What does faith look like in the face of doubt and despair? How do we pray when we aren’t sure that God is listening or that He cares? Most of us don’t know how to answer those questions. We find them awkward and disturbing. We like to think, or to pretend that Christians don’t ever feel that way. But those reactions to doubt and despair aren’t realistic, they aren’t helpful. Thankfully, they aren’t biblical either!
The Psalms are full of prayers from people who felt like God had abandoned them. The Psalms are raw and real. Sometimes the things they say are shocking. It’s easy to wonder if they’re there as examples of bad prayers from sinful people. But the Psalms were the hymn book of the Bible. They were the songs that God’s people sang when they worshipped God. All of them. Not just the nice happy ones. On the cross, Jesus prayed the Psalms to His Father when He said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, Psalm 22:1). And let’s not forget that all of the Bible is God’s Word. Like the rest of the Bible, the Psalms were written by humans and reflect human experience, but were also breathed out by God. The Psalms are God’s Word that we can pray back to Him. Words that God gives us to express not only joy and praise, but fear, doubt, sadness, anger, and even hatred.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book on the Psalms, entitled The Prayer Book of the Bible, puts it this way:
The Psalter has rich instruction for us about how to come before God in a proper way in the various sufferings that the world brings upon us. The Psalms know it all: serious illness, deep isolation from God and humanity, threats, persecution, imprisonment, and whatever conceivable peril there is on earth…. They do not deny it , they do not deceive themselves with pious words about it, they allow it to stand as a severe ordeal of faith, indeed at times they no longer see beyond the suffering (Ps. 88), but they complain about it all to God…. There is in the Psalms no quick and easy surrender to suffering. It always comes through struggle, anxiety, and doubt. Our confidence in God’s righteousness and, indeed, in God’s good and gracious will, is shaken…. God’s ways are too difficult to grasp. But even in the deepest hopelessness, God alone remains the one addressed. Help is neither expected from other people, nor does the sufferer in self-pity lose sight of God, the origin and goal of all affliction.
Having faith doesn’t mean you never doubt or despair. Rather, doubt and despair are often essential for strengthening faith, as long as the doubt is brought to God and processed with Him. The Psalms give us permission to do just that, and provide rich prayers that speak for us when we don’t know what to say.
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