Uncensored prayer

I’m a heretic. There are things I believe about God which are wrong. But they’re wrong in all the right ways.

You’re a heretic, too. There are things that are true about God which are so important to you that you believe them to a fault. They are your pet theologies.

For some, the Fatherhood of God is so important it overshadows the other metaphors for him in the Scriptures. By making it the dominant image, they cozy up to God, snuggling into the arms of Abba. As true as the Fatherhood of God is in the Scriptures, to overemphasize it at the expense of the Kingship of God (by far the dominant image in the Scriptures) undercuts his glory and sovereignty.

For some, an overemphasis on God’s love ends up turning that love into a wishy-washy niceness.

For some, an overemphasis on God’s justice ends up turning him into a rubber-stamp for their progressive politics.

For some, an overemphasis on God’s holiness ends up turning him into a cold-hearted conservative.

We are all heretics because of our overly narrow focus on certain truths about God. We need the Scriptures to broaden our theologies so they include a bigger picture of our big, big God.

The Psalms continually surprise me, even after decades of reading them, by their willingness to flirt with heresy. Different psalms will dive headlong into a single aspect of God that matches the psalmist’s current circumstance. So much so that if that particular psalm were all we knew about God, we’d be completely off track. But because that psalm is included within the larger framework of the 150 canonical psalms and because the book of Psalms is included among the 66 books of the Bible, the over-emphasized perspective of that particular psalm is moderated by the rest.

Psalm 18 is one of our longest psalms, clocking in at 50 verses. (The average is 16 verses.) It alternates between talking to God and talking about God as can be seen by how it switches between the pronouns you and he — you (v. 1), he (vs. 2-24), you (vs. 25-29), he (vs. 30-34), you (vs. 35-45), he (vs. 46-48a), you (vs. 48b-49), he (v. 50). This gives it a dual emphasis on praying to God and teaching the community.

Worship is a wonderfully odd interplay between addressing God and addressing the people of God. It’s not an either-or; it’s a both-and. Talking to God and talking about God are the twin aspects of robust worship.

Psalm 18 begins by stacking up a pile of defensive military images for God: my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. As metaphors, they’re all true lies about God. They’re true in that they express a truth about God. But their lies, since God is none of those things.

And already, the psalm leans into potential heresy. In the midst of cultures who make gods out of wood and metal and stone, to call our God a rock walks into dangerous territory. And the reliance on military images is equally dangerous, potentially leaving us with an overly violent view of God.

The praying, worshiping imagination isn’t literalistic. It can handle wide-ranging and even contradicting images of God. The same God who is my shepherd, is also my rock, my king, and my song.

After laying out his distress in more symbolic language, when David gets to verse 7 of our psalm, he takes a fascinating theological risk, imaging our Lord as a storm god.

How bold of David to use imagery associated with Baal, the cloud riding Canaanite weather god, to describe Yahweh of Israel. Interesting, too, is that this psalm celebrates David’s deliverance from all of his enemies, including King Saul. In order to escape Saul’s pursuits, David left the land of Israel and became a mercenary to the Philistine lords in their land.

Think of that for a moment. David moved to hostile territory and offered his ragtag band of malcontents to aid the armies of Israel’s worst enemy. Not only was he living among enemies, but he was among worshipers of rival gods.

This was no holiday. This was no temporary work assignment in an exotic land. This was a political and theological mess.

I wonder if David’s willingness to pull imagery from Baal worship stemmed from him watching the worship his Philistine masters engaged in while he was among them. Smoking nostrils and a fire-spewing mouth simply aren’t Israelite images of Yahweh. Not by any stretch. And yet, here is David — the one whose shadow looms over the Psalms and thereby over all of Israel’s praise and the iconic king of Israel, who is sire of the Messiah — appropriating Baal descriptions for Yahweh worship. Stunning!

He finishes this storm god section with one of my favorite verses, describing salvation as a spacious, wide-open space. Salvation is an expression of God’s delight in us. Yes, God delights in us!

He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me (Ps. 18:19).

I have to stop and ask myself: Do I truly believe that God delights in me? How would my life be different if I lived as if I believed it?

David believes this and spends most of the rest of the psalm exploring it, as he matches his life to the salvation God has won for him.

The LORD has dealt with me according to my righteousness;
    according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me (Ps. 18:20.

It’s really close to it, but this is no arrogant boast: “Look at how good I’ve been. God owed me good things because of my good behavior.” No. Even though David looks at his own righteousness/justice first in the psalm, the only reason he can count on God to deal with him in proportion and in kind is because he knows the righteousness/justice of God. It is in God’s nature to deal with injustice by bringing down the unjust and lifting up those oppressed by them, the righteous.

Our faithfulness doesn’t precede the faithfulness of God. It mirrors God’s faithfulness, because we look to him to see what faithfulness looks like in the first place. So, our faithfulness is an act of obedience and faith, acting in advance of the faithfulness we know will come from the God who is the definition of faithfulness.

We look to dictionaries to define words like faithfulness. That’s not how Hebrew works in the Scriptures. A word like faithfulness is defined by the faithful actions of God. We know what the word means not by looking up its definition, but by looking at God.

To the faithful you show yourself faithful,
    to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
to the pure you show yourself pure,
    but to the devious you show yourself shrewd (Ps. 18:25-26).

Whether it’s pulling from pagan worship to fortify his worship of Yahweh or it’s getting close to God-owes-me self-righteousness, David flirts with heresy.

These flirtations give us freedom in our own praying. Because here in the middle of the Bible, the heresy sensor is turned off as the heart is laid bare before its Lord.

Yes, the rest of the Scriptures rein us in, insisting on a theology that matches who God has revealed himself to be and a practice that is similarly consistent with who God is. But here — for the moment — we bring everything about ourselves, whether beautiful or messed up, and we offer it to God uncensored.