Why the Psalms are Essential for Spiritual Growth

When people ask am what is a good place to start reading the Bible I often refer them to the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John), Paul’s letters known as Ephesians or Galatians, or the book of Exodus. Each of these books speaks of basic and deep truths about God and the revelation in Jesus Christ. But a quick next step for me is to encourage the inquirer to spend time in the book of Psalms. In fact, I have come to believe that the Psalms are essential for spiritual growth.

In the psalms, we learn how to connect with God through important spiritual practices of Scripture reading and prayer. The psalms are, first of all, part of God’s inspired word and, thus, reveal to us the character of God. As we read the psalms, we understand who God is and what it looks like to relate to Him. But the psalms are also the prayerbook of the Bible, teaching us how to hear God and respond to Him in prayer. The psalms bring together these two powerful resources—Scripture and prayer—like two wings that help us fly toward God in the spiritual life.

In the psalms, we also learn how to bring our whole selves to God. When you read the psalms, you will see both intellectual and emotional aspects of life brought into God’s presence. The thoughtful reflection upon the significance of God’s revelation in Psalm 119 sits right alongside the deep emotional heart-cries of Psalms 22 and 69. Not only that, but the entire range of human experience is captured in the psalms, from the heights of joy to the depths of despair. The psalmists are not afraid to bring fear, delight, shame, exuberance, repentance, and restoration into prayer with God. As we read and pray the psalms we learn that we, too, can bring our whole selves to God.

While there are many ways to read and pray the psalms, I would encourage two different approaches that I have found helpful. The first method is to read one psalm per day, while sometimes breaking up longer psalms into two or more days. After, or even while, reading the psalm, one can pray back to God all or portions of the psalm to God. If there is a verse that sticks out to you, stick with it in prayer. If the whole psalm captures you, then pray it all back to God. For example, the beloved Psalm 23 is an easy psalm to either pray verse by verse back to God, or to rest in prayer within one phrase, such as “he refreshes my soul.”

A second method for approaching the psalms is to read through the entire psalter over the course of one month, praying certain psalms in the morning and others in the evening. This is a common practice in many church traditions, perhaps most known through the daily psalm readings in the Book of Common Prayer. While this may seem like a lot to move through in a day, book-ending the day with the psalms helps us begin and end our day with God in prayer and Scripture. Many Christians recommend this approach to engaging with God in the psalms.

While there is much more that could be said, let me refer you to some of my other posts on the Psalms:

Crying to God from the Depths: learning to pray with Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
(Psalm 130:1-2)

The word translated in Psalm 130:1 as ‘depths’ refers literally to the deep places of the sea. In Isaiah 51:10, for example, the prophet asks the Lord: “Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made a road in the depths of the sea so that the redeemed might cross over?”

Metaphorically, the use of ‘depths’ signifies a place of serious need and vulnerability. In English, we speak of being in deep trouble. Or we say that we’re drowning when we feel buried by the demands of life.

Thus we can easily relate to the cry of the psalmist as he prays ‘out of the depths.’

Think of Jonah’s story, where his descent into the depths of the water – and eventually into the depths of the belly of the great fish – symbolize the depths of his trouble because he disobeyed God. And so he prays:

“In my distress I called to the Lord,
    and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
    and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
    into the very heart of the seas,
    and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers swept over me.
(Jonah 2:2-3)

There are times when we bring the depths on ourselves and there are times when others bring it upon us or circumstances beyond our control in a fallen world bring us into the depths.

God mercifully hears us with his ‘ears’.

The beauty of this psalm is that is shows us that are experience of the depths is not too deep for God. As it says in Psalm 139, verse 12, “even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

We can cry out to God from the depths. If rebellious Jonah can do it, then certainly we can turn to God in the depths of our rebellion and be heard. If adulterous David can do it, then certainly we can cry from the depths of our sin and be heard by God. If rejected Ruth can do it, then certainly we can cry out in rejection and God will hear us. If the enslaved Israelites can call out in Egypt, then certainly we can call to God from the depths of what binds us and God will hear us. I do not have enough breath to gather all the stories of men and women calling to God from the depths and finding God’s ears open to their cry. 

So, too, God hears our cry from the depths. And in hearing, He validates our cries and our suffering. His hearing tells us that our suffering within the depths is not meaningless. God has open ears to us and that is a sign of His great mercy. As one writer says: “The experience of God’s mercy leads one to a greater sense of God.”

So call out from the depths and let your prayers open the floodgates of God’s mercy of into the shallows of suffering.

Preaching the Psalms of Ascent: A Soundtrack for the Pilgrimage of Faith

Psalms of Ascent PT

An article I wrote for Preaching Today on preaching the Psalms of Ascent came out last week. This article came to life through my own journey of preaching the Psalms of Ascent at Eastbrook Church in late 2017 through a series entitled “Ascend: The Psalms of Ascent.” Thanks to Andrew Finch and Matt Woodley at PT, who have been a great encouragement to me and continue to provide me opportunities to write. I’m including an excerpt of the article below, as well as a link here to one of the sermons I preached from that series, entitled “Our Journey with God,” that PT is including on their website as well.

Since our kids have been young, one of the highlights of our road trips has been listening to music. In the “old days,” everyone would bring a favorite CD or two on the trip so we could take turns listening to music. These days, we create playlists or switch out smartphones, letting everyone have a turn at picking a song to share with everyone else. We learn a lot about one another through the music, even as we enjoy the travel experiences, and the beauty of God’s creation matched by the soundtrack for the journey.

Now, one of the most cliché phrases about human existence is that “life is a journey.” Like many such phrases, however, it is so overused because it seems so resoundingly true. That concept is woven throughout Scripture about our lives as human beings: we are on a journey, or pilgrimage, through our days. Ideally, that pilgrimage is with God but, regardless, journey is an accurate description of the human way of experiencing life.

One portion of Scripture where this is particularly clear is in a grouping of psalms known as the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134). While there are different ideas about what “ascent” is a reference to, the most widely supported idea is that these psalms were sung and prayed by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. These pilgrims traveled to the Temple in celebration of the three main festivals of the Hebrew people: Passover, Pentecost, and Booths (Exodus 23:14-17). No matter where they were, they would ascend toward Jerusalem because it was on the topographical heights, but also because it symbolized the spiritual high point where God dwells with human beings.

These journey prayers provided a soundtrack for the people of God, a spiritual soundtrack for the pilgrimage of faith. The Psalms of Ascent returned the Hebrew people to their nomadic faith roots in Abraham and the liberation journey of the Exodus with Moses. They served as a reminder that God’s people were a pilgrim people on the way with God.

The Pilgrim Way: relearning life as a journey with God from the faithful in Hebrews 11

pilgrim way.jpgAn old spiritual offers describes our life as Christians this way:

I am a pilgrim and a stranger, traveling through this wearisome land,
I’ve got a home in that yonder city, good Lord, and it’s not…not made by hands.

It is an overused description to say that life is a journey. The reason this idea is overused, even cliché, is that it is true. We are, as the Apostle Peter writes: “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). Day after day, year after year, we move along the twisting path of our lives until we reach some sort of destination. Of course, many people perceive the destination differently but the author of the letter to the Hebrews says that past people of faith “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth….seeking a homeland….they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

This theme returns throughout Scripture, coming to striking focus in the psalms of Ascent. The concept of pilgrimage guides the journey of the psalms of Ascent (see our seeries Ascend: A Study of the Psalms of Ascent), which is outlined as a practice of God’s people in Deuteronomy 16:16-17:

Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed.  Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.

Pilgrimage is something woven throughout the faith life of the Hebrew people. It is something Jesus Himself participated in with His family and neighbors, traveling to Jerusalem at least twice in his early life that are recorded in Scripture (Luke 2:22-38, 41-51), but likely more often than that.

Yet, pilgrimage is a foreign concept to most of us in North America. While we turn to vacations to help us recover from life, the idea of taking a religious journey is not something we search for too often. The concept of religious pilgrimage, however, is not only part of other faith traditions, but is woven into the history of Christianity as well. The Camino do Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, a well-worn pilgrimage route through Europe has become an increasingly well-known in North America, perhaps in part due to the movie “The Way” featuring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

In his book, The Way is Made by WalkingArthur Paul Boers relates his own journey on the Camino, offering insights about how this physical pilgrimage taught him about the spiritual pilgrimage of our life with God in Christ. Here is an excerpt that gives the feel of why we need to recovery pilgrimage as a guiding metaphor for our spiritual lives:

Pilgrimage in its truest sense is religiously motivated travel for the purpose of meeting and experiencing God with hopes of being shaped and changed by that encounter. Pilgrimages are often concretely physical – journeying to a particular place, perhaps with some extraordinary expense and exertion – and spiritual – one hopes to meet God in this travel.

An irony – indeed a danger – of pilgrimage is that we try to settle in a final destination, considering only that particular place holy and forgetting the call to be faithfully on the move for God. Think of Peter wanting to remain on the mountain where he, John and James (Santiago) experienced the transfiguration: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His suggestion is dismissed: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:5-6). Christian pilgrimage always calls us to further growth. As Origen wrote: “Travelers on the road to God’s wisdom find that the further they go, the more the road opens out, until it stretches to infinity.”

Pilgrimage sites are not merely an end in themselves. They are not strictly speaking even necessary. They richly symbolize the fact that our lives are to be a journey with and to God. Even if not all of us can afford or are able to go to famous places for prayer, every time we venture to church for worship we make a small pilgrimage to deepen our faithfulness. The Greek word paroikia means “sojourn” and is “also the root of English word ‘parish’, meaning a congregation of pilgrims.”

I love that phrase at the beginning of the last paragraph: “our lives are to be a journey with and to God.” Wherever we are today, let’s lift our legs for one more step, lift our hearts to our God, and fix our eyes on the eternal kingdom, which is just around the next bend in the road.

Why Does God Seem Distant?: The Holy Pursuit of the Hidden God

Distance of God

There are times when God feels distant. There are moments, particularly in times of suffering, when God seems silent. To enter into the stillness of God and to attend to the silence of God requires patience.

God is not a Labrador retriever who comes when we call. God is sometimes like the rain that comes when it will, whether the grass is green or the crops are failing.  Jesus told us that if we ask it will be given, if we seek we will find, and if we knock the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8), but the timing of the giving, the finding, and the opening is not ours to demand. That God will answer prayer happen is guaranteed, but when God will answer is not determined by the one who asks. The timing is in the hands of the One who gives, reveals, and opens.

I believe this is at least part of the meaning behind Psalm 40:1, which says: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” There is waiting in prayer and with God, who sometimes seems still and quiet from our perspective. This is echoed in 2 Peter 3:8-9, which addresses the timing of the parousia:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

It is actually God’s patience that causes the apparent delay here; a patience motivated by love for human lives. This reminds us that God’s distance, whether measured in minutes or miles, aims to stir something up within us.

Waiting on God.001

Sometimes that distance of God that we feel personally as waiting is an effort of God to bring a change within our lives, situation, or world. The Hebrew word most connected with the idea of change is shuv, which throughout the Hebrew Bible means to return to God (Hosea 14:1-3; Zephaniah 2:1-3). It is a highly relation concept, often paralleled by the word repentance, conveying that something is wrong between two parties that needs to be repaired; a breach that needs to be retraced through return. The distance of God, even the apparent hiddenness of God, is not random, as we often experience it, but has intention behind it. God aims to stir up our lives toward change and a longing for Him that outpaces anything else. It is a longing that should grip us so deeply that we feel dry and deadened without God. This is why the psalmist describes his longing for God in terms of dehydration in Psalm 42:1-2:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?

“Clouds and thick darkness surround him” (Psalm 97:2) not in order to keep us away but in order to incite our desire for Him even more. It is a desire marked by fervent longing that is evident throughout the Psalms (e.g., 42, 63), but it is also more than that.

When we wait upon God in His apparent distance, we often find ourselves feeling increasingly helpless. Our crutches are stripped away and we become more and more in need. God is bringing us back to the humble naivety witnessed in a child who is not even aware of its utter dependence upon an adult. The psalmist once describes the soul as “a weaned child with its mother” (Psalm 131:2), and Jesus called His followers to receive God’s kingdom “like a little child” (Luke 18:15-17).

Waiting on God.002

While it may not feel like it, waiting on God—looking for God in His apparent distance—is a work of grace from God. In a world where we used to believe we were capable and held power in the palm of our hands, God’s distance brings us into the necessary desperation by which we recognize our utter need (2 Kings 5; Luke 8:40-56; 17:11-19; 18:35-43). We spend a good deal of our life trying to avoid recognizing our utter powerlessness and only God, the almighty One, has both the power and tenaciousness to work us into the place of facing into our need. It is in that place, where we recognize that nothing and no one else can satisfy our deepest desires. When God taps into this hungry need it keeps us awake at night, singing songs of longing for God (Psalm 77). It eventually burns us with awareness of our sin that sends shivers of regret through our broken souls that rises in longing for wholeness (Psalm 51, 80). This longing burns brighter and stronger, making even the smallest taste of God more satisfying than all other goods or pursuits in life (Psalm 84:1-2, 10).

The distance of God and the waiting we experience is a gracious gift that leads us back to an encounter with the living God. It is the promise of God’s glorious presence ahead of us that spurs on in these times:

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

It is this longing that sets us on a journey with a focused destination. Over time the destination becomes less about a place and more about a being; that is, God Himself. As in the Psalms of Ascent, we are spurred on from faraway lands to return to the center of all our hopes and joys, which are only satisfied in a holy God, who is both loving and sometimes apparently hidden. All the distance, all the stillness, all the silence cannot hold us back from giving all for the sake of that holy pursuit.