Patterns for Prayer: Learning to Pray with the Psalms
Blog by Rob Vandeman
“ Now I lay me down to sleep . . . .” “God is great, God is good . . . .” “God bless Mommy and Daddy and the missionaries and colporteurs across the seas.” Many of us first learned to pray using such phrases. As we grew in prayer, we needed form and structure. The Lord’s Prayer provided such structure but it tended to be repeated verbatim rather than used as a template for one’s prayer life. Helpful devices for providing needed structure were developed such as the ACTS acrostic: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. But after a while, even these valuable helps can grow a bit stale. So we tend to flit form one method to another as quickly as a bird moves from branch to branch. All of these efforts accurately point to the reality that we, like the disciples, are crying out, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Mature Prayer is a Learned Skill
Learning to pray depends on two realities that require our intense participation: an awareness of the depths of our own experiences and the ability to articulate a response to God “out of the depth.” Most of us are acutely aware of the deep needs, joys, struggles and questions that comprise our life situations. But are we able to respond to God in the midst of the stuff of life? This is where we many times get blocked in our prayer life. Listen to the testimony of a friend who shared his personal journey with me in a letter:
“During the last year I have been drawn to the psalms because of the intensity and honesty of the struggles they portray in a person’s relationship to God and the world. For years the verse about not knowing how to pray as I ought served as an excuse for my elementary efforts in conversation with God, when in reality God, Himself, had supplied a toolbox for constructing a meaningful prayer life. All of the formulas, acrostics and gimmicks for making prayer simple and easy are exposed as shallow in the face of the pulsating reality, life and depth of the psalms as a guide to prayer. I learned to pray by praying and the psalms provide the pattern for me. As I pray the psalms, they leave their mark on my soul until I find my own prayers conforming more and more to the original pattern.”
Learning to pray with the psalms is a part of a long and deep tradition within the Christian Church. James L. May observes in his commentary on Psalms, “The psalms have been widely used and continuously to nurture and guide personal meditations and devotions. Christians have said them as their own prayers, as guides to learning to pray and as tests through which they came to now themselves and God more surely.”
The 4th century Christian leader Ambrose called the Psalms “a gymnasium of the soul.” It is the place where we go for daily workouts in prayer fitness. Why are the psalms so effective in maturing us in prayer? Why have they worked so well for many people over the centuries? How can they bring new life and energy to tired “quiet times?”
The Psalms Teach us to Pray Honestly
“Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Ps. 88:14) After a few months of praying the psalms, dramatic changes began to emerge in my friends’ relationship with God as this journal entry indicates:
“The joyous result for me has been freedom to pray the full range of my feelings, whether positive or negative, without having my feelings dictating my response to God. I feel I have been given permission to be nakedly honest with myself and before the Lord. Now I know from personal experience that God is fully able to handle my honest, gut-level responses to the raw edge of life as I struggle before Him. It is a tremendous comfort to realize that honesty does not mean infidelity, but that honesty is prerequisite to fidelity.”
In the crucible of honest prayer, incredible transformation occurs. Mourning is turned into celebration, doubt becomes confidence, despair blossoms into hope, and pain becomes the vehicle for God’s grace. Jesus prayed honestly upon the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1, Mt 27:46). When we, too, are honest with God about our “whys,” we will be given grace to pray with faith the prayer of surrender that Jesus prayed: “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Ps 31:5, Lk 23:46). Have you ever felt the sting of the words of Psalm 31? “I am forgotten as a dead man, out of mind, I am like a broken vessel” (v. 12 NASB). And yet that same psalm can provide hope as you continue to pray: “My times are in your hand” (v. 15), and “How good is your greatness” (v 19), thus realizing you are safe “in the shelter of your presence” (v. 20).
The Psalms lead us into a conversation with God that is robustly honest and boldly uncensored. Prayer ceases to be a polite “ministerial toned” exercise and instead becomes communication that is intimate, passionate and expressive of what is going on in the core of our lives. The psalmist says it best in the opening line of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”
The Psalms Teach us to Pray Comprehensively
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Ps 139:7). Many of the methods that claim to instruct in prayer only serve to reduce prayer by making it manageable and predictable. Formulas, in order to simplify, invariably omit part of who we are or part of what we are experiencing. And prayer becomes smaller. It becomes a task rather than a life. And ultimately real life and prayer begin to exist in separate compartments with few points of contact. Prayer becomes a duty that we never reel we have sufficiently fulfilled
In contrast, the call of Scripture is not to more prayer, but to a life of prayer – unceasing prayer, as the Apostle Paul expressed it. Jesus calls it a life of “abiding.” The psalms are the only prayer guide that enlarges prayer so that everything is pulled into it. Prayer becomes the great conversation. Nothing is too large or too small to be prayed.
In Psalm 2 there is a macro-prayer concerning the nations. In Psalm 6 and many other psalms there is a micro-prayer concerning the state of our hearts. And there is everything in between. The psalms are thoroughly inclusive and teach us to pray “at all times and not to lose heart.” They lead us to remember the poor, such as when we pray Psalm 113:7 “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” They also give us confidence to cry out to God when we are the one who is needy: “Save me, O God” (Ps. 69:1).
The types of issues that most people neglect to submit to prayer and thus become discouraged about continually surprise me. One friend was going through a very difficult time in his marriage and was despondent over it. No solutions were on the horizon. So I asked the somewhat obvious question, “Have you expressed to the Lord your anger, confusion, despair and hurt?” His response stunned me: “I haven’t because I feel guilty and ashamed.” When we hide our hearts from God we are avoiding the only One who can bring healing and transformation. Once my friend began to express his deepest self to God, the door of his life was opened to the comfort and hope that only God can bring. The psalms help us open that door and keep it open.
The Psalms Teach us to Pray in a God-centered Way
“My soul waits in silence for God only . . . He only is my rock and my salvation” (Ps. 62:1.2, NASB). The cause of many of our struggles is self-absorption. Prayer degenerates into a litany of my needs, my desires and my concerns, with God serving as an adjunct to my agenda. The psalms deliver us from self-centered praying. My friend wrote this when he discovered that reality in his own experience:
“Finally, I see that sincere praise is the final destination of the journey of prayer, though there may be several short stops along the way. This is the true work of prayer: to respond honestly to Jesus, the Word, circumstances and relationships before God so that the end result is the ability to worship in spirit and truth.”
Psalm praying can begin with my agenda, but it always ends with God. With only a few exceptions, each psalm ends in praise. The Hebrew title of the book of Psalms is “Praises.” Thy lead us out of ourselves to the majesty of God. Another Early Church leader, Athanasius, commented that the psalms “not only stir up the emotions but also moderate them.” Eugene Peterson, from whom I learned to pray the psalms, says it best in his book “Answering God:”
“The Psalms were not prayed by people trying to understand themselves. They are not the record of people searching for the meaning of life. They were prayed by people who understood God had everything to do with them. God, not their feelings, was the center. God, not their souls, was the issue. God, not the meaning of life, was critical.”
We can participate in God-centeredness when praying a psalm such as Psalm 16:2,11, “You are my Lord, apart from you I have no good thing . . . You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” C. S. Lewis in his “Reflections on the Psalms” refers to praying the psalms as an experience that is fully God-centered. “As I pray with the psalms I find my concerns, whether petty or important, leading me to God. I discover that in the midst of the chaos that is my life, God is creating, saving and redeeming. And I can praise Him for it!”
The Psalms Teach us to Pray Responsively
“The heavens declare the glory of God…. The law of the Lord is perfect....” (Ps. 19:1,7) Prayer is the elemental language of response. We cry “Help!” when in trouble; say “Thanks!” when given a gift; complain when mistreated; say “Wow!” at a beautiful sunset, or reply “I’m sorry” to a hurt friend. When these responses to life are addressed to God they become prayer.
God’s initiating Word demands an answer, just as any parent requires an answer when calling to a child. Though we often reverse the order, God is always the initiator and we are always the responders. Nowhere is this more evident than in maturing prayer. The psalms provide us with 150 “answers” to God’s first words to us. The answer may be “Thanks!” or “Help!” or “Forgive me!” or a complaint or praise. The psalms furnish us with a vocabulary for responding to God in every situation.
Three Facts About God
In “Pursuit of God” A. W. Tozer identifies three facts about the God to whom we pray. “God is previous, God is present now and God is speaking.” Therefore the first word is God’s.
- God has spoken in creation for which we have psalms of praise: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Ps.8:1).
- God has spoke in salvation for which we have psalms of thanksgiving: “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me?...To Thee I shall offer a sacrifice of Thanksgiving” (Ps. 116:12,17 NASB).
- God has spoken through our circumstances and the psalms of lament provide us response: “Evening, morning and noon, I cry out in distress, and he headers my voice” (Ps. 55:17).
- God even speaks through injustice, for which we have the imprecatory psalms (those that ask God to act against evil): “Rise up, O Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve” (Ps. 94:2)
- God speaks through our consciences so we are furnished with psalms of confession: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Ps. 51:3).
Thus prayer begins with a listening attentiveness to God’s presence and voice in the Word, in the world, in others, in myself and in my circumstances. The psalms give us vocabulary with which to respond to God, with which to answer the Word He has spoken so eloquently and forcefully.
Just do it
That good friend I had encouraged to pray the psalms commented to me, “More than anything else in my 30 plus years of being a Christian, praying the psalms has transformed my relationship with God.” This admission comes from a man who had been faithfully serving Christ for many years as a leader in the Church. For him, it was the simplicity of praying the psalms that made the difference. There is no secret or key to praying the psalms. We simply open our Bibles to the Psalms and begin. Some divide the Psalms into 30 equal segments, one for each day of the month, and pray them, daily, sequentially. My personal experience has been to mark the various psalms as to their types (thanksgiving, confidence, lament, etc.) and then pray those that match my circumstances. But there must never be too much structure imposed on the psalms in order to let God’s Spirit direct the conversation. And then simply let the words of the psalms become your prayer. You will begin to notice the connections with your life. You may choose to journal about what emerges for you as you pray. Psalm praying is capable of unlimited adaptation. Experiment with it. Keep in mind the words of Eugene Peterson: “This is how most Christians for most of the centuries of church history have matured in prayer. Nothing fancy. Just do it.”
Rob Vandeman serves as executive secretary of the Columbia Union Conference and will blog through the Psalms here in 2017.
Vandeman has always had a special love of the Psalms. As a pastor he occasionally taught and preached from the Psalms and had a real sense of their use in public Worship. While senior pastor of Chesapeake's flagship church at Spencerville, MD he authored the teacher's edition of the adult Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly on the Psalms (3Q90).