Praying With the Psalms (And the High Schoolers)

Dave Stepp, Ruling Elder

How’s your prayer life? I am often intimidated and discouraged by this question; I feel like my prayers should be more eloquent, less repetitive, and somehow embody the incomparable mystery and depth of a personal relationship with the living triune God.

So where do I turn? Where are the riches of Christ to help me grow?

Historically, the Psalms have been a key resource for Christian meditation and prayer. The Psalter functioned as the Jewish common prayer book, so the Psalms also served as Jesus’ common prayer book. Psalms were read, recited, sung, and prayed. But why doesn’t this book seem to resonate with me like that? Many of them can seem critical of God and I find myself wondering if they are even appropriate prayers for a Christian. Others can seem strange, even simplistic or cold, and don’t clearly relate to Christ.

With the help of a Gospel in Life group bible study entitled, “Praying with the Psalms,” the High School Sunday School class has been learning to pray since the beginning of the summer. The key? Approaching the Psalms as something that teaches us to pray through imitation and response.

This may seem strange at first: a more vibrant prayer life through imitation? And how does that enable a rich or personal response? Think of small children and how they learn to speak. Children are spoken to by their parents first. They hear words and phrases repeated again and again, and they learn to imitate the words and phrases they have heard. Then, gradually, children acquire the capacity to respond to their parents with an answer. They start by imitating, and learn to respond.

We see this same dynamic in scripture, such as 2 Samuel 7:27 where David proclaims, “For you, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house.’ Therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you.” Read it carefully: God’s speech initiates and motivates David’s prayer of gratitude. Prayer is an answer to God’s revelation and promises.

Take note: this approach of being taught through imitation and response is challenging. It forces us to go “against the grain” and deal with a broad range of emotions (pain, suffering, praise and thanksgiving) when we don’t feel them personally. It forces us to deal with God as He is and trains us in conversation with theknown God, revealed through Jesus Christ, based on how He speaks to us. But, for the same reasons, it draws us close to God as we learn to answer and respond to Him.

Finally, let me offer three suggestions for you on your own journey of praying with the Psalms. First, ask a High Schooler! Our students have been studying Psalms of meditation, repentance, and sorrowing; they will be studying Psalms of petitioning and adoration later this semester; and they have learned a lot! Second, on your own, select a Psalm and imagine Jesus literally singing or praying it (consider his humanity, his deity, his humiliation, his exaltation, and the particular circumstances where the Psalm fits into his life). Third, focus on praying the Psalm to Jesus (start by praying some of the very petitions you read; then rephrase some of the statements as petitions to God so more of the prayer is in your own words; and finally move to praising, repenting, and supplication on the basis of the statements and subjects of the Psalm but in your own words). May the riches of Christ permeate deep into your heart and abound, in response, through your prayers!