“By your sword deliver me from the wicked, O God. Fill their bellies with the wrath you have stored up for them. May their children have a surfeit of it too, with leftovers for their little ones.” – Psalm 17:13-14
What I pray for when I’m distraught, terrified, enraged, or overwhelmed is not what I pray for when I’m peaceful, content, hopeful, and safe. What comes out of my mouth when I’m beyond the end can be ghastly.
My most desperate prayers lay bare the damaged soul I normally conceal under good Christian wraps—my aggrieved righteousness, my contempt for those who oppose me, my primal impulse to pay back with lasting hurt those who have hurt me (and while we’re at it, their children too), and my cowardly urge to have God do my dirty work for me.
I’m grateful to this terrified psalmist for being as unprocessed and nasty as I am when my heart is backed into a corner. Grateful not so much for validating my raw emotions, for modeling honest prayer, or teaching me that God is big enough to absorb my venality and rage; but rather for shocking me into recognition. I recoil at his viciousness. I hate what he prays for. But I’ve prayed for the same myself.
We could shun psalms like these, excise them from our devotions, denounce them for their violence. Or we could pray them. We could force their hateful words and vengeful projections onto our lips and discover in their repetition that they are not nearly as foreign and distasteful to us as we think they are, or as we want them to be.
Self-knowledge. It’s a gift, the beginning of wisdom.
Have mercy on me, O God, just as I (really) am.
Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.