Praying The Psalms (Jan-Apr 2000)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson
January – April, 2000

“A lot of the time I feel like my prayers just bounce back off the ceiling,” Rex, a seasoned minister confessed, as a dozen Christian leaders leaned in around a table, eyes wide with the sense that something big hung in the air.

“Me too,” Jim chimed in, “And I hate to admit it but my prayer life is a roller coaster, with far more valleys than peaks. To be perfectly honest, sometimes my schedule is so hectic that I go weeks without really praying. Almost as if I have myself convinced that there are so many ‘more pressing’ things to do.”

“Wow, I thought I was the only one with a prayer problem,” James admitted. “Actually, at times I must be thinking I can do this on my own and – and while I’m ashamed to say it, I act as though prayer really doesn’t accomplish much anyway.”

Then Brad joined in, “Well, its a bit different for me; I usually stay pretty regular, and disciplined. But, I find myself praying the same old things over and over. My prayers get stale and rote.”

Rex spoke up again, “I hear that. Rote, stale, and repetitive. But what is worse, my prayers have become narrower and narrower. In fact, here lately they have been mostly about me: my needs, my family, and my ministry. Me. How do I break out of this?”

These lines were exchanged in a circle of people widely respected as effective ministers and men of God, not mere novices in the fait. Of course Rex and Jim and their friends, are not alone. Many Christ-followers, who really want to experience a vibrant prayer life, find themselves repeatedly stuck in the same ruts. Rote and stale and shallow prayers. Numbing, routinized repetition. Narrowing scope, till in many cases, prayers become little more than narcissistic laundry lists of self-centered concerns.

This is no small problem. So how do we break out of it? Most of us have discovered that New Year’s resolutions don’t help. Even if we hang with our promise till bitter January 30, by early spring numbness has overtaken our prayers. Resorting to gimmicks doesn’t get it either. Have you tried some of these: program your computer to remind you when it is “prayer time.” Or stand or jog or peddle an exercise bike to stay alert during prayer. Or use drive time to pray – and think of that red traffic light, not as an annoyance, but as a call to prayer. Or fill each square on your calendar with a person or project to pray for that day. Or – well, the list goes on. These gimmicks all help some, at least for a while so, if you find one helpful, use it. But understand that a human prayer gimmick may serve as a helpful crutch in the short run, but it will not revive your prayer life permanently. Believe me. I know. Been there. Done that.

How then do we nurture a sustained prayer life?

Rex piped up again, “At times I go beyond the gimmicks to some more substantial techniques. For example, for long periods I have relied on a small accountability group to keep my prayer life on track.” Most of the people in our circle agreed that they have found it difficult to impossible to even survive, much less grow spiritually without being part of a small group. But even when supported by an accountability circle, prayer can still grow repetitious and stale and self-consumed. Besides, given the mobile nature of today’s world, we do not always find our support group nearby.

Fresh prayer techniques show up nearly every day. Shelves in Christian bookstores groan under the weight of the latest volumes and tapes on prayer. Most of them are at least somewhat helpful. For example, you have likely prayed using the ACTS formula for a time (in prayer, begin with adoration. Then move to confession. Then thanksgiving. Then supplication for ourselves and on behalf of others.) That one has helped me – sometimes for long periods. But even the ACTS formula can become repetitious and self-consumed. As can the PUSH formula (Pray Until Something Happens). These and many other methods may be useful to a point. We definitely can learn from each other. But humanly-generated “prayer formulae” are always limited. Even the best technique will run its course and grow stale.

When it comes down to it, most of these widely-circulated prayer formulae are simply the published form of a personal devotional regimen that its author has found useful. And copycatting another person’s devotional disciplines is risky at best. We are not all wired up alike. So a regimen that may be very helpful in one person’s circumstances, given their unique temperaments and gifts, may not help you or me at all.

Besides, the truth is that sometimes not too long after a “prayer manual” is published, what its author thought was a sure-fire and universal “killer prayer technique” grows superficial, rote and stale even in his or her own experience. Something the books and tapes don’t tell us!

Then, of course, some “prayer agendas” which at first look like “the highway to Holiness,” in the long run, prove to be merely quick fixes, silver bullets that eventually turn out to be blind alleys only leading back through staleness to sporadic neglect.

Even when we use the Lord’s model prayer as an outline for our prayers (as I often do) still our prayers can grow stale – unless we assume the same long prayer roots which Jesus would have assumed.

“So, is it hopeless then?” queried Joe, one of the quieter persons leaning in around our table. “What can be done to stay fresh for the far journey, to keep our prayer lives vibrant and broad?”

Joe’s question – and our common quest – need not end in frustration. In fact real help has been around for a long time. A 3,000-year-old tradition helpfully supplies the most dependable answer to this question. We are not talking merely of some fad or quick fix. Rather, the great spiritual leaders of the Hebrew generations and of classic Christianity have, for centuries, consistently followed this same regimen of prayer and praise. Those giants of faith who have lived most consistently in the presence of God have prayed and sung the Psalms. It is no mere coincidence that 150 of them lie at the heart of our Bibles. Nor is it coincidence that Jesus breathes lines form the Psalms in a variety of critical situations.

These poems and songs did not fall out of some worshipper’s euphoric moment and get scribbled down on the back of a napkin at McDonald’s. Rather, God-impassioned people thought their profound “God thoughts” over and over for long periods. They voiced their “prayers of the heart” in all kinds of circumstances, till they honed and refined their praisings and beseechings into distilled classic formulations, ultimately weaving their devotional passions into intricately woven Hebrew poetry. Some Hebrew poetic cadences called for a specific number of lines per stanza, and specific numbers of words per line, even the exact number of letters per word. The Psalms represent the longest, deepest, broadest, most orderly reflections on God and callings out to him, afforded by the centuries. No liturgy runs deeper, hits truer or lasts longer. The Psalms are the central column of praise and prayer among the most passionate people of God for all time.

Yet, we really don’t know that much about the Psalms. We are not even sure who wrote them. Some are attributed to David. Some to other bards. Some left anonymous. And we understand so little of what they say. They are bewildering, oblique at times, and at other times brutally frank and obvious. Sometimes, it seems, the more we read the Psalms, the less we understand them, but – paradoxically – the more we love them and long to live in them.

Some years back my friend Randy Harris alerted me to the power of reading the Psalms aloud, and that if we read five Psalms a day, we move through all 150 in a month. Eugene Petersen, in his book Answering God, provided a sort of map for praying the Psalms. Petersen points out that most of the Bible is God’s word to us, but in the Psalms we answer back to God. John T. Willis, my friend and shepherd and an Old Testament scholar, pointed me toward the prayer power of the Psalms, as did Tony Ash. To these dear friends I shall be forever grateful.

While I have “prayed the Psalms” on and off for years it was not until 1998 that I embarked on a life-changing adventure with them. Two major speaking assignments triggered that. I was assigned four keynote messages on worship at Jubilee in Nashville that year. And Jerry Rushford asked me to deliver what he called “the last Pepperdine lecture of the millennium,” on Psalm 23. In preparation for these two assignments I lived for a year in various genres of worship literature, and prayed five Psalms every day. During that adventure I discovered several powerful values and advantages of praying the Psalms.

First, I discovered that the Psalms give words to tsunami-level feelings for which my own words fail me. Some subterranean glimpses of my world, my God and myself defy my limited vocabulary and imagery. To express these I rely on the power of psalmic poetry. Poetry is not specific or linear; sequential or propositional. Rather, it gathers up metaphors and images that launch our senses in the general direction of inexpressibly gigantic feelings. For believers, the Psalms represent the inspired best of such poetry. Sometimes even the cadence, the sound of the Psalm, like the sound of music, engages soul-deep things, which cannot be expressed, in mere words. The famous ballerina Anna Pavlova was once asked by an adoring fan, “Anna, when you danced, what were you saying?” To which Pavlova replied, “If I could tell you, O wouldn’t need to dance.” And classic worshippers of the centuries would say, “If I could say all of what I experience, I wouldn’t need the imagery, the poetry, and the sound of the Psalms.”

To pursue this further, sometimes the Psalms give voice to deep feelings of which – up until the time a specific Psalm surfaced them – I was unaware, much less had words to express. Of course this kind of help from the Psalms does not come from a superficial reading, even from the first few readings. But given time, the Psalms can speak the unspeakable for us. That is one hug reason God gave them to us.

Second, as we pray all of the Psalms, lament as well as praise, they push us to explore emotional geography that we might otherwise avoid.

In our “happy, happy” kind of culture, we are programmed to avoid anything painful or negative. And with some serious downsides.

In the first place, it is really unhealthy to stuff painful and negative feelings, like anger, fear, shame, etc. Mental health professionals have long since discovered that swallowed anger will inevitably come out in destructive things like clinical depression or substance abuse or sexual acting out or the like. God knew this. And the Psalms not only push us out into those feelings, thus help us to admit them and own them. But the Psalms also provide God’s therapy for venting these feelings, processing them, and laying them honestly at His feet. God is inviting us to beat on his chest and to spill out our painful emotions to Him. He is big enough to allow us to beat on his chest, even to express anger and disappointment in him.

Public reading or singing or praying of these dark Psalms can bring healing and help to people as well. Not long ago a Christian woman, struggling with her faith confided, “I can hardly stand to go to church any more. Not that I don’t want to worship God. It’s just that I feel so discouraged, so disappointed, so depressed, and painful these days, and at church everything is so positive. They sing bright songs, say upbeat things, and smile so much – and seem to ignore the pain showing. up on those pews. It doesn’t ring true to me. And it makes me feel so outside of everything there, and distant from my brothers and sisters.”

How eloquent. And what an indictment of a marketing mind-set invading the body of Christ. “Don’t talk about negative stuff at church. Bring ’em in. Give ’em a buzz. Pump ’em up and send ’em out grinning and feeling good.”

I have long been an advocate of “praise teams” to lead us in our worship. Still am. But I find myself wondering if we don’t also need “lament teams.” Every Sunday many on our pews are in some form of real lament. And the Psalms are about 60% “psalms of lament.” Even some of the Psalms we pillage for phrases to add to up-beat praise choruses, are actually Psalms of lament. For example, “as a deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you” are words stripped from Psalm 42 and spliced into a warm expression of adoration and devotion. But the rest of the Psalm doesn’t sign well in a praise chorus. Listen to some of it: “My tears have been my food day and night” – “why are you downcast, o my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning? My foes taunt me, ‘Where is your God?'” This is merely one example of a psalm of lament, which is stripped of a few bright phrases.

Of course, the lamenting Psalms do speak their note of hope, even their finale of triumphal praise – with one exception: Psalm 88. This dark Psalm contains no hopeful note, nothing but lament and ends with the dismal words, “the darkness is my closest friend.” Flip open your Bible and read the whole of Psalm 88 aloud, reflectively. See what I mean?

It may please God, and be enormously helpful to a lot of people if some soon Sunday at your church you planned an entire worship assembly around Psalm 88.

God knows our needs and our long periods of darkness. That is why he left those dark Psalms in the Bible. We need them. Our churches need them.

Third, when we regularly pray the Psalms they keep our prayer life fresh. They lead us into a wide range of “prayer” subjects and emotions. And they keep changing focus from Psalm to Psalm. Thus, if in our regular personal seasons of prayer we first pray Psalms, they rescue us from our repetitious, narrow and self-centered ruts. We will find ourselves praying about issues raised in the Psalm of the hour. And these Psalms, ever contemporary and ever profound will springboard us in rich varieties of contemporary prayer concerns – which may have slipped off the screen of our consciousness. And prayer that began with a Psalm often moves on into a score of other real issues over which we may never have prayed in months – some maybe never before.

Fourth, praying the Psalms often helps us identify with the experiences of those around us, pulling us out of our narrow band of self-consumed prayer. When we are reading a Psalm, especially aloud in the presence of others, it may not seem at first related to our own feelings, but it may remind us of the feelings of others. I like the way Eugene Petersen expresses this: “I open the Psalms … and find myself in the place of prayer, ready to pray. I look around and see thirty other men and women. … They have come from thirty different places, were reared in thirty different homes, and in the past few hours have experienced thirty different combinations of emotions. Some come from brutalizing experiences, some from a birthday celebration; some are full of hate at what has been done to them, others brimming with joy over the incredible beauties of the day. … I know that I am one with these people, but I didn’t feel at one with them, or in common with them.” But the praying of the Psalms moves us out of ourselves and into the concerns of others so that our prayers are energized by real connection with their feelings and needs.

Petersen continues, “When the congregation is led in praying Psalm 56, the prayer seethes with experiences of brutality and hate. Hate is the most remote thing from my life right now, but within moments I am praying the experience of hate, in tune with others who may or may not be experiencing it. I feel surrounded by friends, but in prayer I enter into common cause with persons who are desperately facing enemies. … I will pray all the experiences of the community both local and worldwide.”

Thus – the Psalms not only rescue us from rote and repetitious prayer and release us from inward-turned self-focus in our prayer, but connect us with the feelings of others in the community. They move us; empower us to give comfort to others. Praying the Psalms together in the congregation conditions us to pray them much better when we are alone.

Fifth, praying the Psalms not only connects us with the community of faith here and now, but the Psalms also connect us with “the long story” of believers and worshippers down centuries past. At one level they connect us with the authors (real or imagined) as we struggle to sense the circumstances in their lives that gave rise to the specific Psalm we are now praying. In a larger sense, each Psalm carries the power to connect us with our ancient Hebrew forebears; to enter their laments and praises, and to feel one with their adoration of Yahweh. Since the Psalms were both hymnal and prayer book to the first century Christians, as we pray them now, we feel an awakening sense of our rootedness in the early church, and connect with the continuity of their worship. The Psalms also connect us with the fears and sufferings of saints who whispered these words in the catacombs, and while facing beast or sword or flame. We connect with the rising triumph of the Reformation as our lips speak and hearts burn with the same words and passions in the hearts and lips of those courageous leaders. Not to mention the reformers of the Restoration Movement. The psalms of suffering even link our hearts with our brothers and sisters, who this very year, lose jobs and homes and loved ones – even experience torture, even death – in places like Indonesia, India, some Arab nations, China, and parts of Africa.

Oh yes, praying the Psalms can weave us into the fabric of the family of faith across all time, can connect all believers with our current experience. Again in Petersen’s words, “Even when we pray the Psalms by ourselves … We are not by ourselves: … David danced these psalms before the ark and the Hebrews in Solomon’s Temple changed them. Children running down the slope of Olivet waved palm branches and shouted these psalms and Jesus in the upper room with his disciples sang them. The Corinthian Christians celebrated these psalms and the apocalyptic 144,000 fill heaven with them.”

When we authentically pray these psalms today, we are drawn into oneness with all believers of all times. We are, in a very real sense, praying with them.

Sixth, most importantly of all, regularly praying the Psalms can deepen and broaden our consciousness of God. Yes, the Psalms reflect the delights and laments of God’s people, and alert us to a wide range of prayer concerns, free us from self-centered prayers and lead us into the experiences of those around us, and link us up with the long story of the people of God. But in all of this, God is the center of focus. Adoration of him. Trust in him. Hope in him. Mercy from him. Blessings at his hand. Awe at his holiness. Confidence in his faithfulness. Amazement at his majesty. Frustration, disappointment, even anger at his sovereign choices. Warmed by his steadfast love. Stabilized by his eternal consistency. But always sensitizing us to the presence and the nature of God. Oh, how we need this. Else worship assemblies drift downward, into “golden calf” country, where the things move about us. The Psalms keep our eyes and hearts on Heaven. They remind us over and over again that worship is about God and not about us. They tug away at our hearts and souls to keep us “vertically aligned.”

Let me challenged you to pray five psalms a day, for one month. That will take you through the Psalms, then pray one psalm a day for the rest of the year. But don’t just read them. Stay with the Psalm before you until “God shows up,” whether that takes one minute or two hours. Read through that special Psalm reflectively, slowly, aloud first. Then pray through it carefully – in the first person. Then again, on behalf of others, in the second person. Ad finally in adoration of God and surrender to his will. But don’t stop praying when the Psalm ends. Go on from there to pray about the issues and person that Psalm has prompted in you. Let the content of that Psalm shape your prayer list for the day.

So if you want a fresh approach to prayer that is not merely a gimmick or the latest fad, try praying the Psalms. This is the tried and true prayer path over which people of God have traveled most across three thousand years. And this path is not just for certain chosen contemplative souls, but a path there for everyone – it can become yours, given time and if you stay with it. On this path God can awaken, refresh, broaden and deepen your prayers. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. I do not know anyone who has followed this path who ended up disillusioned or even disappointed. God’s solution to your prayer life may actually be this simple, this old, and this obvious.Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Anderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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