Being With God, Part 4
“Chris, I’ve been a Christian for twenty-five years and when it comes to prayer, I don’t know how to put one foot in front of another.”
These were the words of one of my dearest friends in my office a decade ago. I’m sure I obliged him by offering some pointers on getting his prayer life off the ground. But his words did leave me feeling slightly unsettled because I, too, struggled in prayer.
Oh, I could pray when called upon. Being a pastor in the Bible Belt means that I must be vigilant, ready at all times to offer “grace” before eating a meal or to give the opening prayer before a church shindig. After all, who else is equipped for such a sophisticated task? But seriously, I knew what it was like to be encouraged by someone else’s petitions in a prayer meeting and I knew how to offer my own prayers in such a setting with some degree of skillfulness. I knew how to talk and sing to God with my heart when the music was being played in one of our services. I would often spend time with God when I would go on late night walks in my neighborhood - walks that I curtailed after a neighbor asked me for an 8-ball (and I’m not talking about billiards). And I would often intersperse prayer over my day with short confessions or expressions of my need for God.
Admittedly, my prayer was most robust when I was in a gathering of people. Being a pastor meant that I had to be on my “A-game.” And when I did pray throughout my day, my prayers were usually short, semi-thoughtless statements. Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. I sincerely wanted God’s leadership as I navigated my day, but I rarely spent quality time with God. As a matter of fact, I could go weeks without doing so. The main reason was that unless I felt some sort of particular inspiration, I just didn’t feel like praying. And though there were many reasons for this (i.e. mood, busyness, etc.), the main one was that I just didn’t know what to say. I had nothing to tell God. I didn’t know what to do when it was just me and him.
To be clear, my soul longed for God. I could feel the collateral damage of prayerlessness. Anxiety would begin to swell within me. I noticed that I would grow increasingly insensitive to those that I love. Temptation would overthrow me because I would let down my guard in the fight against sin. I would stay up later at night consuming entertainment, which led to me sleeping as late as I could the following morning. Waking up grouchy and not taking the time to meditate on the Scriptures was not a strategic way to begin my day.
But beyond the negative effects of prayerlessness, I really did want to be with God. I longed for his presence in my life. I wanted to be permeated by the Spirit. I wanted intimacy with him. I just didn’t know how to connect with him.
For years, I struggled with this ineptness. That is, until it dawned on me that the answer has always been right in front of me. Have you ever noticed that the Bible gives a lot of imperatives on prayer, but few indicatives? In other words, there are a lot of commands to pray (imperatives), but surprisingly very little instruction on how to do it (indicatives). So what did the writers of Scripture have in mind as they directed us, under the inspiration of the Spirit, to pray? What did they assume their audience already knew about prayer that we need to learn?
Remember that the New Testament was largely written to Jewish followers of Jesus by Jewish followers of Jesus. And because these people had grown up in Synagogue, they already new how to pray. So what was it that they prayed? Generally speaking, they prayed the Psalms. And guess what? This apparently didn’t stop when they came to know Christ. (Why would it, after all? The Psalms are God’s word. Why stop praying God’s word?) No Old Testament book is quoted more in the New Testament than the Psalms.
Additionally, the Psalms seemed to have been, at times, the reflex prayers of Jesus and his followers. Consider Acts 4:27 in which Peter and John prayed Psalm 2:1-2, asking God for boldness, after spending the night in jail and being threatened by the authorities to no longer speak the name of Jesus. In Hebrews 13:6, the writer encourages us to make Psalm 118:6-7 our confession when we are scared: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” And no one can forget Jesus’ gut-wrenching cry to God the Father from the torture of the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (I find this passage particularly remarkable. Jesus, physically and psychologically crushed, still speaks only God’s holy word.)
With this in mind, I decided to make the Psalms my prayer book, too. If it’s good enough for Jesus and his disciples, it’s good enough for me. Now before I tell you what I do, I want you to remember that I use this as a guide for my prayers. I don’t just read the Psalms, I pray them. And when I pray them, I do so aloud. The Psalms are poetry and have a certain rhythm that is pleasing to the ears. I find that this stirs my soul, so I always pray them aloud. And when I pray them aloud, I do so very carefully. I’m not trying to “get through” a particular Psalm. The goal is to be with Jesus. So as I read the Psalms aloud methodically and thoughtfully, I’m lifting up my soul to God. I’m anticipating that the Spirit will highlight something I read and when he does, I then begin to pray my heart. So I’m praying the Psalms, but the Spirit, with the aid of the Psalms, is also inspiring my own prayers. Here’s an example:
I worshipfully read this aloud: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” (Psalm 1:1a)
Then I might feel inspired to pray this: “Lord Jesus, this statement reveals the Father’s will that I become a man of holiness and character. I recognize that a big part of that is who I surround myself with. Give me the wisdom to pursue community with righteous men of God who will redirect me to a life of holiness when, at times, I lose my way.”
Or I might pray something like this: “My Lord Jesus, I love my children with all my heart and it would bring me unceasing grief if they were to align their hearts with evil people. I know that great temptation awaits them as they navigate through their teenage years. I pray that you would, by the Spirit, open their eyes to see that the blessings of your kingdom far outweigh the fleshly gratifications of this world. Watch over my precious children’s souls.”
The point is that you should be on the watch for the unction of the Holy Spirit as you pray through these beautiful and, at times, raw words. You will find that the more you do this, the more these words become your words.
Now you may be wondering which Psalms to pray and how often. I recommend praying through the Psalms once per month. You may be thinking that is a lot. After all, there are one-hundred-fifty Psalms! Stop and take a breath. That’s only five Psalms a day. What I do is start with the day of the week. Today is March 25, so begin with Psalm 25. Then skip thirty chapters and pray Psalm 55. Skip thirty more chapters and pray Psalm 85. You guessed it. Skip thirty more chapters and pray Psalm 115. Do that one more time and conclude with Psalm 145. It’s quite easy once you get used to it. (Or you can just sign up for the Psalms and Proverbs reading plan on YouVersion each month.)
When it comes to the big one, Psalm 119, I save it for day 31. If that particular month has 31 days, I pray it on that day. If it doesn’t, then I skip it altogether that month. You’re still going to pray through that Psalm 119 seven times a year, which is probably more times than you’ve read it over your entire life!
Next week, I’m going to talk about the riches that I’ve gained from the Psalms and how the Psalms are bringing balance and perspective to both my faith and my theology about God and how I am living this life. In the mean time, I encourage you to make this practice your own if you need direction in prayer. I think the most freeing thing about this practice is that I never ever go to prayer wondering where to begin or what to say. I just jump right in and begin communing with God. It’s liberating and I love it.
It feels good to know what to do in prayer.