My sophomore year in college, my friends and I decided to spend two hours in prayer for the salvation of the unsaved high school students we were working with. We decided to meet at church, and the only free space that evening was a large janitor's closet that smelled strongly of detergent and disinfectant.
So we gathered in that closet to pour out our hearts to God. We prayed every which way we knew: we praised God and confessed our sins and lifted up the names of all the students we could think of. Then we praised and confessed and interceded some more. When I looked at my watch, just 15 minutes had passed! The next hour and 45 minutes of prayer were the longest and slowest I had ever experienced.
I came to pour out my heart to God and discovered there wasn't much to pour out. It would be years before I understood why I saw prayer in the same way I saw the Psalms at that time—only as a tool to help me ask God for what I wanted. The problem was that I wanted so little! What I didn't understand was that learning to pray was learning to desire the things God wants to give, and then asking him for them.
It isn't that our desires are unworthy to express to God in prayer. He is our loving and compassionate Father, and he listens to all we say with a kind and wise heart. But he knows better than we do what we need—and better yet, he desires things for us that we may not even desire for ourselves.
Since that "closet episode" in college, I've learned a few more things about prayer, especially from the Psalms.
James Boice said learning to pray is a little like learning to play the violin with the virtuosos. No instrument sounds worse in the beginning stages of learning; it's all screech and scratch. But if the student is determined to play well, he checks the program guide for the classical music station and notes when the violin concertos will be aired. He buys the score for each concerto and does his best to play along. At first he sounds terrible. As time passes, however, he begins little by little to sound more and more like the virtuosos. But all along, as he groans on his instrument, the orchestra plays the music beautifully—his poor performance is caught up and completed in the music of the masters.
So it is with prayer and us: By praying the Psalms back to God, we learn to pray in tune with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is no accident that the great prayers of the Book of Psalms are also songs. They are the sheet music, the score and libretto of prayer. They are the building blocks for the music of eternity.
I am learning to pray in harmony with the Psalms, but I must admit, I got off to a slow start. I became a Christian at age ten, but it wasn't until decades later that the Psalms began to teach me to pray. So although I'm now well into adulthood, you are reading the words of a new convert. I'm still wide-eyed and breathless and maybe a little over the top with enthusiasm when I talk about their value.
Prayers for all occasions
The psalms that first got my attention were those that always seemed to be the right thing to pray, no matter the mood or situation. I call them the "one size fits all" psalms. For example, Psalm 103 is always the right thing to pray—always true, always fitting, in every time and place:
Let all that I am praise the Lord;
with my whole heart, I will praise
his holy name.
Let all that I am praise the Lord;
may I never forget the good things
he does for me.
He forgives all my sins
and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death
and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
He fills my life with good things.
My youth is renewed like the eagle's!
(NLT, used throughout)
Next came the psalms that seemed to fit my mood, helping me say what I felt in the moment. I call them the "this size fits some" psalms. For instance, when I was feeling guilt, Psalm 51 was a perfect fit: "Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins." Same with Psalm 130: "Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you." Psalms like these give me confidence to speak to God when I least feel that I can.
The psalms in those two categories—"this size fits some" and "one size fits all"—left many others uncategorized, and I didn't know what to do with them. Like Psalm 137, with its chilling last line: "Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!" And then there's Psalm 88. It doesn't have one happy thing to say about God or life, and ends with, "You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend." Those lines do not describe anything I have ever felt.
But most problematic was Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the cross. I could preach this psalm as a meditation on the sufferings of Christ, but I couldn't get myself to pray, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help?" Would it not be blasphemous for me, Ben Patterson, to pray what only Jesus could pray?
And yet Jesus would have us pray the way Scripture—including the Psalms—teaches us to pray, especially as it pertains to lining up our desires with God's (Ps. 37:4).
What does God want?
That's the first thing I wish I'd known in that "prayer closet" in college—that prayer is more than a means to get God to give us what we want. It is a means he uses to teach us to want what he wants. Holy Scripture in general, and the Psalms in particular, teach us who God is and what he wants to give.
When the members of his synagogue complained that the words of the liturgy did not express what they felt, Abraham Heschel, the great philosopher of religion, replied wisely and very biblically. He told them that the liturgy wasn't supposed to express what they felt; they were supposed to feel what the liturgy expressed. To be taught by the Bible to pray is to learn to want and feel what the Bible expresses.
Those who practice this kind of prayer over time make a surprising discovery: As they learn to feel what the Psalms express, their hearts and desires are enlarged. They find that what they once regarded as strong desires were actually weak, puerile little wishes, debased inklings of what is good. Of course! Would not the God who made us in his own image understand better than we ever could what we really need? And shouldn't we ask him for it? As C. S. Lewis put it in "The Weight of Glory":
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
The Psalms can help us pour out our hearts to God. All the joys, pleasures, hopes, fears, despairs, doubts, heartaches, terrors, and longings of which we are capable are mirrored, clarified, sanctified, and transformed in the Psalms, as are all the ways we may pray: supplication, intercession, praise, thanks, lament, and meditation. The Psalms, as many have said, are a mirror; they will reveal you. Yet they are much more. Read them and they will read you. Pray them and they will change you.
James Gilmour, the great Scottish missionary to Mongolia, went to the Psalms again and again when he was stuck in his prayer life. "When I feel I cannot make headway in devotion, I open at the Psalms and push out in my canoe, and let myself be carried along in the stream of devotion which flows through the whole book. The current always sets toward God, and in most places is strong and deep."
It's about us
There's a second thing I didn't understand about prayer that night in the janitor's closet: Prayer is not just about me; it's about us. Especially with the Psalms—the "one size fits some" and the "one size fits all" types. The Psalms were first the prayers of Israel, the people of God. With the coming of Christ they continue to be the prayers of Israel, but also of the new Israel, the church.
My problem with the Psalms was my problem with prayer: There was too much "me and Jesus" in my praying, and there needed to be a lot more "we and Jesus." Eugene Peterson writes, "No Christian is an only child." I never pray merely as an individual, but as a member of the body of Christ. "Prayer is an act, indeed the act of fellowship," writes Peter Taylor Forsyth. "We cannot truly pray even for ourselves without passing beyond ourselves and our individual experience. … Even private prayer is common prayer."
Now that is a liberating thought! When I pray, even if I am alone, I may imagine myself standing in the midst of a colossal assembly of God's people "from every tribe and language and people and nation," praying with them. That insight alone would have transformed that smelly janitor's closet into a place of wonder and awe.
When we pray we participate in what the Apostles' Creed calls "the communion of saints." We stand before the throne of God with all who are his—past, present, and future. Peter Kreeft calls God the "eternal contemporary," meaning Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are as alive to him as we are. They are really there with us in God's presence, along with countless others, living and dead: Moses and Peter and Paul and J. S. Bach; Luther, Augustine, Aquinas, and my dad. And you. We are all there together.
Enter the Psalms: I may not personally be in the dark pit the man who prayed Psalm 88 was in, but there are many who were and are this very moment, my sisters and brothers in the persecuted church worldwide. We are part of the same body; we are family in a family closer and more enduring than any earthly family. The psalm enables me to enter into real fellowship with them, whether or not I ever meet them on earth, whether or not I ever experience personally what they experience. Their experiences are ours.
It took a while for me to appreciate what Paul meant when he said we Gentiles, by the grace of God, have been grafted into the vine of Israel. But when the lights came on, I was stunned and delighted to realize that their story is my story, too. It's our story. What happened to Israel at the Red Sea and Sinai and Meribah is as much about me as it is about them. I began to see my name written into the whole biblical story. I started reading and praying the Psalms like a child learning how to read, learning a new "vocabulary, a grammar, and a plot line"—discovering a family tree I didn't know I had.
Now I'm no longer learning from them; I'm learning about us. This sin problem is not just my problem; it's our problem. The implications are critical to spiritual health. I tended to think I sinned mainly in isolation, as an individual. Sin flourishes in isolation, for we belong to Christ's body, not as members of a group but as organs in a body. A member of a group can survive outside the group, but a member of a body dies outside the body. My individualistic approach to my sin increased the power that it had over me. There is great comfort and strength in being able to pray, after a long litany of confession like Psalm 106, "Save us, O Lord our God! Gather us back from among the nations, so we can thank your holy name and rejoice and praise you."
All about God
But the third and biggest thing I didn't appreciate that night in the janitor's closet is that prayer ultimately is not even about us but about God. It's not about the living stones that make up the temple but the Spirit in the temple. Overcoming this third misconception has been the most transforming of all to my prayer life.
Who are the Psalms about? On the surface, they are about a lot of people: David, especially, but also Moses, Asaph, the sons of Korah, Jeduthun and Heman and Ethan and all Israel. Bigger question: Who is the Bible about? On the surface, the list is even longer. But Jesus made it radically short when he said to his opponents, "You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!" (John 5:39).
This wasn't a throwaway line for Jesus, an odd and obscure saying on the periphery of his teachings. It was right at the center, because he insisted that his mission was not to cancel the Old Testament Scriptures but to fulfill them.
So in Luke's account of the resurrection, establishing this fulfillment theme was very high on the Lord's priority list. The Gospel writer tells us that, shortly after stepping out of the tomb, Jesus sought out two disciples walking to the village of Emmaus and explained to them what he meant when he had said that "the Scriptures point to me." Luke says Jesus "took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (24:27). Later he appeared to the apostles and reiterated what he'd said earlier: "When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled" (24:44). Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
Jesus said he fulfilled the entire Bible, including the Psalms! The apostles grabbed hold of this and ran with it. On the Day of Pentecost, when Peter stood before the crowds in Jerusalem to preach the gospel, he went to Psalm 16 to explain Christ's resurrection:
King David said this about him:
"I see that the Lord is always with me.
I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.
No wonder my heart is glad,
and my tongue shouts his praises!
My body rests in hope.
For you will not leave my soul among the dead
or allow your Holy One to rot in the grave.
You have shown me the way of life,
and you will fill me with the joy of your presence."
Then Peter did something with the psalm that took tremendous chutzpah and would have been absolutely outrageous if the Lord had not given him the authority to do it: He said that David wasn't really talking about himself; he was talking about Jesus: "Dear brothers, think about this! You can be sure that the patriarch David wasn't referring to himself, for he died and was buried, and his tomb is still here among us. But he was a prophet, and he knew God had promised with an oath that one of David's own descendants would sit on his throne. David was looking into the future and speaking of the Messiah's resurrection. He was saying that God would not leave him among the dead or allow his body to rot in the grave" (Acts 2:2931).
Peter could say this because Jesus had opened the door for him to say it. The church has been going through that door ever since. The writers of the New Testament write with the conviction that every story and psalm of the Old Testament "whispers his name." The Bible is all about Jesus. As Bonhoeffer put it, "If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us [and, I would add, David or Israel], but what they have to do with Jesus Christ."
Adapted from God's Prayer Book: The Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms (Salt River), by Ben Patterson. Patterson is the campus pastor at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
This article was published with "Five Ways to Pray the Psalms."
Previous Christianity Today reviews of books on prayer and the Psalms include:
Praying the Psalms | James Sire teaches us to Pray Through the Psalms. (January 30, 2007)
When You're Sick of Prayer | Two books that make a delightful difference. (December 21, 2006)
Devotions on the Run | Help for going short and deep. (May 19, 1997)
CT also has a slideshow of hymnals found across the world.
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