When Prayer Doesn’t Work (Psalm 77)

Psalm

Big Idea: When prayer doesn’t seem to help, and your emotions won’t lift, hold on to what’s true about God even if you can’t see it.


Jared Wilson’s new book The Imperfect Disciple gives me a lot of hope. Jared wants to help imperfect people like me understand that it’s possible for us to follow Jesus too.

He says:

Sometimes I read books and articles on discipleship and I wonder who in the world they’re written for. And then I remember: Oh, yeah—for people who give the Sunday-school answers in Sunday school but save the real, life-or-death, grasping-for-meaning, gasping-for-breath grappling with God for those rare moments when they’re all alone, undistracted, and unable to fend off the crushing sense of their own inadequacies and apprehensions about the world and their place in it. I tend to think that a lot of the ways the evangelical church teaches discipleship seem designed for people who don’t appear to really need it.

I read that and go, “Whew…” Let’s just admit it: we are not perfect disciples. There are some of us here who are tired of the Sunday School answers. We’re relieved when someone admits the truth about their struggles and doubts. We say, “You too?” We feel relief because we’re not alone, and at the same time we feel a little bit of guilt because we wonder if we’re allowed to feel this way.

I have good news for you today. First: you are not alone. Second: you don’t need to feel guilty. In fact, the Bible itself gives voice to our doubts and struggles and helps us understand what to do with them.

Psalm

A Psalm of Lament

Today I want to enjoy a massive dose of honesty right from the Bible itself. I invite you to look at a very honest psalm. We just read it. It’s Psalm 77, and I think it will provide a lot of hope and encouragement to us today.

Psalm 77 is what’s called a lament psalm. It’s interesting that the Psalms, which is Israel’s songbook, contains more psalms of lament than any other kind of psalm. Some 59 psalms are considered laments. They give voice to people’s complaints before God.

We need to recover lament, by the way. Somehow we’ve developed the idea that we can only approach God with joyful praise. That’s not the message of Scripture. We don’t come to God with just one emotion. God gave us the psalms to teach us how to follow God honestly with the entire range of human emotions that we experience. As one person says:

Praying the Psalms brings our whole heart before the face of God, reorienting our own vision toward God and his promises. As Augustine describes with particular insight, the Psalms are given to us as a divine pedagogy for our affections—God’s way of reshaping our desires and perceptions so that they learn to lament in the right things and take joy in the right things. (Todd Billings)

As someone else has said, psalms of lament “demonstrate just how deep our relationship with the Father really is. After all, we don’t communicate our grief and mourning to strangers. We save that for those we truly know and love” (Daniel McConchie).

So we should probably sing some sad songs that express our heartbreak before God, as well as happier songs that express our joy.

Psalm 77 is such a psalm. The complaint in this psalm is general enough that we can’t be tie it to a particular historical situation. Verse 9 hints that the problem, whatever it was, could have come as a result of the unfaithfulness of God’s people, but we just don’t know. It’s general enough that we can apply it to any situation in which we are brought low, when we experience times of trouble.

I want us to experience the weight of Asaph’s psalm so that we can learn how to handle our emotions when there aren’t any Sunday School answers to our problems.

This psalm of lament teaches us three lessons for when we go through difficult times.

Lessons for Difficult Times

Sometimes Prayer Doesn’t Seem to Help

I want to tell you that if you have problems, the answer is prayer. That’s the Sunday School answer. The old hymn said this:

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.

It’s certainly true that prayer is powerful. The book of James reminds us that “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). Prayer, James says, is very effective.

I’d like to tell you that prayer always works. But the psalmist gives us a different perspective: sometimes it doesn’t seem to work at all. Feel his pain in verses 1 to 3:

I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah

There’s supposed to be a formula. We pray; God answers, and the problem is solved. Asaph keeps his end of the deal. He cries out to God. He seeks God when he’s in trouble. He stretches out his hand without wearying. He’s in trouble, and his response is exactly right: he keeps reaching out to God. You would expect that now that Asaph has done his part, God will keep his end of the bargain and answer his prayers.

That’s what you’d expect, but it’s not what happens. Instead, Asaph says that his soul refuses to be comforted. When he remembers God, he continues to feel agitated. He has no relief. He still feels horrible. He lacks strength.

Asaph is teaching us two things that we need to know. First: that God is not a vending machine. We put our dollar in the vending machine, press the button, and wait for the bag of chips to drop. If it doesn’t, we start banging on the machine, because it’s supposed to work. We bang on the window and shake the machine. We put in our order; it delivers what we want. But God isn’t like that. God is not like a genie inside a bottle. He is God.

Alec Motyer, who’s written a great translation of the psalms, notes, “Here is a psalmist in deep trouble; he drives himself to prayer past the point of exhaustion, and gets no relief. His soul still refuses to be comforted.” The fact that we do all the right things does not necessarily mean that we will get the right results, even in prayer.

Second: the psalmist reminds us that it’s okay to be honest. With the best of intentions, we can create an environment in which it’s not really safe to be honest. “How is it going?” we ask. “Not good, but I’m trusting God and so I’m sure that everything will work out,” we say in response. Hogwash. The psalmist gives us permission to say, “I’ve been praying, but to be honest it just doesn’t feel like God is listening. I’ve been going through a hard time, and no matter how much I pray I’m just not feeling any better.” If you’re prone to giving spiritual answers that aren’t really true, then I really encourage you to spend time in the psalms. You’ll learn to be honest about what’s really going on. God can handle our honestly, and it’s good if we learn to deal with it too.

One of my heroes is a man I’ve quoted a lot here. His name was Charles Spurgeon. He preached in London, England in the 1800s. He was one of the leading preachers of his day, and was known not only for his phenomenal speaking ability but also his sense of humor.

One thing about Spurgeon that may surprise you: he struggled with depression. His health was poor, and it continued to deteriorate until he died in 1892. He was in constant pain and sometimes could barely walk or even write. He had debilitating headaches. He would often have to take time away from his ministry to recover. He was very familiar with depression and suffering.

When Spurgeon studied this psalm, he could relate to it:

Some of us know what it is, both physically and spiritually, to be compelled to use these words; no respite has been afforded us by the silence of the night, our bed has been a rack to us, our body has been in torment, and our spirit in anguish. … Alas, my God, the writer of this exposition well knows what thy servant Asaph meant, for his soul is familiar with the way of grief. Deep glens and lonely caves of soul depressions, my spirit knows full well your awful glooms!

Spurgeon said: “There are times with the brightest eyed Christians when they can hardly brush the tears away.”

According to Asaph, it won’t always feel like prayer is working. It’s good to admit this.

There’s a second approach that Asaph takes, and that doesn’t work either.

Sometimes Trying to Manage Our Emotions Doesn’t Help

One of the things I like to do is to remember what God has done in the past. When I remember what God has done in the past, it helps me to deal with problems I’m facing in the present.

For instance, I occasionally worry about having enough money to pay the bills. We’re a church plant, and one of the challenges of church planting is having enough money. When I get worried about this, it helps to remember the past when God has provided. I have so many stories of God’s provision at just the right time. You have no idea how much this helps me when the church faces a financial crunch today.

So I recommend this. Keep track of how God has blessed you in the past. It will encourage you as you face struggles today.

But Asaph tells us that this, too, isn’t foolproof. When Asaph looks at his past, he’s not comforted:

I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search…
(Psalm 77:5-6)

Again, he’s doing exactly the right thing. He ransacked his past to find consolation. He used to be happy. He even describes songs that he sang in the night. But this time these memories do him no good:

Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?
(Psalm 77:7-9)

His memories don’t help him. He asks a series of six rhetorical questions. All of them essentially ask the same thing: Has God changed so that he’s against us now? Of course, we know the right answer: of course God hasn’t changed. This is where it helps to be where we are in history. We can look at Jesus and see what he has done for us, and know that God is for us. The words of Paul echo through the ages: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)

We know that God is for us. But Asaph reminds us of an important fact: our feelings aren’t very reliable. Again, Motyer comments on the psalm:

The implication of verses 4–9 is that purely personal experience is too insecure a foundation on which to build a doctrine of God. We ‘feel’ one way one day, another way another day. On a calm, trouble-free day, the answer to the questions in verses 7–9 would be obvious, but, in this apparently prolonged period of soul-destroying adversity, the psalmist can ask the questions but, on the basis of experience, cannot venture a sure answer.

Have you discovered this? I hope that you’ve discovered that your emotions aren’t enough, even when you’e worked hard to bring your emotions into line with what you know is true.

The truth is that our emotions are very unreliable. There are going to be times when we’re overcome with overwhelming sadness, and even our efforts to remember God’s faithfulness won’t help.

So two things don’t work for Asaph: prayer and remembering God’s past blessing. This should prevent us from thinking there’s always an easy answer. Life is too complex for easy answers, and the psalmist helps us understand this.

What then does Asaph do when prayer and past blessing doesn’t seem to help? Two things.

Express Yourself Honestly and Hold On to What’s True, Even If You Can’t See It

Asaph does two things that really help.

First: he expresses himself honestly. We’ve already seen this. He doesn’t hold back. He expresses exactly how he feels before God, and we can too.

Second, he lashes himself to what’s true even if he can’t see it. Verse 10 marks a turning point: “Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.’” Then he begins to rehearse all that God has done for his people through the ages: when Israel was surrounded by Pharaoh’s army, for instance, but God delivered them. That same God, though unseen, is present and can deliver us today even when we don’t feel like it.

I went to the CNE on Friday. We saw a show with acrobats. This guy grabbed a woman’s arm and feet and was swinging her high in the air. Every time she fell, the man grabbed her. The audience gasped every time. It was something.

But then she did something crazy: she pulled out a blindfold and put it on. He grabbed her and swung her into he air. She couldn’t see him, but every single time she dropped, he caught her.

I left thinking that this is a lot like life. God is present even when we can’t see him and even when we don’t feel like it. God’s promises to his people are sure. Just as God has been faithful to his people in the past, God will be faithful to us today, even when our prayers don’t seem to help and even when we don’t feel like it.

If you hear nothing else today, hear this: When prayer doesn’t seem to help, and your emotions won’t lift, hold on to what’s true about God even if you can’t see it.

What are you going through today? Your prayers may not seem to help, but God still hears you. Your emotions may not come around. But make no mistake: the same God who has worked through history is present, and if you are in Jesus Christ, he is for you. Lash yourself to what’s true about him even when you can’t see it.

When Prayer Doesn’t Work (Psalm 77)
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Liberty Grace Church in Toronto. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada