The Psalms show us the Old Testament community of faith relating openly and honestly to the God of Israel. They therefore include important principles of effective prayer for believers today.
The book of Psalms served as both hymnal and prayer book for ancient Israel. It was the record of how the chosen nation once worshiped and prayed to their God. Prayer is one of the most important — and sometimes most difficult — things we learn to do. It is important, because it is an opportunity to talk to God. It is sometimes difficult, though, because it can seem to be an awkward and one-sided conversation.
|"One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples’" (Luke 11:1). Illustration by Jody Eastman|
It was the same in New Testament times. "Teach us to pray," a disciple once asked Jesus (Luke 11:1). They were used to the formal, congregational prayers of the temple and synagogue. Unlike Jesus, the religious leaders of the day did not emphasize spontaneous, personal prayer.
Yet the disciples noticed that Jesus seemed to be able to pray at any time and place. The disciples wanted to be able to talk to God like that. You probably do, too. But perhaps when you try, you don’t know what to say. Your attention wanders. You get up feeling your prayers have gone no higher than the ceiling.
The Psalms can help. Other books of the Bible give us a historical record of Israel’s relationship with God. Psalms gives us a more intimate look. It is like learning about an event by reading the personal correspondence between the main participants. We begin to appreciate not only what happened, but also the emotions of those involved. This is what makes Psalms helpful as we build our relationship with God.
Seventy-three of the Bible’s 150 psalms are attributed to David, whom God called "a man after my own heart" (Acts 13:22). David was a gifted poet and musician, and Israel’s greatest king. He lived life to the full, made mistakes, reaped the pain and the suffering, and got deeply discouraged. But David loved God, and even in those moments of agony and despair he continued talking to him.
There are times when we all need to talk about our problems with a close friend to help put them in perspective. This is exactly what David did with God. He was not afraid to express his emotions — fear, sorrow, hope, anxiety, joy, longing and even frustration, impatience and anger. In the Psalms, David poured out his heart to God. When we meditate on these inspirational prayers, we will see that, in the end, David always found strength and comfort in God and was able to express hope and trust in him.
The psalms of David, and the book of Psalms in general, can invigorate your prayers with real, down-to-earth expressions that reflect your own thoughts. You’ll think: That’s exactly what I want to say! It’s reassuring to know that other people have had your problems. God inspired and preserved these prayers and songs so that you, too, could know how to talk to him.
Here are some important principles from the Psalms to help you pray more effectively:
1) Don’t be afraid to say what’s on your mind. You should always approach God respectfully, and it is always appropriate to praise him. There are times when you are filled with hope and enthusiasm. You feel close to God, and you appreciate what he has done for you. This is how David felt when he wrote Psalm 65. (Note also Psalms 66 and 67.)
But he didn’t always pray like this. For example, look at Psalms 54, 56, 57 and 59. On these occasions, David was in trouble, and he wasted no time in asking for help. On other occasions, David even asked God to hurry up and help him (Psalms 70:1, 5; 38:22; 40:13, 17; 143:7). Once, David actually asked God if he had forgotten him (Psalm 13:1-2). Similarly, you should not be afraid to tell God precisely what’s on your mind. And like David, you can urge God to intervene in your life.
2) Don’t hide your mistakes. Some people feel awkward about praying, especially after they have made a big mistake. Or perhaps they have not prayed for a long time, and they think they aren’t worthy of God’s love and acceptance.
At times such as these, it is reassuring to read Psalm 51, written when David had sinned about as badly as anyone in the Bible. After committing adultery with Bathsheba, David had her husband Uriah killed (see 2 Samuel 11). David’s actions were especially repulsive to God because, as king of Israel, he should have been the moral leader of the nation.
But when David recognized his sin, he went to God in humility and genuine repentance, asking for forgiveness. And God heard. David knew he was a sinner, and asked God to help keep him from continuing to sin. Another time David prayed, "Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins" (Psalm 19:12-13).
In the same way, we should admit our sins to God. When we confess, God "is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
3) Wait for God’s answer. Prayer is a spiritual act of worship in which we share our most intimate thoughts with God the Father (Luke 11:2), through Jesus Christ his Son. It is not a magic formula for getting everything we want exactly when we want it (see James 4:3). Of course, we should make our requests known to God (Philippians 4:6), but we should not expect God to answer our prayers our way every time.
David’s prayers were not always answered right away. God was working with him across a lifetime, and the relationship was not casual or superficial.
Although God will give you the "desires of your heart" (Psalm 37:4), there are also lessons to be learned in enduring a trial, for example. Sometimes we must wait in faith for God to answer in his way and in his time. Psalms gives some fascinating glimpses into the minds of people as they endured trials of their faith.
In Psalm 73, the author, Asaph, expresses anger and impatience at what seems like God’s indifference. He even wonders if living God’s way is worth it (verse 13). God allows this, because as Asaph sorts out his churning emotions, he calms down and his faith and patience is restored (verses 21-26). You’ll find another example of a prayer changing a negative mood in Psalm 10.
God knows that we have emotions. We do not always have to appear before him cool, calm and collected. A relationship with God is a learning process. Sometimes we need to be guided through life’s trials and tribulations, not just "airlifted out" of every situation. This is a vital part of our spiritual growth. During such times of stress, God will help us sort out our negative thoughts and emotions, and give us a peace of mind that "transcends all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).
Never be afraid to pray openly and honestly to God, even during the darkest hours of your life. But be willing — and prepared — to wait for God’s answer in God’s time.
Remember, also, that God’s answer may be no. For example, Paul told the church at Corinth: "To keep me from becoming conceited...there was given me a thorn in my flesh...to torment me" (2 Corinthians 12:7). Paul explained: "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’" (verses 8-9).
We don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, but it hindered his ministry and he asked God to remove it. God refused. Paul acknowledged that this "thorn" kept him humble (verse 7). It reminded him of his daily need for contact with God.
So, while we should present our requests urgently and fervently to God, we must wait patiently while God decides how and when he will answer. As David said, "Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord" (Psalm 27:14).
4) Have confidence in the outcome. When everything around us seems to be falling apart, it’s hard to walk by faith. But that’s exactly what Christians are called to do (2 Corinthians 5:7). David told God, "Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life" (Psalm 138:7). He learned that no matter how bad things looked, God would eventually assert his will and control.
God will never forsake those who trust him (Psalm 9:10). Even so, there will be times when we will feel rejection, humiliation, frustration and all the emotional weather of an active and spiritually rich human life.
The Psalms can help us understand this, as we share the intimate thoughts of servants of God who have gone before us. They help us talk to God as a friend. They remind us of what we tend to forget when we are discouraged and temporarily disoriented. They are spiritual levees that control the flood of negative emotions and worry, guiding it along safe channels, where it can be dissipated safely (Psalms 32:6; 69:1).
As we build our relationship and friendship with the same God who listened to the prayers of David and other authors of the Psalms, we will also grow in courage and faith. We will feel confident in asking, "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight" (Psalm 19:14). Like David, we can look beyond the immediate situation and realize "there is a future for the man of peace" (Psalm 37:37).
Adapted from a 1994 article by John Halford