It was late afternoon, the autumn sun filtering weakly through the stained-glass windows, when the young woman walked into church. I'd come over to say Evening Prayer and invited her to join me. She demurred, but asked if I could spare her a few minutes: 'I really need to talk with someone,' she said. 'I'm not religious or anything, but I thought you might be able to help.' So we picked out a pew, and I asked her what was on her mind.
She began to unfold a story of painful betrayal and heartache. She'd recently discovered that her partner of many years had been unfaithful to her. The relationship had seemed strong to her, but she'd discovered that he'd been seeing another woman and that the affair had been going on for quite a while. They'd argued, and it had become clear that for some time he'd been cheating on her with a string of different women; their relationship had meant far less to him than she'd believed. He'd left her, and she found herself grieving, bitter, angry, disoriented, and filled with a desperate sorrow.
'It's the anger that's killing me,' she told me. 'It's been months now since he left, but the anger has stayed with me. It's like poison in my stomach. I can't get rid of it, can't some to terms with it. I've been to see counselors, and they've been helpful, but the anger is still there. I don't know what to do.'
I explained to her that I couldn't offer her counseling myself, as I don't have training in that area, but that I'd be happy to refer her to a colleague who might be able to help. 'No,' she said, 'I don't want to see another counselor. I don't think that'd help.'
'Fine,' I replied. 'Well, here's what I can offer. I'm not a counselor, I'm a priest. I help people to pray. Would that be helpful?'She thought about it for a moment. 'I don't really know if I believe in all that. But I guess it couldn't do any harm. I could give it a try, I suppose.'
I thought to myself, Well, from such mighty seeds of faith, who knows what oaks might grow? But I kept that to myself and simply answered, 'Sounds good to me. Let's start with Prayer 101, a kind of basic introduction. Prayer is simply talking to God. But there's no point in telling God anything that isn't true. So here's my first question: what would be the truth for you right now? How do you really feel about this situation, about this man?'Her eyes flashed. 'I wish he was dead.'I held her fierce gaze. 'Well then, that's what you need to pray. Pray for him to die.'
Praying the truth
The young woman was startled. This clearly wasn't what she'd expected to hear either. 'I can't do that!' she said.'What else are you going to do?' I replied. 'Sugarcoat a lie? Do you think God doesn't already know how you feel, what's going on in your life? There's no point telling anything other than the truth.'She looked deeply sceptical. 'I'm not doing that,' she insisted.
I decided to try a different tack. 'I understand it's difficult. Here's another idea. Would you be willing to pray a prayer written by God?'
'I suppose so,' she answered uncertainly.
I picked up a Bible from the pew and opened up the book of Psalms. 'This is a collection of prayers right in the middle of the Bible,' I told her. 'And the Bible was written by God, right?' (This wasn't the time or place for a philosophical exploration of the nature of Scripture.) 'So these must be good prayers, with the divine seal of approval. You can't go wrong praying one of these, can you?''Sure,' she replied, 'why not?''Well, here's the prayer I want you to use.'
I took a pen and circled these verses from Psalm 55: 'It is not my enemies who taunt me – I could bear that;it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me – I could hide from them.But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend,with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng. Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts' (Psalm 55:12-15).
'It's a prayer asking that a betrayer might die,' I told her. 'It's your prayer, the true prayer of your heart. I want you to take this Bible home and pray this prayer every day.' She took the Bible from me, somewhat unsure, but agreed to do as I'd asked.
Finding a new truth
A few weeks later we saw one another again. I asked her if she had been using the psalm to pray. She told me she had.'Have you noticed any result?' I asked her.'He's not dead yet!' she replied with a surprising vehemence.But I refused to be discouraged. 'Keep going,' I urged her. 'Keep praying.'
Some weeks later we met again – the last time I ever saw her. Once more I asked her if she was still using the prayer.'Not every day,' she replied. I asked her why not. 'Well, you said I was never to pray anything that wasn't true!' she said in an accusatory tone. 'And one day I found myself looking down at those words, and they just weren't true any more. At least, not that day. I'm still hurting. But I realized I didn't want him to die.'
'So what did you do then?' I asked.'I looked through some of the other prayers in the book,' she answered, 'and found one that seemed more suitable. I've been using that one. I hope you don't mind.'
The honesty of biblical prayer
That young woman was shocked and surprised when I suggested that she pray for her former partner to die. I've told this story in many contexts since that day, and wherever I tell it people seem equally startled at the advice I offered. Which raises a simple and straight-forward question: what should she have prayed?
It sounds marvelously pious to say that she should have prayed for grace to love him, for mercy and forgiveness, for a change in her own heart so she could come to terms with his behaviour. And these would have been good things to pray. But they wouldn't have been true.
If we learn anything from the school of prayer we find in the book of Psalms, often described as the 'prayer book of the Bible', it's that honesty is everything. The poets who wrote these ancient prayers were unafraid to expose their hearts to God and to the community, creating songs filled with joy, wonder, celebration, pageantry, satisfaction, gentleness, peace, and more – but also with rage, horror, lament, darkness, doubt, shock, and despair. Nothing was held back.
Chris Webb is the author of 'God-Soaked Life: Discovering a Kingdom Spirituality', from which this extract is taken. It is published by Hodder and Stoughton, price £12.99. For more on Chris Webb and his book click here.