Praying with the Psalms


Do you ever wonder how prayer works or why we should pray? Do you ever ask yourself if God actually hears us or if He even cares what we’re praying about?

Not that I ever used these exact words, but I used to think of prayer as the thing I needed to do in order to get God to do what I thought He should do. It was as if God was just waiting with His finger on the “good gift” switch, and as soon as I said the words, He would flip the switch and bless me.

But the more I’ve grown in my faith, the more I’ve come to understand that this way of looking at prayer is focused on us and our will, not on God. And it makes God out to be a personal vending machine who just needs to hear the magic words in order to bless us.

That’s not to say that I don’t believe prayer works, but I’m far more comfortable now with the mystery that surrounds it than I was before. The reason I call it mysterious is because when it comes down to it, I believe prayer is dialogue with the living God, and in the same way that we can’t put God in a box, our interactions with the creator of the universe might be just as illusive.

If prayer is dialogue, then that means it’s a two-way conversation, requiring at least equal amounts of listening as talking. As dialogue, prayer becomes much more about sharing with God about life and expecting to hear from Him, rather than asking God to do this and that for us. But the best part is that we don’t have to make it all up.

There’s much more to say about prayer, how we believe it works, and what examples in scripture we might lean on. But for me in the last few years, no book of the Bible has become more important in my prayer life than the Psalms.

The Psalms reflect the vast spectrum of experience and emotions we live through. These 150 songs and poems were used individually and communally to sing, pray and worship. The Psalms offer us a framework by which we can enter into honest and open dialogue with God.

Our challenge is to spend time in the Psalms, understand them, learn their historical context, and incorporate them in our own prayer lives as a community and individuals. The Psalms give us words and prayers when we are at a loss for what to say, and give us room to articulate our deepest emotions before God. 

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Walter Brueggemann, in The Message of the Psalms, offers us a way to read and use the Psalms through our different stages of life. These stages are describes as orientation, disorientation and new orientation. Whenever we find ourselves in these seasons of life, or transitioning in-between, the Psalms invite us to use their words as our own prayers, freeing us to be as excited, happy, sad, angry, horrified, indignant, relieved, hopeful, thankful, and confident as its authors.

Orientation - Songs of guaranteed creation

“Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing. ‘Psalms of orientation’…articulate joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God, God’s creation, God’s governing law.”

Creation - 8, 33, 104, 145
Torah (God’s law) - 1, 15, 24, 119
Wisdom - 37, 14
Retribution - 112
Well-being - 131, 133

Disorientation - Songs of disarray

“Human life consists in anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering, and death. These evoke rage, resentment, self-pity, and hatred. ‘Psalms of disorientation’…match the season in its ragged, painful disarray. This speech, the lament, has a recognizable shape that permits the extravagance, hyperbole, and abrasiveness needed for the experience.”

Personal Lament - 13, 35, 86
Communal Lament - 74, 79, 137
Problems - 88, 109
Trouble in Relationship - 32, 50, 51, 81, 130, 143
Submission - 49, 73, 90

New Orientation - Songs of surprising new life

“Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through despair. Where there has only been darkness, there is light. ‘Psalms of new orientation’… speak boldly about a new gift from God, a fresh intrusion that makes all things new. These psalms affirm a sovereign God who puts humankind in a new situation.”

Thanksgiving - 30, 34, 40, 138
Community Thanksgiving - 65, 66, 124,
Victory - 29, 47, 93, 96, 97, 98, 99, 114,
Confidence - 23, 27, 91
Praise - 100, 103, 113, 117, 135, 146, 147, 148, 149, 150

So the next time you feel like you don't know what to pray, or you can't find the words when someone asks you to pray for them, flip open your Bible to the book of Psalms and discover the ancient poems and songs that have guided Christians in prayer for thousands of years.