This week I am focusing on various aspects of prayer. I will offer theological, historical and practical perspectives on prayer. I hope this week (the first week of Pentecost on the traditional church calendar) will encourage you to enter into prayer both for a personal renewal and a renewal and growth of the Christian faith worldwide. Join me throughout the week for various thoughts and resources on prayer and living a more prayerful life. Click here for Unanswered Prayer.
Continuing in our week of reflecting on prayer, I think it’s important to provide some practical ways to actually practice prayer. While books and sermons exhort believers to pray, few provide practical means in order to help us learn how to pray (at least in a biblically-robust and theologically accurate sort of way). While even the simplest prayer uttered in faith is honored by God, sometimes our prayer life is stunted by our desire to “perform” in prayer. The temptation is that prayer needs to be ever-more intricate as one grows in their faith. While I believe that as we grow we learn to pray more fully, this doesn’t necessarily mean our prayers need to be longer or filled with theologically intricate words. So where should we turn to inform our prayers? What kind of language should we inject into our prayer-life? The best place to start is the God’s word, specifically in the Psalms.
The Psalms have been considered the song-book and the prayer-book of the church since very early in the life of the church. Inheriting the singing of Psalms from Jewish practice, early Christians too saw the Psalter as the song book of the Lord and the proper language of prayer to God. Fourth century church father Athanasius says of the Psalms, “With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.” (Athanasius, To Marcellinus on the interpretation of the Psalms). When reading a Psalm, its as if we become the writer. We are the Psalmist speaking those words, declaring praises and lamenting before God. The prayers of the Psalms become our prayers.
Perhaps one of the best ways to pray to God is to use the words that God has provided, primarily in the Psalms. While all of Scripture is prayer-worthy language, the Psalms hold a unique position among the language of prayer in Scripture. Perhaps it would be best to appropriate this language for our own prayer lives. Donald Whitney encourages readers to pray through a text, citing the Psalms as a specific example. He says, “Meditation is more than just riveted human concentration or creative mental energy. Praying your way through a verse of Scripture submits the mind to the Holy Spirit’s illumination of the text and intensifies your spiritual perception.” (Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 54). Whitney’s encouragement to us is to appropriate the words of Scripture for our personal prayer and meditation. The Psalms are an excellent place for us to start.
Practically speaking, here are some ways to help us focus in on the language of prayer in the Psalms and pray through Scripture using the Psalter as our guide:*
1) In places where the first person plural pronoun is used (“we” or “our”), substitute “I” or “my” to personalize the Psalm for the sake of prayer and confession.
2) Develop the practice of reading through the Psalter on a monthly basis. This is not as difficult as it may sound: Read 5 Psalms a day for 30 days and you will have read through all 150 Psalms in a month’s time. While you can work through this chronologically (Psalm 1-5 on day 1, 6-10 on day 2 and so forth), I like to take the day of the month and start on that Psalm, adding 30 to get to my next Psalm until I’ve read 5 for the day. Example: Today is June 10 so my Psalms of the day are 10, 40, 70, 100, 130. This is a helpful, and slightly fun, way to read through the Psalms in a month.
3) As I’m reading and praying through the Psalms, I will use the language of the Psalms to remind me of other things I need to pray for. Even if the other things are unrelated to the Psalm, I am reminded to pray for things based on my reading of God’s word. For example: Psalm 10:17 says that the Lord hears the desire of the afflicted and will strengthen their heart. This might remind me to pray for a friend who is suffering with an illness or to pray generally for our pastor and any afflictions he may encounter this week. This is not unrelated to the intention of the Psalm, even though it is not exactly what the Psalmist says.
So I encourage you this week and moving forward to take up the Psalter and make it your personal prayer book, reading through the Psalms on a monthly basis and letting the language of the Psalmist become your own language as you pray.
*I am indebted to Donald Whitney for instruction on this method of praying through the Psalms. You can find out more about him and his ministry here.