“Would it kill you to give us a break here?”
That’s what a prayer for help can sound like when we’re raw with fatigue. It’s a little edgy. Maybe not so pious-sounding. But there’s an honesty and sincerity about it. It’s the earnest prayer of the overwhelmed.
It’s comes down to something like this:
Okay God, all the evidence to the contrary, I still remember who you are and trust you to act like you. You know, right here in this messy life of mine. And, um, it sort of feels like you’re not being you right now.
In Louisiana, where I live, Hurricane Ida came ashore about one year after Laura. Both were huge, historically destructive storms. In the meantime Hurricane Delta flooded us and an ice storm burst pipes in a place whose homes are built to weather tropical warmth.
See, we’re still cleaning up some of the mess left by Hurricane Rita in 2005. The work is piling up and we’re falling behind.
Oh yeah, and all of this happened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And just as we thought we were getting clear of the coronavirus, the Delta variant slammed into us. Infection rates have skyrocketed. Hospitals are jammed. People are coming to blows about whether or not to wear masks or be vaccinated.
And don’t even get me started about wildfires, droughts, mass shootings, racism, Afghanistan, and our increasing inability to show even the most basic respect for people with whom we disagree.
For some people the only faithful response is to say that everything happens for a reason. God has a plan. Our prayer should simply be: Thy will not mine be done. And it is true that obedience and trust in God’s benevolence are staples of the life of faith.
But the Bible also tells us that sometimes we should argue with God. Even confront God when we feel let down.
For instance, Peter Enns explains how Psalm 88 and Psalm 89 call God on the carpet for leaving us in the lurch and for breaking promises. (The Sin of Certainty, pp. 56-65)
In Genesis, we read that Abraham argues with God about the fate of Sodom. (Genesis 18:16-33) When God decides to obliterate the place for its sinfulness, Abraham says, “Well, can you give them a reprieve if we find 50 righteous people there? How about 40? 30? 20? Can I get you to agree to hold off if we find just 10?”
In other words, Abraham is nudging God back toward mercy. Toward acting like God instead of one of the spiteful, capricious deities worshipped by the other tribes.
Then there’s that Golden Calf incident. (Exodus 32:1-35) Moses and the Israelites are in the desert. Moses has spent time alone with God on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. The people have gotten anxious so they built a golden idol to worship in place of the God who delivered them from Egyptian bondage.
God tells Moses, “I’m done with these jerks. You and I will start over with a more virtuous bunch of people.”
Moses says this to God: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” (Exodus 32:12)
In other words, remember who you are. You are love itself. Your justice is always merciful and gracious. Be yourself with us.
As stunning as these stories might seem, they barely hold a candle to Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman. (Mark 7:24-37) It goes like this:
A Gentile woman asks Jesus to heal her sick daughter, to cast out the demon that’s killing her.
Here’s the exchange as Mark’s Gospel records it:
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
We expect compassion from Jesus. And yet in this instance he’s not merely indifferent. He’s rude and condescending.
This woman is at her wit’s end. But instead of becoming cynical, she expresses her faith with a snappy response.
She’s following the pattern we see in the Psalms and in the stories of Abraham and Moses. The woman is reminding Jesus—reminding God—who he really is and expecting him to act like it.
In Matthew’s version, Jesus responds to the woman this way: “Woman, great is your faith!” (Matthew 15:28)
God wants an honest relationship with us. If we’re angry, disappointed, confused, broken-hearted, or frustrated with God, that’s exactly what God wants us to express. Anything less would be phony piety.
When we’re overwhelmed, our prayers might be raw and a bit edgy. After all, that’s who we are at the moment. And who we are is who God wants.