Easter reminds us of new life. Abundant life. In response to that we often feel our lives should be one big ball of joy. Isn’t Paul clear? ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!’ But the reality is often quite different. At times our experience is more desolate depression than happy hallelujahs. I often use the Psalms as an aid to my prayers. On occasions I find myself in the Hallelujah Psalms (145 to 150) and struggle to pray them. To begin prayer with ‘Praise the Lord!’ feels fake and forced.
How do we approach prayer and the Christian life on those days when our hearts are downcast and our nights filled with weeping? How can we avoid hypocrisy and be genuine in those times?
I believe that the Book of Psalms gives us a guide to turning our weeping into rejoicing. This book has continually been the school of spiritual experience and prayer for the believer. Ken Langley says that ‘For thirty centuries, God’s people have found in the Psalms an answer to the disciples’ plea, “Lord, teach us to pray”.’ According to Timothy Keller, one of the reasons the Psalms have had such longevity and importance is because: ‘Psalms, then, are not just a matchless primer of teaching but a medicine chest for the heart and the best possible guide for practical living’. You can find any and every experience of the Christian walk in the Psalms. Calvin says the Psalms are ‘an anatomy of all the parts of the soul’.
The Book of Psalms in its structure shows us and supports us to turn our pain into praise. Wonderfully, the Spirit who inspired the Psalms to be written indwells our hearts and illuminates our minds to be able to do this. In studying and meditating on the Psalms you will see the ignition, engine and destination of prayer (I am indebted to Eugene Peterson for shaping my thinking on this).
Mercifully, the Psalms teach us that we can start our prayers with the reality of our situation and emotions. Think of the political landscape of Psalm 2; the destitution of Psalm 22; the thirst of Psalm 42; and the cry for mercy in Psalm 116. Many of the Psalms begin in a place of honesty. The book begins with Psalm 1 and 2. Psalm 1 teaches us that there are two ways to live, but Psalm 2 quickly shows us the reality of that choice – living in a world that hates God and so is in desperate need of a Messiah. The Psalms show us brute honesty. We too must come to prayer transparently, seeking our Messiah. This will help ignite our prayers.
If we don’t present our true hearts to God then one of two things will happen: either we will hide our emotions and so become embittered and slowly retreat from God; or we will hide our emotions and become defined by our hurts and sorrows and thus let them become our primary identity. However, if all we do is see prayer as a presentation of our problems, a kind of therapeutic mouthing off, then we will miss out on the glorious good news of the gospel.
When the Psalmist expresses his experiences he then brings them under the influence of God’s Word. He applies the promises of his covenant God to his current circumstances. Think of Psalm 4 when he claims God’s good gift of sleep; Psalm 23 where he holds on to God’s shepherd heart in the valley of the shadow of death; or Psalm 77 where he remembers God’s promises, questions them, but still ends up believing them. The promises of God in the Word of God transform his experiences. He mines the scriptures for a word from God. Spurgeon preached ‘When worn with pain until the brain has become dazed and the reason well-nigh extinguished, a sweet text has whispered to us its heart-cheering assurance, and our poor struggling mind has reposed upon the bosom of God’. Scripture is the engine of prayer, for there we hear the words of God, and meet the Word of God.
Prayer and Bible meditation go together. To separate them is to limit our communion with God. Robert Murray M’Cheyne counselled us to ‘Turn the Bible into prayer… This is the best way of knowing the meaning of the Bible, and of learning to pray’. As Christians we often read the Bible and then pray with a closed Bible. We need to pray as we read, and read as we pray. There is no power for prayer outside of the sword of the Spirit (the Bible read, remembered, recited). If we do not pray the Bible we will go nowhere but circle in despair, for it is in the Bible that we meet the God of the covenant. As we read through the Bible we meet the creator God who became a part of his creation and died on the cross to redeem his children. That is what makes Easter such joyous news: the dead are raised to life because the one who had enjoyed perfect communion with the Father in eternity prayed Psalm 22 in our place: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?’
So, we turn the ignition of prayer by being honest about our hearts, and power the engine by opening up the Scriptures. But where are we going? What is the end? The structure of the Book of Psalms is very revealing; it’s split into five books, which on the whole can seem rather random and repetitive (mirroring much of the experience of our lives). But each book has a similar ending: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.’ Then the entire book of Psalms ends with five hallelujah Psalms to reflect the five books, giving each of the five books another praise ending. Indeed, the last line of the Book of Psalms is ‘Praise the Lord’. It’s pretty clear: the destination of prayer is praise.
To see this in action, pause here, put down this magazine and pick up your Bible to pray through Psalm 13.
We can come to God in our honesty – real lives – to pray his Word. When we do that we are transformed. We are taken from weeping to rejoicing. It is like a piece of music being transposed, changing the key. We get moved from the minor to the major. Oh, we often sing the blues, but the gospel takes our sorrows and turns them into soaring celebrations – maybe not overnight, but always eschatologically. The joy of the Christian faith is that we are invited to ‘approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’
Let me allow Eugene Peterson to sum this up:
The goal at which all the psalm-prayers arrive after their long travels through the unmapped back countries of pain, doubt, and trouble, with only occasional vistas of the sunlit lands, along the way… All prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise. Any prayer, no matter how desperate its origin, no matter how angry and fearful the experiences it traverses, end up in praise. It does not always get there quickly or easily – the trip can take a lifetime – but the end is always praise.