I grew up in a church where men prayed solemnly and somberly. They addressed God with Thees and Thous liberally spiked with -ests and -eths, as in “Thou mayest,” “we seeketh,” and “Thou givest.” To my young ears, such suffixes lent a certain gravitas to their prayers.
Or maybe they didn’t.
In Shakespeare’s day, using thou to address a person was actually considered less respectful than saying you. When Sir Toby Belch coaches Sir Andrew Aguecheek on how to disrespect a rival (gotta love Shakespeare’s capacity for naming), Toby says, “If thou ‘thou’-est him some thrice, it shall not be amiss.”1 Okay, let’s translate that. Toby is saying, “If you address him three times by saying thou instead of the formal you, he will know that you are disrespecting him.” Thou was insulting to a superior.
So how did thou later worm its way into lofty prayers? Long ago, that was simply the way people spoke, and so they naturally prayed that way too. As words evolved, the way we spoke morphed along with it. But the language of (some) prayer calcified into tradition. And when a tradition begins to skew the truth, it needs to go. We gain nothing by faking it before God. In fact, we lose.
In my church, someone would occasionally ask why we should pray as though the one praying had translated the Bible into Elizabethan English. The response was usually along the lines that it’s best to use respectful language when addressing the Almighty. Fair enough. But such archaic language sent a false message about God’s accessibility. Clean yourself up to come to God. Put on your best clothes. Look the best you can. Change the way you speak. The normal you (i.e., the real one) is not good enough.
What does that do for honesty before God? Not a thing.
On the other extreme, I have a friend who follows Jesus passionately. He told me, “Sometimes I swear when I pray.” Well, that’s certainly honest. But is it okay?
In his book Psalms: Prayers of the Heart, author Eugene Peterson shows us how the Psalms teach us to relate to God. He establishes the point that the Psalms are prayers—and they’re shockingly honest. The psalmists weren’t changing how they spoke as they wrote these raw songs. In fact, they sometimes seemed to lack any filter at all!
In a fascinating conversation between Peterson and U2 frontman Bono, the two discussed that very notion. Peterson brought up the imprecatory psalms (psalms that are literal curses). Here’s an example of one. As David prays for justice, he sings: “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God. LORD, tear off the fangs of those lions” (58:6). David isn’t singing about actual lions; he’s talking about evil rulers who pervert justice (vv. 1–2). He wants God to punch them in the mouth. And he’s saying it in a prayer.
Peterson told Bono, “We need to find a way to cuss without cussing. And the imprecatory psalms really do that.”
Bono, who has been known to cuss a bit, reflected, “A way to cuss without cussing. That is going to stay with me.”
Bono doesn’t merely pay the Psalms lip service. He often recites from the Psalms during the band’s performances. During the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, which NFL.com calls the greatest ever, Bono purposefully quotes from David’s great psalm of repentance, 51. As the band eases out of a reverential interlude, the Edge begins the distinctive chime-like chords of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Larry Mullen Jr.’s precision drumming soon joins him. Behind the band, the names of the 3,000 killed on 9/11 scroll steadily heavenward on a giant curtain. Bono, pacing slowly across the stage, bows his head and intones: “O LORD, open my lips, that I might show forth thy praise.” He repeats the line, then addresses the boisterous crowd with a shout as Adam Clayton’s bass thunders to life. Bono leans his head back and unleashes an anguished cry that pierces beyond the Superdome roof. The moment is powerful. The lead singer of U2 is praying on national television—and he’s praying the Psalms.
During his conversation with Peterson, Bono noted, “The psalmist is brutally honest about the explosive joy that he’s feeling, and the deep sorrow, or confusion.” That prompted Peterson to add, “Praying wasn’t being nice before God. The Psalms are not pretty. They’re not nice.”
Our prayers need not adopt affected language. They don’t have to be nice. Nor is there a compulsion to thou anybody, not even (especially) the Almighty. He already knows everything we’re feeling. The Psalms show us that we can scream and yell and cry and whine and tell God how unfair things are. We can ask all our hard questions of God. But the point is that we are taking all of this ugly stuff to God.
In the past, U2 often concluded their encores with a prayer. Just before leaving the stage—actually as they leave one by one—they sing 40, the fortieth psalm in the Bible, written by David. The concept of waiting is key to that song. It begins, “I waited patiently for the LORD” (40:1). Suddenly U2 borrows a question from Psalm 13: “How long?” (v. 1). “How long to sing this song?” David’s song concludes with a God-ward focus, and another prayer: “You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay” (v. 17). U2 embeds the hopeful answer in 40: “I will sing a new song.” Both they and David know God keeps His promises.
Is it okay to swear while you pray? I’ll leave that between you and God. Just remember this: He already knows exactly what’s on your heart, and He loves you anyway. Why hide from Him? Why pretend?
When I left the church of my childhood, I attended a Bible college for a time. There I met a professor who began his prayers with this casual greeting: “Good morning, Lord.” Then he would speak naturally to the Almighty. I found such simplicity amazingly refreshing—vastly superior to “We humbly greet Thee, O Lord, on this day that Thou hast made for us Thy finite creatures to enjoy.” If that’s how you pray, well, fine. I just ask that you don’t do it out loud. Such prayers might compel me to ask, “How long, O Lord?” Then I might thou somebody thrice.
To read more about prayer visit https://discoveryseries.org/courses/the-prayer-coin/