In her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood paints a haunting picture of a world where human freedom is nearly abolished. After a totalitarian regime is established in the fictional town of Gilead, a special caste of women known as “handmaids” are designated for the purpose of bearing children to wealthy, influential families. However, the husbands are prohibited from involving themselves romantically with their handmaids.
One, known as the Commander, secretly invites his handmaid, Offred, into his living quarters to interact with her in a way forbidden by their strict social structure. “There must be something he wants, from me,” she muses. “To want is to have a weakness. It’s this weakness, whatever it is, that entices me. It’s like a small crack in a wall, before now impenetrable . . . I want to know what he wants.” By virtue of his request (and the risk of Offred’s refusal), the Commander has jeopardized his power. Desire makes him vulnerable.
And it is in this respect that Atwood’s book, though secular, can teach us something about the nature of weakness. It is inherent to desire, and that’s what makes desire scary—yet necessary—to our life with God. Some of us feel selfish to admit our desires to God. Who defends coming into His presence, greedily grubbing for favors? Haven’t the holiest prayers been sanitized of want? Isn’t it best to do away with laundry lists, praying instead, “Thy will be done?”
Counting on the Love of God
When we turn to the Psalms, one thing that seems immediately apparent is the near-reckless honesty of these prayers. Unlike the Hebrew psalmists, most ancient peoples approached their gods with great solicitude and deference because their deities were moody, capricious beings. If they wanted a plentiful harvest, the safe delivery of a baby, or protection from their enemies, they prayed and sacrificed—but there was never any logic of divine love and faithfulness on which to rely. Hope was a roll of the dice. (See 1 Kings 18:20-29.)
Because the God of Israel is loving and faithful, His people pray differently. They feel no need to whitewash their words.
By contrast, the God of the Psalms is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Ps. 103:8). His love is high and steadfast, His forgiveness wide and generous. “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him” (v. 13). Because the God of Israel is loving and faithful, His people pray differently. They feel no need to whitewash their words. For example, they don’t placate God with empty flatteries. Rather, they freely express anger toward God, speaking accusingly of His seeming absence: “Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1). Neither do they pretend to be nice when revenge is rising in their throats. “O daughter of Babylon . . . how blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock!” (137:8-9). Moreover, for a book that is purportedly about praise and thanksgiving, the psalmists offer up more laments than any other type of prayer. They revere God, yet—strangely and surprisingly—their reverence grants latitude for honesty.
As a collection of prayers and praise, the book of Psalms is also an anthology of complaints, curses, and confusion. Which is to say, the human experience has made its way into the holy canon, proving that God isn’t ever shocked by us. In Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, Ellen F. Davis contrasts the Psalms with the other biblical books. She says, “All the rest of the Bible represents God’s speaking to us . . . Only the Psalms are formulated as prayer, as human words to God. Yet because they are part of the Bible, we understand them also as God’s word to us—or better, the psalms are God’s word in us.” As such, the psalms illustrate the appropriateness, even the necessity, of entering God’s presence with our unedited prayers, including our desires: “Lord, all my desire is before You; and my sighing is not hidden from You” (38:9). God is not troubled by our humanness. In fact, it seems the holy-holy-holy God prefers anything to pretense.
God is not troubled by our humanness. In fact, it seems the holy-holy-holy God prefers anything to pretense.
Clearing the Way for Praise
Desire is often the most honest and vulnerable expression of who we are, and naming our wants is the bravest kind of self-disclosure, especially in the presence of God. To search out desire is to mine the hidden intentions of our hearts. It is to identify the real object of our affections. In this way, answering the question, What do I want? exposes our spiritual contradictions. For as frightening as the truth may be, around the corner of transparency is potential transformation. “How blessed is the man . . . in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (32:2).
It can seem paradoxical to insist on the necessity of desire for faith, and we are rightly hesitant about our own selfishness. Can we trust ourselves to pray what we want? But maybe it’s not our job to figure out how to pray before we pray. Rather, as the psalms model for us, perhaps we pray honestly and then trust that the desires with which we enter prayer will not always be the ones with which we leave. “Delight yourself in the Lord;” David says, “and He will give you the desires of your heart” (37:4).
Bringing our desires before God is one way to be needy and vulnerable. We leave off trusting that our cleverness and hard work can provide what we lack. Instead, we place our bets squarely on the surety of God’s provision. “Some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the Lord, our God” (20:7). God helps the helpless, and we must be the needy in order to become the blessed. To want from God can be a faithful act of dependence, and in freely admitting to Him our needs and longings, perplexities and pain, we form the habit of finding Him reliable. And desire, honestly expressed and transformed by the Spirit, clears the way for praise.
Summoning the Courage for Honest Prayer
Nice, safe prayers never test the resilience of our theology. Brave prayers do that. If, in our mind, God is more like the ill-tempered, unpredictable deities of long ago, we pray what we think He wants to hear. But if God is as gracious as the Scriptures testify—gracious enough to make His Son our sympathetic High Priest to receive all our prayers (even the selfish ones)—then when we ask for bread, shall we expect a stone? (See Matt. 7:9.)
Praying the desires of our hearts exposes our disloyalties. But as the psalms teach us—and as the gospel declares—God is merciful to us and eagerly receives our prayers as they are. And through them, He will make us what we should be.