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Volume 99, Number 1

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Prayer — Does it Make any Difference? (continued)

The Psalms

The book of Psalms offers a practicum in how to pray. “It is my custom to call this book An Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul,”

man praying

wrote John Calvin, “since there is no emotion anyone will experience whose image is not reflected in this mirror.” Fear, praise, anxiety, anger, love, sorrow, despair, gratitude, grief, doubt, suffering, joy, vengeance, repentance—every human emotion and experience surges to the surface in the prayer-poems of Psalms.

From its earliest days the Christian church adopted these Jewish prayers into worship, singing psalms together in prayer to God. After all, Jesus himself had sung a psalm with his disciples at the Last Supper and had quoted psalms as he hung dying. When Hitler’s Reich Board for the Regulation of Literature tried to fine Dietrich Bonhoeffer for publishing a book on Psalms—a part of the Jewish Old Testament, they charged—Bonhoeffer successfully appealed by arguing that Psalms was the prayer book of Jesus.

Today Christians and Jews still use this prayer book, and in some places Muslims do as well. The prayers bare the human soul before God in a way that strikes a universal chord. “Whatever can stimulate us when we are about to pray to God, this book teaches,” said Calvin.

Ordinary life prompts many of the psalmists’ compositions: a view of stars, sheep on a hillside, family problems, wars and rumors of wars, depression or an emotional high. Read straight through the psalms and you will rail against God, praise God for his faithfulness, wish yourself dead, exult in the beauties of nature, bargain for a better life, and spit curses against your enemies.

"There is no emotion anyone will experience whose image is not reflected in this mirror.”
Psalms keeps me honest by furnishing words to prayers I would not pray apart from their prompting. I have learned to pray more humanly by reading the psalms and making them my prayers. As I read psalms of anger and revenge, I have to face the same tendencies in myself. The psalms expose to the light resentments and wounds long hidden. I find it liberating that God welcomes, even encourages, me to face into my dark side in my prayers. I can trust God with my secrets. . . .

Once, I took a sequence of ten psalms (35–44) and listed other principles of prayer I had learned from them. I found that the psalms broadened my notion of prayer by taking more risks, demanding more of the relationship, expressing more passion. In short, they exposed the shallowness of my own prayers and challenged me to engage with God at a deeper level. Here is some of what I learned:

•      Work out animosity toward enemies not by gossip or hostility, but by informing God of their injustice and asking God to set things right.

•      It’s all right to express impatience to God, asking for a speeded-up answer to prayer—and even to spell out God’s own interests in achieving the desired results.
•      Prayer sometimes involves talking to yourself (“Do not fret . . . Trust in the Lord . . . Be still”), saying aloud what you know to be healthy but have a hard time putting into practice.
•      Focus not just on the unfairness and problems of life, but also on all that does turn out well. Review the good things of the past, and don’t forget in the darkness what you learned in the light.
•      Project yourself into the future as a changed person. Behavioral psychologists would call this the “Act as if” principle.


Beyond these principles, I learned from Psalms to converse with God as I would converse with my employer, my friend, my wife—in short, to treat God as a Person in every sense of the word. I had seen prayer as a kind of duty, not as a safe outlet for whatever I was thinking or feeling. Psalms freed me to go deeper. . . .


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