WS Update: The Psalms

July 5, 2021

The summer months allow for a break in many routines that dominate much of the rest of the year. One routine that I try to maintain throughout the year is reading and praying the Psalms. Among other reasons, I stick to the Psalms because they give me a vocabulary for the mystery of prayer. Christians know they should pray, but we also know the struggle of entering into that conversation with God. The Psalms give voice to that conversation by covering the waterfront of our emotional life. The most influential writer for me in this area is (not surprisingly) Eugene Peterson, in particular his book Answering God, which I will quote at length because the words below have been as important to me as any as I’ve sought to explore the language of prayer:

In a world of prayers that indulge the religious ego and cultivate passionate longings, the Psalms stand out with a kind of angular austerity. … Left to ourselves, we will pray to some god who speaks what we like hearing, or to the part of God we manage to understand. But what is critical is that we speak to the God who speaks to us, and to everything that he speaks to us … The Psalms train us in that conversation. [We are] wrestled into obedience, subjected to the strenuous realities of living by faith in the God who reveals himself to us. There is a difference between praying to an unknown God whom we hope to discover in our praying, and praying to a known God, revealed through Israel and Jesus Christ, who speaks our language. In the first, we indulge our appetite for religious fulfillment; in the second we practice obedient faith. The first is a lot more fun, the second is a lot more important. What is essential in prayer is not that we learn to express ourselves, but that we learn to answer God.

The Psalms were not prayed by people trying to understand themselves. They are not the record of people searching for the meaning of life. They were prayed by people who understood that God had everything to do with them. God, not their feelings was the center. God, not their souls was the issue. God, not the meaning of life was critical. Feelings, souls, and meanings were not excluded – they are very much in evidence – but they are not the reason for the prayers. Human experiences might provoke the prayers, but they do not condition them. … It is not simply a belief in God that conditions these prayers … but a doctrine of God. We would rather pray by exploring our own deep spiritual capacities, with God as background music … without bothering with the tedium and complexity of the Scriptures. But if we elect the Psalms to train us in prayer, these are the conditions in which we will be working.

If you are like me, then you too often find the vocabulary and practice of prayer conditioned by your circumstances. As Peterson writes, the Psalms “wrestle” us back to the One who is the meaning of life. In a culture that celebrates being “post” everything, these ancient poems remind us, as we heard yesterday, there is nothing new under the sun, and to be fully human requires us to listen and respond to God.

So find ways to make reading and praying the Psalms part of your routine this summer, swimming in their poetry or emotion and basking in the warmth of the promises of God, whose love endures forever.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever.
To him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever.
— Psalm 136:1-4