Prayer may be a response to God. When we pray, we may attribute a recent event in our lives to the providence or the judgment of God. When we thank God for food, or a new job, or an answer to another prayer, we respond to his action with our prayer. When tragedy strikes, we may pray in anger, “Why, God? Why?” The prayers of lament found in Psalms, Lamentations, and Jeremiah in the Bible are this sort of prayer.
Rules of communication apply in prayer. We may attribute responsibility to God wrongly. We may misunderstand or misapply a promise in the Bible. We may be angry at God when we are at fault. This, at least in part, is why one biblical writer counsels,
“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words” (Ecclesiastes 5:1-3).
We must listen before we pray. Listening in this case means pausing to consider why we pray and what we say to God. It may include reading and reflecting on scriptures that seem related to the subject of our prayer. It will include evaluating how our own speech and actions contributed to the situation about which we pray.
The author of Lamentations wrote and prayed in the midst of devastation. He had witnessed horrible acts and the destruction of a city he loved. He writes, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD! Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven: ‘We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven’” (Lamentations 3:40-42).
He continues to pray, noting that God has “wrapped [himself] with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through. You have made us scum and garbage among the peoples” (Lamentations 3:44-45). Yes, he’s angry. He grieves. Yet, even in his anger, he realizes that God still loves and listens,
“You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life. You have seen the wrong done to me, O LORD; judge my cause” (Lamentations 3:58-59).
He prays with anger. He questions whether God listens. He mourns what he has lost. Yet, he remembers that God loves and that only God can rescue him. He presents his case to God and asks God to punish his enemies, but remembers that God will judge him as well.
We pray when we suffer. We pray when we don’t understand. Let us remember to pause, listen (or read), and reflect before we pray.