Talking With a Friend
by Mark Gutman
When he's judged, let the verdict be "Guilty,"
and when he prays, let his prayer turn to sin.
Give him a short life,
and give his job to somebody else.
Make orphans of his children,
dress his wife in widow's weeds;
Turn his children into begging street urchins,
evicted from their homes—homeless.
May the bank foreclose and wipe him out,
and strangers, like vultures, pick him clean.
May there be no one around to help him out,
no one willing to give his orphans a break.
Have you ever prayed anything like that? It’s the Message rendering of Psalm 109:6-11. Some translations put these words into the mouth of the psalmist’s enemies, but even if the psalmist was quoting his enemy’s words, he echoed them (see verse 25).
If we’re used to neat prayers filled with “bless” and “be with” and similar nonspecific terms, we may shrink from prayers such as Psalm 109, but where did we get our idea of what prayer is for? In my last column, I touched on the idea of moving a cruise ship, or trying to get God to do things the way we want. A future column will further explore the issue of “answers to prayer,” but this column is suggesting that we miss out on the real value or purpose of prayer because we don’t “use” prayer in a way that’s useful. An orange is for eating, not for playing catch. What is prayer for?
“Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend” (Ellen White, Steps to Christ, p. 88). People spend a surprising portion of their days with thoughts of anger, guilt, fear, worry, etc. They keep those thoughts largely cooped up inside, perhaps occasionally lashing out at others when a straw breaks the camel’s back. Society frowns on admitting internal struggle. You’re supposed to keep a smile on your face and always answer with a cheery “Fine!” when asked how you are doing. Prayer provides a golden opportunity to talk about the negative emotions you haven’t dared to admit. But when people talk to God, instead of talking about what is really on their minds, they talk about things they never think about except when it’s time to pray.
For some reason, lists (shopping lists?) seem to be popular in prayer. Written lists seem to provide a way to remember what we don’t think is important enough to remember without a written list. If my employer thinks I need to improve, he or she should let me know at an early stage instead of saving up my negatives to tell me in one big gloomy session. God might suggest the same for prayer. If we’re really concerned about our health or finances, why not talk to God about them when they’re on our minds – when they’re bothering us – instead of saving them for down the road when we can kneel down and pull out a list to be reminded of what we’re supposed to pray about?
Why do people in North American pray about people in China or Tibet, or wherever, when we’re more concerned about people in our neighborhood or work place or our personal problems? Lists that don’t mean much to us can easily grow, as others suggest or request additions to our list. We can even get to feeling downright spiritual because we have such a long prayer list, while we ignore our puzzlement that our prayers don’t bring more peace to us or obvious benefit to others. Oh well, we go ahead with our lists of low-priority items to pray about. In a later column, I’ll discuss intercessory prayer, but in this column the topic is the benefits prayer offers that get overlooked.
In Opening Up, Dr. James Pennebaker tells of a bank vice-president (we’ll call him Mark) who had taken a polygraph (lie detector) exam as part of an embezzlement investigation. When Mark was hooked up to the polygraph, his “heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiological levels were quite high (p. 4).” People undergoing such exams often show such signals of stress, even when they are innocent, but in this case Mark ended up confessing that he had embezzled $74,000 over a six-month period. After he signed a written confession, he was polygraphed again to make sure that his confession was not a lie. But what a change! “His hands were no longer sweaty. His heart rate and blood pressure were extraordinarily low. His breathing was slow and relaxed. (pp.4f)” Assured of a prison term and now facing professional, financial, and personal ruin, he was relaxed. He thanked the polygrapher for all he had done. Pennebaker concludes, “Even when the costs are high, the confession of actions that violate our personal values can reduce anxiety and physiological stress. . . . revealing pent-up thoughts and feelings can be liberating. Even if they send you to prison (p. 4).”
Pennebaker’s book is not about prayer. He barely mentions the word. But I propose that his book is about prayer. The title, Opening Up, certainly describes what prayer is intended to be. You might remember the words in a hymn written by Mary Ann Shorey: “I tell Him all my sorrows, I tell Him all my joys, I tell Him all that pleases me, I tell him what annoys.” That’s a long version of “the opening of the heart to God as to a friend.” I can say things to close friends that I wouldn’t dare say to the general public. That’s the beauty of friendship. I can discuss what’s on my mind, without needing to resort to a list. You may not have prayed the words of Psalm 109, but you’ve probably thought such sentiments. What better or safer place to voice them than in private conversation with God?
In the book of Psalms, we find many prayers that wouldn’t make good public prayers in church. But a person who talks to a good friend is freed to say things that aren’t meant for all of society. I can say what I think of that driver, that doctor, that boss, or that friend who let me down, who broke a promise, who mistreated me. I can use language that I probably shouldn’t use if I’m talking to the person I’m talking (praying) about. And after talking with God about the unpleasant experience or situation, I’m more likely to find that the mental pressure caused by the situation (or by my thinking about the situation) has been reduced. And when I do deal with the problem situation, I’m less likely to be a geyser ready to blow if the wrong thing gets said. (The fourth column in this series will consider how prayer can leave us more ready to consider what God has to say about how to work with a problem situation.)
In private conversation with God, let’s feel freer to sound more like Psalm 109 and less like Psalm 23. We don’t always feel like saying how wonderful life is, and our (private) prayers need to be honest if we’re going to avoid ritual or sham praying. Prayer is a safe way to talk about the things that we’ve been keeping bottled up inside. There’s a time for complaining, and we’re probably better off doing it in prayer first.