Praying the Psalms
I find it hard to pray. This is an uncomfortable confession because, by all external standards, prayer should be easy for me by now. I grew up in a Christian home surrounded by family members who prayed and encouraged me to pray. I have been part of a church since my earliest memories, listening and learning from pastors and teachers who prayed confidently. I have read books about prayer, attended conferences, taken college courses focused on studying the Bible, and listened to countless sermons. I have all the credentials of someone who should be, at the very least, adequate at prayer. And yet it is the single most difficult and frustrating aspect of my relationship with God.
It hasn't always been this way. There have been seasons of my life, sweet and wonderful seasons, where prayer felt like an easy discipline. I would sit down to pray and find a few minutes had turned into a few hours and my notebook pages were full of my communication with God. There were times when prayer felt more urgent, but the discipline still felt natural, such as when a family member was battling cancer or my dad was in a serious car accident.
These seasons are not the norm for me, so prayer has most often felt difficult and awkward. As often as prayer is difficult, I feel like I should be better at it. I should be enjoying prayer more. I should come to prayer in awe that I can approach God at all rather than seeing prayer as a chore. I should have more to say because of what a gift it is to be able to say anything and know that I am heard and seen and loved by the Father.
Perhaps I am the only one who struggles like this. It has certainly felt that way in the past as people have shared with me how sweet their time with the Lord is. Prayer has seemed liked an inside joke I’d never understand, like something only an exclusive group of people ever fully experienced. I just didn’t get it.
An Anchor for Prayer
A few years ago, I started reading through the book of Psalms and I found it to be very different than the other books I had read. Each psalm felt personal, sometimes so intimate they made me uncomfortable. I would sometimes feel like I was opening up someone’s personal journal as they walked me through not just the mechanics of prayer, but the emotions and motivations of that prayer.
Since then, the psalms have been an anchor for me when prayer has felt difficult, awkward, and insincere. The psalms have become like the workbooks I filled out in elementary school, the ones with faint dotted outlines of each letter I traced my pencil over until the movements became muscle memory. The psalms are where I go when I have forgotten how to pray. I let the psalmists lead me in their own prayers, and there is something recognizable about them. I can see myself in their ebb and flow, their honest language, their despair and hope and trepidation. The psalms are the portions of Scripture that have most often reached into the depths of my soul and named what was there.
I’ve already given myself away as an amateur at prayer so there is level ground here if you find yourself struggling as well. The following few items are examples of how I have used the psalms as a way of learning how to pray. Ultimately, my hope for you and for myself is that we would find what stirs our affections for the Lord, and then do that. There is no right or wrong way to do this, so maybe the thing that works for you is listed here and maybe it’s not.
The Practice of Praying the Psalms
The simplest way I have incorporated this practice into my life is to read or listen to a psalm as part of my daily Bible reading. I try to read the psalm slowly and contemplatively. I don’t read with a desire to study the passage in depth. There is certainly a time and place for in-depth study of the psalms, but when I am using them to guide my prayer time, simply reading allows me to engage more fully. I like to think of the psalm as something to savor rather than something to dissect or speed through.
If I am drawn to a specific verse or set of verses, I will linger over it and write it down in a journal. Sometimes I will write my own words inspired by the verse, exploring why a particular word or phrase caught the attention of my heart. Sometimes I will praise God for one of his attributes shown in the text. Other times, I will simply write it down and think on the phrase.
Another method I’ve used was described by Tim Keller in his book The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (I highly recommend this book if you want an even more structured approach to praying through the psalms). He lists three questions to ask after reading through a psalm:
Adore - What did you learn about God for which you could praise or thank him?
Admit - What did you learn about yourself for which you could repent?
Aspire - What did you learn about life that you could aspire to, ask for, and act on?
I keep this list in my journal and write out my answers as a reflective prayer inspired by the psalm.
Recently I have been writing Psalm 119 in my journal. Psalm 119 is written in acrostic form, with each set of verses corresponding to a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Each day, I write the verses corresponding to the next letter, and this practice has been so renewing. Sometimes I couple this with one of the methods described above, and other times I find that simply writing the words down in my own handwriting is enough on its own.
Prayer is something I still struggle with on a near-constant basis, but I have learned so much through these practices of praying through the psalms. My hope is that you would take these words as an encouragement, not from someone who is part of the “in-crowd” of expert pray-ers, but from someone who is, as Doug McKelvey wrote “a fellow pilgrim speaking...just from the bottom of the next gully.”
Other Helpful Resources
The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms by Tim Keller
Prayer by Tim Keller
She Reads Truth Psalms for Prayer Reading Plan
Psalms (album) by Shane & Shane
Psalm 119 (RightNow Media Series) by Matt Chandler