I asked two questions about the way Bono and the Psalmists pray prayers of protest and complaint:
1. Do you get the feeling at all that there’s something going on here, that these people are having dealings with God that we are kind of shut out of? That there’s an intensity, a rawness and realness to the relationship that leaves us feeling a bit shocked? That makes our calm little prayers seem a bit – well, safe?
2. If so, why do you think that is?
Why is it so unthinkable they we would pray like this? Why are we so out of the picture?
Question 1 is quick to answer. I do definitely get that feeling. There isn’t much urgency or intensity in the prayers I hear in my church scene, whether protests or not. The emotional temperature seems to stay pretty low. The range of things we’re allowed to say to God is fairly narrow. In particular, politeness seems to be the rule.
Question 2 is more interesting. What do they get that we don’t? Or what constricts us so badly? Here are some suggestions towards an answer:
1. Our escapist eschatology means we just don’t care enough about what goes on down here. We evangelicals have bought deeply into a narrative where the goal is death and departure to ‘be with the Lord’ in heaven. This world is to be destroyed and replaced: we counsel each other not to get too attached to it. We make real efforts not to care – and it works! For most of us, the only time we feel worked up enough to complain to God is when we are touched personally by tragedy or serious disappointment: death of a loved one, job loss, or failure to find a marriage partner, for example. The rest of the time, we can look at the misery of the world without any emotion beyond sadness. There is no need to engage with it: it’s all going to burn anyway. Bono and Ethan, on the other hand, are investing their emotional energy deeply in this world. They get angry about it. They think it matters. It matters enough to risk pushing the point with God, to risk being fried for blasphemy.
2. These guys have a view of God’s gospel purposes where his promises are supposed to come down. And they’ve taken those promises seriously. When the angels announce Jesus brings peace on earth, when Jesus teaches us to pray for heaven’s order on earth: they are actually looking for the fulfilment, and dissatisfied when they don’t see any change arriving. Our evangelical account of the gospel doesn’t really include those bits of Scripture. We keep such ideas right at the periphery of our faith. We’re just not thinking about anything much getting fixed down here. It’s all just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic anyway…
3. Our view of God’s sovereignty tends to neutralise our moral sense. What feelings did you sense behind those prayers we’ve been talking about? Behind Bono’s I sense desperation, and the struggle to go on believing when Jesus seems unfaithful. Behind Ethan’s prayer I sense outrage. In Psalm 44 I hear a burning sense of injustice. Yhwh’s injustice.
These are morally charged emotions, the reactions of men who know the difference between truth and falsehood, between justice and injustice, and who can’t help but notice. And when something wounds their sense of justice, they have the moral courage to say so. Even to God.
We on the other hand generally try to suspend all moral sense when speaking of or to God. Our doctrine tells us God is good and trustworthy; moreover he is the boss, and we have no right to question him. Who are we to judge God? So any question of wrongdoing is ruled out of court in advance. There are some questions we can’t ask, feelings we mustn’t feel.
Our testimony to God’s character is not an unbiased one based on experience: it is the testimony of those who have decided what to say in spite of any experience we may have. And this includes what we say to God. We are God’s yes men.
It is only at times of severe crisis, when the conflict between our experience and our faith becomes too intense – it is only at these times that our feelings break through, or rather break out. And then I yell at God. And at that rare moment of honesty, of reality – I feel ashamed. And you all wonder (and I do too) has he lost his faith? Because yelling at God is not what yes men do.
But in general our prayers lack a strong moral sense: though we may want change for the future, we acquiesce easily with what has happened up to now, as though it must have been God’s will. No point getting angry about it!