Praying through pain

I am an introvert. My natural inclination when I experience pain is to be stoic and silent. I hardly uttered a sound in childbirth! The reality is that many people struggle to find words to express overwhelming feelings of distress and bottle them up instead. Many other people prefer to vent their pain outwardly.

Our culture encourages us to air our grievances; tell our stories and bare our brokenness and vulnerabilities to each other. Anything else is seen as unhealthy repression. But while there are therapeutic benefits to honest expression, as sinners we run the risk of seeking sympathy instead of healing. Sympathy will give us momentary comfort, but can also entrench distorted perceptions; excuse our sinful responses and stunt our ability to grow through adversity.

Trusting the Lord of our trials.

But, for Christians there is always a better way than following our natural inclinations or conforming to the patterns of this world. As Peter reminded first century Christians facing hideous suffering, “You have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials… so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7)

If we submit to Christ as Lord of our trials, the Bible shows us how to deal with our pain. It is simply not biblical to say, “My feelings are always right,” or “Always trust your feelings”, because our feelings can easily lose perspective of the truth. Our feelings can lie to us.

In Psalm 6, David gives Christians a godly template to work through our feelings of sorrow. Psalm 6 is the first of seven ‘penitential’ Psalms where the writer humbly describes his predicament (usually the result of his own sin), then expresses sorrow over it, and finally seeks God for the remedy and healing. We don’t know the exact source of David’s distress in this Psalm, but it is probably his sin with Bathsheba, as he begins his prayer with these words:

“O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger

or discipline me in your wrath

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled” (Ps 6:1-2).

David goes on to pray:

My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O Lord—how long?

Turn, O Lord, deliver my life;save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?

I am weary with my moaning;every night I flood my bed with tears;I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my plea;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

  1. David confesses his sin. (Ps 6:1-2)

David is not stoical or self-pitying, but honest and humble in his prayer. He confesses that if God treated him as he deserved, with justice instead of mercy, he should be wiped out by God’s wrath. He asks God to correct him gently rather than in anger, just as Jeremiah asked, Discipline me, Lord, but only in due measure—not in your anger, or you will reduce me to nothing (Jer 10:24).

But you may ask—What if my distress is not caused by my sin, but by sickness, bereavement, depression, conflict, divorce, unemployment or someone else’s sin against me? Surely I can skip the confession and get straight to the deliverance I need?

Confession is a good place to begin, no matter what the source of our grief. Jesus taught us to say, “Forgive us our sins, just as we forgive those who sin against us,” because we are always in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. The Apostle Peter realized this when he witnessed the miraculous catch of fish, fell at Jesus’ knees and confessed, “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).

Likewise, the prophet Isaiah, after seeing a vision of the Lord and listening to the praise of the angels, confessed, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isa 6:5). Neither Peter nor Isaiah had committed a great sin before they made these confessions, but both showed a proper fear of the Lord. They knew that they were sinners approaching a holy and powerful God, and this knowledge humbled them.

Confession is an acknowledgement of who God is, who we are, and our continuous need of his forgiveness and grace. We are weak and sinful by nature. Even our emotions are marred and misled by sin. Again, Peter describes this humble attitude in his instruction to suffering Christians: “Humble yourselves therefore under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6).

  1. David prays his pain (Ps 6:2-3)

David then pours out his heart to the Lord in tears:

  • “How long, O Lord, how long?” (Ps 6:3).
  • “I am faint…for my bones are in agony” (Ps 6:2)
  • “I am worn out from groaning” (Ps 6:6)
  • “All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Ps 6:6)
  • “My soul is in anguish” (Ps 6:3)
  • “My eyes grown weak with sorrow” (Ps 6:7)

David tells God the physical symptoms of his sorrow. There is a desperation about his question, “How long, how long?”

Of course God knows our feelings before we say a word, but when we pray them to the Lord, we are relating to our Father as a child would relate to their parent (Matt 6:8). We are expressing trust in him as our loving Father (Matt 7:11). Prayer is all about relationship, not a shopping cart. God doesn’t want us to put on a brave face or to suffer in silence. Nor is he a cold impersonal force looking on from a distance, or a supplier in a business transaction. He is the Lord, Yahweh who makes a faithful, everlasting covenant with his people (Ps 6:5).

This side of the cross, we pray to God as our Father, Abba, who has adopted us into his family (Gal 4:6-7), our Father who cares deeply about our sleepless nights and our bloodshot eyes that can hardly open in the morning. As Father, he wants you to express your pain to him, to “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

  1. David asks God for help (Ps 6:2; 4)

David knows that the Lord, and only the Lord, is the remedy for every grief. He turns to God for his deliverance and healing, for that is what he needs most:

  • “O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony” (Ps 6:2).
  • “Turn, O Lord, and deliver me, save me because of your unfailing love” (Ps 6:4).

Like David, every believer can simply ask God for help on the basis of God’s unfailing love. The Bible never says that we need a specially ‘anointed’ man of God or pastor to declare healing or deliverance on us. We simply need to get on our knees and ask God for help.

James says, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray…The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:1316). Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us our daily bread…deliver us from evil.”

Prayer is sometimes the last thing we feel like doing when we’re in trouble. But that’s when we need to pray most. Phone a distressed friend today and offer to pray with them, even if it’s on Facetime or Zoom.

  1. David preaches to himself (Ps 6:8-10).

Like David, we need to preach the truth to ourselves, because we are prone to forget it when troubles rule our emotions.

After David prays for help, he believes God. He believes that the Lord has heard his prayer and then confidently verbalizes his trust in the Lord, as if preaching the truth to himself:

  • “For the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry to mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer” (Ps 6:8-9).

Athough there’s no resolution or evidence that the source of David’s anguish has vanished, he affirms in words that God cares for him and is acting on his behalf. Unexpectedly, his prayer ends on a note of victory:

  • “All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace” (Ps 6:10).

We don’t know whether David’s immediate circumstances changed after this prayer, and we know for sure that he suffered far-reaching consequences for his sin with Bathsheba. But regardless of what happened next, David’s attitude changed from being in anguish, to being quietly hopeful in the Lord. He experiences God’s peace that transcends understanding, as Paul describes when he instructs suffering first century believers to pray,

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7).

Find rest in Jesus.

“In Christ Jesus” is the key to our prayers. If you and I have put our faith in Christ Jesus, we have more available in our arsenal of truth than David in 1000BC. We know and are known by “the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that the prophet Isaiah foretold (Isa 53:3). We have the cross to remind us that there is no anguish of body, mind or soul which Jesus did not experience on our behalf. And there is nothing in Psalm 6 that Christ did not pray to his Father (Matt 27:45-56Luke 22:42).

He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows; was afflicted by a terrible punishment he didn’t deserve; was crushed for our sins (Isa 53:4-5). He took the punishment that brought us peace with God, and by his wounds we are healed (Isa 53:3-5). And he too prayed for deliverance the night before he died, but for our sake, his Father did not grant his request… until the resurrection and ascension. In our own fears and anguish, we can trust Jesus who has given us “new birth into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3).

That’s why King David’s prayer in Psalm 6 ended in hope. And there will come a day when that hope will be fully realized for every believer. Christ Jesus will return in victory to give us full healing and deliverance: new bodies and a new creation where pain, sorrow and death do not exist (Rev 21:4). “All our enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace” (Ps 6:10). Until then, let’s run to Christ, the Lord of our sorrows, and pour out our hearts in prayer.

The Good Shepherd

I wonder if anyone else struggled to maintain a clear head and a trusting heart in 2020? It would be great to be able to look into a crystal ball and see a peaceful and prosperous 2021 on the horizon, but unfortunately we have no such guarantee!

Seven hundred years before Christ was born in Bethlehem, the prophet Isaiah foretells the coming of the suffering Servant who will eventually restore his people. Judah still had 100 years of trouble before Jerusalem would fall, then 70 more years of exile. Their times were turbulent like ours, but God tells Isaiah to speak tenderly and to comfort Jerusalem, describing God as a shepherd, gently caring for and guiding his sheep, especially the most vulnerable and defenceless members of his flock:

“He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms;

he will carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead those with young.” (Isaiah 40:11)

In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus calls himself the good shepherd (John 10:11;14). He is also referred to as the great Shepherd (Heb 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd of his people (1 Peter 5:4). As believers going into 2021, this image of the Lord as our Shepherd is a powerful one. Whatever the year may bring, Jesus owns us and is committed to his flock. Christ is our only protector.

The wrecking ball of 2020.

This time last year, most of us were in a very different position than today. It feels like an eternity since March 2020, when news first broke about the spread of the Coronovirus. Since then, most people across the globe have felt its effects: Job losses and deaths; masks, online church and study; illness, fear and social isolation; corruption, PPE fraud and fake news, social activism, not to mention the tragic increase in depression, anxiety, suicides and suicidal ideation around the world.

As momentum picked up, 2020 was marked by enmity, hostility, suspicion, grievance and despair. Alienation is the word that comes to mind when I think of last year– Alienation from God, from each other and from self. 2020 has been a spotlight on our true alienation as sinful human beings, bringing it into sharper focus. We are like scattered sheep, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isa 53:6).

The events of 2020 did not create, but merely pulled back the curtain to expose this reality. Without Christ, we are ultimately lost and divided because of our sin. We are without direction, without purpose and without protection against the vicissitudes of life and ultimately against the judgment of God when we die. Jesus is the only truly Good Shepherd that God himself provided. Without Christ, we are all sheep without a shepherd.

False shepherds

2020 has been a year which has also tested and exposed the shallow, me-centred spirituality which, in better times, passes for Christianity. By August, the fuel of self-help, self-empowerment and self–actualisation ran out for those running on self rather than God. It’s clear that DIY spirituality proved to be a useless fuel source, judging by the stats on depression and anxiety. Cultural gurus and self-help experts are strangely impotent to lead people in a real crisis.

2020 has been a wrecking ball to many fake gospels and false human shepherds about whom New Testament writers like Jude forewarned us: “Shepherds feeding only themselves; waterless clouds swept along by winds, wandering stars, grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires, loud-mouthed boasters” (Jude 12-1416).

2020 has been a wrecking ball to the false gospel that proclaims that a child of God should be healthy and wealthy if we have enough faith, and that we should not expect suffering or difficulties in this life.

It strikes me as amazing that not one of the self-appointed Christian prophets predicted the chaos of 2020. Instead, only two months before disaster struck, there was a plethora of the usual optimistic forecasts of a prosperous year for God’s people…especially if we sowed a seed into their ministries! These church leaders remind me of the false prophets of the Old Testament who filled God’s people with false hopes, speaking visions from their own minds, rather than from the mouth of the Lord, saying,

“The Lord says: You will have peace” And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts, they say, “No harm will come to you…” (Jeremiah 23:16-32). Really? No mention of Jerusalem’s coming destruction and being carried off as slaves into Babylon.

The marks of today’s false shepherds are no different to those in Ezekiel’s day: They are self-serving and neglectful of the sheep given to their care; they do not disturb their own comfort by searching for the lost or strengthening the weak (Ezek 34:4); they scatter instead of gathering the flock; they muddy the waters by raising unnecessary doubts and teaching false ideas (Ezek 34:18-19). They do not take care to spiritually nourish the sheep with God’s word, even destroying their food source by twisting God’s word (Ezek 34:8). No word about sin, judgment and repentance, just endless affirmation. No warning about suffering for Christ’s sake. Just an inspirational gospel which assures you that Jesus wants you to be happy, you are enough just the way you are, and you have the inner strength to conquer another day.

I wonder if anyone has questioned those Bible teachers who extracted Isaiah 26:20 from its context to assure Christians to “take refuge in their homes for a little while,” and all would be well, while Coronavirus passed us by. Passover was supposed to be the great reset button to get us back to normal, but April came and went with only harsher lockdown measures. In spite of those who bound and burned the evil spirit of Coronavirus, we face the realities of another year beset by Covid. Yet, no one holds these false teachers to account for their presumptuous words.

Let’s hope that these exposures of 2020 have made us less tolerant of false shepherds. Let’s hope that 2020 has woken us up to the reality that the Bible is not a collection of spiritual pick-me-ups focused on ourselves, but God’s story of salvation history which should be studied for what it is—the word of God.

The Lord is my Shepherd.

The reality is that many of God’s people are stumbling over the threshold of 2021 grieving over what we have lost, fearful and uncertain of what is to come. We are perplexed to hear of the sexual misconduct of yet another Christian leader, whom we have respected for many years. Our souls groan under the curse of creation.

But as we start a new year, let’s remember that Jesus is our Shepherd in the here and now. Let’s remind ourselves of the simple truths of the gospel which Christ himself laid out for us so tenderly in John 10.

In John 10, Jesus proclaimed himself as the good Shepherd promised in Ezekiel 34:23: “the one shepherd, my servant David, (who) shall feed them and be their shepherd.” However disappointing human leaders may be, Jesus is the true Shepherd who laid down his own life for his sheep (John 10:1114). He is not a hired hand, but the owner of his sheep. If we have responded to his voice in repentance and faith, he allows us access to his sheep pen and remains committed to us, no matter what (John 10:12-13). He knows his own sheep personally and intimately, and we are branded as his forever (John 10:14). Instead of dividing and scattering, Jesus is in the process of gathering his sheep from every nation into one fold (John 10:16). Neither Satan, nor his ravenous wolves have the power to snatch us from his flock, nor rob us of his love and eternal life (John 10:1-21). The Lord is our Shepherd, and in him we have everything we need (Ps 23:1).

The cross and the resurrection are proof that Jesus is our Shepherd in life and death, even in the final chapter of God’s big story—Restoration Day. May the apostle John’s future hope profoundly affect our lives in the coming year, whatever 2021 may bring. A blessed New Year to you and yours!

“For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,

He will lead them to springs of living water

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”—Revelation 7:17.