June 28, 2017
How Theology Can Ruin Your Prayer Life, and How the Psalms Can Help

Her father told his children to pray for patience, for courage, for kindness, for clarity, for trust, for gratitude. Those prayers will be answered, he said. Others may not be. The Lord knows your needs. So she prayed, Lord, give me patience. She knew that was not an honest prayer, and she did not linger over it. The right prayer would have been, Lord, my brother treats me like a hostile stranger, my father seems to have put me aside, I feel I have no place here in what I thought would be my refuge, I am miserable and bitter at heart, and old fears are rising up in me so that everything I do makes everything worse. But it cost her tears to think her situation might actually be that desolate, so she prayed again for patience, for tact, for understanding—for every virtue that might keep her safe from conflicts that would be sure to leave her wounded, every virtue that might at least help her preserve an appearance of dignity, for heaven’s sake.

—Marilynne Robinson, Home: A Novel

A few years ago I was facing some big decisions concerning graduate studies and a hoped-for dating relationship. I wrestled with a complex spectrum of desires and fears and found myself saying to God, “Lord, I want what you want”—very pious words for a not-so-holy man. That’s what I thought my prayer should be, but it was not where my heart truly was.

Somewhere deep down I knew I was being disingenuous, and heard a laughing voice say, “Don’t lie to me, son. Tell me what you want.” So I did. I told God my desires and fears, and asked him to give me strength to trust that he would provide. In the months that followed, things did not turn out exactly the way I wanted. I did get into the graduate program, but I did not get the girl. Being honest with God and myself about my desires and fears left me with pain and disappointment. I had voiced my hopes, and this left me open and vulnerable to even greater hurt.

In addition to loneliness, I now had to work through my disillusionment with God. This has been a hard lesson that I have had to relearn repeatedly: dishonest prayers, even if they contain correct theological ideas, lead to an unhealthy and dishonest life. And what often makes things worse is that my “good” theology—those things that contain proper words but which sidestep or skip over the unlovely truths of my life and vulnerable faith—are the very words that keep God at a safe distance and bury my pain and fears more deeply.

I couldn’t see it at the time, but even as I continued to live with my unmet desires and struggled to believe that God was “for” me, God was meeting my honest prayer as he wanted to.

The psalms have played a vital role in shaping my faith in my long journey with God. They have invited me to take God at his word, embrace his grace, and call out to him from where I am—in joy, or sin, or suffering, or even anger. Again and again I find that the shocking and unsettling honesty of the psalms calls forth honesty within me—honesty about deep things like desires, fears, and hurts.

But honesty alone is not the ultimate aim of the psalms. Rather, they aim to create space for truthful dialogue with God—responding to God in truth as he has spoken to me in Scripture through his Spirit. In this dialogue, the psalms suspend me between two realities—between “My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,” and “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One”— without letting either one fall out of sight or mind (Ps. 22:2). It is here that my theology must come face to face with life as it is lived in the disorderly particularities of my life.

In a classic text on spiritual theology entitled A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Helmut Thielicke highlights some of the dangers and temptations that surround the process of growing spiritually during theological education. Writing to young seminary students, Thielicke warns against assuming that they automatically or genuinely believe those things that intrigue them theologically. It is tempting, he argued, to be intellectually captivated by theological ideas, but we endanger our own soul if we mistake such intellectual fascination for a lived appropriation of the profound realities to which they call. Thielicke put the irony this way: “Good, respectable theology . . . [often] threatens our personal life of faith. Faith must mean more to us than a mere commodity stored in the tin cans of reflection or bottled in the lecture notebook.”

The psalms have invited me to take God at his word, embrace his grace, and call out to him from where I am—in joy, or sin, or suffering, or even anger.

Theology matters; and good theology is vitally important to a healthy and sustainable Christian life. But good theology alone is not enough. As Thielicke insisted, and the psalms relentlessly demonstrate, good theology runs through the crucible of lived experience with all its complexity, ambiguity, and contradictions.

The first step is hearing God address us where we are, not where we think we should be. The psalms meet us in the current scene of our story, with our gurgling cries for help in the stormy chaos of life: “All your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Ps. 42:7). They breathe a word of hope amid the suffocating surges of suffering: “I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (v. 11). Even when no hope is to be found on the horizon, I have found that the will and the breath to call out to God in lament or petition is itself a hope-filled act.

I have found that as I pray the psalms, I am confronted by my life’s circumstances and by God himself. I am often left with the choice of whether I will let my theology nurture dependent trust in God and allow me to rely on what I know of him so that I can honestly voice my desires and fears. Like the blind beggar who responded to Jesus, “Lord, I want to see!” (Luke 18:41), and the psalmist who cried out, “God, I feel forsaken and abandoned” (Ps. 22:1), I am invited to pray specifically and not remain in the safety of niceties and vague generalities while my true desires and fears remain hidden behind abstract theological concepts.

The more specifically our prayer names our desires or fears, the more costly and dangerous the prayer is. As I am repeatedly reminded: the greater the hope and risk, the greater the possibility of disappointment and hurt. Yet taking the risk of honesty also makes us more alive to God, others, and ourselves. I know of no other route to practicing a gritty hopefulness that can face the full force of the realities of life and still bear the weight of God’s promises. I know of no other process of translating theology into a dependent trust on God.

This article originally appeared in Reformed Worship magazine. 

About the Author
Cory Willson

Cory Willson

Cory Willson is the Jake and Betsy Tuls assistant professor of missiology and missional ministry at Calvin Seminary, and the co-founder and editor of Evangelical Interfaith dialogue journal