Is Angry Prayer Okay?
Is angry prayer okay? It’s the question from Jake in Western Australia. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for taking my question. Is angry prayer okay? That’s my question. To clear my head, I often ride my bike around a local lake. Each lap is about six kilometers (or four miles), and I have circled the lake for many years. As I ride, I begin to speak to God. My mouth becomes a spillway. I lose a sense of myself and ‘zone’ out and speak to him with virtually no self-awareness. In those experiences, there have been two distinct times I have spoken to God in a very firm way. But here’s the thing. Both of those times he answered my prayer within hours. So, it makes me wonder: Does God actually desire that we be engaged with a blunt, no-nonsense, self-unaware, truthful attitude when it comes to praying?”
I remember reading the biography of Mary Slessor years ago, a Scottish missionary to Africa in the nineteenth century, and one of the sentences that I never forgot (and I just went and took it off the shelf here a little while ago to make sure that I got it right in my memory) was this: She said to her supporters in a letter, “Pray for us. . . . Pray in a businesslike fashion, earnestly, definitely, statedly.” And it struck me at the time as strange, because I generally don’t think of prayer as businesslike; I tend to put a high priority on engagement of the affections in prayer. And maybe she included that when she said earnestly. I don’t want to misunderstand.
The Business of Prayer
But I was unprepared for the word, “Pray for us in a businesslike way.” I remember that; I’ve never forgotten it: “Pray for us in a businesslike manner,” as if we have business with the Father. And in a kind of no-nonsense, more or less ordinary way, we knock on his door, state our business for our missionary — Miss Slessor in Calabar — and then be on our way. And I came to believe that there is really something to that: not that we should be indifferent to whether we feel any affections in prayer toward our Father, but neither should we turn prayer into something that only has validity if it consists in passionate appeals or a certain temperature of our emotions.
I mention this because it seems to me that Mary Slessor’s view is at least similar to what Jake is saying in the question “Does God actually desire that we be engaged with a blunt, no-nonsense, self-unaware, truthful attitude when it comes to praying?” And I think Mary Slessor would like that suggestion.
Testing the Manner of Prayer
Let’s take those four definers, those four words he uses to define prayer, and test them — or at least try to understand them so we can say yea or nay to what he’s asking: (1) truthful, (2) self-unaware, (3) no-nonsense, (4) blunt.
Surely no one can fault being truthful with God. But that’s not sufficient reason for the prayer to be pleasing to God, since there are lots of true things about me that displease God. But we don’t make those things better by being untruthful about them.
So, it’s always better to be truthful than to be untruthful. God knows my heart anyway, and all untruthfulness toward God is futile. You can’t conceal anything from God. So yes, by all means, our prayers should be truthful.
Next, Jake says that he wants the prayers to be self-unaware, and I take that to mean that we have become so fully engaged in speaking to God that we’re no longer standing outside ourselves, watching ourselves pray and passing judgment — positively or negatively — on the way we’re praying and how we’re saying it.
“I don’t think it’s ever right to be angry at God or with God — ever.”
I’ve always wanted to be like that in my preaching. I never wanted to be preaching and watching myself preach and saying, “Not a good job; you’re not doing a good job.” Or it’s just as bad to say, “Hey, good job, good job. You’re doing a good job.” No, we want to be so fully into the transaction with the people and the truth that we’re not even thinking about ourselves. We want the same thing with prayer.
So, yes, I think, if that’s what he’s saying, that’s exactly what I want. You can preach or pray in complete freedom and authenticity. So, I agree with Jake. We want to be undivided in our prayer, as well as our preaching, which means our focus would be entirely on God, and not on ourselves and how we’re praying. I think that’s a very, very good goal, so amen to self-unaware.
Before I leave it, let me say that just like truthfulness, being self-unaware doesn’t guarantee that our prayer is pleasing to God. Spontaneity that speaks without self-awareness might come from places in our heart that are quite unsanctified and may reveal aspects of our sinfulness. So, being self-unaware is a good thing in itself, but it needs other influences in order to be pleasing to God.
Then Jake says he wants prayer to be no-nonsense, and I’m sure he means more than, “Let’s avoid nonsense in the presence of God.” That’s too obvious to consider. No, I think he means something like Mary Slessor meant when she said, “I want you to pray for me in a businesslike way.”
In other words, when you walk into God’s office, you don’t need to make small talk, you don’t need to beat around the bush, you don’t need to work up any particular tone of voice, you don’t need to be subtle or indirect or calculating; you just need to get down to business and deal with the facts. God is God, God invites prayer, God is merciful, and God has made glorious promises to those who trust him. I have a need; it accords with God’s revealed will. I will state my case, make my request, and be on to the next thing in faith because God can’t be coerced by dawdling. Something like that, maybe, is what he means by no-nonsense.
And I would say, as long as we don’t absolutize that way of praying, it’s perfectly fine. It fits into a much larger repertoire or varied ways of approaching God. There are many different circumstances and emotional situations and senses of urgency and moods of the moment that no one, simple demeanor, like a no-nonsense or businesslike demeanor, should be made normative for all praying. There are times when I would say businesslike or no-nonsense praying is perfectly appropriate, and there are times when it would seem quite odd to approach God in that way, say, the hour after your husband or your wife was killed.
Now, the last feature of the prayer Jake is suggesting is blunt. Here I’m less sure about what Jake means. If I just had the word blunt, it would be one thing, but his very first question was “Is angry prayer okay?” And then he says, “There have been two distinct times when I have spoken to God in a very firm way.” Now we have angry, firm, and blunt. So, I’m not sure what Jake is asking because, not only do those three words refer to very different states of mind, but the word angry could refer to anger at God himself, or anger at some evil expressed to God but not at God.
Now, whether one ought to be blunt or firm with God depends on whether the demeanor carries a sense of disrespect or impatience with God. And I can imagine a blunt and firm way of speaking that’s not disrespectful and is not impatient. With regard to anger, I don’t think it’s ever right to be angry at God or with God — ever. Anger at a person means that I am very upset because you have done badly or wrong. We should never say or feel that about God.
“God is infinitely wise, infinitely good, and infinitely able to carry out his wise and good plans.”
When Jesus strongly wanted to say something or experience something different — say, in Gethsemane — than what God was about to do, he did not get angry with God’s resolve that was contrary to what Jesus was asking; he humbled himself and submitted to God’s will. Even the cry of the damned, “Why have you forsaken me?” was not a cry of anger at God (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). God is infinitely wise, infinitely good, and infinitely able to carry out his wise and good plans, and therefore, we never have a right to be angry at God.
But if we are angry about something we ought to be angry about, then I don’t think we have to wait for that to subside before we go to God. And if our anger is about to turn into sinful anger — which most of the time it does, at least for John Piper, I would say. And that’s what James seems to think when he says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). If we’re about to become sinful in our anger, it would be quite fitting to rush to God in that anger and ask for his help that the anger be sanctified.
All that to say: Pray on, Jake. Pray on. I’m glad you’re praying; I’m glad you’re losing yourself in prayer. And may all of us have the truthfulness, the freedom from self-consciousnesses, the businesslike regularity.
And may all of us come to God and be as firm and submissive as we ought to be, as we come as a loving and confident friend of God.