04/16/2013 01:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013

What to Pray in a Crisis? Just say "No!"

All sorts of terrible words come to mind, curses and imprecations, when I take in a disaster like the bombing at the Boston marathon. I can hear my unbelieving friends say to me, "Rick, why bother to pray at a time like this? If God is in charge, why should innocent people get killed and injured?" Quite frankly, I understand their anger and bafflement. But the one prayer that works for me at a time like this is "No, God, No!"

Okay, it might not accord with the peaceful, loving, patient language that we usually associate with prayer. It doesn't necessarily bring instant peace to my soul. These are hardly the words I'd prefer to meditate on. And yet, it's all that I'm feeling in my numbness: "No. God. Please, no."

Years ago I spoke to a Presbyterian minister whose son was born with severe disabilities. For some months it wasn't certain that the child would even survive. The minister went into a tailspin, furious at God for giving him this gift as a parent. "After all I've done," he thought. After serving God so patiently, so lovingly, with such devotion all those years, was this what he got in return? Was this how God treated his servants? The man was so angry he simply stopped praying. He continued preaching, leading church meetings, doing his job, but he couldn't pray. Not a word.

Finally he confessed to a friend, another minister, about the spiritual silent treatment he was engaged in, his inner fuming. The friend said simply, "If you were angry at me, I would expect you to tell me. Why can't you do the same with God?"

If you're angry at God, say something. Say anything. Don't hold it in. It's not going to do any favors for your prayer life.

More recently I remember receiving the devastating news, by phone, that my brother-in-law had been in a small plane crash and he was the only survivor. For twenty-hours his survival was uncertain at best. I was horrified at the loss of life, his colleagues killed in an instant. I was terrified to hear of the burns covering his body and the trauma he must have suffered from. I was frightened for my sister, my nieces, for myself. Could I pray? About the only words I could pray were "No, God, no!"

Through the grace of God, through the amazing work of doctors, through countless weeks of therapy, through a long trial at the burn center, my brother-in-law survived. My prayers eventually changed, but I still feel some sort of resonating agony, a spiritual PTSD, when I think of it. What I do know, what I know for sure, is that my faulty, struggling "No, God, No!" prayers were what got me through the worst, those twenty-four hours. They were honest and heartfelt. And it never occurred to me that they weren't heard.

As this tragedy in Boston unfolds, as the experts become more certain who was at the heart of this horror, there will be more prayers to say. Prayers of forgiveness, prayers of love for our enemies. I can reach for those prayers right now and mouth them. But "No, God, no!" is still what comes to mind first. With as much self-forgiveness as I can muster, I'll stick with that. It's what keeps me in touch.

If you're angry with God you might as well say something. Anything. The holy people I love best are the honest ones. Hope will come. But it's not here now. Not yet.