What do you do when you feel abandoned by God? Where do you go when a life of nurturing the flock leaves you spiritually hungry and tired? How would you counsel someone in your church who feels that God hasn’t been keeping His promises? Must we always silently and unquestioningly endure every trial we face?
While it may be admirable to submissively accept everything from God’s hand, the Psalms contain many prayers where someone in distress appears to question God, even challenge His character. I have observed three principles in these prayers that can be applied in our own times of distress. I will show how pouring out the heart, petitioning, and praising can bring help and healing to the souls of both pastor and congregation.
A look at the text
Let’s start with Psalm 13. This song can be conveniently divided into three sections, each comprising two verses. The first section, verses 1 and 2, lists David’s trials and asks why God seems distant:
1. How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?*
2. How long shall I take counsel in my soul, [having] sorrow in my heart all the day? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?
Though a leader and shepherd for God’s people, David still experienced moments of hopelessness. He does not hesitate to honestly express his feelings. He’s not afraid to accuse God of forgetting him.
1. Consider [and] answer me, O LORD my God; enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the [sleep of] death,
2. And my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” [and] my adversaries will rejoice when I am shaken.
Here David moves beyond complaining about his situation and petitions God for help. The next section may be especially surprising but also the most healing:
1. But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.
2. I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me.
David concludes the psalm with two verses of unbroken praise. He remembers how he has trusted God in the past and proclaims that he will continue to sing God’s praises.
This prayer, then, contains three parts: pouring, petitioning, and praising. We can talk about these as the three Ps of healing prayer.
Psalm 13 isn’t the only psalm to use this structure. Psalms 22, 31, 35, 69, 89, 109, and others follow a similar pattern. Psalm 22, for example, contains pouring in verses 1 and 2; petitioning in verses 19–21; and deep, intense praise from verses 22–31. Often the longer psalms, like 22 and 69, will have lengthier sections of praise at the end. Sometimes the pouring and petitioning can be intermingled and praise can flow throughout the psalm, but these three elements are almost always present.
So what do passages like Psalm 13 teach us about how to pray? First, we should pray and, when we do, we can be open and honest with God about our pain. Even if we feel the need to challenge God’s character, we can freely do so. He loves us just as He loved David, who accused God of forgetting Him, which of course was wrong (Isa. 49:15), but David did it anyway because that’s how he felt at the time.
If you are a pastor who’s discouraged because church size continues to decrease and conflicts continue to increase, take these concerns to the Lord. The honest expressing of hopelessness and discouragement in prayer makes the heart available to the comforting and healing presence of God.
If these conflicts involve people who have turned against you, you can lay those feelings out before the Lord. David, in Psalm 13, mentions enemies that have risen against him. Sometimes I have had to spend hours pouring out my painful feelings in prayer. I’d always feel a sense of God’s comfort, even if not right away. After being open with God about my anger toward those who have hurt me, I’ve been more able to forgive them. It would definitely be much wiser for a pastor to share frustrations with God than to lose control and say things that might hurt someone else.
We must allow others space for this type of honesty as well. Someone may say in a prayer meeting that God has forgotten him or her. The tendency may be for us to jump up quickly and say, “Oh, no, God hasn’t forgotten you.” This person instead needs to feel heard by us and by God. Often it takes time to work through these feelings of spiritual abandonment. Maybe we should simply empathize with the individual during the meeting and offer to pray with him or her afterward.
On one occasion, I was counseling a lady over the telephone. She kept talking about how distant she felt from God. She had survived cancer only to have to work extremely hard without help to support her family. She kept saying how she didn’t understand how God could allow her and her family to face such difficulties. I finally recommended she just tell those feelings to God, openly and honestly. She was not instantly healed of her trials, but she did begin to find a new sense of strength. Opening up to God, she sensed more and more of His presence. I have recommended many others to pray this way as well, with similar results.
We must not, however, allow ourselves to stay at the level of blaming God and complaining. As David moved from pouring to petitioning, we must also move on to petitioning God. In asking God for help, David admitted that some part of him still clung to the knowledge that God was reachable. Maybe you feel discouraged because the busy demands of the church crowd out necessary time with family. According to the model set forth in Psalm 13, you can feel free to pray deeply, expressing your concerns. The prayer, though, should eventually take the shape of asking the Almighty for strength, wisdom, and even simply more time to spend with family.
When visiting with a struggling member, we must gently guide the person to move from mere complaining and blaming to asking for help. This lifts the thoughts to the hope that God will answer and bring relief.
Once I had misplaced a twenty-dollar bill. Though I was upset, my wife suggested we pray. She took my hands, and we prayed. As soon as we were done, we found the money. It may not always happen this way, but if we don’t move to petitioning, we may never know how many blessings we could have.
Finally—and this can sometimes be the hardest step of all—we must include unbroken praise to God. It seems that if a psalmist more intensely challenges God’s character, the praise afterward should be also more intense. This could be like saying, “God, it seems that You’re treating me unfairly, but I will keep praising You and trusting You, for You’re all I’ve got.”
This praise does not necessarily need to be at the beginning of the prayer, as we have often been taught. Sometimes, as with David, the pain of our problems becomes so great that we simply need to let it out first. If it’s hard to find the words to praise God, you may find help by just reading one of these psalms of distress and pray as though the prayer were your own. This might be like someone dedicating a favorite song to a loved one.
You may have just learned that your teenage daughter is pregnant or maybe you have just been served divorce papers. Whatever course of action you take, Psalm 13 tells how you can pray about it. You can pour out your feelings, you can petition but you still must also praise God for His goodness. You can recount how God has delivered you from past trials and declare that one day you will tell how God resolved this seemingly impossible situation. Remembering God’s providence in the past helps you to keep your thoughts focused on God’s power and providence. Our unchanging God did for us what was needed in the past, and He continues to do this today. Promising to praise God after the trial keeps the eyes of faith looking ahead to blessings yet to come.
Once I was counseling a gentleman who struggled with bouts of deep discouragement. I felt impressed to encourage him to start each day by reading a psalm of praise, something from PsalmsWhen counseling someone who is hurting, you might do well to just read a psalm of praise for the person. However this is done, praise must be a central part of our cries of distress. In fact, it wasn’t until Job moved from complaining to praising that his time of trials ended (Job 42).
113–118 or 145–150. I suggested that his wife read a psalm to him if he didn’t feel strong enough. As with the lady I counseled, there was no instant and miraculous solution, but he did feel stronger and more able to face his trials.
Praising God is an essential part of life. The psalmist is especially displeased with the idea of dying, noting that the dead don’t praise the Lord (Psalm 115:117). The Hebrew name in the Bible for the book of Psalms is Tehilim, or “praises.” Every psalm, whatever its content, is considered praise. This is why, whenever I pray with someone, I insist that no matter how discouraging life is, the person must think of something for which to praise God.
On a personal note
Near the end of my doctoral studies in Hebrew Scriptures, I entered a phase of great spiritual tumult. My dissertation was taking longer and longer to finish, and it didn’t appear I’d have a reasonable chance for employment when done. As a blind person, I saw little prospect for work outside of my direct field of training.
In the midst of my spiritual darkness, God impressed me to go to the light of His Word, particularly to memorize the book of Psalms in the original Hebrew. I would recite and pray from these psalms every day, strengthening my knowledge of biblical languages, and, more importantly, finding a most healing and revolutionary way to pray. When I was done reviewing how the psalmists prayed, I’d make my own prayers according to the principles I learned from theirs. I would pour out my heart as they did, asking why God seemed so distant and why He’d led me thus far with little prospects. I’d petition Him for guidance and solutions to my dilemma. I would simply praise Him for all His goodness. I began to feel a peace I hadn’t experienced before. This peace can also be yours. And, as you discover it, you can share it with your congregations. God has provided comfort and healing for all of our woes.
* All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible.