As you might imagine, I took a measure of grief from some circles regarding the guest blog Wrath James White graciously wrote for me. To me, the “words of Wrathalmost sound like the contemporary voice of an Old Testament prophet. However, the criticisms got me to thinking about some of the kinds of prayers that make us uncomfortable: imprecatory Psalms. Imprecatory Psalms or prayers are those petitions for misfortune, or curses, on another; the righteous asking God to carry out His justice. They are heartfelt, often angry sounding pleas for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the wicked. Simply put, we see the evil and injustice perpetrated around us, to people we love, and we cry out.

We’ve become accustomed to prayers with lofty, spiritual speak–often marked by sentimentality–and though they aren’t bad, they aren’t the full spectrum of “valid” prayer. There are all sorts of prayer, all sorts of ways that we can talk to God. There’s no secret formula, no code language that only one religious group or another knows that catches God’s ear. And while we are comfortable talking about the blessings of God–and there are many, showered on the faithful and non-faithful alike– we forget about the curses of God. We’ve lost those good, old-fashioned “God come smite these folks who have pissed me off” prayers. Imprecatory Psalms were recorded and preserved for use in public worship; a pattern for Israel as well as the cries of individual’s hearts. So, imagine these words set to 70s soft rock music (you know, how all worship choruses should be done):

“When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation.” Psalms 109:7-13

We have come far in our modern sophistication to where these kinds of prayers make us uncomfortable. They don’t fit inside our tidy, theological boxes. We relegate the harsh rhetoric, the curses and smiting, to the God of the Old Testament, not to be confused with the all-love-all-the-time God of the New Testament. It’s like we think that God’s smiting aspect was simply a phase He went through, neglecting the continuity of story between the Old and New Testaments. Jesus’ “woe to you” cannonade that He unleashed on the Pharisees (the religious leaders of the day) was imprecatory language. So unless you want to believe that His sandals were particularly binding that day, we may need to re-evaluate how we view God, have a bigger picture of who He is, and what it means to authentically talk to Him.

There seems to be two issues that need to be wrestled with. For one thing, is God big enough for us to be real with? We are called to be authentic. I don’t know if there’s any such thing as being too authentic, because since we are broken vessels, the fact that we are a mess is sort of taken into account. Half the time, we don’t even know what to pray, so the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. However, I think part of being authentic allows for us to be authentically pissed (and by “pissed”, I mean “righteously angry”). The second thing we have to wrestle with is whether or not it is the loving thing to do to pray for God to crush our enemies. Religion does not have a monopoly on morality, and the desire to see justice done unites the religious and non-religious alike.

I would argue that we are, in fact, obligated to pray these kinds of prayers. Radical hatred is the right response to radical evil. We need to be angered by evil, by injustice, by the wrongs of the world. Evil needs to be resisted, opposed, even wept over. Rage is a perfectly natural, valid first response. It is human way to deal with our pent up fury. It is doubly an appropriate response if we do it before God, the God of Love and Justice. We have to expunge these “dark emotions” from ourselves. Part of forgiveness process is us venting our grief, frustration, and anger, only then can we continue with the healing/forgiveness process. Imprecatory prayers help put things in perspective. The words are, and should be, shocking to hear.

There do seem to be two prerequisites for imprecatory prayers: only the innocent dare pray them and only the wicked need fear them. The prayer-er needs to be one whose hands and heart are clean, worships God, and in right standing with Him (which sometimes means confessing their own sin in the process), not suffering because of their own sin, and innocent of the charges of the wicked. The prayer-ee cannot merely our enemy, but must be God’s enemy. So we’re not talking about the neighbor who lets their dog poop in our yard without scooping, the family member who has annoyed you, or your boss who’s a constant jerk to you. I am talking about those guilty of long term disobedience and unrepentant wickedness for individuals and nations (a fact we’d be better to keep in mind with the decisions that we make as a nation). I’m not a fire and brimstone sort of guy and that’s not what this is about: there are real consequences to real evil.

The language of imprecatory prayers should shock us, or at least make us nervous. If nothing else, it has the propensity for leading to a Crusades mentality, to crush all the infidels in the name of Jesus. To paraphrase Greyhound’s ad slogan, “go Jesus, and leave the smiting to Him.”

This doesn’t seem to line up with the love Christ talked about. We have trouble reconciling this spirit of vindictiveness with the meekness, gentleness, and peace that Christ embodied. Well, yes it does. Though a valid expression of anger, we can’t remain at the “rage” stage. Hatred, any declared emnity, changes us. It skews our perspective. We can’t get caught up in it lest it corrupt us. Imprecatory prayers are our way of giving our anger over to God. We want God’s grace, His justice based on who He is (lovingkindness).

Look at Psalm 109 in its entirety. For all the harsh sounding language, David’s just asking God to do what He said He would do. The imprecatory part of an imprecatory psalm is only part of the psalm not the entirety of its message. On a practical level, compare David’s severe prayer with how he lived his life. He refused to harm his enemy (King Saul, the common subject of
David’s laments and imprecations), despite having several opportunities. In fact, he was conscience-stricken over the spirit in which he even cut off a piece of Saul’s robe.

Eventually, we have to move from our first, gut (human) response to a “Christian” response. A Christian response is not slapping a happy face on a situation. A Christian response is not spouting a bunch of cliches meant to comfort but feeling like cattle prods. A Christian response means looking at circumstances in light of Christ’s mission. There is a tougher idea to reconcile: no one is beyond divine grace. We are commanded to love our enemies, returning a blessing for a curse. While often shocking, imprecatory prayers allow us to put things in God’s hands. Ultimately our prayer becomes “God forgive them and transform us.” A Christian response is moving toward reconciliation, a forgiving of our enemy. Grace doesn’t preclude justice being done. Call evil deeds what they are: evil. We must protect the innocent. However, our actions must move toward redemption.

We like to pit seemingly contradictory i
deas against one another, but this is not a matter of justice versus mercy, love vs. hate, law vs. grace, or the Old Testament vs. the New Testament. The issue of imprecatory prayers doesn’t rise to the level of paradox. They have value and purpose and should be prayed, we just have to be careful with them. Careful because as you judge, so shall you be judged. Careful to view imprecatory prayers in light of Christ. The purpose of them is to bring the criminal to repentance and if there is no repentance, then for punishment. Imprecatory prayers are like an appeal to the Supreme’s court. Our walks of faith are tricky things to maintain. We try to have a balance, a nuance to them that allows for intellectual rigor as well as allowing for mystery. Sometimes authenticity looks messy.

By the way…
Lost for a smart remark to see off your enemies? Unable to deliver that killer insult? Put an end to “I was speechless!” misery with the amazing Biblical Curse Generator, which is pre-loaded with blistering put-downs as delivered by Elijah, Jeremiah and other monumentally angry saints … get ready to smite your foes with a custom-made curse straight out of the Old Testament.

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