Sometimes when we pray, we are angry with other people. On other occasions, we pray because we are angry with God. When Jonah prayed, it was both. After delivering what may be the shortest and most successful sermon in preaching history, Jonah prayed an angry prayer in which he took God to task for his mercy and then begged for death.
You might think that Jonah would be happy. Instead, the prophet was outraged. The Hebrew text literally says, “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil and he was angry” (Jonah 4:1). Jonah wasn’t surprised by what God had done (or, more specifically, by what he hadn’t done). Jonah was furious because God had behaved exactly as he expected. “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home?” he complained in Jonah 4:2–3. “That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Yet, Jonah’s angry prayers are not an anomaly. Indeed, angry prayers are common enough that those who study the prayers of the Bible have an entire category devoted to them. They call them imprecatory prayers, after a Latin word that means to curse or invoke evil. To be fair, Jonah’s prayers were not technically imprecatory. They were more occasions of grumbling out loud to God. But the anger that prompted them is the same spirit that fuels the imprecations of the Psalms, the laments of Jeremiah, and even a few of the “wish prayers” of the apostle Paul (Galatians 1:8; 5:12).
Prayers for protection have always been prayed by God’s people. Imprecatory prayers go a step further. They ask for protection, but they also ask God to punish, sometimes with language that we would consider immoderate. For example, in Psalm 69:28, David prays that God would blot his enemies out of the Book of Life. Even more disturbing, Psalm 137:8–9 pronounces a curse on Babylon and a blessing on those who destroy it.
Anyone who has experienced abuse or witnessed an atrocity can identify with the emotion that energizes these prayers. But we don’t have to suffer abuse to understand the angry prayers of the Psalms and prophets. We have all had the same feelings, though on a much smaller scale, every time someone has wronged us. Yet, there is more than an emotion behind the imprecations of the Old Testament. The retributive standard of the Mosaic law—eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot—shapes them. Leviticus 24:20 summarizes the principle in these words: “The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury” (see also Exodus 21:24; Deuteronomy 19:21).
As a legal standard, the purpose of this command was to limit retribution. The basic rule was that the punishment should fit the crime and not go beyond it. Any penalty must consider the degree of damage inflicted on the victim and the retaliation imposed should not have extreme punitive damages. The Mosaic law’s limitation of the penalty to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was not exclusive to Israel. It also existed in other cultures, perhaps most famously in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Possibly we might view the psalmist’s and Jeremiah’s imprecatory prayers as an application of the Babylonians’ own standard of law against them, but the limits set by God’s law on retribution were more than a cultural adaption of advanced Babylonian jurisprudence. It reflected a larger movement in the direction of grace that Jesus Christ would eventually fulfill by his coming. John gives the broad outline of this trajectory when he observes that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
Christ’s inauguration of this full measure of grace must shape our understanding of Scripture’s angry prayers. The advent of an age of grace did not lower the bar of God’s justice. Jesus did not come to overturn the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17–18). Not only did Jesus warn of a coming day of judgment, but he also made it clear that on that day, he would be its primary agent (Matthew 13:41–43; cf. 2 Peter 2:9; 3:7). But until that day, Christ’s dealings with the offender are marked by grace.
The spirit that shapes our prayers for those who anger us is not the spirit of Jonah but the spirit of Christ. It is not a cry for justice but a prayer for grace. To hear such a thing will undoubtedly rankle some in this era when justice has become a cultural byword. Yet Jesus could not have been clearer on this matter in his teaching. Our model is not the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms and prophets, but the pattern Christ gave us in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” Jesus declared. “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43–45). What kind of prayer shall we pray for those we judge to be our persecutors? Paul echoes Christ’s command and clarifies the sort of prayer he had in mind: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:15).
How, then, should we pray our angry prayers? Given what Jesus says, should we even pray them at all? It doesn’t seem realistic to think that we can deny our anger. To deny it would be to pray through a mask of false piety. We cannot hide our feelings from the one that Scripture says “knew what was in each person” (John 2:24). Nor is it reasonable to dismiss the things that have sparked our outrage. They are important. At least, they are important to us, or else we would not be angry about them. Whether or not the outrage we feel is justified is not the point (not yet, anyway). If we are to worship God in spirit and truth, the truest self at this moment is our angry self. Jesus’ command to love our enemy and bless our persecutors does not mean that we cannot pray if we are angry.
We do not have to deny our anger, but we must take these feelings in hand and discipline ourselves to pray both as Jesus taught us and as he himself prayed. But if we are to pray as Jesus did, then we must also take upon our lips not only his words of forgiveness offered on behalf of those who crucified him but his cry of dereliction. Before Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).
I am not saying that on the cross, Jesus spoke in anger or disappointment with the Father. Far from it. Yet these words of anguish were more than a mere symbol. Just as they truly described the emotion of the psalmist at the time when they were first written, they express the agony Christ suffered as he “‘bore our sins’ in his body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). It is this reality that makes Jesus prayer a model for us in our anger. When we admit our anger and frustration to God, we acknowledge our ambivalence. On the one hand, the fact that we are praying is itself a recognition of God’s sovereignty. We pray because he is our God. We know that he is in control. In the act of praying, we begin with God and not our problem.
At the same time, we often feel conflicted as well. Like Jonah, we are hunkered down and waiting to see what God will do for us. If we are not angry, we are at least frustrated by our circumstances. We wonder why the sovereign God would allow such things to occur. This note of frustration is frequently heard in the prayers of the Bible.
Jonah had a problem with God because he had a problem with the people of Nineveh. Jonah was angry about the evil of Nineveh. But mostly, he was angry because God did not seem to share his anger. Jonah learned by experience what he already knew as a matter of intuition. When you pick a fight with God, you usually end up on the losing side. God is bigger than you are and has all the power. He holds all the cards and knows what you are going to say before you say it.
The Jonah story ends in silence. God asks, “Should I not pity Nineveh?” But Jonah gives no answer. We, too, are silent but often for a different reason. Sometimes ours is a silence born of fear. At other times it is the silence of artifice. Instead of expressing our real thoughts and feelings in prayer, we tell God what we think he wants to hear, as if God could not see through our charade, as if he did not already know what was in our hearts. It would be far better for us to take our stand with the patriarchs, the psalmists, and the prophets and state our feelings in plain words. It might be better, even, if we were to join Jonah as he sulks on the outskirts of Nineveh and risk engaging God in impolite conversation. Jonah, admittedly, is only barely obedient. But at least he is honest.