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Lord, Teach Us to Pray: The Prayer of Suffering

January 22, 2006

Psalm 22

About two years ago, a special guest from Charlotte, North Carolina, spoke one Saturday at Morningside Men. This guest, a woman who enjoyed the sport of skydiving, had a wonderful record of safety. She had made multiple jumps, which had all turned out well. She told about one particular jump, though, in which her parachute became entangled. Though there was some drag, she fell to the ground at a very high rate of speed. She just missed the airport runway by a few feet, landing on the grass. Her head hit in the middle of a large fire ant hill, which probably kept her from fracturing her neck during the harsh impact. Though the ants stung her neck and face hundreds of times, they probably helped save her life. According to her neurosurgeon, the fire ant stings triggered an immediate response from her immune system. This woman underwent many surgeries to repair broken bones, but she lived to tell about this experience.

As I listened to her story, I thought about the many ways suffering comes to us as a common human experience. Sometimes suffering is so unexpected. Sometimes it is so predictable. I can hardly look in any direction this morning without seeing people in the congregation who are experiencing suffering in their lives. When we think of the life of prayer, we want to understand how this experience of suffering affects the life of prayer and how the life of prayer affects the experience of suffering.

Last week I told you that if we want to learn the prayer of release, the prayer of surrender, we must go to school at the Garden of Gethsemane. Today, I want you to know that if we are to learn to pray the prayer of suffering, we must go to the place called The Skull, Golgotha. If we want to learn to pray the prayer of suffering, we must go to Calvary. Jesus cried out in a loud voice the Aramaic expression, “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This terrible cry, sometimes called an excruciating cry, comes from the Latin roots ex and cruc, which means “from the cross.” This cry tells us about the prayer of suffering.

Mike read for us a remarkable passage of scripture, Psalm 22, sometimes called “The Psalm of Jesus.” We recognize in the first verse, the words of Jesus, spoken from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Many people believe that when Jesus cried those words, he was not just referring to the first verse of Psalm 22. In a sense, he was referring to the entire psalm. That is why I asked Mike to read the entire passage. If you quote, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” you probably are not just thinking about the fact that the Lord is your shepherd. You might also be thinking that He leads you through the valley of the shadow of death, that He comforts you with rod and staff, that His goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life, and that you look forward to the day when you can dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The first verse of the psalm may actually imply the whole psalm. That is an important understanding.

Some have said that when Jesus uttered these words, God had turned His back on him. I am more inclined to believe the situation best described by James Russell Lowell in his famous hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation.” Lowell says, “Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above His own.”

If you want to find a place that seems godforsaken, you might well choose Calvary, Golgotha. Jesus felt forsaken, but God had not abandoned him, a fact we must acknowledge in the life of prayer. We all experience this sense of desertion, this sense of abandonment, by the Almighty. We try to pray, but God seems so far away. The whole sky seems like brass, as if our prayers are ricocheting back to us, never making it through to heaven.

The prayer of suffering is an important part of the prayer experience. We might call it the desert, the wasteland, the wilderness. One Quaker writer has called it “the Sahara of the soul.” St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul.” You heard the words of the psalmist, perhaps implied by Jesus. “My throat is parched. My tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth” (Psalm 22:15). The expression of prayer indicates a thirst. If we do not experience the thirst, then when we finally come to a spiritual oasis, we do not really appreciate that life-giving, thirst-quenching water.

George Buttrick says that this important part of the life of prayer is like beating on heaven’s door with bruised knuckles in the dark. It is a common experience, sometimes connected to the circumstances of life. People go through the Sahara of the soul in the Intensive Care Waiting Unit. They go through the Sahara of the soul in the divorce court. They might go through this kind of wilderness in a prison cell or in a mortuary. This place might seem godforsaken because it seems as if God is absent, silent, and waiting. “How long, O Lord, must I wait?”

Well-meaning people say that when we experience suffering, we should never question God. I refer you to Psalm 22:1, where we see the question, “My God, my God, why?” The night after our son Erik died, Clare and I stayed on Sullivan’s Island. I had difficulty sleeping, so I got up very early and walked on the beach that cold November morning. I walked toward the steady rhythm of the Charleston light and asked every why question I could imagine: Why Erik? Why now? Why June? Why Clare? Why? Why? Why? I walked, I cried, and I asked why.

Just at sunrise, I turned to walk back toward the beach house. My questions changed because I realized those questions were dead-end streets with no answers. I framed a different question: “What do I do now?” After we ask all the why questions, we come to that point of “What do I do now?” We may still be in the wilderness. We may still be in the desert, but something about that question moves us forward toward the light, toward a waiting God.

The wilderness is a place of temptation. We know that Jesus himself went into the wilderness where Satan tempted him in all ways we are tempted. The wilderness is also a place of clarification and a time for self-examination. When we are suffering, we must ask ourselves, “What responsibility do I bear for this suffering?” Sometimes our suffering is the natural consequence of our own behavior. We clearly see that we are responsible for the suffering because of the way we have lived our lives or because of the way we have treated other people. This wilderness becomes an important time for soul-searching, for self-examination, for introspection. We look to the interior. The psalmist words it this way: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psalm 139:23).

If you own a computer, periodically, you must run a virus scan. If not, your computer will accumulate infected programs from the cyber world that can create malfunctions. When we go through the dark night of the soul, this wilderness experience, it is as if this soul-searching is a type of internal virus scan, elimination, or quarantine. It is a time of purification and restoration.

David committed a double sin. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and conspired to commit murder. David ordered that Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, fight on the frontline so that he would be killed in battle. The prophet Nathan came to David and told him a parable about a rich man who had many sheep and a poor man who had only one little lamb. The rich man took the poor man’s lamb and slaughtered it. David responded to the prophet’s story with outrage; then Nathan revealed how David and the rich man were similar. He held up a mirror, a spiritual mirror, and asked, “King David, do you see what I see? You are the guilty man.” Psalm 51 is the record of David’s soul-searching, his confession. Verses 4 and 10 read, “Against Thee, and Thee only have I sinned and done that which is evil in Thy sight… Create within me a clean heart, O God, and renew within me a right spirit. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and lead me in the way everlasting.” Sometimes our soul-searching leads us to the deep cleansing experience of confession.

The prayer of suffering is a prayer of tears, sometimes created from our own sin. The gospel of Luke tells us that Peter went out and wept bitterly when he heard the rooster crowing in downtown Jerusalem. The night before, when Peter had declared, “Lord, I will never deny you,” Jesus answered, “Peter, Satan has sought to sift you. Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” When Peter heard the crowing, he was convicted by his own sin; he went out and wept bitterly.

Sometimes our prayer is the prayer of tears because other people have broken our hearts and sinned against us. David weeps over his rebellious son Absalom. Hosea weeps over his unfaithful wife. Jesus weeps over an entire city because they would not listen to him. We have only one response. We must come right back to Calvary. “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Jesus prayed that prayer for you. He prayed that prayer for me. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When we weep because others have broken our hearts, our only response, learned at Calvary, is the response of forgiveness.

Some prayers are too deep for words. God hears our prayers that are just tears. Psalm 6 says, “My pillow is soaked with tears. My bed is damp from weeping, but the Lord hears my tears. He hears my weeping. He listens to my cry for help.”

I made up a wise old saying: Never waste a good experience of suffering. Make your suffering count. Think about the suffering of Jesus. Think of the scourging with the Roman cat-of-nine-tails, that instrument that opened up the flesh of his back. Many Roman prisoners died from a beating like the one Jesus received. Then soldiers pressed Jesus against the timber and nailed him in place. Jesus suffered, not because of anything he did, but because of what I did. I do not understand how Jesus’ dying on a cross two thousand years ago can have anything to do with my sin now. I cannot figure that out rationally, but I believe it with all my heart. He suffered for me and did the same for you, but I cannot explain it. I can just tell you that it is the affirmation God makes. He loved the world so much that He sent His Son to die for you. We call it redemption. It is God’s way of salvation. The Apostle Paul says that in our sufferings, we complete Christ’s sufferings, a statement that sounds like a great riddle. We must understand that God wants our suffering to be redemptive.

God can somehow use our suffering to help others. On Friday night, we listened to the story of Clebe McClary, a highly decorated Marine officer terribly wounded in Vietnam. He suffered. He lost an arm and an eye and endured many other injuries to his body. He decided that instead of being bitter about his suffering, he would use it for the glory of God. He would use his suffering in a redemptive way. He tells his story to high school students, to men at military bases all over the country. He talks about Jesus and the salvation Jesus Christ has offered him. Young people and those in the military listen to this man.

Maybe you have family members who look to you as an example. You have an opportunity to teach them about this part of life. Maybe colleagues know of your suffering and see in you a different kind of attitude, one that is redemptive and healing. No one will be exempt from suffering. We cannot avoid it. When suffering comes, we go through it with prayer, not around it. In the life of prayer, we look to Golgotha, to the cross, where we see the one who teaches us how to pray the prayer of suffering. God enables us to find a way to use our suffering for His Kingdom. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior? He died on that cross for Kirk Neely. He died on that cross for you. I cannot explain it. I simply invite you to believe it with all your heart. If you do, you will have a Savior you can trust. Even when you seem to be experiencing an absence from God, He will be there, hidden nearby within the shadows. Some of you have other decisions to make. You know that God has led you to this place and that Morningside is to be your church home. We invite you to make a decision this morning as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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