Understanding Scripture

A Balm and a Bolster

I began praying through the Psalms. It invigorated my prayer life and reoriented my heart.

While I love creating big goals and dreaming big dreams, I’ve noticed that most often God’s work in my life has been slow and small, easy to miss if I’m not watching. And it’s been shaped as much by simple habits as by significant events. 

Several years ago, I began the (imperfectly practiced) habit of beginning each day by reading a Psalm and letting it prompt my morning prayers. I’ve found it to be one of the most rewarding practices—shaping my prayers, my perspective and ultimately my faith in profound ways. I’ve noticed four specific benefits emerge in my life from regularly praying the Psalms. 

The Psalms welcome my emotions 

The psalms validate the breadth of human feelings. None of them are off-limit here. The psalmists are raw in their emotions and unashamed in their questions. They ask God, “How long?” (94:3) and, “Why have you forsaken me?” (22:1). They bring their tears (42), anger (69), doubts and discouragement (77), impassioned pleas (28), jubilant praise (148) and quiet trust (131:2). It’s all laid out, brutally honestly, before God. 

In certain instances, they even beg God for destruction and judgment on their enemies: “break the arm of the wicked” (10:15). It’s clear from the psalms that God is not put off by the intensity and variety of human emotion. The psalms validate: life is complicated and broken,  our emotional responses to that are natural—and we’re called to bring all of it honestly to God.  

This encourages me when my own feelings are overwhelming. A couple years ago, in a particularly discouraging season of life, Psalm 42 connected with my heart in a special way. Not only could I resonate with the tears and feeling cast down, but I felt deep turmoil in my soul as I thought back on sweet friendships and joyful community that seemed forever lost (v 4). The Psalm encouraged me to “pour out my soul” and own the depth of its feelings, but also to preach to it: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (v 11).

The psalms tell a record of the ways God’s people have struggled through all of history...

However complex my emotions or disjointed my thoughts, the psalms remind me I can bring them to God. I might feel defeated over a situation that seems hopeless, sapping my faith. I might be fighting an angry and vindictive spirit towards someone who’s hurt me. I might be crying over a loss I can’t see how God could possibly redeem. 

The psalms let me know that however I’m feeling is an OK place to start my prayers. I don’t need to process, polish or perfect it before praying it. It’s often the very practice of forming it into a prayer, and then sitting in God’s presence with it, that brings healing and health to my heart. 

The Psalms shrink my struggles 

When life is hard, even in small ways, discouragement and weariness can quickly drain my passion. It can feel like things are hopeless or God isn’t involved. The psalms tell a record of the ways God’s people have struggled through all of history—with problems bigger than my own. In war (31), in exile (137), in pain and sickness (8), in injustice (35) and on the verge of death (88), the psalmists continually found God to be faithful and loving (136), an ever-present help in trouble (46), a refuge and deliverer (71). It greatly builds my faith to know that God’s people have experienced these things through the millennia, have turned to God with their struggles and problems, the unfairness of life, His seeming silence, the way evil seems to triumph. And they have found Him faithful. He will be no less for me.  

I don’t know how many times I’ve read or prayed through the psalms, but they speak to my life in fresh ways the more I experience the ups and downs of life, the brokenness of the world and the need to step out in faith.  

Just this summer, while preparing to launch a book on a culturally-loaded subject and wrestling through fears on how it would be received, a number of Psalms resonated with me that never had before—prayers about protection from enemies (41), vindication when I’m slandered (43) and finding shelter in God’s words (12). I could more earnestly pray things like “store [me] in Your shelter from the strife of tongues” (31:20). I was comforted that none of these fears or prayers are new to our culture or to my life. God’s people have always been scorned for our beliefs. We have always been desperate for God’s help. And He has always proven true (18:30).

The Psalms enlarge my prayers 

Without Scripture in front of me when I go to pray, my prayers tend to default around requests for my life to be more comfortable—you know, for perpetual good health, for my work projects to be successful, for my kids to behave, for my plans to go smoothly and generally for everything to go my way. (No, I don’t pray in those words, but I can recognize the bent of my heart!)

While the psalmists don’t shy away from praying about the hardest parts of life, they consistently turn toward God.

I don’t know about you, but my heart needs frequent reminders that my aim is not to cultivate a happy and comfortable life, to fix everything that’s hard so that it’s easy.  

The Book of Psalms reminds me that hard is normal. The world is broken, after all. But they also lift my eyes to bigger things, to people and situations that might normally elude my concern. I’m reminded to pray for the poor and afflicted (9), for nations and leaders (72), for justice for the oppressed (10). They encourage me to be satisfied in God in the midst of unfulfilled longings (90:14-15). The promises of God give me words to pray over those I love and confidence that He will answer (25, 34, 37). 

Recently when reading Psalm 22, I’m was prompted to pray for the people groups who have not yet turned to the Lord and for those who are working to share the gospel there (v 27), and then a few verses later reminded to pray not only for my children and their friends but that generations yet to be born to hear of the goodness of God (v 30-31). The psalms have a way of lifting my eyes to larger things. 

The Psalms magnify my God 

While the psalmists don’t shy away from praying about the hardest parts of life, they consistently turn toward God. They remind us of His character (145), His acts on our behalf in the past (107) and His promises for the future (37). Yes, the world is broken. But in the struggles and disappointments we find God to be our strength and shield (28:7), our stronghold and salvation (27:1), our Shepherd (23). He hides us under the shadow of his wings (91:4). He sets our feet on a rock (40:2). He watches over us and keeps us (121:7). He is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love (145:8). He is majestic (8:1) and victorious (2); His praise reaches to the ends of the earth (48:10).

God welcomes all our petitions, however small or weak.

One morning this summer, when I was feeling particularly fearful of circumstances beyond my control, I opened up Psalm 27 and read, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock” (v 4-5). In the span of two verses, my heart was re-oriented to the “one thing” my life is about, to the beauty of God that is worth pursuing, and to his gracious promises to protect and shelter me in the day of trouble.  

When I remember who God is and what He has spoken, I don’t need to fear or fret, which tends only to evil (37:8). I can trust God’s Word (19) and rest in His presence (16:11). I can retell His goodness (71:15) and regain hope in His promises (105:8). I can reframe my problems in light of the eternity that is sure and re-orient my perspective with Him at the center (130-131). And I can rejoice in His love no matter what surrounds me or threatens me (4:7, 16:11).

Of course, the whole canon of Scripture provides a wealth of fuel for our prayers, and God welcomes all our petitions, however small or weak. But I’m thankful that my prayers have been deepened, my faith strengthened and my worship intensified as I’ve spent time regularly praying from this ancient songbook.

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