Angry prayers.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 February
IMPRECATE 'ɪm.prə.keɪt verb. Call down evil upon.
[Imprecation ɪm.prə'keɪ.ʃən noun, imprecatory ɪm'prək.ə.tɔ.ri adjective]

Yep, there’s a whole category of prayer which is all about people letting loose their rage as they pray. Not because they’re angry with God—although sometimes they might be! But commonly they’re furious at other people, at human behavior, or at Satan itself. So they call down God’s wrath, or put curses on people and things, or otherwise condemn ’em.

I started with a definition of the old-timey word Christians use to describe such things: Imprecatory prayer. (Not everyone knows how to pronounce it properly.) It’s a nicer way of saying “angry prayer.”

And lest you think God doesn’t allow, or listen to, angry prayer: Nope, he permits it. Angry prayers are in the bible. There’s a bunch of ’em in Psalms. ’Cause sometimes King David’s enemies would piss him off, so he’d declare God was gonna do all sorts of savage things to ’em. God didn’t necessarily, because God’s under no obligation to answer our prayers like a leprechaun grants wishes; he can easily tell us no, and often will. So any Christian who panics, “Don’t declare such things into the universe!—it might come to pass!” clearly hasn’t read their scriptures.

But yeah, angry prayers are in the bible. Including the New Testament, lest you get the idea it’s solely an Old Testament thing. Paul damned anyone who preaches another gospel than his, Ge 1.8-9 and damned anyone who didn’t love the Lord. 1Co 16.22 Jesus himself damned a fig tree, Mt 21.19 and warned several cities at the rate they were going, they were on the road to hell. Lk 10.13-15

Among those who have read their scriptures, one favorite imprecatory prayer is good ol’ Psalm 109. Many a partisan has joked about how it’s their favorite prayer for certain politicians. “Oh, I pray for the president every day; I pray directly from the scriptures—”

Psalm 109.6-13 KWL
6 Place a wicked person over him, with Satan standing at his right.
7 May those judging him return an evil verdict, and his prayers be offensive.
8 May his days be few, and another ruler supervise him.
9 May his children become fatherless, and his woman a widow.
10 May his children wander, wander, begging, digging through people’s trash.
11 May debt seize everything he owns, and strangers steal his labor.
12 May he never find love; his fatherless children never be given grace.
13 May his generation be the last one, and his family name be wiped out.

And so on. You get the idea. David wrote this because he wanted this guy thoroughly crapped upon, because this enemy and his friends had done likewise to David. David wanted karmic justice—for the evildoer to get what David felt was coming to him.

Now as I said, there are certain Christians who think imprecatory prayers are awful and wrong; that because anger is a work of the flesh, we ought never pray angry. And obviously there are Christians who think otherwise. Generally we’re of three minds:

  • All for it. Evildoers need and deserve our condemnation.
  • Wholly inappropriate for Christians: We’re ordered to forgive. Mk 11.25 Forgive friends, forgive enemies, forgive everyone, or God won’t bother to forgive our own sins. Mk 11.26 What’re we, of all people, doing calling down curses upon others?
  • Only appropriate towards the devil and devilish things, bad behaviors, evil ideas, false thinking, corrupt institutions. We draw the line at fellow human beings. Never ask God to destroy women and men, no matter how bad they get. ’Cause God made them in his image, Jm 3.9 and wants to save everyone, 2Pe 3.9 not destroy ’em. Everybody’s redeemable.

Me, I lean towards the third category. And a fourth: If we’re angry, and we need to calm down and get ahold of ourselves, go ahead and pray while angry—and ask God to help you regain control; to help “gentle” you, as a horse-trainer might say. We need a healthy outlet for anger, and sometimes that outlet is to tell God you’re pissed off. Tell God what you’d really like him to do to all those people who’re frustrating you—and let him take that rage away.

Dark Christians, angry prayers.

In my experience the crowd who’s fondest of imprecatory prayer consists of dark Christians. Of course.

In life, humans get angry. Christians get angry. Yes, even Jesus got angry, Mk 3.5 and no doubt still gets that way. Anger’s a natural emotional reaction when we wanna see things happen a certain way and they don’t. It’s even appropriate when injustice takes place. In itself, anger isn’t necessarily evil. But we certainly use it as an excuse for every kind of evil. And a lifestyle of anger means we’re not following the Holy Spirit, who gives us peace. Angry Christians are fruitless Christians.

Their justification is the prophets prayed such prayers. And the apostles got a little outraged from time to time too. Even Jesus had his “woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” bits in the gospels. Mt 23.13-29 (They don’t realize “woe unto you” means “how sad for you,” not “damnation upon you.” They don’t really care either.) They figure they have a valid precedent for praying likewise.

But here’s the thing: When Jesus condemned cities, he didn’t do it maliciously. He doesn’t wanna destroy anyone! God wants everyone to be saved. 1Ti 2.3-4 Jesus is loving, patient, and kind, and that’s the attitude we have to read into everything he does. Even when he condemns.

We aren’t so loving, patient, and kind. We’re angry, spiteful, and cruel. We bring those attitudes into our prayers, and they’re the wrong ones. God doesn’t care to answer fruitless prayers. If our imprecatory prayers are borne out of anything but the Spirit’s fruit, we really have no business praying them.

Wait, so how do we kindly curse anything?

Really easy: When a loved one is sick, we have all kinds of compassion for the person, right? But none for the ailment. None for the virus. None for the bacteria making ’em puke. We want it out of them and gone. So we can easily condemn the illness: “I rebuke this illness, and demand it come out of you in Jesus’s name.” We never have to lose our heads in doing so.

Now if we can’t do that—if we always lose control of our emotions when we rebuke evil—we’d better hold off on the angry prayers. Maybe for a long time. Ask the Spirit for the self-control we’re clearly missing.

Dark Christians neither understand this, nor care. Like a gun nut who also has no self-control, they just keep indiscriminately firing away—unaware God swapped their ammo for blanks long ago, because he can’t trust them to pray right.

God doesn’t have to agree, y’know.

Now yeah, there’s the crowd who ban angry prayers of all sorts. Not just because Christians should forgive instead of cursing. Ro 12.14 A number of Christians are convinced curses stick; that when we call down evil, we actually have the power to make evil materialize out of thin air. Supposedly one of the ways God made us in his image, was to make us able to create ex nihilo/“out of nothing” like him.

No; God did no such thing. Everything we humans create is made of pre-existing material. Not even our ideas are created from nothing: Most are obviously based on something, and if its influence isn’t obvious to you, it is to the person who last had that idea. We can’t create anything out of thin air, much less evil. Humans need power to fuel our curses, and unless you’re colluding with devils, the power has to come from the Holy Spirit. But if the Spirit has no intention of empowering our angry demands (and he usually doesn’t), nothing’s gonna come of them. We have him under no obligation whatsoever.

Remember Saul of Tarsus? Violent persecutor, enemy of Christ? Ac 8.3, 9.1 Betcha plenty of Christians, at the time, damned Paul to the stinkiest parts of hell for what he was doing to Jesus’s church. Did God agree with any of these vengeful prayers? Absolutely not. Rather than destroy Saul, he flipped him. Jesus appeared to him, commissioned him as his apostle to the gentiles, and made him spend the rest of his life willingly undoing all the evil he originally. Ac 26.14-18 God knows better, and his plans are infinitely better than our curses.

We can curse a person up, down, and sideways, and add “In the name of Christ Jesus” as much as we wish. But if Jesus doesn’t approve, nothing’s gonna happen. Our imprecatory prayers come to nothing… for they don’t actually conform to God’s will. His will be done, remember? Lk 11.2

For there’s no fruit of the Spirit in angry prayer. There’s no love nor compassion; no kindness, forgiveness, grace, nor mercy. Take another look at Psalm 109: Regardless of the horrible things David’s enemy might’ve done to him, what business did David have in wishing horrible things upon his enemy’s children? What kind of twisted prayer demands that God make the innocent suffer? Obviously David’s prayer doesn’t reflect God’s mind at all.

Okay, so what’s it even doing in the bible? Well, it’s not to teach us it’s okay to wish evil upon the innocent. It’s to teach us it’s okay to vent to God. It’s okay to tell God how we honestly feel: We feel like being harsh, unforgiving, unyielding, loveless, and savage. None of this comes as any surprise to God, of course. He knows our hearts. (He’s heard way worse.) And it’s far better we express these sentiments to God, than ever act on them.

Learn from the angry psalms.

Seriously, some of the angry psalms are messed up. Some poet actually sat down, wrote these lines, set it to music, and for the past 25 centuries Christians and Jews have recited and sang these prayers. Sometimes several times a year.

Yes sang. Scottish Presbyterians, because they originally wouldn’t sing anything that didn’t come directly from the bible, translated the psalms and set ’em to music. And sometimes they’d sing this.

Psalm 137.7-9, Scottish metrical psalms
7 Remember Edom’s children, LORD, who in Jerus’lem’s day,
“E’en unto its foundation raze, raze it quite,” did say.
8 Oh daughter thou of Babylon, near to destructión:
Blessed shall be he that thee rewards, as thou to us hast done.
9 Yea, happy surely shall he be thy tender little ones,
Who shall lay hold upon, and them shall dash against the stones.

Pretty sick.

When we’re not frighteningly taking these passages out of context, Christians tend to treat ’em like we’d treat an embarrassing racist grandmother: We pretend she didn’t just say horribly offensive things. We blame it on her being old, out of touch, out of date. We don’t stand up to her. Not even sure we should, ’cause aren’t we supposed to respect our elders?

Same deal with the imprecatory psalms. We tend to skip ’em and pretend they’re not there. Or we admit they’re there… but just in this one case, we’re gonna borrow the Dispensationalist idea which figures they don’t count anymore: They’re from a past era, but God works all different nowadays. Even though we should know better than to nullify parts of the bible, solely because they make us uncomfortable.

Instead we need to take serious looks at these prayers. Understand where the author was coming from: Her homeland was just conquered by a horde of filthy, violent pagans. Her homeland was burnt to the ground. Possibly her kids and husband killed in front of her; possibly she was raped; now she was getting dragged to Babylon to become a slave. And the Edomites, their cousins who were supposed to be allies, supposed to be fellow worshipers of the LORD God: They rejoiced at Jerusalem’s destruction.

Along the way her captors, for sport, ordered her to sing a few Jerusalem worship songs for their entertainment. Ps 137.3 So how would you feel? More than likely, you’d want to compose a really sarcastic song in response—take advantage of their unfamiliarity with Hebrew—just to get back at them a little.

Well, here’s that song. “God, do vile things to the Edomites. Do nauseating things to the Babylonians.” The smashing-kids-on-rocks bit? Betcha the Babylonians had done it to her. And she wanted life for life, Dt 19.21 which seemed only fair.

Should she have forgiven the Babylonians? Well duh; of course she should have. The rage would eat her up inside if she didn’t. But here, we get to see how she, and the other survivors of Jerusalem, really felt. These were the emotions boiling in her, which she didn’t bother to hide from God. It’d be stupid to try.

That’s the point of these psalms. Total honesty with God. He wants this kind of integrity from us: What’s in our minds, oughta be in our prayers. He knows us inside and out, whether we admit this stuff or not. But if we can’t be honest with God, of all people, our relationship with him is simply gonna suck.

If we’re this kind of angry—if we want our enemies to burn in hell forever and ever—let’s just be honest and say so. Let God minister to our anger. Let him help us get beyond it.

Anger vented.

One thing you’re gonna notice in most of the angry psalms: By the end of it, the psalmist finishes by praising God. The anger’s gone. It was dealt with, and done with.

True of us too. Once we confess our anger to God, and put it in his hands, he tends to dissolve it. We give this emotion to God, and he casts it away. We vent, and he purges us.

But if we don’t do this—if we stamp our rage down, and pray only holy-sounding things which don’t truly reflect our state of mind—it damages us in two different ways. I already mentioned how our relationship with God’s gonna suck, ’cause we’re embracing hypocrisy instead of authenticity. But there’s also the fact that when we hold onto our anger it grows, and corrodes us. Turns into other evil things, like revenge, bitterness, joylessness, hatred, prejudice, argumentativeness, and violence.

We’ve all encountered angry Christians. They’re awful, aren’t they? They do such damage to everyone around them, and drive people away from Jesus. Let’s never unthinkingly become one ourselves. Give these emotions to God, and tell him, “God, I’m furious; help me.” Trust him with it. He can take it, and will. Submit to him, and let him free you.