With my mouth I will greatly extol the Lord;
in the great throng of worshipers I will praise him.
For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
to save their lives from those who would condemn them.
STICKS AND STONES
You might remember the old children’s rhyme that says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It is intended as a tool for children to confront verbal abuse and bullying—arguing that we shouldn’t let silly things like teasing or taunting bother us. ‘Be resilient and thick-skinned! After all, compared to physical abuse, verbal abuse isn’t that big a deal.’
Sadly, however, it’s simply not true. According to research, verbal bullying can significantly affect a child’s self-image, deepen his depression, and possibly even lead her to self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Ironically, both the bullied child and the bulliers are emotionally damaged in the process! What we say really does, in fact, matter.
Psalm 109 is one of the more famous “imprecatory” psalms of David. Imprecatory psalms are defined as “those that invoke judgment, calamity or curses upon one’s enemies or those perceived to be enemies of God.” David begins his song by imploring God, “do not remain silent” (vs. 1). Why? Because people are verbally abusing me—with lying tongues, words of hatred, and false accusations (vs. 2-4). He asks God to take his enemy down, destroy his family, and withhold his forgiveness (vs. 6-15). “May this be the Lord’s payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me” (vs. 20). Pretty harsh prayers!
I think most of us can sympathize with David’s raw emotion…his pain and anger…his cry for justice. When we feel betrayed or abandoned or abused, our first thought isn’t to pray “Lord, make me more resilient and thick-skinned.” It’s “Lord, take away the problem.” And if the problem is a person…so be it! They’re simply getting what they deserve, right?
But after all the harsh imprecations, something changes in David’s prayer. He shifts his focus away from God’s retribution and toward his own need for God’s healing. “Sovereign Lord, help me for your name’s sake; out of the goodness of your love, deliver me. For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me” (vs. 21-22). David realizes that mere vengeance isn’t going to take away his pain. Removing his enemies is less important that remaining close to his God.
In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged his followers to be radically different in the way they live their lives. Perhaps one of the most shocking example of this was when he told them, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5: 43-47). Why on earth would we want to do that, Jesus?
Maybe, just maybe, Jesus’ instructions weren’t intended to simply make our lives more challenging, but also to make our lives better! Maybe he was telling us the only way to respond to hateful words (or sticks and stones for that matter) is with words of compassion and forgiveness and love. After all, isn’t that what he did when he was betrayed, abandoned and abused? Maybe praying for my enemies is not only helpful for them, but also healthy for me.
God knows what’s going on. He knows the hardship and the heartache and the hurt. He knows it because he experienced it, he endured it, and he conquered it. And through his gift of salvation, Paul tells us, Jesus Christ makes us even “more than conquerors.” (Romans 8:31-39). How can you focus your prayers away from imprecations to intercessions today? Who is the problem person…the hurtful person in your life? Pray for them. Who is riling up righteous anger inside you because of the harm they seem to be causing in the world? Pray for them. To be a conqueror might sound good for a moment, but to be more than conquerors is good for eternity.
Stay thirsty, my friends!