Catherine Gregg, Christian Formation and Direction Ministries
Praying the Psalms (Rather than Trying to be Holy Without Being Human First)
The Psalms, as is true of the other wisdom books, are pre-Christian literature. The Psalms are not the full revelation of God, yet the spirituality that they represent is included in the canon of scripture for our benefit and blessing. To superimpose Christian belief onto the Psalms may lead to misinterpretation if one does not understand the original intent of the writers. The writers of the Psalms did not think in terms of the Holy Spirit in the way that the Christian church does; also significantly different is the understanding of heaven and hell. Although the use of the Psalms in this paper is towards the goal of devotion rather than to establish doctrine, it is still important to read, interpret and apply the truth of the scriptures in a way that takes into account the ancient culture in which they were written.
Even given the differences that time and culture bring to a reading of the Psalms, they fundamentally reflect human nature in response to God. There is a timelessness about their ability to give voice to the deepest longings of our hearts, the bitterness of our despair, and the ecstasy of our union with God. The wisdom of the Psalms is rooted in humanity: they defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first.
The writers of the Psalms did not give in to a theology—nor practice a spirituality—of pretense before God. Rather, the Psalms are an expression of life experiences with God as they are happening. Although some translations “dress up” the Psalms in flowery language, in the original Hebrew these song-prayers were written in stark, strong, everyday language. They were written to communicate raw feelings and deep thoughts in ways that were quickly understood in the community.
The Psalms were written to help men and women relate to God in all the realities of human life: grim realities and good realities. While the Psalms can be categorized in a number of ways (e.g., thanksgiving songs, hymns, laments, royal psalms, etc.), another kind of differentiation may be more helpful in accessing the Psalms for use in our own prayer life. These divisions reflect the varying seasons of life and our experience of God in those changing seasons.
Walter Brueggemann differentiates these seasons as “Orientation,” “Disorientation,” and “Reorientation.” Orientation may be likened to one sailing on the sea on a bright, sunny day. The sea is a bit restless, there are a few choppy waves from time to time, but life is basically okay. One knows where one is, where one is going, and how one is going to get there. Orientation is the season of life where most of us live most of the time. But there are also times of disorientation in all of our lives when crisis comes crashing in: life-changing, life-threatening crisis, when the boat capsizes and when salvation, in all of its forms, is needed. When and if we survive and climb back to a normal life, we are experiencing a new orientation or reorientation.
Of the 150 Psalms, Brueggemann classifies roughly half as songs of orientation. Approximately 65 reflect crisis prayers (disorientation). Ten are thanksgiving psalms of reorientation. This means that half of the Psalter is given over to the issue of crisis, living through it and emerging on the other side. Whichever season of life we are in, there is something in the Psalms that matches our needs.
It is important to note that in all of the Psalms, God is the subject of most of the sentences. God is at work in human life in all three seasons. The Psalms give us a vocabulary for praising God, for blaming God, for seeking God, and everything in between.
The crisis prayers in the Psalms represent a spirituality of protest. The crisis prayers are essentially a series of arguments mixed with cries for help. They contain praise, but that constitutes part of the argument. The assumption is that God is who God says that God is, and that God’s nature is what God has said God’s nature is. It is on this basis that the appeal is made: “Come on God! You’re powerful! Come and help me! It would be no big deal for you!” Crisis prayers express human emotions very freely: “I’m hurting, God, and I can’t take it anymore… I’m scorned by others and despised by you… All who see me mock me.”
The laments also express bewilderment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me? Why are you so far from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1) The crisis prayers often blame God for the crisis. While some laments admit that human sin is the cause of the crisis and that the suffering is deserved, most of them have a strong sense of divine providence, a providence that seems to be going wrong. Appeal is made to God to “wake up!” and pay attention! Many of the disorientation Psalms even provide motivations to give God reason to act. Some of this, as Brueggemann notes, is less than noble, and often comes peculiarly close to bargaining, bribing or intimidating. The five most common motivations that humans use to encourage God include:
- The speaker is innocent and so is entitled to help.
- The speaker is guilty, but seeks forgiveness and restoration.
- The speaker recalls God’s goodness to an earlier generation, which serves as a precedent for God’s goodness now. God should do once again what was done in the past.
- God values those who praise God; if the speaker is permitted to die, the speaker will cease to praise, and the loss will be Yahweh’s.
- The speaker finally goes beyond self and appeals to Yahweh to consider God’s own power, prestige and reputation. Finally, the loss in death will not be to the speaker, but to Yahweh who will be perceived as unable to care for his own. The appeal is “for Thy name’s sake,” which means for the sake of God’s reputation (cf. Ezekiel 36:22-23).
The laments, by their very nature, assume that God’s back is broad and that God can handle all of the pain, bewilderment and anger that is brought to him.
Andy Stanley’s Prayer from Ephesians 6
Father, I desire to be strong in the Lord and the power of Your might. And so today I’m going to put on the whole armor of God so that I can take my stand against the devil’s schemes. And Lord, I don’t know what the devil’s schemes are for me or my family, but I believe they are there. So Father I pray that you would sensitize me that I can see them coming; that I can recognize them so that I can do something about them.
Lord, I know that my struggles are not against flesh and blood and I pray that every time that I have a relational conflict today that you would remind me that this is not about ‘her’, that it’s not about ‘him’. Help me to remember that there is a spiritual element to this conflict. Remind me to pray for my enemies, and to pray for the people who hurt me so that they may know what it means to understand the mercy and grace of God. And God, do what you need to do in my life and my spirit, so that I will be better at relating to other people who I don’t necessarily get along with. Help me to remember that it is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and authorities, against the powers of this dark world, against the spiritual forces in the heavenly realms.
Father I put on the whole armor of God so that when the day of evil comes I’ll be able to stand my ground and having done everything to stand firm.
I stand firm by putting on the belt of truth. I want you to renew my mind according to what’s true. I pray when the lie comes and I’m tempted to buy into something that’s not true that the red flags would wave and I can distinguish between what is a lie and what is true.
I want to put on the breastplate of righteousness. Thank you for giving me the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that I don’t come to you based on my own good works but on the finished work of Christ on the cross. And today Father I want to do what’s right, at work, with my kids, around other people. Give me the wisdom to know what’s right and the courage to do what’s right even when it’s hard. I pray that my actions would reflect the gift of righteousness you’ve given me.
Father I want to put on the shoes of readiness. I pray as comfortable as I’ve become in my life and lifestyle that I would not become so comfortable that I’m not ready to go wherever you want me to go, and do whatever you want me to do. Lead me into the lives of people who don’t know you. I pray I would prioritize my time around those relationships so I can be the hands and feet of Jesus; that I would be ready to go wherever you want me to go and do whatever you want me to do.
Father I take up the shield of faith with which I can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Father, by faith today I claim victory over pride, busy-ness, misplaced priorities in relationships, over being greedy, being selfish and all those things I’ll face today. And Father when those temptations come remind me this morning that you’ve already given me victory over all those temptations.
I want to put on the helmet of salvation showing that I belong to you like I belong to nobody else. No one can take me away from You, and nobody can take You away from me. I’ve been completely forgiven of all my sins, and I stand in a righteous relationship with you because of the gift of my salvation.
Finally, I want to take up the sword of the Spirit which is Your word. I pray it would be the lamp for my feet and the light for my path. I pray that I would not trust in my own ingenuity, my gifts, my talents, or the people around me, but that I would look to you and your Word alone as the guide to my life. I pray I would not get distracted by other lights, or other opportunities, but that your Word would be THE lamp to my feet, THE light to my path. I want to pray this for my whole family. For my children, early on in their lives, I pray that Your word would be a lamp to their feet and light to their path, and they would understand the gift of righteousness they’ve received through Christ. And help me as a parent to help my children spiritually prepare for the battles they’ll face through adolescence and for the battles they will face for the rest of their lives. Thank you for the promise of these pieces of armor and that you’ll bring these things to my mind throughout this day. Amen.
“In spite of what we see, there is more going on.