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GOD'S PRAYER BOOK
THE POWER AND PLEASURE OF PRAYING THE PSALMS
By BEN PATTERSON
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE PSALMS: MUSIC TO GOD'S EARS
James Boice said learning to pray is a little like learning to play the violin with the virtuosos. No instrument sounds worse in the beginning stages of learning; it's all screech and scratch. But if the student is determined to play well, he checks the program guide for the classical music station and notes when the violin concertos will be aired. He buys the music score for each concerto and does his best to play along with the orchestra. At first he sounds terrible. As time passes, however, he begins little by little to sound more and more like the orchestra. But all along, as he groans on his instrument, the orchestra plays the music beautifully-his poor performance is caught up and completed in the music of the masters. So it is with us and prayer: By praying the Psalms back to God, we learn to pray in tune with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is no accident that the great prayers of the book of Psalms are also songs. They are the sheet music, the score and libretto of prayer. They are the building blocks for the music of eternity. Better than the things we ask God for in prayer is the God we pray to-and with-and the sweet h music we make as we do.
I am learning to pray in harmony with the Psalms, but I must admit I got off to a slow start. I became a Christian at age ten, but it wasn't until decades later that the Psalms began to teach me to pray. So although I'm now well into adulthood, you are reading the words of a new convert. I'm still wide eyed and breathless and maybe a little over the top with enthusiasm when I talk about their value. If I succeed with this book, you will be too.
There is no better place in all of Scripture than the Psalms to learn to be with God and to see with the eyes of faith the face of the One who longs to form us fully in his image. But the Psalms can be hard; they often stretch and perplex as they teach. How could it be otherwise? The Psalms are God's prayer book, and they teach us to talk to God in his own language.
Learning to pray is, in fact, like learning language. Most babies come into the world full of some very strong desires and feelings. They are quite capable of expressing them in grunts, gurgles, squeals, and sobs. But it's a stretch to call their utterances language. It would be tragic if, at age eighteen, these noises were still all they knew about communication. And it would be worse than tragic if at age eighteen they were still asking for the things they wanted at three months, if their desires had not expanded and matured as they learned to speak.
The process of learning language is complex and wonderful; it begins with a child listening to his or her parents, then mimicking and copying what he or she hears. But a child is not a parrot, and very quickly mimicry turns to meaning. Words and ideas and desires match up with each other and are woven together in syntax and grammar. With language comes a culture and a way of understanding the world and other people. It's marvelous what happens when we learn language: We are taken out of ourselves to what is beyond ourselves. It's not just our informing the world who we are; it's the world informing us who it is. It's not just our telling others what we want; it's others telling us what they want. Language changes us, making us more than we were when we were merely trying to express ourselves.
Prayer, like language, begins with being able to hear. Prayer starts not when we speak to God but when God speaks to us. In the beginning was the Word; God's word, not ours. Before all time, before you and I were, was the Word; the Light that gives light and life to everyone. There would be no speech if God had not first spoken. We would have nothing to say if God had not first said something to us. Ultimately then, all our prayers are answers to God's prayer-his gracious Word of love to us! We love, and we pray, because he first loved us. That's what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was referring to when he wrote, "The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart." The Bible, the written Word of God, tells us what God wants, and more important, what God is like. It expresses his will and reveals his character. The relationship between the Bible and prayer is profound. This is especially true when it comes to the Psalms.
Picture it this way: Children and other novices to the Scriptures have long been told that the best way to find the book of Psalms, the longest book in the Bible, is to put their fingers in the middle of the Bible-in its heart, so to speak. What is the book of Psalms? It is a book of prayers. And the longest prayer in this longest book is Psalm 119, a prayer about God's Word, the Scriptures. Prayer is at the heart of the Bible, and the Bible is in the heart of prayer.
But that's just a picture, an illustration of the relationship between the Psalms and prayer. Better is a demonstration-the prayer life of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of his life, as he hung dying on the cross, he went to the Scriptures for his prayers-more specifically, to the Psalms. "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Matthew 27:46) is a quotation from Psalm 22:1. "Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!" (Luke 23:46) comes from Psalm 31:5. At the point of his greatest anguish and extremity, Jesus turned to the Bible for his prayers. Charles Spurgeon reminds us that, when he most needed to pray, Jesus, the grand original thinker, saw no need to be original or extemporaneous. "How instructive is this great truth that the Incarnate Word lived on the Inspired Word! It was food to him, as it is to us; and ... if Christ thus lived upon the Word of God, should not you and I do the same? ... I think it well worthy of your constant remembrance that, even in death, our blessed Master showed the ruling passion of his spirit, so that his last words were a quotation from Scripture."
As a devout Jew, Jesus considered the Psalms to be his prayer book. A close look at the Psalms shows the Lord's Prayer-the prayer Jesus taught us to pray-to be a summary and distillation of all the prayers that are to be found in the heart of the Bible. It's all there in the Psalms: prayer that God's name be hallowed, that his rule be supreme and his will be done, that our needs be met and our sins forgiven, that we be kept safe from all danger to soul and body.
Martin Luther loved the Psalms. He called them "a little Bible," because they contain, "set out in the briefest and most beautiful form, all that is to be found in the Bible."
Sizing Up the Psalms
The psalms that first got my attention were the psalms that always seem to be the right thing to pray, no matter the mood or situation. I call them the "one size fits all" psalms, like the band on my adjustable baseball hat. These psalms can be expanded or contracted to fit any situation. For example, Psalm 103 is always the right thing to pray-always true, always fitting, in every time and place:
Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases. He redeems me from death and crowns me with love and tender mercies. He fills my life with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle's!
Next came the psalms that seemed to fit my mood, that helped me say what I felt in the moment. I call them the "this size fits some" psalms. For instance, when I was feeling guilty, speechless with remorse, Psalm 51 was a perfect fit. No matter how mute guilt had made me, I could open my Bible and my mouth and say, "Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins." Same with Psalm 130: "Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive? But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you." I literally couldn't have said it better myself. If God held my sins against me, I'd be toast, dead meat, on the ash heap. But he forgives them all! Therefore I bow in abject, broken, and joyful reverence. Psalms like these gave me confidence to speak to God when I least felt that I could. They still do.
Adding up the psalms in the two categories I could relate to-the "this size fits some" psalms, or the mood psalms; and the "one size fits all" psalms-I didn't know what to do with all the rest, which was most of them. The most obvious example is Psalm 137, with its chilling last line: "Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!" But that's an extreme example. There were plenty of psalms that seemed too remote from my experience to have much to do with my prayer life. Psalm 87 has a good line or two if I was preaching a sermon that needed to reference ancient Jewish attitudes toward Jerusalem, but otherwise I didn't know how I could meaningfully pray personally,
On the holy mountain stands the city founded by the Lord. He loves the city of Jerusalem more than any other city in Israel. O city of God, what glorious things are said of you!
I was really at a loss with psalms like Psalm 88. It doesn't have one happy thing to say about God or life and ends with, "You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend." Those lines do not describe anything I have ever felt. Maybe they will someday, but so far, so good. But most problematic was Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the cross. I could preach this psalm as a meditation on the sufferings of Christ, but I couldn't get myself to pray, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help?" Would it not be blasphemous for me, Ben Patterson, to pray what only Jesus could pray?
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs; an evil gang closes in on me. They have pierced my hands and feet. I can count all my bones. My enemies stare at me and gloat. They divide my garments among themselves and throw dice for my clothing.
So there were a lot of psalms that seemed either alien or off limits. Most of them, actually. My slim psalm repertoire was a picture of the thinness of my prayer life-and my heart.
It was also a picture of my shallow sense of Christian identity. I was what someone called a "yearbook Christian." I came to the Psalms like I came to my twenty-year high school reunion-thumbing through the index of my old yearbook, looking only for the page numbers of the pictures of me and my friends, and ignoring the rest.
Not Much in My Heart to Pour Out
My sophomore year in college, my friends and I decided to spend two hours in prayer for the salvation of the unsaved high school students we were working with. We purposed to storm heaven and bring down the blessings of God for these kids. One of us had a part-time job in a church, so he asked the pastor if we could meet for prayer in the church building, a logical place to pray, one would think. The pastor told us just to show up some evening, any evening, and since my friend had a key to the building, we could pray anywhere we wanted. But the night we came to pray the church was bustling with activity, as various committee meetings, youth programs, and choir practice were spread throughout the facility. It was busier and more full of distraction than our homes and dorm rooms. The only free space was a large janitor's closet that smelled strongly of detergent and disinfectant.
So we gathered in that closet to pour out our hearts to God. We had two hours to do nothing but stand before the Lord's throne and plead for the salvation of souls. We prayed every which way we knew: We praised God and confessed our sins and lifted up the names of all the students we could think of. Then we praised and confessed and interceded some more. When we had prayed for everything and in every way we could think of, over and over, I looked at my watch to see if we had any time left. Just fifteen minutes had passed! The next one hour and forty-five minutes of prayer were the longest and slowest I had ever experienced.
I came to pour out my heart to God and discovered that there wasn't much in my heart to pour out. It would be years before I understood why I saw prayer in the same way I saw the Psalms-only as a tool to help me ask God for what I wanted. The problem was that I wanted so little! What I didn't understand was that learning to pray was learning to desire the things God wants to give, and then asking him for them.
The greatest enemy of prayer is not asking for too much of God but for too little. We're like Bontsha the Silent in the Yiddish writer Isaac Peretz's sad tale. All his life he had been denied, passed over, oppressed, and forgotten. Chronic disappointment had robbed him of the ability even to dream or desire; he had come to expect nothing and want nothing. He was Bontsha the Silent.
When he died he found himself standing before God in the court of heaven. God smiled tenderly at Bontsha and said, "My son, all your joyless life you had nothing. You lived without hope. But now, here in my presence, there is the fullness of joy, eternal pleasures at my right hand. Only ask, and you shall receive. Anything, anything you want, shall be yours."
The little man with a shrunken soul squinted his eyes and pondered the offer. "Anything? Anything at all?" he asked suspiciously.
"Yes," said the Almighty. "Anything you want."
After a long pause, he said to the Almighty, "I would like a freshly baked roll, with real butter."
Heaven wept. The greater tragedy of Bontsha's life was not what he had been denied, but what he had ceased to desire. God had been reduced to the size of a loaf of bread and butter. This man had become far too easily pleased.
It wasn't-and isn't-that Bontsha's desires or ours are unworthy to express to God in prayer. He is our loving and compassionate Father, and he listens to all we say with a kind and wise heart. But he knows better than we do what we need-and better yet, he desires things for us that we may not even desire for ourselves.
More than a Tool for Self-Expression
Prayer is more than a tool for self-expression, a means to get God to give us what we want. It is a means he uses to give us what he wants, and to teach us to want what he wants. Holy Scripture in general, and the Psalms in particular, teach us who God is and what he wants to give.
When the members of his synagogue complained that the words of the liturgy did not express what they felt, Abraham Heschel, the great philosopher of religion, replied wisely and very biblically. He told them that the liturgy wasn't supposed to express what they felt; they were supposed to feel what the liturgy expressed. To be taught by the Bible to pray is to learn to want and feel what the Bible expresses-to say what it means and mean what it says.
Those who have practiced this kind of prayer over time make a surprising discovery: As they learn to feel what the Psalms express, their hearts and desires are enlarged. They find that what they once regarded as strong desires were really weak, puerile little wishes, debased inklings of what is good. Of course! Would not the God who made us in his own image understand better than we ever could what we really need? And shouldn't we ask him for it? As C. S. Lewis put it,
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
The best part of prayer is who you pray to. Answers to prayer are wonderful, but the Answerer is better. Spend enough time with Jesus, and you'll start to look and think and act like Jesus. Seeing is becoming. The church father Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." It's true: God is never more glorified than when we come alive to the vision of God. Prayer is anticipation and preparation for the great day promised in Scripture when we will see Christ fully and "will be like him, for we will see him as he really is."
How shall I call upon my God, my God and my Lord, since in truth when I call upon him I call him into myself? Is there any place within me where God can dwell? How can God come into me, God who made heaven and earth? O Lord my God, is there any place in me that can contain you? (Continues...)
Excerpted from GOD'S PRAYER BOOK by BEN PATTERSON
Copyright © 2008 by Ben Patterson. Excerpted by permission.
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