I think every Christian should learn the habit of praying through the Psalms.
What can I do to persuade you to do this, if you don’t already do so? I have developed the arguments at greater length in Teaching Psalms, volume one.
But here are seven good reasons.
1. Praying the Psalms teaches us to pray.
This is the most important reason by a long shot. Every Christian knows we need to pray. After a while, we realize we need to be taught to pray (Luke 11:1); we don’t just instinctively know how, even after we’re born again. The pattern of the Lord’s Prayer is filled out by the Psalms, which expand on and echo its themes. Not all the Psalms are prayers, but they will all shape our prayers in so many ways. The early church did this, and we should follow their example (e.g., Eph. 5:19).
In Luther’s preface to the Psalter, he wrote:
As a teacher will compose letters or little speeches for his pupils to write to their parents, so by this book he prepares both the language and the mood in which we should address the heavenly Father.
2. Praying the Psalms trains us to respond to the riches of Bible truth.
All the wonderful truth of the Bible is poured into the Psalms in such a way that we learn to delight in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The church father Athanasius says that if we think of each Bible book as a garden with its particular fruit, the Psalter is a garden in which every kind of biblical fruit grows. Perhaps that’s why travelers in pre-digital days would sometimes carry a New Testament and Psalms where they couldn’t take a complete Bible.
It takes a while to learn from the Psalms how to respond to the whole of the Bible’s teaching. But it’s worth the effort. If we learn to pray the Psalms, we will have learned to respond in prayer to every facet of biblical truth.
3. Praying the Psalms shapes well-rounded people to pray in all of human life.
Not only do the Psalms encapsulate all the Bible’s teaching, they also express every facet of human experience. One of my students commented that the Psalms are giving him a richer palette of emotional colors to describe, understand, and feel his own and others’ experience. Just as a child graduates from painting in primary colors to using subtle tones in her art, so a Christian soaked in the Psalms moves from an emotionally childish experience toward a richer and more nuanced life of the heart.
In the wonderful preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, the reformer John Calvin calls the Psalms an “anatomy of all the parts of the soul” because “there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or, rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”
4. Praying the Psalms reorients disordered affections into God’s good order.
You and I are a mass of disordered affections. We desire what we ought to detest, and we care little for what we ought deeply to desire. And it matters because our wills choose what we desire; we do what we want. Perhaps the the most necessary work of God in our hearts is to change our desires so that we want what God wants. Only when this begins to happen will our lives change at the deep level of our hearts.
Here is a paraphrase of one of the classic set prayers (collects) in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, who alone can order [re-order] the unruly wills and affections of sinful people: grant to your people that they may love the things you command and desire what you promise; so that, among all the changes of this fleeting world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found.
The Psalms do just this: they shape our affections so that we love what God says is right and deeply desire the blessings he promises us in the gospel.
The Psalms shape our affections so that we love what God says is right and deeply desire the blessings he promises us in the gospel.
5. Praying the Psalms can sweeten sour emotions.
When we are turned in on ourselves in resentment, bitterness, anger, or despair, these emotions become deeply destructive. They give our whole lives a sour taste. The Psalms can take these dark emotions and transform then into something life-giving.
The Psalms, Calvin writes, will “principally teach and train us to bear the cross . . . so that the afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us, because they proceed from [Christ].”
6. Praying the Psalms guards us against dangerously individualistic piety.
In Western cultures we think our Christianity is a “me and God” thing; but, more fundamentally, it’s a “we and God” thing—where “we” means the church of Jesus Christ in all the world and every age. When we properly understand the Psalms, we know they make sense only when we remember that we belong—and pray, and praise—with all Christ’s people.
One scholar writes:
Whenever you read the Psalms . . . you are praying, singing, and reading alongside a huge crowd of faithful witnesses throughout the ages. The words you speak have been spoken thousands—even millions—of times before. . . . As you read or sing or pray, off to your right stand Moses and Miriam, in front of you David and Solomon kneel down . . . while from behind come the voices of Jerome, St. Augustine. . . . Luther, Calvin, and more—so many more!
7. Praying the Psalms arouses us to warmth in our relationship with God.
Finally, praying the Psalms is God’s antidote to coldness of heart in our walk with Christ. We know that we ought to find the truths of the gospel and the person of Jesus Christ thrilling and heart-warming, but the reality is we sometimes feel so cold, dull, empty of zeal and fervor. How are we to be brought out of the spiritual refrigerator and into the oven of fervent love for Christ? The Psalms are a significant part of the provision God has given to us for just this purpose.
Have I persuaded you? I hope so! I’d be so pleased to draw you into the same passion for the Psalms that has long stirred my affections for God.