I’ve always found it refreshing to set aside time for prayer and the study of the Bible each day. At the same time, I always felt a nagging guilt, a gaping hole, in my prayers. It’s easy to pick up the Bible to read, but its not always easy to know what to say to God.
So I’d sit in silence. And this was great, for a while. Then, I’d write prayers. This worked too, for a bit.
But that sense of lack was still there.
Growing up Pentecostal, I had been taught that prayer needed to be from the heart. I still think it does. But what that meant to some of the teachers in my life was that prayer should be spontaneous, extemporaneous. But I knew I had to find a way to cultivate more depth to my prayers than what I could muster off the top of my head.
I craved structure, something to orient my prayer life. I even remember one Christmas, as a young teenager, asking my parents to buy me “rhema cards” that were sold by Seattle’s City Church. It wasn’t until after college that I finally realized what I was missing was a rhythm of daily prayer, something with a set structure. I didn’t want just any prayers, but ones soaked in Scripture and ones that stood the test of time. The lights went on for me when I started worshipping at an Anglican Church and when I began to integrate the Book of Common Prayer into my devotional life. This opened up a whole new world to me, but what was really striking was something I’d had with me all along: the Psalms.
Everything changed for me when I started to pray the Psalms. They gave voice to the whole range of my experience and put words to nascent feelings I didn’t know I had. They taught me what it meant to be human and in relationship with a loving, intimate, mysterious God.
Across the Church, both in time and space, the Psalms have played a crucial role in worship. Whether it’s in the liturgical life of the Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholic Church or more contemporary worship songs such as Matt Redman’s “Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul.” This is to say nothing of countless prayers whispered quietly by bedsides, as Christians all over the world pray the psalms in their devotional lives.
Why do the Psalms figure so prominently in our worship as Christians? Why does this part of the Bible have such a central role in the way we address God?
One reason for this is that the Psalms capture all that it is to be human. They express our wonder at the created world and the beauty of the Bible itself (Psalm 19), our feelings of despair and longing for God (Psalm 42), expressions of joyful worship (Psalm 150) and even the abandonment we sometimes feel at the hands of God (Psalm 22).
This last point is particularly important because in the Psalms, God gives us permission to feel all that we experience as human beings living in a broken world, and he invites us to vocalize those feeling to him. Sure, we can express our praise and joy, but we’ve always known that. But we can also vent our anger, pain and sense of loneliness.
God gives us permission to cry out:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. – Psalm 22:1-2
This is liberating, if you’re like me, because at least as often as I feel deep gratitude and peace in the presence of God, there are times where I feel like I’ve been cast off. If it weren’t for the Psalms, I don’t know how I’d be able to deal with these feeling. If it weren’t for the Psalms, I’d think my faith was somehow deficient.
If it weren’t for the Psalms, I’d feel like I’d have to deny what it means to experience a human life. But by graciously giving us the Psalms, God has sanctified our human experience and drawn it into His own life in the Bible. And even more wonderfully, He drew it into Himself. Praying the Psalms makes me know what it is to be human.
You see, the Psalms make me human by giving voice to all I could experience. Especially ones like Psalm 22, which the Lord cried out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It’s one thing to pray the Psalms as they are, but I sometimes find myself wondering if my despair is really OK. The Word of God is then taken up by the Son of God on the cross. I see the Psalms’ fulfillment and I know that it is OK for me to question in the same way. Then I begin to feel this is what it means to be human and that it’s OK.
Cole Hartin is a lay pastor at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Islington on the West end of Toronto, and a PhD candidate in theological studies at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. With his wife and two sons, he explores the city’s fancy coffee shops and dirty thrift stores. Cole writes regularly at the Covenant blog.