Prayer is difficult. Not because of anything in God – as the Puritan Matthew Henry observed, God is more eager to hear our prayers than we are to pray them. No, prayer is difficult because of us. Sinful flesh and human weakness battle against our ability to persevere in prayer. Publishers know this. Search for “prayer” on Amazon and you’ll find enough books to construct a small mansion entirely from piles of “7 Steps” paperbacks. Many of these are helpful books (though some of them aren’t!). But wouldn’t it be nice to have the definitive book on prayer, one that included both forms of prayers and words to pray, one that could be used in any season of life?
Actually, that sounds like the Psalms.
The Psalms are the prayer and praise book of the Bible. When we read a psalm, we are listening in on an inspired conversation between God and his people. The conversation takes place sometimes in moments of pure delight and other times in extended seasons of crushing despair. Sometimes it is a private conversation: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing!” (Psalm 6:2). At other times we hear the raised voices of a glad throng of worshipers: “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (Psalm 95:1). In a sense, the Psalms are God’s most comprehensive answer to the request, “Teach us to pray.”
Until recently I still never used psalms regularly in my prayer life. In the last few months I’ve been incorporating the psalms into my day, and it’s been a great blessing to me. I’m going to describe my current practice and some things I’ve learned, but with this caveat first: I’m not you! I’ve fallen victim too many times to slavishly following the most recent devotional suggestion I read on a blog as though any one person had the corner on the prayer market. Don’t do that. Odds are in a few months the practice I describe now will have changed in some way. So pick through what might be helpful, translate it to your own situation, and discard the rest. All right, with that out of the way, here’s what I’m doing.
There are two points in my day where I’m praying through a psalm. The first is after my regular Bible reading. I use a Bible reading plan and wanted to stick to it, so I just added reading through the Psalms 10-12 verses at a time. Sometimes I read more, occasionally I read less. But some portion of a psalm is always part of my morning. The other time is after I finish work each day. I’ve memorized a few of the shorter psalms and as I drive home I pray those back to the Lord. As I’ve done this, here are a few things I’ve learned that might be helpful.
• Pick psalms that reflect your situation. The variety of life experiences reflected in Psalms is amazing. Take advantage of that. If your heart is glad, pray a psalm that reflects your joy. If you’re struggling, give voice to your battle with the words of one of David’s laments like Psalm 6 or Psalm 42. The Psalms don’t speak with in a monotone, one-size-fits-all voice. Neither should our prayers.
• Personalize them as you pray them back to God. Did you know it’s okay to rewrite Scripture? No, I’m not talking about trying to sync Revelation with the Mayan calendar. What I’m talking about is personalized application. This is what the Bible invites us to do. When David prays “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 119:1), we’re to pray, “Lord, help me to walk blamelessly today when I’m tempted. Give me the blessedness of those who keep your commandments.” Psalm 46’s opening line, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” is meant to become “God you are my refuge, in this trouble. You are my strength in this moment.” That’s how the Psalms are to fuel our life of faith. They are meant to live where you live. Personalize them.
• Consider memorizing a few particular psalms. You can memorize a whole chapter of the Bible. Start with Psalm 117; it’s only three verses! There are a lot of psalms that are under ten verses. Pick one that is meaningful to you and memorize it. Write it out repeatedly. Put it on an index card and carry it in your pocket throughout the day. The work of memorization requires you to meditate on Scripture, and it’s only one step from there to a conversation with God about it.
Prayer is difficult, but the Psalms are one of God’s provisions to strengthen our prayer lives. Let’s learn to use God’s prayer book!