Christians love being right. To rephrase towards a less generous take, modern Christians seem inordinately preoccupied with behaving correctly. This is evident in obvious aspects of our faith such as doctrine, conduct, and speech. Just to be clear, I’m not for bad doctrine or behaving badly. The more time I spend in pastoral counseling, though, the more I see the damage that an obsession with “truth” can do to our integrity as a person.
We have difficulty holding “what is” without qualifying it with what “should be.” In other words, we are more comfortable assessing how we feel and what we experience in terms of what should be true rather than what is actually true. Years of living this way gives birth to the dreaded disconnect between our heads and our hearts. We confess the sovereignty of God with our lips but can’t sleep at night. We know what is true but, for many, the truth has not transformed us. And I’m thinking first here about me.
Until my late twenties, my greatest fear in life was finding out I was an accidental heretic. This is an understandable concern for anyone who wants to avoid drowning in a pond with a rock around their neck (Matt. 18:6). I triple checked every opinion I had and tried to send every word I spoke through multiple filters of orthodoxy.
My system of guarding my tongue, heart, mind, and life was shattered during one semester in seminary after a professor encouraged us to pray the Psalms. Everything was fine until I reached Psalm 89. Here’s a particularly juicy portion where the Psalmist, lamenting to God, didn’t seem to share my passion for orthodoxy.
But now you have rejected him and cast him off. You are angry with your anointed king. You have renounced your covenant with him; you have thrown his crown in the dust.
YIKES. He’s calling God a liar and a promise breaker. I had two take-aways after reading that day. First, the Psalmist was praying/singing things that were not true and, second, those untrue prayers made it into the Bible. Scripture is not endorsing these statements as much as giving permission to be in these places: spaces where God seems absent, like he’s lied to you, like he’s stopped loving you (keep reading Psalm 89 for more examples). In Psalms like this, we receive permission to be who we really are with God, even when who we really are sounds utterly heretical.
Psalm 89 ends in a word of praise, which reads to me like a confession of trust. Here’s how I feel, I know you can deal with it. It reads like desperate willingness. Here’s how I feel, what can you do with it?
I think many of us pray like the little boy who snuck an extra piece of cake when he thought mama wasn’t looking. His face is covered in chocolate icing, but his mouth is empty so he thinks he got away with it. “Sweetie, did you eat some cake?” mom asks. “No mama, “the child replies, “I didn’t eat annnnnnny cakes”. Adults in the room will laugh at the absurdity of it (though moms will likely react in a different way).
Similarly, in the quiet stillness of a morning devotional time (or in the agonizing silence before bed), the still, small voice of our Father asks us, “Is everything alright?” With our mouths we say, “Father God Lord of Lords Creator of heaven and earth, I praise you for the wonderful life you have sovereignly given to me.” Ah, such a rich, theologically sounding prayer! All the while our hearts are in turmoil, we toss and turn in bed, we are bitter with our spouse, disappointed with our job, and anxious because we think we might need anxiety pills. We confess the omniscience of God and then we wrap our fears and insecurities in fancy theological confessions.
Many of us relate to God like little children,…and we think we have him fooled.
Praying the Truth
When Paul tells us that there is no condemnation for those who belong to Jesus (Rom. 8: 1), he really means ‘no condemnation’. In other words, if your life is hidden in Christ, you aren’t in trouble when what’s true to your heart is not “true” in reality. This doesn’t mean we don’t evaluate our heart; it just means we don’t deny it. There is no condemnation for the pain you feel from life’s losses and your personal limitations. There is no condemnation for feeling discontent with your lackluster ministry, or your anger over a hard year of marriage.
Jesus tells us that the heart—that secret place within us that holds our loves and longings—gives birth to our actions and speech. Solomon pleads with us to guard our hearts because all of life flows from it. Here’s what they knew that few us can accept: our lives follow our hearts more than they follow our minds. A truth in the mind does not change our lives unless it has transformed our hearts. If we hide our hearts from God (and from ourselves!), how can we expect him to change it?
If Jesus makes us right with God, then we have the freedom to come to him even when we aren’t theologically correct. To put it in the language of the Bible, we are invited to come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Heb. 4: 16). We don’t come boldly because we are OK. We come boldly because he understands our weakness and we need His help! For us, coming to God boldly means coming to him with the courage to share how we’re really doing. When we are vulnerable before him, when we see our pain with clarity, our hearts are opened in his presence and more open to His truth.
Psalm 89 does not tell us that God is a promise breaker. It tell us that he welcomes us when we feel like he is. It does not tell us that he has left us, much the opposite. Psalm 89 tells us that even when our prayers aren’t correct, he’ll never leave us. This means that we are invited to come to a gracious, loving Father and tell him what seems true in our hearts.
Pray the truth, Christian, even when it’s not true.