What the psalms can teach us about prayer
Everywhere I’ve lived and travelled, Christians and congregations pray. And yet many Christians say they struggle to pray. This prompts me to ask: Why do Christians pray? Do we have our reasons backwards?
Christians often say that they pray because “God answers prayer.” In prayer meetings, church services and home groups I’ve heard people share their “prayer requests,” which are then addressed to God for God to answer.
I was once part of a group that kept a weekly prayer list with two columns. In one column, the prayer requests were recorded, one request per line. The lines in the second column were left blank until someone could report to the group that God had answered a particular prayer request. The group used this exercise as a reminder that God answers prayer.
At the same time, I hear people questioning whether God answers prayer. Does God really stick his finger into our lives to change things? Why would God heal one hospitalized child but not the child in the next bed, when both their families pray for healing? Why ask God if God already knows what we need? What is the point of interceding on behalf of others when God is sovereign?
Not like science or magic
Although I don’t have ready answers to these questions, two responses come to mind.
God cannot be proved like a math problem—nor can faith, hope and love. All these realities, like answers to prayer, operate in a larger sphere than the more limited spheres of statistics and science.
Something is amiss when researchers measure health outcomes among people who pray and people who don’t, as if research can prove God’s presence and intervention. Even in Jesus’ day, God’s answers to people’s needs are not immediately obvious to everyone. Jesus is God’s answer, but the Gospels report that when Jesus casts out demons, there are people who consider him to be demon-possessed instead of working in the power of God (Matt. 12:22-32).
Jesus teaches that prayer is not a technology by which we can manage our troubles. Before teaching his disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7).
In other words, prayer is not like science and magic that both claim to manage the forces that dominate and threaten us. God is not more inclined to answer us if we use the “right” quantifiable methods and techniques of praying.
Psalms offers an ancient footing
In light of people’s questions and Jesus’ teachings, I find that the Psalms offer an ancient and more solid footing for prayer. Instead of starting with the premise that God answers prayer, the Psalms begin with the premise that our prayers answer God. We dare to pray because God has already addressed us. Anything we pray—thanksgiving, request, even complaint—is a response to a God who has already spoken.
The first clue to this alternate perspective is in the structure of the book of Psalms. Psalms itself is organized into five books: Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106 and 107-150. This five-part structure is an allusion to the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis to Deuteronomy)—the Jewish Torah. In other words, the diverse prayers that comprise Psalms are all offered as responses that echo God’s previous communication.
Responding to God’s Word
Praying in answer to God’s initial word is also specifically highlighted in the Psalms. Psalm 1, which introduces the entire Psalter, highlights the happiness of people who delight in the Lord’s Torah and who meditate on it day and night (Ps. 1:1-2). The entire Psalter is therefore a response to God’s Torah, which provides not merely commands but also stories that teach God’s people how to live in covenant relationship with God in this world.
Psalm 19 praises God’s stereophonic communication in both nature and Torah. Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem—eight couplets for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—with all 176 verses highlighting the life-giving words of God. All human speech and vocabulary is therefore derived from God’s preceding communication to the world.
If prayer is first and foremost a way of answering God, it’s no surprise that many of the psalms are celebrative expressions of praise and thanksgiving to God. We thank God in answer to what God has given us. Those psalms, however, that voice requests to God are also responses to God.
The psalmists bring their requests in response to what they have previously learned from God: namely that God is just, reliable, righteous, present, patient and kind. We offer our prayers of request in answer to what we’ve come to know of God’s character.
Even the psalms of complaint and lament—the most common type of psalms—are addressed to God. They are not mere whistling in the dark but are offered in answer to God. We cry out our darkest nights of the soul, as in Psalm 88, as an answer to the God who once spoke but who now seems completely silent to us.
God has already spoken
God has already spoken—through nature, through events in history, through Scripture and most clearly through Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2). Anything we pray is therefore an answer to God. And when words fail us in prayer, God’s Holy Spirit is praying to God on our behalf (Rom. 8:26). Once again, God’s words of prayer precede our own.
I suggest that we reconceive our prayers as answers to God, not simply requests for which we want God’s response. What do we say to God both in light of God’s preceding communication and in light of our life’s experiences? Do we praise? Thank? Celebrate? Ask? Plead? Lament? Complain? In whatever way we respond, that is prayer—because “prayer answers God.”
Andrew Dyck is assistant professor of ministry studies for MB Biblical Seminary Canada and Canadian Mennonite University. He has been a Mennonite Brethren pastor for 16 years. This article is adapted with permission fand was first published in The Messenger, the publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference. To learn more about this approach to praying, Dyck recommends studying Eugene Peterson’s book, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (HarperCollins, 1989).