Not that long ago, a friend of mine informed me in hushed yet outraged tones that her pastor had used the term ‘crap’ during one of his sermons. He was new to the church and his so-called disgusting language had raised nostalgic feelings in my friend for the previous minister (about whom my friend had often complained in the past).
This got me thinking. What else can’t you do in church that you can in other everyday activities? I mean, it’s not like using the word ‘crap’ is considered taboo in general society.
I have another friend who would bring her Scottie dog to our church every Sunday. He sits quietly at her feet and sighs deeply through his nose every so often. Otherwise you wouldn’t know he was there. When I mentioned this to one of my students, he told me that his church had recently debated long and hard about whether a blind member of their congregation could bring his seeing-eye dog to their services.
No dogs, no crap. What’s next?
Why is it, when we know that God sees everything and knows all, do we fool ourselves into thinking we should behave differently in religious buildings to the way we live any other time of the week? We don’t, as many preachers mistakenly imply, come to church to meet with God. He doesn’t like in chapels and cathedrals, but in our hearts and minds. It’s a bit silly really, to imagine that God is more attentive to our language (or our pets) inside the walls of a church building than outside them.
As Paul said to the Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man” (Acts 17:24).
Even in the Old Testament, when there was an assumption that God visited his people in temples and tabernacles, there was a disarming openness and honesty before God in public proclamation and prayer. The prophets spoke to God frankly, sometimes disturbingly so, demanding He know exactly how they felt. At times, they were self-centered, vindictive and outright childish. Sometimes, though they might not have used the word ‘crap’, they did express the most shocking rage toward God.
In fact, Jeremiah and Job made astonishing accusations against God.
Jeremiah told God he’d let him down “like a deceitful brook” and charged God with enticing him unwillingly, overpowering him and humiliating him.
Job famously fired off a volley of complaints to God. Job claims God has shot his arrows at him (6:4), made him suffer months of emptiness and nights of misery (7:3), scared him with dreams and terrified him with visions (7:14). He calls out in protest, “Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?” (7:19). And in Chapter 16 alone, he claims God has worn him out, shrivelled him up, torn him in his wrath, given him up to the ungodly, seized him by the neck and dashed him to pieces, set him up for target practice, and slashed open his kidney.
None of this may be appropriate language for church today either, but it is a brutally frank and open exchange between God and his followers.
Commenting on on Psalm 137, where the psalmist ends with the rageful, “Happy is he… who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks,” C.S. Lewis said at least the psalmist meant what he said!
And there’s the point.
And when it comes to honesty in prayer, Nehemiah takes the cake. Firstly, he naively prays for personal glory in Neh 5:19, and then listen to how he prays for his enemies: “God, remember what Tobiah and Sanballat have done and punish them. Remember that woman Noadiah, and all the other prophets who tried to trick me” (Neh 6:14).
Those three better watch out!
But when it comes to politically and theologically awkward prayers, this one’s a doozy:
“Hear us, O Lord, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sin from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders” (Neh 4:4-5).
That’s a prayer for the gracious, forgiving God to be neither gracious nor forgiving!
And just in case you thought no one could curse their enemy quite like Nehemiah, wait until you get a load of Jeremiah raging against those who oppose him:
“So give their children over to famine; hand them over to the power of the sword. Let their wives be made childless and widows; let their men be put to death, their young men slain by the sword in battle. Let a cry be heard from their houses when you suddenly bring invaders against them, for they have dug a pit to capture me and have hidden snares for my feet. But you, Lord, know all their plots to kill me. Do not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger” (Jer 18:21-23).
That probably ain’t gonna be the reading for this Sunday’s worship service, now, is it? And yet God chose to publish all all these deeply flawed expressions of anger or sadness.
Compare Jeremiah’s and Nehemiah’s vindictive prayers with Jesus’ magnificent prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing (Lk 23:24).
Contrasting Jeremiah’s prayer with Christ’s, John Bright wrote,
“[Jeremiah 18] is not at all Christlike, but all too like you and me. Yet for all his outbursts of very human passion, and for all his bitter complaint against God and destiny, here was one who suffered brutal suffering for the sake of the kingdom of God; who made himself obedient unto death; who, when his spirit flinched and he fain would have turned tail and fled, nevertheless found it within him to say, ‘Not my will, but thine, be done’… and so to take up his cross.”
Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Job and the psalmist were counted as great men of God. Their frankness was not counted against them by their God who understood their frustration and loved them in spite of their anger.
If you’re having a crap day, or feel like crap, or just don’t give a crap, saying so isn’t going to offend God. Besides, pretending everything is alright or affecting a pious persona is exhausting. Believe me. I’ve known many people, including many ministers, who have cracked under the pressure of having to maintain a persona of religiosity.
As Thomas Beckingham wrote, “At some point, the two worlds of who we pretend to be and who we really are must collide. It is, however, better to let those two worlds collide rather than have everything snap under the tension of keeping them apart.”
God’s grace knows no bounds. And that extends to you telling him when something in your life is crap.