Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. Today, Pastor John, I want to talk about your funeral prayer that you recently delivered on behalf of the Pals family, a family of five, planning and preparing to become missionaries to Japan, who were tragically killed in an automobile accident this summer. You were asked to pray at the funeral, and that public lament, which we published in this podcast, has now exceeded 700,000 plays to date, which is three times more than any of the 900+ episodes we’ve published in this podcast. It has been amazingly well received, and I think, even in the light of the tragedy that called for it, it would be beneficial to pastors and leaders to hear from you on how you made it. Can you take us into it? What is it? What did you intend to accomplish? And how did write it?
The first thing I think we need to be completely honest about is my misgivings about whether prayers should even be broadcast on the Internet and whether you and I right now should be talking about this. Of course, the very fact that I am talking about it and didn’t pull the plug on this and that we did make the prayer available at Desiring God and that I used Twitter to link to the whole service over it at Bethlehem Baptist Church’s website shows that my conclusion from those misgivings was that more good would be done by sharing it than by not.
“Without a miracle, I am going to be grandstanding instead of praying.”
But there are at least two reasons that give me pause, and I think they would be helpful to mention. One is that Jesus said, “[Hypocrites] love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5). That is a really important thing for me, the pray-er, to hear. The other is that we are dealing here with real families and real relationships and real pain and real loss. It is very fresh even now, and the thought of somehow for us — even me at Desiring God — the thought that we would exploit that moment and that pain to put ourselves forward would be absolutely loathsome in the eyes of God. So, God abominates that kind of spiritual prostitution.
So, as I stand before God in prayer, I have to look him in the eye, as it were, and let him search my heart as to whether the very praying of a prayer, let alone the publishing of a prayer, were more about me than about him and those who suffer. And the reason mentioning this struggle is part of the answer to your question of where the prayer came from is that every pastor has to ask this question when he prays in public, which ought to be pretty much every week.
The Bible endorses and encourages public praying (1 Corinthians 14:16). We want people to hear and say “Amen” to what we pray. That is what that verse says. Christian leaders are to lead their people in prayer publicly out loud, not just in a closet. And everyone who prays in public, whether in a group of six or six hundred or six thousand must face the question of selfish motivation. It is not unique to me or to Desiring God or to a funeral. It is every time anyone opens his mouth in the presence of two or three people that is an issue of hypocrisy on the line and authenticity on the line.
So, the first thing to say about where this prayer came from is that it came from a sense of utter inadequacy, first, because the disproportion between the deaths of two parents and three children, the disproportion between those five deaths in one horrific conflagration on the one hand and the sufficiency of words, words, words to embody or somehow represent the magnitude of what just happened, that disproportion seemed to me utterly mammoth, insurmountable. There is no way that words could do justice to the reality of what had just happened. That was the first sense of inadequacy. And it is true. It is not just, “I have got an inadequate feeling here.” It is true. Words cannot, cannot capture the breadth and depth of what these families were and are even as we speak experiencing.
What is a pastor to do? What is a friend to do, right?
“There is real, biblical lament before the face of God that tells him how much he has hurt us without feeling anger at him.”
The second sense of inadequacy was that I knew I would be standing before one thousand real, live people. This was the biggest service we have ever had in my 33 years plus in relation to Bethlehem. I knew that I would be standing in front of one thousand plus real, live bodies, and how does a fallen, sinful pastor pray to God, not to people, to God — really to God — when he knows that one thousand people are listening to see what he says? And, again, I know that the Bible says when we pray publicly, we should care about what other people hear us saying (1 Corinthians 14:16). We should care. A pastor shouldn’t say, “Oh, I don’t care who is listening. I am just praying to an audience of one.” Baloney. We know people are listening, and the Bible says we must care, lest they cannot say “Amen.” The Bible gives explicit instruction to care about whether or not the people who are listening get it.
That is a supernatural work of God. It is a miracle if a pastor can really speak to God, that is, authentically pray, authentically intercede, authentically lament and praise and plead, rather than performing for a human audience. That is a miracle. It is a work of the Spirit. So, behind this prayer was, at least, that double sense of inadequacy. 1) Without a miracle, the words I choose will seem all out of proportion in their weakness to the magnitude of what has just happened. And 2) without a miracle, I am going to be grandstanding instead of praying.
Inside that double sense of inadequacy, as I have thought about it and felt it, I had three goals that might help pastors or whoever deal with how you put together a prayer in public in such a situation. And my three goals were:
“There is no point in adding the sin of fearful hypocrisy to the sin of Godward anger.”
- to make much of the imperial majesty of Jesus Christ for whom this family gave their lives;
- to give some evidence by what I said and how I said it of the incalculable weight and loss and the intensity and the depth of the pain;
- to plead with God for the comfort and the strength and the hope and even the joy of those who remain.
And to do that, to do those three things, I was guided by four convictions:
1) Since all words are inadequate to represent the magnitude of what had happened, the safest thing was to use as much biblical language as I could. I do believe deeply that the Bible encourages us to formulate word pictures, images, metaphors, similes because this kind of poetic talk, which is pervasive in the Bible, this kind of talk comes closer to capturing the emotions of the moment than ordinary prosaic description. So, I reached for biblical images — and oh the danger here! There are dangers everywhere.
Every effort to express something with images runs the risk of drawing more attention to the language than to the reality we are trying to make plain with the language. Every person who speaks or writes or sings about anything that really matters has to come to terms with this danger and do their best to say things in a way that will help people see through the window rather than staring at the glass. That is the challenge of choosing words.
2) Here is my second conviction that was guiding me. There is real, biblical lament before the face of God that tells him how much he has hurt us without feeling anger at him. That is a deep conviction of mine. I do not believe it is ever, ever right to be angry at God — ever. I disapprove strongly of making our anger at God a part of public worship. Public prayers are to represent what ought to be.
“I wanted to express godly, biblical lament, not anger, to the all-wise, all-good, all-powerful God.”
Now, of course, people get angry at God. Good grief, of course they do. Christians get angry at God. They shouldn’t, but they do. And if they do get angry at God, they should tell him so. There is no point in adding the sin of fearful hypocrisy, as if you could hide anything. There is no point in adding the sin of fearful hypocrisy to the sin of Godward anger. God can handle our anger if we get angry, and there is no hiding it from him. He sees it before we even know we are feeling it.
But anger at God is not godly lament. Godly lament says, “You have driven your arrows into my breast.” Godly lament says, “You have filled my mouth with gravel.” Godly lament says, “You have covered me with shadows, and I grope for the substance of real bodies that have been taken away from me.” Godly lament always says, “Nevertheless, to you, oh God, I look for my deliverance. To you alone I look for my hope. You alone are my portion.” I wanted to express godly, biblical lament, not anger, to the all-wise, all-good, all-powerful God. Now, whether I succeeded or not, others will judge. But that was a guiding conviction.
3) My third conviction was that, in order to pray for the comfort of the grieving, you need to try to get inside the skin of the particular people and relationships in front of you. So, I tried. I took about five hours trying. I tried to crawl inside the minds of parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and little children, cousins — in the minds of hundreds of friends and even strangers who I knew would care about this, given the news media. And the truck driver: I wanted to get inside his mind.
Whether or not a pastor succeeds in this depends partly on the measure of his own life experience. It is hard if you have never walked through anything horrible to get inside the skin of those who have experienced something horrible, which is why pastors should never begrudge their own suffering. God knows what he is doing in creating shepherds that can empathize with sheep. And it depends on the Spirit-given powers of imagination to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, because you never really are in their exact situation. There is something unique about every suffering, and you can’t be in it all, but you can plead with the Holy Spirit for the miracle to try to get into the head and the heart of those who are suffering. That was the third.
“Plead with the Holy Spirit for the miracle to try to get into the head and the heart of those who are suffering.”
4) And my last guiding conviction was that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe. He is absolutely sovereign over all things. Nothing happens that is outside his ultimate control. He is unimpeachable in his character. He is good and holy, and his disposition toward his beloved is totally, totally merciful. Therefore, I did not want in any way to portray him as weak or ignorant or helpless or perplexed or out-maneuvered by Satan or any less capable of triumph in Japan because of this loss. I wanted to portray him this way not only because he is this way, but because Jamison and Kathryne believed he was this way and would want me to say that.
So, Tony, there are a lot of wrestlings that went into the preparation of the prayer, but that is, perhaps, enough for now. There is so much more that pastors and lovers of people who pray out loud have to get. But that may give a flavor to those who might find it helpful.