The Collect for this Sunday (the 10th after Trinity Sunday) is a prayer for prayer: “Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and, that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” If you think about it, it might make you wonder – how often, when I pray, do I ask for things that don’t please God? And if so, how do I fix that? You might find yourself exclaiming, with the apostles, “Lord, teach us to pray!”
When you search the Gospel books, you find a number of examples of Jesus’ prayers. He gave us what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Sometimes he prayed alone in private where no one could hear him. Sometimes he prayed aloud in public so people could hear him. Sometimes his prayers were intensely personal – “Father take this cup away from me!” Sometimes his prayers were incredibly broad, like when he prayed for the entire Church, present and future, in his “High Priestly Prayer” recorded in John 17.
As Anglicans, we tend to make a big deal out of the Prayer Book. There’s good reason for this, and we’ll get to that later, but first we need to understand the prayer book that’s in the Bible itself: the psalms. A number of times, we find Jesus praying the psalms, such as while he was hanging on the Cross – “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Other times, he quoted Psalms as referring to himself. These examples give us some strange and wonderful insight into the Psalms: when you and I pray them, we are praying about Jesus, with Jesus!
Many Christians today fall into two different extremes about praying. Some people think that praying is easy. Once you believe in Jesus, all you have to do is talk to him, and bam! you’re praying! The opposite is thinking that prayer is really hard, and something that only pastors and ministers and a few other really devout people know how to do, and so the best you can do is listen along. Both of these extremes are recognizing something true about prayer. Prayer is as simple as talking to Jesus. But its depths go far beyond that, to the point where you could spend years learning how to pray, and still feel like a beginner.
This is why the biggest book in the Bible is a collection of prayers. Whether you’ve been praying for sixty years or sixty days, the psalms show us and teach us how to pray like Jesus did. One end of prayer is easy: who you are, what your needs and desires are, and what is on your heart. The other end of prayer is hard: who God is, what his desires are, and what is on his heart. This is why we need the Bible, and especially the psalms; only through God’s Word can we get to know him personally and intimately in such a way that we can learn how to pray to him.
As an example, let’s look at Psalm 17 now, and see what we can learn about prayer from it.
How to pray Psalm 17
First of all, let’s look at the big picture of Psalm 17. It’s a cry of the innocent to God against the enemies who wrongly attack them. The structure of this psalm is called a chiasm: it progresses from the beginning to the middle, and then rolls back to end in the same way it began. The first (v1) and last (v15) verses both highlight the innocence of the person praying. Moving inward (v2 & v13-14), you find a plea to God for justice. Moving inward some more, there are descriptions of the situation: first (v3-5) how innocent we are and then (v10-12) how guilty our enemies are. Finally, in the center of the Psalm (v6-9) is the cry for help revealing a complete trust in God. This chiasmic structure is both a neat feature of poetry, and also a subtle way of highlighting the central importance of trusting in God, despite our situation.
One of the big challenges in trying to pray this psalm ourselves is an issue of pride: am I really as innocent as this psalm claims? Are my words and deeds as pure as it describes, and my lifestyle really centered around God so perfectly? Of course not. But remember, these psalms are not just the word of man; they’re also the Word of God. Jesus could pray this psalm honestly. God’s people who have gone before us and have since entered into glory can now pray this psalm honestly. As we read these words, and seek to offer them up to God as prayer, the only way we can pray this honestly is by praying this “in Christ.” Only “in Christ” are we pure and spotless, forgiven of our sins, and accounted righteous before God. Imagine praying this psalm alongside Jesus as he sweats in the Garden of Gethsemane. Imagine praying this psalm alongside the countless martyrs who were persecuted and killed for their faith. On our own, these words cannot come from us. But united with Christ and his Church Triumphant, their words become our words.
With that in mind, we can take on an additional perspective as we pray this psalm: the claims of innocence become instructions and reminders concerning what we are called to be like. Right now, I don’t have “lips free of deceit.” My works are not always guided by God. But we’re called to grow and mature in Christ. There is to be “no wickedness in my heart,” even “at night,” which means “in secret” where you think nobody can see you. Sometimes it’s easier to look sinless on the outside by hiding it on the inside. Many of you have barely heard William cry. But when he’s upset about something, he doesn’t hold back! He has a great public face, and that makes you think he’s the perfect baby – and it makes his parents look pretty great too. But if you go beyond the surface, you’ll find he can be just as grumpy as any other baby. So it is with our hearts; it is much easier to put on a public face of holiness, but inside we don’t “follow God’s way.” At the end of the day, we are to find satisfaction in seeking God and seeing his face.
Another challenge this psalm brings before us is the question of enemies. It is easy to think of people we don’t like, political parties we don’t like, other religions we don’t like, or other classes or other races that are different from ourselves. For the original psalm-writer, the enemies of God’s people were usually obvious: the Egyptian or Assyrian or Babylonian Empires, or any other neighboring kingdom who fought against them. But even then, their enemies were of a spiritual nature as well. The problem with the Babylonians was not that they were from Babylon, but that they served a different God. So it is with our enemies today: the enemy is not the person who has different views from us, but the person who persecutes Jesus and his Church. And ultimately, as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, our enemies aren’t really those people at all, but the demonic spiritual powers behind them that that influence those people to persecute Christ and his Church.
So this psalm teaches us we must be careful of pride when we pray: how innocent am I really? And this psalm also teaches us that we must be careful of wrath when we pray. For how do we pray against our enemies? We pray that God would be the one to give sentence (or vindication or judgment) against them, that God may confront them, that they may receive the ‘reward’ of their works, that God may remove them from their children so the next generation can grow up unstained by their parents’ sins. In all this, this psalm guides to pray that we may we see the right (or equal or just) outcome – not that we necessarily may cause that outcome. For, too easily, our reaction to the sins of others is sinful in itself. This psalm models godly anger by calling for God’s judgment. I don’t believe this means Christians are required to be pacifists in the sense that we must never bear arms. Rather, this psalm teaches us to focus on God’s justice over our own. Sometimes he works through governments to punish wrong-doers. Sometimes he gives them time to repent. Sometimes he allows evil to continue unchecked in order to refine and purify his people. We can’t always know what God is up to, and that is why we must begin by seeking his justice before jumping to our own conclusions.
So that’s Psalm 17. If you go through it more slowly, there’s always more depth to appreciate and more insight to explore. But rather than get anyone bogged down in that right now, I want to help equip you to do this on your own. Some of the die-hard Christians in the early centuries of the faith made it a spiritual discipline to pray all 150 psalms every day. Those who live in monasteries pray them all over the course of one week. The Book of Common Prayer orders for them to be prayed over the course of one month. This monthly pattern is much more manageable for people with jobs, families, and busy lives. And I cannot emphasize enough the value of praying the psalms!
Next week we’ll continue this lesson by putting psalm-praying into a larger context of your whole spiritual life. We’ll talk about other forms of prayer, reading the Bible, worshiping in church, and worshiping in private. But for now I want us to be focused simply on praying the psalms before we get into those other details. For this is a simple yet powerful ingredient toward a healthy Christian life, rooting us both in prayer and in God’s Word at the same time.