Praying through the Psalms


Below is a biblical theology of the Psalms and why Christians should pray through them:

God as Prayer


Andrew Louth — in his very interesting series of lectures on Eastern Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy: A Personal Introduction — has a fascinating examination of who God is.

It is fascinating, because Louth takes an approach which I had never read before. In a usual western approach to proper theology — the theology of God — one examines God by looking at his nature or attributes, who he is in his essence or being.

The emphasis within the Eastern Christian church, however, is not to see God first and foremost as a being to be studied. Rather, Eastern theology emphasizes that God in his essence is a true mystery. We cannot truly know him in his being. We can only know him as he has revealed himself through history and redemptive acts (Western Christianity does not deny this of course, but following Aquinas et al, Western theology creates more categories with which to study God, for better or worse).

For this reason, Louth defines God as the one to whom we pray. Louth says this about God:

The ways Jesus wanted his disciples to remember him seems to me to suggest a different way of approaching the mystery of God. The Lord’s Prayer first and foremost teaches us that God is the one to whom we pray; he is not some ultimate principle or final value, but one to whom we can address our prayer, one with whom we can enter into a relationship. We call him “Father”; we are his children, his sons and daughters.

God is the one to whom we pray. Now, without this being wrong in my mind, when I first read this paragraph, I thought, “Yes I pray to God; but what is he? Yes, God is a personal being with whom I can interact, but what sort of being am I interacting with?” This definition of God seems to have no handles.

To flesh out what he means, Louth interacts with the numerous Christological and Trinitarian controversies which plagued the first centuries of the church. Who was Christ? And what was his relation to the Father? Without going into detail about all the opinions which were finally rejected, the Council of Nicaea finally articulated that Jesus was homoousios of the Father; put another way, Jesus Christ owns the same divine nature or substance as the Father. Later on, the Holy Spirit was argued to be homoousios as well.

What this all amounts to is that Christians worship one divine being who exists in three distinct persons; Or, we worship the Trinity. But what sort of existence does this Triune Being live? Louth, now having context, answer that this Triune being which we worship lives a life of reciprocal prayer and love! Or, God is in himself prayer. 

To concretize this concept of God as prayer, Louth brings in a doctrine first articulated by John Damascene called perichoresis. He says:

[John of Damascene] introduces a concept that had not hitherto been used with much confidence in relation to the Holy Trinity: the idea of perichoresis, interpenetration or coinherence. The persons of the Trinity are not separate from each other, as human persons are, rather they interpenetrate one another, without losing their distinctiveness as persons, their reality coincides or coinheres…

It seems to me that the doctrine of perichoresis, coinherence, that John introduces in the Christian theology, expresses well the realization that within the Trinity there is relationship, a relationship expressed in prayer. There is, as it were, a kind of mutual yielding within the Trinity: the Father makes space for the Son and the Spirit…and Son and the Spirit yield to the Father as they turn to him in prayer.

In other words, God himself is a mutual community of divine prayer and submission. And, what Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer is that we are invited via the gospel to join this community of prayer. This makes prayer not simply communication with God, but communion with the divine communion of the persons of the Trinity! What wonder!


Praying to God as Father


Christ the True Vine Icon. This icon pictures the disciples of Christ being caught up and participating in Christ’s death and resurrection, akin to branches connected to the vine (John 15)

In Matthew 6, the disciples, lost as to how to pray, ask Christ for a teaching on prayer. What Jesus gives them (and us) is the prayer of the Christian. It is almost credal in its emphasis. It does indeed mirror lines from the Apostles’ Creed. Early church father Tertullian, called the Lord’s prayer the “epitome of the whole gospel”. I assume, at least, that Jesus expected his disciples to memorize it, to know it intimately. To chew on the meaning of the lines, and to pray it often. This applies to the disciples of our age too!

One of the lines with which I’m almost always astonished as I pray, is the first line: “Our Father in heaven”.In this simple, short line, Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their Father. This command would almost certainly have been alarming to the disciples. Reason being is because the disciples could not conceive of calling God Father. 

In the OT, the Jewish people did understand Israel corporate to be God’s firstborn son. This is evident in passages such as Hosea 11:1 (a passage, interestingly, that Matthew depicts Jesus as fulfilling and subsuming in himself!). Israel was redeemed and adopted by God from their bondage to Egypt. However, no individual Jew would ever call God their Father. They related to God corporately, covenantally. Individually, however, Jewish people would not conceive to relate to God in such an intimate manner.

Connected to this is the reality that although all human beings can in some way attribute Fatherhood to God (Paul does in his discourse at Mars Hill in Acts 17), there is no human being that is properly, or by nature, God’s child. God is totally and utterly unique in his essence and substance. His holiness and “otherness” cannot even be comprehended by man. Certainly his nature isn’t shared by man. How then can a person even conceivably, realistically, call God a Father? This would have certainly been in the disciples’ minds.

So what did Jesus mean by commanding his disciples to call God their Father?

Frederick Bruner has a helpful discussion on this:

The church confesses in its Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord”. Jesus’ relation to the Father is absolutely unique. He and he alone, is God’s Son by nature… Therefore, when Jesus gives us the right to call his Father by the address “our Father”, he is passing on something of his own priceless relation to God. This is Jesus’ greatest gift in the Lord’s Prayer… Jesus’ exquisetly simple reference to God as his “father”…, and now most intimately his gift to his disciples of “Our Father”, indicates a remarkable relation between Jesus, God, and Jesus’ disciples (Christbook, 296)

Bruner makes some theologically important points here (concentrate!): he points out from the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus, being God, has an actual, substantial connection to God the Father: he is God’s “only Son”; he shares in the same substance — the “homoosios”, as the Nicene creed says — as God the Father, and is thus his “eternally begotten Son”. When Jesus became a man, he did not give up his divine nature; rather, He added to himself a human nature — as the Chalcedonian creed says, he is one divine person with two natures. In this way then, Jesus the man, could call God Father and really mean it, because he had a true substantial relation to God the Father. He is truly the only man who can call God Father.

Going back to the Lord’s Prayer now: in giving us the command to call God “our Father”, what is Jesus teaching us?

Jesus is in fact expounding on one of the great mysteries of the gospel. As the early church fathers put it: God the Son became a son of man, that sons of men might become sons of God. That is to say, Christ came down and assumed what properly belongs to us, to give us a share in what properly belongs to him: Sonship (cf Gal 4:4). He united himself to human nature, that by by faith in him, we beggarly humans might be united to him and share in his relation to the Father.

I put the icon up top to illustrate this point. By faith, we are as it were, connected to Christ as branches to a vine; and he takes us up into himself — all the way up — to God the Father. And we gain filial relation to God the Father by the life of his trunk, or to say another way, by his Spirit. We are “born again” and receive supernatural life, and are adopted as true sons in the Son. We become, as a Peter put it, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and can relate to God really and truly as sons. What a dizzying, amazing truth that is!


Prayer and God’s Goodness (even when it doesn’t feel like it)


In Matthew 6-7, Jesus expounds on a teaching in which he exhorts his followers not to worry, because those who are in him have almighty God as their Father. In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus tells his people that if God the Father has an overall general care for the world, why would he not have a very specific and powerful care for his sons and daughters? The answer, of course, is that if God cares for flowers, grass, and birds, he cares infinitely more for his children! Because of this, anxiety is something that should never characterize God’s people. Blood-bought, redeemed, and adopted sons and daughters of King Jesus have a sovereign, all-knowing, all-powerful God who does only good for his people. Why should we then worry? Answer: we shouldn’t!

Jesus finishes this teaching with a parable. And he tells us that because God is our Father, we should bring our needs and worries to God in prayer often. Christ tells us that if an earthly father “who [is] evil, knows how to give good gifts to [their] children, how much more will your Father who is heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:11). Hopefully you can see the logic here. Even fallen sinful fathers desire good for their children; how much more does a perfect, all-powerful, all-caring, eternal Father desire your good? It’s almost silly to compare the two! And because our infinite God has a perfect and faithful commitment to his children, Christians should pray, trusting that God will take care of his people. Paul adds to this thought, telling us that God works only for the good of his people (Rom 8:28). All things happen necessarily for our betterment, our growth, and for our joy in God the Father. God is ruthlessly committed to his peoples’ good. And so in prayer, we should trust that God responds to our needs with good things (Mt 7:11).

But this begs the question: what about the times when God does not answer our prayers? What about the times when it seems that God does not give us the good for which we had been praying?

As I was praying with my wife last night, I thought about this for a while. And it struck me that my definition of good and God’s definition of good may at times be different. Much of the time they are the same; but from my finite perspective, often the things I perceive as good are really not good at all. From God’s infinite, all-knowing perspective, his good may be very different from ours.

In fact, this issue is addressed in scripture: sometimes our perspective on what “good” is needs to be changed in order to pray for God’s definition of what good is. Jesus says in John 15, “if you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (Jn 15:7). This is such an interesting verse, because it gives us a condition for answered prayer: We must abide in Jesus, and his teaching must abide in us. What this verse means is that when Christians abide in Christ, and allow his teaching to take root in us, we will ask for things which God already wants for us. We will ask for things that God sees as good, because we also see them as good. This verse echoes Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart”. Again, this implies that what God delights in will become what we delight in. God’s definition of “good” will also become oursand so we can pray for whatever we want! 

What this also means though is that often when we pray for what we perceive to be “good”, God will not see it as good. And when we don’t receive that perceived “good”, we must trust that there was a better, more fuller good that God has in store; and because of that, God answers “no” to our good in exchange for his good. And though we don’t have the eternal perspective that God has, we do have a perfect Father in whom we can trust.

Whenever we don’t get an answer to prayer for something “good”, we must trust in God’s infinite and better goodness. We must trust that God is a good Father who only gives us what is good. We must trust that God is faithful and committed to give us this good, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

And one thing I do know: God’s good gifts are better than my own measly impression of what “good” should be. I want that more than anything else.