Freedom, Prison and Praise: A 1-Verse Prayer for Desperate Places

What rolls off your tongue when you’re in trouble? What comes out when you’re in a prison or a cave? How do you pray?

Like A Song, It Came

“Help me,” “Heal us,” and “Have mercy,” are desperate prayers my God has heard lately. There’s also been that prayer for a prodigal.

But last night, these words came. Like lyrics from songs we sang in eighth grade, they came.

Set me free from my prison,
    that I may praise your name.
Then the righteous will gather about me
    because of your goodness to me.

That’s the last verse of Psalm 142, “Of David. When he was in the cave.” David prayed those words when he was literally in a cave, hiding from a hostile King Saul who literally sought to end his life.

I’d just texted a few friends to ask them to pray, another SOS. Please pray that God will bring peace to our family.

Then Psalm 142 verse 7 came, like ROYGBIV and All Cows Eat Grass and The Doxology.

Like a familiar, overlearned thing it came. The Spirit sent it and it came.

Because that verse was a go-to prayer during the decade of gut-wrenching infertility, a heart-wrenching church split, and marriage conflict that came along for the ride. Those felt like a prison that I couldn’t escape. I felt helpless and hemmed in.

So I prayed.

Set Me Free From My Prison

We know anything is a blessing that makes us pray. I think thinking of the word prison today triggered it.

David’s prison was a cave. He hid in a hole in the rocks to save his life from hostile King Saul. Derek Kidner explains, “the strain of being hated and hunted is almost too much, and faith is at full stretch.”

Psalm 142 teaches us how to pray when we feel trapped and out of control, when we see no way of escape from our dark cave of troubles. It is a psalm of lament, it is a psalm crying out to God.

There is no cave so deep, so dark, but we may out of it send up our souls in prayer to God.

Matthew Henry

My prison is not a cave. It was my “decade of troubles.”

But today I felt trapped and helpless again. As if there was nothing I could do to escape hostile, hateful words from someone I love, nothing I could do to help him know how much he is loved. I didn’t feel hunted but I did feel hated.

So for freedom, I prayed.

That I May Praise Your Name

During that decade of troubles, I loved to pray this phrase of Psalm 142. Because it grounded my prayer. It turned it from being just about me and my pain to the Lord and his praise.

Bible commentator Albert Barnes, explains, “Not merely for my own sake, but that I may have occasion more abundantly to praise thee; that thus [you] may be honored; an object at all times much more important than our own welfare.”

In other words, we ground our cries for help in the glory and praise of God that will come when he frees us from our prisons. Bring my soul out of prison, not that I may live more comfortably, or insure my physical safety and financial security, but that I may praise your name.

Because God is zealous for his glory and seeks our praise, these prison break prayers are easy to pray.

So for God’s praise, I prayed.

The Righteous Will Gather Around Me Because of Your Goodness to Me

The Hebrew verb for “praise” means to confess or acknowledge. David wants to extol God’s power, goodness and mercy in the company of the saints. In other words, he wants God to answer his prayer so that he can glorify God publicly.

Here, Derek Kidner notes, David “dares to visualize the day when he is no longer shunned or hunted, but thronged, or even crowned.” David visualized a good end. In Christ, with him as our refuge and portion (verse 5), we can be sure of a good end (Romans 8:28). But we can’t be sure when.

I believe we have biblical warrant to take our cues from David and visualize a good end.

Do you visualize how answered prayer would look? Because it does seem like that’s what David is doing. He’s picturing his faithful friends, like the friends I texted who pray, coming around him and rejoicing at God’s goodness to him in freeing him from prison.

David’s visualizing is hoping.

So in hope, I pray.

Faith Joined By Hope

David’s faith was tested in the cave. It was “at full stretch,” as Kidner said. But it was “undefeated, and in the final words it is at last joined by hope.”

Sixteen years ago, God broke me free from a childless prison. Six years ago, he brought me out of an estranged prison. Today, God is building our marriage. I am a prisoner of hope.

Now I am visualizing deliverance. It’s hard, but I picture a day when the relationship filled with hurt and hate is marked by love and laughter. Then the righteous will gather around us and celebrate because of God’s goodness to us.

Friend, tell me if I can pray for you. Because I’d like to get in on the party. Because there will be a party.

The righteous will rejoice in God’s goodness to us. He has done great things, we will say together.

So together, we pray.

We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

1 Corinthians 1:8b-11 (ESV)

But is Brokenness the Goal?

Brokenness is inevitable. We get broken over sin and sickness and loneliness and failure and loss. All things have not yet been set right. We live in a broken world and we groan.

So is brokenness a good thing? It’s good to be authentic and real, right? But should we celebrate being broken? Should brokenness be our goal?

Those might seem like no-brainers. But I’m not so sure

Is the Broken Way the Best Way?

Much is made of brokenness these days. Ann Voskamp’s book, The Broken Way is a bestseller. Songs about brokenness abound.

When asked, How are youBroken, is what some of us “real and authentic” types say. Brokenness is inevitable. We are all damaged goods.

But, like Chuck Swindoll says,

We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it…We are in charge of our Attitudes.

I have to ask, What’s the focus? Is it my hot mess and brokenness? Or is it God’s power and presentness

Because if all our broken talk makes the hurt bigger than the Healer, if it makes our brokenness- whether from sin or sickness- more real than our living hope, we’re missing the point. If my brokenness becomes a badge of honor, maybe the broken way is not the best way.

There, I said it. You can stop reading now if you like.

Do you want to be healed?

Don’t get me wrong.  It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to admit life is hard and we feel weary.

But I’m wary of a certain sort of brokenness. Because I remember the dark night of the soul when my focus was brokenness and pain. I know that pain can get proud. It can take on a life of it’s own.

Do you remember when Jesus was at the Pool of Bethesda with all the invalids gathered round? And he went up to a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (John 5: 1-9) and asked, “Do you want to be healed? ”

It’s an odd question. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be healed? I’m not positive why Jesus asked that, but it might have something to do with the reality that brokenness can become identity.

So do you want to be made whole, healed? Or would you rather stay broken?  “Nothing is more desirable as being released from affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch,” James Baldwin has said.

If this guy got healed he’d be on his on his own. He’d have to stop begging and get a job. And if he got healed he’d have to quit complaining about his broken body.

There are a million excuses for finding identity in our brokenness. Maybe one of those is that we love the attention our “brokenness” brings. But clinging to victim status does not mean humble and contrite. It means being defined by broken.

It means stuck.

A Hard Choice

Nancy Guthrie has grieved the loss of not one, but two, of her children. She is super insightful on going through the brokenness that comes from grief and loss.

In an address to women she explained that,

To “move forward” is to take God at His Word, that He is Jehovah Rapha, He is the Healer. He has the power to and desires to bring healing into the broken places of your life.

So getting through this is going to require making the hard choice to not become women who are defined by our grief. Do you know women like that? At some point, it just became their identity; it’s the context in which they deal with anyone; it’s just who they are, and it doesn’t seem as if there’s any desire to be defined by anything else except loss.

Ladies, there is only one thing we want to be defined by, and it is not our grief. We want to be defined only by our connection to Jesus Christ. We want to be defined by Christ alone—not by the losses in our lives.

No, brokenness is not the goal. We want to be defined by Christ alone. When we are weak, he is strong. His power is perfected in our weakness. His grace is sufficient. And we are not alone.

Living that way is called redemptive vulnerability.

Redemptive Vulnerability

Stephen Lee calls says redemptive vulnerability is a vulnerability that leads to life. It’s where we share our brokenness in order to display the surpassing power and sufficiency of Christ and the gospel. Which transforms us increasingly into the likeness of Christ.

But, Lee says,

Vulnerability is not an end in itself. Rather, our vulnerability should point us, individually and together with other believers, to the sufficiency of Jesus. It looks at and hopes in the redemption we have in Christ Jesus and the work of the cross.

Then Lee talks about how we do this redemptive vulnerability thing together. He continues,

To bring redemption to our vulnerability means we open up not to wallow in our situation, but to lift our eyes together to God in hope. We can look together at his promises. We cry out together for comfort, wisdom, help, and faith… Weakness and vulnerability remind us that we are dependent and God is sufficient. God loves to meet us in our moments of need and to give us more of his grace as we seek it moment by moment, especially with others.

That happened last night.

Spotlight on God

We set down our forks and stopped to pray.

Because one friend at the dinner table is an 8-year cancer survivor. Alicia had shared in the dinner table discussion that her annual blood work and  check-in with the oncologist is coming this week. Alicia shared that she was a wee bit worried this time.

Which is when another friend paused to ask if we could all pray. Then from around the dinner table we eight did. We prayed. For peace and health, we prayed. And Alicia and her husband both thanked God for his faithfulness.

Then  we said Amen and  Alicia shared with us how God had met her with a song on the way to her last checkup. She said she’s not a slave to fear.

When I asked Alicia today if I could share that, she said, “Sure. Just don’t make it about me. I often pray that God will use what happened to glorify His name.”

That, friends, is redemptive vulnerability.

Therefore We Boast

God met Alicia in her brokenness. And God can meet you too.

Redemptive vulnerability does not put a spotlight on vulnerability, brokenness, or sin. Redemptive vulnerability highlights and magnifies how good, sufficient, kind, persistent, and gracious God is. It’s his grace that makes us aware of our need for him. It’s his grace that causes us to cry out in dependence, to turn away from sin, and to remind us of his love.

That, Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:9, is why we boast. Because his power is made perfect in our weakness. God comes in when we’re broken and weak.

Being broken isn’t the goal, but meeting God there- or anywhere- is.

Brokenness is not the goal.

Yes, some things need to be broken: hard hearts and pride, for two.

But Pastor Erik Reed says wholeness not brokenness is our goal.

Consider this.  It’s okay to go to the doctor’s office and admit you’re sick, but the goal isn’t to admit it and stay that way; it is to get healthy. You go to the doctor confessing you are sick, but your goal is wholeness. The same is true for churches. We go confessing we are broken people, but the gospel is good news for broken people. The gospel is a remedy to our broken souls that makes us whole. James 5 tells us to “confess your sins to one another.” It is one way we get healthy.

We walk out our faith with friends. Vulnerability liberates us from sin’s destructive power and the despair of sorrow. Things come out of the dark and into the light, where they are healed. Confession is not the goal. Repentance is.

Brokenness is not the finish line. Wholeness is.

Brokenness is not the goal. But is one way we can get to know the One who forgives our sins and heals our diseases.

That is the goal. 

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…

Psalm 103:2-4

In case you were wondering about Psalm 51…

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:17). Hallelujah. Amen.

That is a precious promise. Psalm 51 describes how God’s people think and feel about the horrors of their own sin. This is a Psalm, John Piper explains, about how be crushed for our sin well.

But Psalm 51:17 is not a defense for making brokenness our identity. Here’s why.

First, we need to realize that Psalm 51 was, as it says, “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” The context was David’s broken hearted guilt over his sin. The broken spirit that God will not despise was a spirit humbled and mourning for its sin. Such was King David’s after the Bathsheba affair. And if there’s one thing we know from the whole of Scripture it is that when we repent of our sin, our God is faithful to forgive (1 John 1:9, Acts 3:19, Exodus 34:6-7, Psalm 103:12, Micah 7:18-19).

No, he will never despise a broken and contrite heart. In fact it’s only the broken and contrite heart, that see their need for God. In fact that’s just how our Lord started the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

Second, we need to remember what sacrifice means. To sacrifice is to surrender a possession as an offering to God. And that is exactly what we do with our spirit made broken by guilt- we offer it to God. Then, He heals the brokenhearted and binds up all their wounds (Psalm 147:3).