Do you find prayer a bit boring?
It’s the guilty secret of too many children of God that we find praying to our heavenly Father boring, and when we listen to the public prayers in our church, sometimes they sound boring too. When you think about it for a moment it is ridiculous: We are speaking to the most awesome being in the universe about the most important things on our hearts, and yet it is boring?!
Part of the problem is we don’t realise how needy we are. People drowning in a shark- infested sea don’t find crying out to the rescue boat boring. But there is more to it than that.
Some years ago I went on a short-term mission trip to South America. One of the guys on our team brought a guitar. As the Scriptures clearly teach, ‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered together in my name, one of them must have a guitar...!’ Alex was trying to learn the Blues. He’d mastered one basic 5 chord progression. It sounded quite good the first time he played it. But it was the only thing he could play and it wasn’t long before we all got pretty fed up with those same 5 chords. The problem was not guitars, or Blues. The problem was he had never learned more than a few chords. The same goes for our prayers. Too many of us have only learned a few chords. We end up praying for the same few things using the same old phrases day after day; no wonder it can feel boring! The tragedy of this is that God has given us in the Psalms - 150 different prayers to breathe life and freshness into our praying. The Psalms give us a rich, deep, varied vocabulary and theology for prayer. They give us words to pray in every imaginable emotional situation and life circumstance.
There are many other good resources that help broaden our language and deepen our theology to enrich our prayers – the prayers of the New Testament, Valley of Vision, Cranmer’s Collects – but nothing has helped my prayer life as much as the Psalms. We get more than just variety when we use the Psalms as the basis for our prayers. We also get:
Rockets to launch our prayers
Jesus tells us in the Lord’s Prayer to begin our prayers “hallowed be your name.” For many of us, this is the part of prayer we struggle with most. We find it much easier to ask God for things than to praise him for who he is. The Psalms help us because they are full of rich truths about God for us to pray to God. In fact there are more doctrinal statements about God in the Psalms than any other book of the Bible. Furthermore, the poetic ways in which these truths are expressed fire our imaginations and stir our emotions. We learn to pray:
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90:1-2)
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1)
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” (Psalm 103:8)
“Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” (Psalm 62:1-2)
These statements about God act like rockets that we tie the rest of our prayers onto and that launch them up to God. We feel confident to pray when we know our prayers are grounded in biblical truths about who God is and what he has promised to be and do.
What do I mean by that? As Christians, we should be praying about the elections and the political uncertainties we are facing. How much richer and better those prayers are when we launch them with the opening words of Psalm 93: “The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty, the Lord is robed in majesty and armed with strength; indeed the world is established, firm and secure. Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.”
Theological safe play areas for the desperate
How do we pray when we are full of doubt & darkness? It can paralyse us – we just don’t know what to say to God, and we are afraid that saying what we are really feeling would dishonour him, and maybe even anger him. So we end up not praying at all until the darkness has passed.
This is when the Psalms of lament prove such a blessing. They are like a theological safe play area for the desperate. They give us words which we can take on our own lips to express raw anger, bitter disappointment, confusion, doubt and even dark despair. Better still, we can express these things without fear that we are dishonouring God, because we are using words he himself has given us. [For a similar reason the Psalms which pray curses against enemies can be a blessing and a relief for those who have suffered terrible injustice and are struggling with bitterness and anger.] There are 67 Psalms of lament and they enable us to pray things like:
“How long Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts, and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1-2a)
“Why Lord do you reject me and hide your face from me? ... I have borne your terrors and am in despair ... darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88:14-15, 18)
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish” (Psalm 25:16-17)
The Psalms of lament do more than just enable us to pray (and sing) in the darkness. Within most of the laments is a movement from complaint to deeper trust. To pray them is an act of self- counselling that gently helps us to keep trusting God when our faith is at a low ebb.
Words when ours fail
There will be times when others turn to us for help and we feel utterly out of our depth. What can I say or pray when someone in my small group is diagnosed with cancer, or their parents have just decided to separate, or their teenager has walked away from the faith? I remember as a young minister being painfully aware that all too often I just didn’t have adequate words to say to people in their distress. I’ve learned that the Psalms are a wonderful resource here. We can turn to God’s own words of counsel and comfort. It should go without saying that not every verse is appropriate to every situation. A grieving parent is unlikely to be comforted by you praying Psalm 103:2 (“Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits...”) But we might pray with someone facing a frightening medical procedure or serious trials at work, “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord have never forsaken those who seek you.” (We dial 999 when there is an emergency. This is one better - Psalm 9:9-10!)
We might pray Psalm 23 with someone who feels overwhelmed with fear and loneliness as they face the impending end of their life, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me...” (Psalm 23:4)
When we pray the Psalms we pray with words better than our own – God’s own words.
What about Jesus?
The whole Old Testament, including the Psalms, points to Christ. The Psalms are there for us to pray, but it will help our praying if we grow in understanding how they point to Jesus. There’s not space here to explain in detail how this works, but here’s a brief rule of thumb: Sometimes we see Jesus’ face – the Psalm points to one who will be the Christ, the true Davidic king come to rule and save, and we worship him (eg Psalm 2, 22, 110, etc). Sometimes we see Jesus’ back – he is the one who perfectly lives out the trust or devotion we learn about in a Psalm, and we should seek to follow him in that (eg Psalm 1, 16, 40, 84). Sometimes we feel his lack – we read about overwhelming sins, or the fear of death, or the longing for salvation, and we should thank God that in Christ these problems are answered (eg Psalm 51, 53:6, etc). Sometimes it will be a mixture of the three (eg Psalm 16).
It’s undeniable that we encounter difficulties as we try to understand the Psalms, but there are great resources to help us, such as the ESV Study Bible and Christopher Ash’s commentaries (e.g. Psalms for You, available from February 2020). The key is to start where you are. Begin to use the Psalms which are already familiar to you – perhaps Psalm 23, Psalm 103, and Psalm 139.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have overstated things when he said ‘we begin to pray by repeating to God his own words.’ What is wonderfully true is that we will begin to pray much more deeply when we learn to pray to God using his Psalms.
Phil Allcock is Associate Minister at Christ Church Mayfair