There’s a popular misconception out there that the “Old Testament God” was mean and scary and that the “New Testament God” is kindly and loving. Considering this misconception, it’s ironic that throughout Christianity’s history, Christians have tended to be quite a bit more timid when it comes to prayer than our Jewish cousins in faith.
It’s funny to me that a faith that teaches us that, through Christ, we have full access and permission to speak freely before God has somehow taught many of us not to speak our minds in prayer; that questioning God is somehow an act of faithlessness. This couldn’t be further from the attitude of Judaism, with the strong value it places on questioning and disputation, and it certainly couldn’t be further from the example of much of the Hebrew Scriptures, that same “Old Testament” whose God was supposedly so much meaner and scarier than the God revealed in Jesus.
I was reminded of this irony this morning as I was reading the Psalm appointed for today, Psalm 25. It’s a beautiful prayer, but it’s also a bold prayer, where reminding God of God’s promises and responsibilities to the faithful is part and parcel with trusting God.
“To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul; O my God, in You do I trust,” it begins. But then the next line continues: “Do not let me be put to shame; / Do not let my enemies exult over me. / Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; / Let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.”
The Psalmist says, “I trust in you” but then immediately makes a claim on God reminiscent of the questions of theodicy (God’s goodness in the face of evil) that always accompany monotheistic belief: Don’t let the faithful be ridiculed and shamed while the faithless prosper.
The prayer later describes the goodness that comes to those who follow God. But while this is done faithfully it’s also done to establish God’s character for the sake of the psalmist’s argument that God should act graciously towards him now as well. It’s an appeal to God’s character designed to move God to action: “You are a good and loving God; so be good and loving to me.” I find this honesty and commitment to God’s covenant inspiring. This is exactly the kind of boldness and honesty we Christians believe we have before God. We have no cause for fear of speaking our hearts and minds before God.
But, critically, this honesty goes both ways: The psalmist reminds God of God’s responsibilities, but also notes his own responsibilities before God and admits to his own failures. Likewise he acknowledges his own distress: he isn’t speaking boldly out of bravado but of an honest appraisal of his circumstances:
- “Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths. / Lead me in your truth, and teach me”
- “For your name’s sake, O Lord, / pardon my guilt, for it is great.”
- “I am lonely and afflicted. / Relieve the troubles of my heart, / and bring me out of my distress.”
There is something so beautiful about this honest prayer. Like us, the psalmist lives in a kind of paradox: saved but needing salvation; faithful but still caught by attachments and sin; confident but desperate. He is able to be honest with God because he is also able to be honest with himself. And this is the attitude with which we should approach prayer.
We don’t need to bite our tongue or grumble quietly behind God’s back. God can more than handle whatever it is we have to throw God’s way. But we also need to be able to be similarly bold and honest with ourselves: to accept guilt without shame, to accept responsibility without fear, to accept our emotions without pushing them away.
What do we have to be afraid of?