"Deliver me from my distress," this prayer is uttered nearly thirty times in the book of Psalms.
This makes sense since the Psalms encompass a lot of emotional experiences. In the Psalms we see the cry of David after he murdered a man and took his wife. We read the raw emotion of David imploring God to stop the constant assaults against his life. We can hear the desperation of people yearning for deliverance from the oppression of the wicked. But often we encounter these requests much like a distant historian: sterile, removed, and isolated. But as I have begun to read the Psalms more and more, I am convicted of my lack of these kinds of prayer.
Prayers like this are not the "Dear heavenly Father" of the pessimists, they are heartfelt cries of individuals who throw themselves at the mercy of God. Cries like this are more than requests, they are pleas, "Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I life up my hands towards your most holy sanctuary" (Psalm 28:2). These prayers are uttered by men like David who know despite his power in the land and position before God, it is only the Lord who can absolve the sinner. They are whispered from a pillow wet with the dew of tears knowing that relief can only come from God himself.
Discovering our Trauma
It can become easy to read the Psalms and see the pleas as if their circumstances are impossible for us to understand. We haven't killed a man. We aren't being pursued by a tormented spear-tossing King. We aren't being afflicted by the constant assault of wicked men. But let us not forget that the heart of David, the emotions of the Sons of Korah, the passion of Solomon, they are all spoken from the same pool of humanity that we now stand it. While their circumstances are different, their experiences are the same. What has often kept me from praying and pleading like the Psalmist is this: they realize their hopelessness, I am often blind to it. I am suck in a self-reliant task oriented mentality which focuses my efforts, which only sum up to half of the solution.
I see this with great clarity in regards to my own efforts to resist sin. I know I shouldn't sin. I know I shouldn't desire certain things. And while it is true that Jesus has redeemed my heart, he hasn't neutralized it. While he has changed it, he hasn't silenced it. But through the power of his resurrection, he has given us power over it. But even that power, if seen as only a man-centered effort, is insufficient in our fight against sin. There is a difference between "asking" and "pleading." I can ask for a birthday present, or for my wife to bring me some water. But I plead for the salvation of my children. I plead with doctors to do all they can in their fight against a loved one's cancer. This is why we must learn to plead like David.
Learning to Plead
Paul rebukes the Christians in Galatians for failing to plead with God when he says, "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you know being perfected by the flesh?" (Galatians 3:3). We too are quick to forget the role and mercy of the Holy Spirit in resisting sin. We focus on our responsibility: I ought to read the Bible more, I know I shouldn't do, go, or be around certain people. But for the most part we feel that if we do and don't do the things commanded in scripture, we have done all that is required of us in our fight against sin. But this is where I ask you: How bad do you wish to be rid of sin? How burdened are you by the oppression of your own heart? How practiced have you become in lust, anger, greed, insecurity? How deeply rooted is your affliction? Then why do we not plead. If Jesus pleaded with God to remove the burden of removing sin from his divine frame in the garden, how much more should we plead with God to remove the burden of sin in our darkest hour?
It is one thing to disprove sin, it is another thing to audaciously demand the attention of our Lord, "O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my please for mercy" (Psalm 130:2). Believers know God hears all our prayers, so why do we plead with God to hear us? Is this not disrespectful? Doubtful? Even disbelieving? No, for in the moments when we plead with God to hear us, when through tight teeth and clenched fist, we speak expectantly for God to heal our hearts and remove our desire, it is then that we are ultimately faithful. In that moment we realize that God has called us to do much against our sin, but he has not called us to do everything. God is our deliverer. God is the one who holds our heart. God is the one who silenced death itself, and God is the one who can remove our wrong desires, afflictions and thoughts.
Why do we not plead for this?In Psalm 102:2, the Psalmist has the arrogance to say to God, "Make haste and answer me!" This prayer, though offensive at first, is really the prayer of a humble sinner. John Calvin comments with this, "To pour out our complaints before him after the manner of little children would not certainly be to treat his Majesty with very little reverence, were it not that he has been pleased to allow us such freedom." The author of Hebrews says that through Jesus we have been given access to approach God so let us approach with our needs on our lips. Let us approach him with a view of sin which matches our view of God's holiness. Let us approach him with holy reverence and righteous demands for his mercy.
Pleading like Paul
In 2 Corinthians 12 we see Paul being afflicted by God with an undisclosed "thorn" in his flesh. He goes on to say, "three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me" (2 Corinthians 12:8). Two things of not here, first we see Paul practicing right pleading. Paul knows the responsibility of man to resist sin. Some of the most empowering passages of our efforts to resist and flee were penned by the very hand which here has learned to plead. But we must also note, that God didn't answer Paul's plea. Despite Paul's helplessness, despite his prayer, despite his pleas, God didn't remove (at least that we see in 2 Corinthians) this thorn from his side. But this was to make Paul even more reliant. This was to harden him even more to the sin or affliction which antagonized him.
We must learn to plead that God would remove wrong desires, but we must also learn to persevere when he has determined it better for us to resist a little longer. But even in the resistance we must learn to make ourselves comfortable with faith-centered pleas for mercy.