“Prayers are tools, but with this clarification: Prayers are not tools for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.”
Over the last few years the Psalms have become a consistent and cherished part of my life. All the ups and downs of life, the spectrum of emotions, the heights of praise and the valleys of fear and despair, they’re all in the Psalms. Most of the Bible recounts history or offers teaching, but in the Psalms, we also get a window into how some of God’s people have processed, praised, and prayed through life as God’s people.
Eugene Peterson can be a helpful guide in the Psalms, as a writer who cares about words, as a pastor who knows God and knows the struggles of God’s people, but also as a fellow pilgrim willing to speak honestly about the troubles and sorrows experienced in this life. He’s often willing to say things others won’t, but he also helps the reader reflect on truths deeply (though not quickly) and consider truths with new eyes. Like almost any author, I can find some things to question and quibble with, but Peterson always presses me to engage with and chew on the Bible in a profound way. In his book, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, he doesn’t provide a commentary on specific chapters as much as he provides tools to interact with the psalms, not just for learning, but for praying. Here are a few of my favorite quotes, giving you a sampling of the book, which I recommend.
“It is easy to be honest before God with our hallelujahs; it is somewhat more difficult to be honest in our hurts; it is nearly impossible to be honest before God in the dark emotions of our hate. So we commonly suppress our negative emotions (unless, neurotically, we advertise them). Or, when we do express them, we do it far from the presence, or what we think is the presence, of God, ashamed and embarrassed to be seen in these curse-stained bib overalls. But when we pray the psalms, these classic prayers of God’s people, we find that will not do. We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be. In prayer, all is not sweetness and light. The way of prayer is not to cover our unlovely emotions so that they will appear respectable, but expose them so that they can be enlisted in the work of the kingdom.” (100)
“Prayers are tools, but with this clarification: Prayers are not tools for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” (2)
“Our habit is to talk about God, not to him. We love discussing God. The Psalms resist these discussions. They are not provided to teach us about God but to train us in responding to him. We don’t learn the Psalms until we are praying them.” (12) “The Psalms train us in a conversation of language, from talking about God to talking to God.” (42)
“praying [the Psalms], not investigating them, is the Christian’s main business.” (48)“the Psalms are not a textbook in which we study how others have prayed but a school in which we ourselves learn to pray.” (107)
“Prayer is the language of the people who are in trouble and know it, and who believe or hope that God can get them out. As prayer is practiced, it moves into other levels and develops other forms, but trouble—being in the wrong, being in danger, realizing that the foes are too many for us to handle—is the basic provocation for prayer.” (36)
“We lose nothing of our emotions except their tyranny. The gamut of emotions experienced in our human conditions is given full expression in the Psalms. We pray through each psalm and hit every note, sound ever tone of feeling that we are capable of and learn to be at home with all of them before God. But the feelings do not have the first and controlling word.” (87)
“A life of prayer forces us to deal with the reality of the world and of our own lives at a depth and with an honesty that is quite unheard of by the prayerless, and much of that reality we would certainly avoid if we could. Do we really want to feel this deeply? Do we want to think this far? The Psalms take us to the painful heart of rejections and alienations and guilts that we could live on the surface of much more happily.” (121)
“The end of prayer is praise. The Psalms show praise as the end of prayer in both meanings of the world: the terminus, the last word in the final Psalm 150; and the goal at which all the psalm-prayers arrive after their long travels through the unmapped back countries of pain, doubt, and trouble, with only occasional vistas of the sunlit lands, along the way.” (121)
“No matter how much we suffer, no matter our doubts, no matter how angry we get, no matter how many times we have asked in desperation or doubt, ‘How long?’, prayer develops finally into praise. Everything finds its way to the doorsteps of praise. Praise is the consummating prayer. This is not to say that other prayers are inferior to praise, only that all prayer pursued far enough, becomes praise.
This architectonic form, besides assuring completeness also suggests that there are no shortcuts. The thoughtful and painstaking process of selecting, arranging, and concluding is the exact antithesis of glibness. This is not a ‘word of praise’ slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted conclusion for the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that this is also going to take a while. Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs, at Psalms 146-150 with their acrostic foundation in Psalm 145. Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching toward praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on our feet, applauding, ‘Encore! Encore!’” (127)