Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 17, 2012

Keeping the Conversation Going: Learning to pray in a hopeless situation

“When you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts just as much after you’ve accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior as it did before.” Eugen Peterson, Leap Over a Wall.

Two weeks ago I preached on the psalms of lament. We looked at Psalm 13, where David models a very raw honesty about the crisis that he is in. As Peterson points out in the quote above, pain and suffering is a reality of life for the Christian. The problem is that we don’t always have language to put to our pain. We live in a culture that expects us to cover up pain. As John Stott writes, “Some Christians seem to imagine that they must wear a perpetual grin on their face and be continuously boisterous and bubbly. How unbiblical can one become?”

Indeed it is unbiblical to say we have to live a facade. For one thing the bible teaches us that we are in an in-between time. Christ is present, but evil is still making a mess of things. Like the writers of Revelation, we still long for a time when Jesus will wipe away ever tear. In the meantime there are tears to be shed. So boisterous and bubbly Christianity is the product of an over-realized eschatology. The bible also models for us a raw honesty about pain. In Psalm 13 David says “How Long O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and everyday have sorrow in my heart?”

I preached on this type of prayer two weeks ago, but I’m still struggling to follow David’s model. I had a bad moment a couple days ago. We had had a rough day with James and he had barely eaten anything. His heart condition has taken a toll on him in the past couple of weeks and he is probably going to be put on a feeding tube until his surgery this fall. His breathing rate is upwards of 70 breaths a minute and his sitting heart rate is at 180bpm, which makes it almost impossible for him to swallow and hold down food. We finally got him to eat a couple of ounces of food and I was just about to leave for the office. I prayed for Julie and James that God would have mercy on them. Then, literally as I was praying the words, James had a projectile vomit and lost everything he had just eaten.

It was one of those moments where I felt like prayer was futile. The immediate juxtaposition between the request and the lack of an answer was discouraging and disheartening. My response was to throw in the towel. I felt as though God really was absent so I cut off the conversation.

What I find profound about David’s prayer in Psalm 13 is that he is right in the middle of a crisis. If God remains silent, David says his enemies will rejoice over his fall. This Hebrew word for fall captures this image of stumbling or tottering. David’s life is on the verge of collapse if God remains absent. David is at the end of the rope. This is not just an intellectual crisis, his life is in imminent danger.

What I’m learning from David is to not give up on prayer in the midst of crisis. Instead of cutting off the conversation David invites God in to his frustration. He is honest about God’s seeming absence. For David this is the appropriate prayer. In essence it is an act of faith. The very fact that it is a prayer indicates that David is still clinging on to God, even though his grip is almost slipping. My original reaction during this little family crisis was to give up on prayer altogether. I felt that prayer was futile and so I gave God the silent treatment.

I think that this is why prayers of lament are so important. They help us to keep the conversation going even in the midst of crisis. Instead of giving up on prayer David lets God in on his frustrations and confusions. This helps him to process all aspects of life in light of God’s presence – even the really hard parts.


  1. God gives special children to special people! You and Julie are special!! and GOD IS in control! We are all praying with you, we won’t give up either!!

  2. Hi Phil, I also have experienced a time in which I wondered just how long “this situation” was going to keep going on. All I could do was let things fall in place and be prepared to react when they did. I kept asking God to give me strength, energy, and wisdom – nothing more than that. And…God answered my prayer.

    Re. prayers of lament. It would be interesting to define prayers a little further. I would classify some of David’s prayers “whining”. He praises God when things are going good or when he is winning, but then gets depressed and starts whining when things aren’t going his way.

    I am more apt to get frustrated with God and tell him, “Hey, are you paying attention to my situation. I could use some help down here”!

    O.K. – I’m sort of joking.

    If God’s eye is on the sparrow, then I know that he watches over me. Wouldn’t that be a good line for a song?
    Yes….I do know that it already is a song. My mother is in a nursing home in Pennsylvania, has dementia, and is constantly singing the song, “His eye is on the sparrow”. She believes it – even in her state of confusion.

    Take care and God bless. You do know that he is watching how you handle your current situation don’t you? Do you suppose he grades us on how well we handle things? Oops! that might not be a good thing.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Louella.

    I would want to filter that picture of ‘god as grade keeper,’ through the way God revealed himself to us through Christ. Thanks be to God, we are not graded based on our works, but ultimately saved by grace! Perhaps David’s recognition of God’s covenant faithfulness, and his belief that God is “slow to anger and rich in love,”(ps 145:8), created the relational environment that allowed him the freedom to be himself in his prayers – brokenness and all!

  4. Hi! Just want to know the condition of James. How is he? Did God work miracles?

    • Hi Mara,

      Thanks for asking! James is doing really well. At five months of age he underwent a complex open heart surgery to correct his heart defect. He came through the surgery successfully and is a healthy boy. We take him back to the specialist this fall to see how his heart is developing. There is a good chance he will not need any more surgeries. WE just need to track the development of his pulmonary valve, which is slightly constricted. Take care!

  5. Thanks for the response. I was undergoing frustration yesterday and googled praying in the midst of hopelessness and was routed to your blog. Thanks for this. We sometimes feel frustrated when we think we have given our all in praying and interceding for others and then things go the opposite direction. But God revealed to me yesterday that we should persevere in intercession and remain faithful. We cannot dictate God to do His part of the bargain considering that we done ours. Just like David in Psalm 13. David remained faithful in the midst of his hopelessness.

    Thanks for sharing this experience. Thanks for the Word.

    God bless you and your family!

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