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it.
If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it.
If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it.
But even a king can’t do things like that.
As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”

I’m really grateful that God
gives us permission and gives us words
to voice our anger and hurt and desperation
and pray against those who wound and mistreat us.

This prayer pushes us to honestly face our lives—to pray our pain.

And I’m also grateful that God goes further.
He gives us words, but he also teaches us what they mean.

What a word like “enemy” means.

Because it’s only when the God of David literally becomes a descendant of David,
only when that Son of David dangles dead from a tree,
only when God the Son makes the world’s pain his own,
can we finally see the world as it really is.

Only then can we see that…

…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:12)

So as Christians, we do pray against our enemies.
But if they’ve got teeth, they’re not an enemy. They’re a captive.

In the words of Paul from the letter to the Colossians:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. (Col 1:19-23a)

That’s the gospel.
God fulfills his promise in the midst of pain.

What’s true at the cross is true everywhere.
Praying is learning that it’s true even here.

He blesses the world by his blood.
He makes peace.

He reconciles all things to himself.
And the people we call enemies are included in the “all things” that God reconciled.

After all, you were an alien and enemy of God.
And now you’ve be reconciled.

This is the hope held out to us.
Continue in this.

Trust this as true for yourself.
Trust this as true for others.

So are you learning to bring your entire life—both pain and promise—before God?
When we actually pray the psalms, we learn to do exactly that.

And have you begun saying “God will not deliver them” about someone?
And in light of the cross, can you really say that about anyone?

The one who bears that cross tells something like:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44)

So may you learn to call out to God,
may you remember that he dangled and died to adopt his enemies as children,
may you learn to honestly pray your pain and entrust it to God

so that you can kiss your enemies,
turn your cheek and bless the world.

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