In their book Primary Speech Ann and Barry Ulanov describe prayer as a world of honesty. Not a bad way to describe what we are about in prayer, honesty. Perhaps the one place we can be most truly honest is in our conversation with God. Yet honesty may be the very thing which makes prayer difficult for us at times.
Several years ago I served as a chaplain for a brain injury rehab program in a hospital. I was asked to lead a support group for a patients who expressed interest in religion as they were going through their rehab. As the patients were led through therapy each day, many would express questions about faith that arose because of their injuries and the changes this meant for their lives. Therapists would ask them if they would like to talk about these questions of faith, and, if the patients said yes, they would wind up in my support group. The success of that group grew out of the honesty that we found in prayer.
I confess, I did not really know what I was going to do when I was asked to start this group. I had met with patients going though rehab for brain injuries. I visited them, prayed with and for them, talked with their family members, but I had never actually led a group of patients like this before. So I did what preachers do in a panic, I opened my Bible and started reading from it.
I began reading for them from Psalm 2. After I had read a few verses and paused to take a breath, one of the patients spoke up and said, “are you sure this is in the Bible?”
Several others in the group expressed similar doubt. I assured them that the Psalm really came from the Bible by showing them the text I was reading from.
Then I asked them what was so shocking about the text that made them question whether or not it really came from the Bible. Most were shocked by the opening verse of the Psalm. You may remember the opening words of Psalm 22 are spoken by Jesus on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
We talked a lot about what it means to feel abandoned by God, to feel like God is not responding to our cries for help, to feel as if God is not defending you even against enemies. Most of them felt these or similar feelings but hearing these ideas expressed in the Psalm had opened up a new understanding for them. As one patient put it, “I never thought about saying that to God!” It was the dawning recognition that we can be honest to God in our prayers.
How often do we struggle in prayer because we think we have to approach God only with good thoughts or feelings and the right, proper words? Prayer is the one place we can be truly honest and lay our total being before God. Let’s be honest, if God is who we believe God is, doesn’t God already know what we are thinking and feeling?
Maybe it is not God we are trying to fool by only exposing the good thoughts, feelings, etc. in our prayers. Maybe the ones we are really trying to fool is ourselves. Maybe we are trying to convince ourselves that we really are so good that we never have doubts, unkind thoughts, fears, bad tempers.
By speaking to God honestly in prayer, we gain the ability to see ourselves for who we are. We can see that we are sometimes faithful, sometimes unfaithful. We learn that we have good thoughts and bad thoughts, helpful emotions and hurtful emotions. Honesty with God helps us view ourselves honestly.