Pastors Ben Ramirez and Jonathon Hicks share insights regarding prayer.
Prayer has always been difficult for us. We are pastors and must give advice on how to pray, but we hardly even knew how. It became clear that we needed a guide, both personally and for those we shepherd, because we all find praying to the Invisible hard, torn between devotion and doubt.
This article shares what we have learned about prayer from one hundred fifty “prayers”: the Psalms. These have guided Jewish and Christian saints into deeper relational devotion to God through a plethora of emotions fueled by doubt. Two of us write this article because the Psalms are our collection of prayers, not my collection. They are by nature corporate because they are shared.
We will treat this collection in three parts — introductory, lament, and praise — and share insights regarding prayer.
First, let’s lay some groundwork. Psalms 1 and 2 declare blessings to introduce the whole book. Combined, they make up the foundation upon which the rest of the collection stands. Psalms indicates that the one who is blessed prays in surprising ways that teach the devoted and doubters alike to commune with God.
Psalm 1 declares blessed the one who lives fully immersed in “the law of the Lord” (vv. 1, 2). This person forsakes joining arms with the wicked, because their path will surely perish. That is a guarantee, a promise. But for the person whose humble delight is fascination with the Scriptures, the Lord promises provision. Our blessedness is not found in what evils we can simply avoid but solely in the declarations of God. We are called blessed when we live out the Word of God to accomplish every good work, through God’s grace.
In Psalm 2, nations and peoples plot against the Lord, threatening the Anointed One. However, the same Lord is enthroned in heaven, rebuking and terrifying His adversaries because He has installed His King in Zion. The psalmist issues a warning to become a servant of God, for God’s anger is not directed at those who trust Him. God does not reject the ones who come to Him in trust with confession of burdens or praise. He welcomes our burden and our praise because He is the mighty King and cares for us when we depend on Him.
Conversely, plotting and scheming against the Lord in distrust ignite His wrath. It is better to submit and take the psalmist’s advice to kiss the Son, because “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (v. 12b).
Once we abide in God’s blessings found in delighting in God’s law and trusting in Him, we can move to the rest of the Psalms. If we do not, then the rest of the book will not apply to us.
The blessed find that both lament (which means “complaint”) and praise well up in their soul. The reason is simple. When we are declared blessed, we sometimes receive blessings that we expect, and we praise God for that. But other times we don’t receive expected blessings, and we lament to God because of that.
Psalms of lament
Due to these expectations, it has been our experience, in our lives and when reading Psalms, that lament comes first. Although Psalm 3 follows the declaration of blessing in Psalm 2, the psalmist begins by stating that many people claim that God will not bless him through deliverance. He proceeds to remind all that God has been a good shield and answers when he calls out (vv. 3-6). In verse 7, these two sections collide in a lament: “Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God!”
There is a problem in this psalm that the psalmist initially dismissed, as if it were only the “many” who think, “God will not deliver him” (v. 2). In reality, the psalmist feels doubt and at the end in verse 7 pleads to God for deliverance. A marvelous lament is this first psalm to follow the introductory songs. The psalmist here echoes many of our experiences. His hope was for the immediate blessing of deliverance, but it was not so immediate. Thus, he waits and laments.
This honest complaint in Psalm 3 is a surprise after we’ve trod through the introductory psalms’ optimistic declaration of blessedness. We would imagine that life for those who are blessed would be wonderful and that their prayers would be ceaseless praise. However, we find that the life of the blessed person is a struggle and that they take this struggle to God in prayerful lament. The psalmist’s delight in the law and trust in God as King allows him to pray his lament.
But let’s not stop here; the lament psalms grow in number and amplitude with each page we turn. Psalms 39 and 88 are without a doubt the darkest in this prayer book, and they show us that lament doesn’t have to end in pietistic niceties.
At the conclusion of both of these laments we hear, “[God] Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again before I depart and am no more” (39:13) and “You [God] have taken from me friend and neighbor — darkness is my closest friend” (88:18). These show that sometimes those residing between devotion and doubt are so consumed with doubt that they must let their prayers end in dismay, because that is where their heart is.
We must repeat, though, that the sheer fact that this deep dismay is spoken to God demonstrates that the psalmist trusts Him and has been meditating on His law. If the psalmists of Psalms 39 and 88 were not living out Psalms 1 and 2, then they would have sought other ways to soothe their depressed and doubt-filled souls. We see that once we reside within the first two psalms, downcast souls speak to God, and yet they are not changed quickly.
Psalms of praise
As one trusts in God and lives according to His ways, it is not all bleak; God fulfills His promises. We see this in the psalms of praise as flashes of joy begin to fill the book. Although the beginning of the collection is dominated by lament in Psalms 3-7, we hear the first reverberations of praise in Psalm 8 that will eventually conquer the landscape in chapters 145-150.
The themes in praise psalms are intertwined in Psalm 8. YHWH is “our Lord,” and His name is majestic “in all the earth” (vv. 1, 9). Furthermore, we see that this majesty is displayed in history throughout the cosmos. In the case of Psalm 8, creation itself displays God’s majesty as Creator and Sustainer (vv. 2, 3, 7, 8). Lastly, we see the theme of humanity being just another work of God’s fingers. Yet in God’s plan, humanity is raised to a position just below the angels (vv. 4, 5).
The understanding of humanity within this plan brings the psalmist back to worship and praise of the majestic Lord. For the one who trusts God and considers His words continuously, God’s greatness is fully realized, and thus, worthy of praise.
But again, let’s not stop there. Beginning with Psalm 8, praise eventually overtakes lament. The end of this prayer book is dominated by six praises. The promises are fulfilled; there is no more doubt, and praise alone remains. For the one who abides in God’s declared blessedness, praise will in the end be the last song: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord” (150:6). Although by the conclusion of the Psalms readers are brought to praise, they are allowed to abide in lament when God’s promises are not evidenced in their life.
Guided through Psalms
For those struggling somewhere on the spectrum of doubt and devotion, the book of Psalms provides a guide for how to approach God in prayer. The psalms teach us to express our lament to God so that our relationship with Him will be strengthened during times of struggle. A foundation of trusting in Him and delighting in His ways allows for honest communication and relationship with our Lord. This naturally leads to praise because He is the good King.
We commend you, wherever you fall on the spectrum of devotion and doubt, to be found as blessed, to pray praises and laments until that day when only praise comes — when He wipes every tearful lament from our eye and all His promises are fulfilled. On that day we will all corporately sing praise.