Can we really pray with the psalmist, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord”?

Q.  I find it very meaningful to “pray the psalms,” that is, to read through them and turn them into my own prayers.  But I always balk when I come to places like the one in Psalm 139 where David says, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! . . . Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? . . . I hate them with complete hatred.”  Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?  I find it hard to make this kind of thing my own prayer, and I’m tempted just to skip over parts like this as I pray through the psalms.  Is that all right?

Each of the psalms is a complete composition in a specific genre or literary type, and so I would encourage all of us to read, study, and pray each of the psalms in their entirety, without leaving out or skipping over any parts we find difficult.  In fact, when we approach a psalm like Psalm 139 with an appreciation for the literary pattern it is following, the part you (and many others) find so troubling becomes much more understandable. Then I think we do become able to read it and pray it with integrity.

The psalms are of three main types.  Psalm 139 is a “psalm of supplication,” in which the psalmist asks God for help.  As I explain in this post, psalms of supplication are built out of a series of common elements.  Not every psalm has all the elements, and the ones that are used can be presented in a variety of orders, but a basic pattern can be recognized.

Psalm 139, for its part, contains just two of the typical elements of a psalm of supplication. It consists mainly of an extended “statement of trust.”  But at the end, there is a “petition” or specific request for assistance.  This is the passage in the psalm that you are having difficulty with.

We need to appreciate that such a petition may cite reasons why God should help the psalmist, and that these reasons may include a claim of innocence—that is, an “affidavit” that there’s no reason for God to punish the psalmist by allowing troubles to continue or adversaries to prevail, because the psalmist has not been pursuing an evil course.

One variety of this claim of innocence is an imprecation, an expressed wish that God would slay the wicked.  It needs to be understood that in the context of a claim of innocence, within a petition, within a psalm of supplication, the psalmist is actually saying, “God, if I’m really among the wicked myself, then slay me!”

This is what is going on in Psalm 139: “If only you would slay the wicked” is a petition equivalent to, “See if there is any offensive way in me.”  In essence, the psalmist is saying, “So far as I know, I haven’t been choosing any evil path; I’m so sure of this that if I have been, I’m asking you to slay me along with all of the other wicked.  But if there’s anything I’m not recognizing, please reveal it to me.”  I think all of us today could pray a prayer like this with integrity—but with great caution and humility, after serious self-reflection, because it is a very solemn thing to call down the wrath of God upon ourselves if we are being deliberately evil!

One other thing that should help is to recognize what is meant by “hatred” in this context.  It has been aptly said that love is properly not a feeling, but a commitment:  the commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.  Conversely, hatred is properly not a commitment, but a feeling.  It is that feeling of strong antipathy towards anything dishonoring to God that makes us want to have nothing to do with wrongdoing and not join in with wrongdoers.  Such a feeling is a valuable protection against temptation.  But if instead we are “out to get” somebody, that is, if we are committed to acting consistently contrary to their best interests, then this is not really “hatred” in the sense that the godly psalmists use the term.  It is instead bitterness or vengefulness—something we cannot in good conscience indulge.

I hope these reflections will help you pray through all the psalms, and Psalm 139 in particular, more meaningfully and wholeheartedly.

This post draws on the discussion of psalms of supplication in Session 2 of my Psalms study guide and the discussion of Psalm 139 in Session 7.

“Praying the psalms” is a time-honored spiritual discipline. In the Middle Ages, beautiful illuminated psalters such as the one shown here (the St. Albans Psalter) were created to facilitate and encourage this discipline.

Do you know a prayer I can say before studying the gospel of John?

Q.  Do you know a prayer I can say before studying the gospel of John?

I think it’s an excellent idea to pray for understanding before reading and studying the Bible.  Paul explained to the Corinthians that “the things that come from the Spirit of God . . . are discerned only through the Spirit.”  These include the Bible as the word of God, so it is always wise to pray for discernment and illumination from the Holy Spirit before approaching the Scriptures.

One model prayer is found in the Bible itself, in Psalm 119:  “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (“Law” here is torah, or the “instruction” found in God’s word.)  When I was a pastor, I used to pray this prayer every week just before I started studying the passage that would serve as the text for my sermon.

I had not thought of saying a special prayer for a particular book of the Bible.  But that’s another excellent idea.  There are many passages in the gospel of John that could be turned into prayers for understanding that book.

For example, the prologue to John says, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”  This refers to Jesus, the incarnate word of God.  But it could also apply to the written word of God, so you could pray something like this:  “Dear God, as I read and study this book, may the true light give light to my mind and heart.”

To give another example, later in the gospel Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  You could turn that into a prayer and say, “Lord Jesus, whose words are spirit and life, may they be spirit and life to me as I read and study them now.”

But maybe the best part of the gospel of John to turn into a prayer would be the purpose statement at its end.  Most books of the Bible include a purpose statement somewhere, and the one for this book is:  “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” You could pray, “Dear God, as I read all these things that have been written about Jesus, may I come to understand and believe more and more that he is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing, may I have life in his name.”

God bless you as you read and study the gospel of John!

Does praying in tongues keep the devil from eavesdropping?

Q. I’m reading a book on prayer and one thing it says is that speaking in tongues is a purer form of worship because it excludes our carnal thoughts. It says that another benefit is that Satan will not understand the language. Wouldn’t Satan be well versed in all languages?

When it comes to questions like this, I think it’s important to follow the principle, “Do not go beyond what is written,” as Paul advised the Corinthians. He meant not to select or reject teachers based on issues that the Scriptures do not identify as essential. But I think his advice captures equally well the importance of making the case for or against spiritual practices based on what the Bible actually says about them, not on anything the Bible doesn’t say.

The question here has to do with “speaking in tongues,” that is, speaking in a language that one has acquired directly as a gift from God, rather than through upbringing, immersion, or formal study.  This really is the “gift of languages,” and that is what I will call it in the rest of this post, since the Greek word for “tongue” and “language” is the same and the sense of the word in this context is clearly “language,” as in, “my mother tongue is English.”  I personally believe that this gift is attested not just in the Scriptures, but also throughout church history, and that it remains available to believers today.

Maronite Pentecost icon

As I understand it from Scripture, the gift of languages is given for at least threepurposes.  One is to allow the good news about Jesus to be proclaimed in a language that the hearers will understand, even if the messengers don’t know that language.  This happened most famously on the day of Pentecost, when “Jews from every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem and “each one heard their own language being spoken” as the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to speak those languages. But I’ve also heard present-day missionaries describe how, when they went to a region whose language or dialect they didn’t speak, their words supernaturally came out in the form their listeners could understand.

Another purpose for the gift of languages, according to the Bible, is to bring an authoritative word to a gathering of Jesus’ followers.  When a message is spoken in a language that is given as a supernatural gift, and it is then interpreted by someone who has that ability equally as a gift, this attests to the divine source of the message.  Even so, Paul tells the Corinthians, “The others should weigh carefully what is said,” testing it against the wisdom and teaching of the Scriptures before accepting it as a word from God.  I believe we are given an example of this process in the Old Testament when Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall.

The third purpose for the gift of languages that I find explained in the Bible is for prayer.  I believe the rationale for this application of the gift is the same one that Paul gives in Romans in the case of prayer that takes the form of wordless yearning: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.”  In this case God gives not just the language, but the words themselves, as a spiritual gift that helps a person pray more effectively when they otherwise wouldn’t know what to pray for.

But notice what the Bible doesn’t say about this.  It doesn’t say anywhere that praying in a divinely granted language is some form of “secret code” between us and God that the devil can’t understand.  So I don’t think we should claim this as a benefit of the practice.  “Not going beyond what is written” in this case saves us from having to speculate about how many languages the devil understands and this frees our energies for reflection on what the Bible actually does say.

As for whether praying in a divinely granted language “excludes our carnal thoughts,” it makes sense that this would be the case, but we should not see this as an unmixed blessing.  Paul notes that “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”  In other words, because he does not understand the language he is speaking, he is not learning from the Holy Spirit’s example how to pray more genuinely and effectively in situations like the one he’s facing. 

Paul explains in his second letter to the Corinthians how important it is to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” While it might be advantageous in the short term, particularly in a dire situation that we don’t even know how to pray about, to bypass our carnal thoughts and immature tendencies, in the long term we are called to develop a spiritual mind and mature character.  In other words, if gifting us with a prayer language is one of the ways in which the “Spirit helps us in our weakness,” that should not be something that keeps us from ever addressing that weaknesses.  We need to take our carnal thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ, not continually bypass them.  But I think we’ll find that the more mature and obedient we become, the more we will follow Christ into situations where we desperately need His help–so there will be a positive self-reinforcing cycle here.

All things considered, I wouldn’t say from the Bible that praying in a divinely granted language is “purer” or “better” than other forms of prayer. But it is one genuine expression of a gift that God wants to be exercised by those to whom it is given to build up the whole body of Christ.

I hope this is helpful!

Did Jesus send a mixed message about repetition in his teaching about prayer?

This question was asked in a comment on my post, “Do our prayers really get through to God?”

Q.  I appreciate this post and I had a bit of a follow up question. Over the years I’ve struggled with what I see as a mixed message in the New Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” But in the Parable of the Friend at Midnight and in similar parables, Jesus seems to be saying that we should essentially pester God and repeatedly bug Him until we get what we are after. He also gives us the “Lord’s Prayer,” which seems quite fixed in its order and style. How do you understand this apparently mixed message? Do you think that a lot of the prayers we commonly hear in church are made up of the “empty phrases” Jesus warns against? Phrases like “be with us,” “protect us,” “watch over us,” “bless us,” “forgive us,” etc. Often unthoughtful catch phrases . . .

Actually, I think Jesus is talking about different things in these two teachings.

When he warns in the Sermon on the Mount against “heaping up empty phrases,” he’s specifically saying that we shouldn’t expect God to hear us and grant our requests based on how many words we’ve said—that is, how much time and energy we’ve put into saying long and repetitive prayers.  This is really a form of “works,” of trying to earn something from God by our own efforts.  Jesus directs us instead towards grace:  “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  What we receive from God in prayer is an expression of His love and goodness towards us, not our efforts.

On the other hand, in parables like the one about the Friend at Midnight, the Persistent Widow, etc. Jesus is saying that once we have become convinced that something will advance God’s purposes in our lives and in the world, we should pray for it with a persistent, relentless faith.  We shouldn’t pray one or two half-hearted prayers along the lines of “Well, if you think you might want to do this, and you could maybe get around to it, we’d appreciate it.”

Rather, the kind of persistent prayer Jesus describes in these parables is what the author of Hebrews calls “boldly approaching the throne of grace.”  But note that in this case as well the answer to prayer comes as a result of God’s grace, not our efforts.  Hebrews makes clear that it rests on Jesus’ own high priestly intercession for us.  And it begins with a revelation to us of God’s purposes in the world; we then join in those purposes through our prayers, with the faith God gives us to pray them and believe for their answers.  (I suggest in my study guide to John, for example, that Jesus turns the water to wine at the wedding in Cana because “Mary’s persistent faith and implicit trust show him that God is powerfully at work at this very moment.”)

As for the Lord’s Prayer, I think it’s important to recognize that this was Jesus’ response to his disciples request, “Lord, teach us to pray,” after they had seen him at prayer.  When we see it as a teaching, we realize that the Lord’s Prayer is designed to show us what the themes and priorities of our own prayers should be:  for the advancement of God’s kingdom first, and then for our own needs in the context of our participation in that kingdom, as well as for forgiveness and deliverance from temptation.

The Lord’s Prayer is, therefore, a model prayer that we are meant to imitate but not necessarily to repeat verbatim over and over again (as by trying to do “penance” by saying “ten ‘Hail Marys’ and ten ‘Our Fathers’”).  However, I think the Lord’s Prayer can nevertheless be used very effectively in liturgical settings.

For example, when I was a pastor we realized that even in our small church we had speakers of a dozen or more languages—African, Asian, European, etc.  So one week, at the time when we usually shared the concerns of the congregation and prayed for them together, we instead had people take turns simply saying the Lord’s Prayer in their own native languages.  This was a powerful and beautiful experience that people talked about long afterwards.

Another time we were visiting one of the great British cathedrals, York Minster.  At noon a voice came quietly over the public address system reminding us that this was not just a historic building, it was a house of worship, and that it had been that since the early 600s.  And so we were all invited to join in a brief moment of worship by saying the Lord’s Prayer together, once again in our native languages.  This, too, was a powerful experience that illustrated the unity of God’s people through space and time by means of shared liturgical material.

Finally, as for the “empty phrases” that can creep into our prayers (“bless them, Lord”—how, exactly?), I think you’re right, we need to take an extra moment to think about what we really mean to say, rather than fall back on platitudes.  This is one more good warning to take to heart from Jesus’ multifaceted—but not mixed, I would say—teaching on prayer.

John Everett Millais, “The Parable of the Unjust Judge” (= the Parable of the Persistent Widow)

If God says no, can we appeal?

Why did God tell Balaam he could go with Balak’s men but then get mad at him for going? Was Balaam not supposed to ask a second time after God said no the first time, and God said “fine, go!” but really didn’t want him to?

The story of Balaam in the book of Numbers raises many perplexing questions, and you’ve highlighted one of the main ones.  God seems to say no to Balaam at first.  But he asks again, and God says yes.  But then God opposes him.  So can we really appeal a decision from God or not?

Balaam is one of those enigmatic figures in the Old Testament who’s outside the nation of Israel but who seems nevertheless to have a relationship with the true God.

Balak, king of Moab, feels threatened by the Israelites.  He knows that Balaam is a diviner and so, in league with the Midianites, he sends messengers to bring him from Mesopotamia to curse the nation of Israel.

Balaam waits on God for guidance overnight and God tells him, “Do not go with them.  You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.”  So Balaam refuses to go.

Undaunted, Balak sends a more impressive delegation and now, instead of offering the standard fee for divination, he promises, “I will reward you handsomely.”  Still, there’s no reason why Balaam should even consider this offer.  God has already told him the people of Israel are blessed and not to be cursed.  But Balaam once again goes before God for guidance.

So why does God tell him this second time that he can go?  The reasons seem not to have to do with Balaam, but with Balak.  God says, “Since these men have come to summon you” (that is, the large delegation of Balak’s high officials), “go with them, but do only what I tell you.”  My suspicion is that God is seeing an opportunity to declare his purposes and his glory before a large audience, the leaders and people of two nations, Moab and Midian.  God is prepared to work through Balaam to do that.

I believe that God sovereignly accomplishes his purposes through the free choices, good and bad, of human moral agents.  (This is how I relate divine sovereignty to human moral responsibility.)  I think that despite Balaam’s bad motives for wanting to go—he was clearly after the reward and renown—God felt he could work through him in the situation.

But the next day, as Balaam is on his way, God angrily opposes him, in the person of the “angel of the LORD.”  Now the reasons don’t have to do with Balak, but with Balaam.  God explains (translating literally), “I have come out as an adversary because the way plunges [into destruction] before me.”  In other words, I can see that your way is leading right into destruction, and so I’ve come to stop you, even if I have to kill you to do it.”

Rembrandt’s rendition of the scene in which Balaam’s donkey lies down to avoid the angel of the LORD’s drawn sword

Balaam is so chastened by this that he offers to return home, forsaking the hoped-for reward.  In view of this, God allows him to continue instead, but after a repeated warning:  “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.”  Hopefully the experience of seeing the angel of the LORD blocking the road with his sword drawn will stay with Balaam and keep him from doing anything foolish.

At first it seems to.  Balak gives Balaam three chances to curse Israel, but he blesses them three times instead.  Balak then refuses to pay Balaam, who delivers four oracles of judgment against Moab and other enemies of Israel.  God’s mission accomplished, right?

Unfortunately not.  In the very next scene, women from Moab and Midian seduce the Israelite men into worshipping idols, and in a divine judgment for this, thousands and thousands of Israelites are killed in a plague.  It’s as devastating as any defeat they might have suffered in battle against these enemies.  And who thought of this strategy?  Balaam.

We learn shortly afterwards in the book of Numbers that the Moabites and Midianites “followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the LORD . . . so that a plague struck the LORD’s people.”  The book of Jude, still using Balaam as a negative object lesson many centuries later, notes what his motive was:  “for profit.”

But the Israelites fought back against the Midianites, and when they defeated them, “they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.”  He hadn’t gone back to Mesopotamia.  He was still living with Balak and his allies, enjoying (briefly) the reward he’d received for finding a way to help them oppose Israel, even though God had told him only to bless Israel.

God saw accurately that Balaam’s way was plunging into destruction and tried to warn him.  But God didn’t take away Balaam’s freedom to choose.  And since Balaam was an available agent, God worked through his choices to ensure that his purposes were publicly proclaimed.  Balaam could have and should have taken warning from his near-death experience at the hands of the angel of the LORD.  But in the end, his greed overcame him, he opposed God’s purposes, and he was destroyed.

All of this leads me to conclude that while it might be possible to appeal when God says no, it’s a risky proposition, and not a very good idea.

Do our prayers really get through to God?

Q. I don’t know if I’ve really ever gotten through to God in prayer.  Some great things have happened to me over the years and I’ve said, “Thank you, God” for them.  I’ve looked up at the stars and said, “Wow, that’s awesome, God!”  But I’ve also been through some really tough things, and I’ve prayed about them, too, but I’m not sure what happened. 

I knew I should never ask for anything selfish, like riches.  I just prayed for God’s will to be evident, or for a really sick friend to be healed, or for some victims of a horrible accident, or financial problems to be straightened out.  I’ve tried the “If it’s your will, Lord” prayers.  Some worked out, some didn’t. 

I’ve read many verses about prayer.  One says to ask believing that it has already been done for you. Another says, “Ask, seek, knock.” There’s that parable Jesus told about the widow getting her wish because she wears the unjust judge out with her asking. 

I’ve heard a lot of answers to this problem:
“Just trust God and He will reveal Himself.”
“We can never know the Mind of God.”
“He knows the best thing for us, even if we can’t see it now.”
“God wants us to speak with Him as a young child, so keep praying.”
“Jesus showed us how to pray, so follow His example.”
“Many people prayed for things and it came about, so don’t give up.”
 
I need some assurance at this point.

Thank you for this honest and heartfelt question, which I’m sure many, many other readers of this blog will feel as well.  Prayer is central to the relationship we’re meant to have with God, but it’s also complex and mysterious, and I don’t pretend to be able to explain everything about it. But I can share with you some of the things I think I’ve discovered from the prayers in the Scriptures.

I think your question itself illustrates one essential point:  prayer is not meant to be primarily a way of asking for things; rather, it’s a way of living in relationship with God. And you’re already living in relationship with God through prayer. You describe how you use it to express your thanks for his blessings and your praise for his wonders. In other words, sometimes there’s not an expectation that a prayer will be “answered” with a particular result. It’s just a way for us to express ourselves to God. I’m certain that in those prayers, you got through.

The Bible is full of prayers of praise and thanksgiving. In fact, biblical prayers typically contain a much higher percentage of praise and thanksgiving than ours often do. So one important thing we can learn about prayer from the Bible is to use it regularly to express our gratitude and wonder to God.

Another important purpose we discover in the Scriptures is this: talking to God in prayer enables us to move from a place where we are questioning God’s power and goodness to a place where we have a confident trust in God, even in troubling circumstances. The most common kind of psalm by far is the “psalm of supplication,” whose essential purpose is to enable the writer to make this move. (This is discussed at length in the Psalms study guide, in sessions 2 and 7-11.) In these biblical psalms of supplication we see people make it to all stages along the way from questioning to trust. It’s a powerful and helpful model for us.

So in this case the expected result is not so much in the world around us, but inside us. It sounds to me that prayer also “worked” for you when you were able to trust God with the really tough things that were happening to you.

But I recognize that your ultimate question is about those times when we are hoping for and expecting a result in the world around us: for someone to be healed physically, or for a material need to be met, or for a relationship to mended–things like that. We would know that we’d “gotten through” if we got the result we were praying for. And what I see in the Bible is that prayer is also meant to be a means by which God can use us as his agents to bring about results like these. In other words, God wants to work through our prayers to achieve his purposes.

We often see this happen in the Bible. For example, the early church in Acts was “earnestly praying to God” for Peter’s release from prison, and he was miraculously set free. We also see it in Nehemiah’s prayer for favor with his king, who let him go to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. We see it in Daniel’s prayer for the return of the exiles, and in many other places.

However, we also have to acknowledge that in the Bible we see some petitions and intercessions (that is, prayers for oneself and for others) fail to achieve the desired result. Just before the apostle Peter was miraculously released from Herod’s prison, the apostle James was put to death by Herod. But I’m sure the early church was praying for the safety and deliverance of both men.

The clearest example for me is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He made a specific request: “May this cup be taken from me” (in other words, keep me from being executed). But he was crucified anyway. If even Jesus didn’t get what he asked for, how can any of us be sure that our prayers ever get through?

Gethsemane
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Church of St. Esteban,Salamanca

But I think Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane actually illustrates one more important thing about prayer. When God wants to work through our prayers, he calls us into an interactive process of speaking and listening.  This process may last for days or even weeks, rather than take place in one concentrated night as in Gethsemane. (I think that’s what Jesus wanted to show us through the parable of the widow and the judge.) Over the course of this process, we come to discern the will of God more and more clearly, so that we can pray with more and more confidence for it. The ultimate goal is for us to receive bold faith from a clear assurance of God’s will, and to see the prayer that’s prayed in that faith answered. I think Jesus’ teachings about “ask, seek, knock” and “believing that we have already received” apply to these cases specifically.

But the description of this process suggests that we begin in a place where we don’t have a clear assurance of God’s will.  That’s where the “if it’s your will, Lord” comes in. We begin by saying what we think God might want for us, but with the expectation that we will hear from God in response (if not in an audible voice, then at least in a change of heart, a new perspective, or something like that). In light of that response, we adapt our prayers, and the process of speaking and listening continues until we reach either a place where we are completely surrendered to God’s will, whatever that might be, or a place where we have a confident assurance of God’s will and a bold faith that our prayers will be instrumental in its realization.

It’s eye-opening and encouraging for me to think that, on this model, Jesus in Gethsemane actually began in a place where he wasn’t certain that it was God’s will for him to receive what he was asking for–an escape from the cross–and that he reached a place not where he knew his petition would be granted, but where he was yielded to God’s will, even if it wasn’t what he was asking for.  I’d say he definitely “got through” on that occasion, and perhaps, looking back on your experiences, you’ll recognize some where you “got through” in the same way. But I hope you’ll also recognize some experiences where your initial impulse to pray for something turned out to be what God wanted, and that he used your prayers over time to bring about his purposes.