How to Pray the Psalms

 “For every man, on every occasion, can find in the Psalms that which fits his needs, which he feels to be appropriate as if they had been set there just for his sake…"  -Martin Luther


Image: The Prayer Foundation logo (with white Celtic cross on a green shield).

By Monk Preston

(Co-Founder and President, The Prayer Foundation)


Photo: of a lit candle.

Image: portion of illuminated manuscript page from "The Book of Kells."Photo: Glacial lake in Canadian Rockies.  Photo Copyright 2006 S.G.P.  All Rights Reserved.  “...the Psalms have a unique place in the Bible because most of the Scripture speaks to us, while the Psalms speak for us.”  -Athanasius of Alexandria

The spiritual disciplines are not ends in themselves...

It has been wisely said that one is always a beginner in prayer, no matter how many decades one has been praying.  However, keeping that in mind as a spiritual truism, it is also our cherished hope to learn, experience, and by the grace of God progress somehow in this most important area of our walk with God.

The spiritual disciplines are certainly not to be viewed as ends in themselves---if we are reading the Bible, praying and fasting to become "more spiritual", and when interrupted, react in anger or impatience to our spouse or children, we have obviously missed the point, and are no longer, moment by moment, "walking in the Spirit". 

  Faith, hope, love, "and the greatest of these is love".  "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance..."  These all come out of, and are manifested because  This is "walking in the Spirit" and "abiding in Christ"  This is "true religion and undefiled".  This is real, authentic, lived Christianity; our calling and ministry.

...abiding in Him, is an end in itself.

Being in communion with God, maintaining our relationship with God, our abiding in Him, is an end in itself.  There can be no true prayer without true communion with God.  Any so-called "prayer" that does not consist of a relationship with God is not real prayer. 

I recently read an interesting comment by George Muller.  He said that the first thing upon awakening, he would go to prayer, but sometimes it had taken him fifteen minutes or even half an hour to get "in the Spirit".  Then he decided to go to the Word of God first, and to read until he was led to pray.  This solved his problem.

It has long been my personal practice upon arising to pray Psalm 5 (I got the idea to so from the writings of Athanasius of Alexandria).  In the Psalms the Word of God and prayer are already combined, so albeit unwittingly, I have also managed to avoid that problem.

...praying for a complete hour daily.

Now I will talk about ways of praying for a complete hour, set aside daily.

One can simply decide to do it, as I did when a new Christian over thirty-five years ago.  In the beginning it will often be the hardest thing you have ever done.  An hour will often seem like it is lasting for days.  How can you think of enough to say, to pray for, to fill up an entire hour?  (yes, there are also moments of ecstasy!).  

You have prayed for seemingly two hours, but if you look at the clock, a mere five minutes has passed!  (sometimes I would get out of bed to pray my "hour of prayer" at 3:00 a.m. and twice upon doing so I realized that I must have "dozed off", because my head suddenly jerked up.  This does, however, make the hour go by more quickly!).  "Just do it", as the Nike slogan goes, and you will find that after a year or two (hopefully even less!), you will have learned how to pray.

Another way is to divide the hour up into all of the various types of prayer: Praise, intercession, thanksgiving, petition, and so forth.  Dick Eastman's fine book "The Hour That Changes the World" has a pie-chart doing this and covers all of the different types of prayer excellently.  But you will find that sometimes you still run out of words, have gone through all of the entire "hour's" worth of types of prayer in the first ten minutes, and still wind up having the same problem.

...everyone prays differently.

The fact is, everyone prays differently.  Historically, spiritual advisors in monasteries do not like to give too specific advice for this reason.  So maybe as a new Christian my "learn to swim by jumping in the water" approach was all right---"one size fits all".  However, I myself actually learned how to swim by taking lessons as a child at the YMCA.  This is why the The Prayer Foundation website has all types of prayer "techniques" and practices, articles and book reviews posted on it.  No one could possibly practice them all, but one or more of them may be right for, and greatly helpful to one person, while others of them will be helpful to another person.

Let God Himself teach you how to pray through His Word...

This is something I have found for myself to be very beautiful and spiritually rewarding.

Let God Himself teach you how to pray through His Word, in person (remember Mary and Martha?  Have a seat at at Christ's feet, in His presence). 

There is an entire section of the Bible that God provided for just this purpose.  Its called the Book of Psalms, and it is not "instructional" learning, it is "hands on" learning. can't learn how to sail from a book...  

I discovered the same principle to be true when learning how to sail.  When I took sailing classes many years ago the teacher gave us a "safety, theory, and basics" instruction manual to read. "Memorize it," he told us, "but remember that you can't learn how to sail from a have to actually get out on the water in a sailboat!"   

Set aside an hour per day (or a half an hour per week, or whatever you choose).

Pray for the current needs.  This will take you about five minutes, some days perhaps as much as ten. Take as long as you need.  Pick a favorite Psalm and start memorizing the first verse.  Slowly, meditatively---probably over a period of weeks---it does not matter if you ever finish memorizing this Psalm (you will, though). are praying to Him in a Biblical way used by all of the great saints in the Bible...  

God is speaking to you through his Word and you are praying to Him in a Biblical way used by all of the great saints in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.  If you are allowing an hour a day, you will sort of know one or two verses by the end.  The next day you will have forgotten them.  Start over.  It will be easier this time and you may even get a little farther.

Eventually you will have an entire Psalm memorized and you can now pray it.  I imagine that our Lord Jesus Himself, James, Peter, John, and all of the other saints, all began learning how to do this when they were about three years old!  Perhaps it's about time you did, too!  

Sorry, you're praying too fast!  You didn't even hear the words!  

This is why many modern Christians only pray extemporaneously (you should pray extemporaneously too, its not an either/or situation).  Though, as you have probably noticed, there are many whose "extemporaneous" prayers often fall into the exact same repetitive phrases. 

...slow down another gear into the "meditative" mode (thinking deeply on the Word of God, savoring it).

Slow down so that you're hearing the words---about the same speed as if you were reading them out loud.  Your mind is now engaged on God's Word as if you were reading it.  Much better!

Now slow down another gear into the "meditative" mode (thinking deeply on the Word of God, savoring it).  Now the words of the Psalm have lowered from your head to your heart, and you can feel it there.  We want to "hide the Word" there, "in our hearts".  It will help later in standing against sin.  Right now it will help in getting into God's presence and sitting at Christ's feet.

"But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night." -Psalm 1:2 will be able to pray Psalms for the entire hour...

As time passes, and more and more Psalms are memorized, you will eventually be able to pray Psalms for the entire hour (or longer) without memorizing at all.  Or you may want to continue praying/meditation/memorizing.  You can also "mix and match".  And by your doing this, the Lord may guide you into a different way of spending your personal prayer-time.  

At that point just ask the Lord what He would have you to do.  That's what its all about, anyway.

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An Open Letter On Praying the Psalms:


I am having trouble getting a feeling for the difference between praying the Psalms, as opposed to just reading them---(especially on occasions when the Psalm doesn't seem to apply to my life at the time.)
Can you explain to me what the difference is/should be---in my head or in my heart?  How do I feel that I am praying them?
Thank you,

Comment from The Prayer Foundation ™: Usually when a verse really is applicable to something happening in your life (often some sort of problem) is where you will really feel that you are praying it.  Praise, thanksgiving, and repentance/asking for forgiveness, of course, are always applicable.

Praying (slowly) any Psalms that you have memorized (most people begin with Psalm 23 and Psalm 117) will give you the "feel" for it.  It is often much easier for most Protestant Evangelicals to pray a Psalm that they have memorized.  

Those of us who have not come from a Protestant Denomination where written prayers are used in Church (as in the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian Churches) have almost a "mental block" about tending to reject written prayers as "not really praying".  It can be very difficult for us.

This puts us in the  very strange position of rejecting prayers consisting of Holy Scripture and given by God specifically for that purpose, as being "no good, not really praying", while something we just make up out of heads is "real praying" (they're both "real praying", of course!). 

We can do both.  Praying extemporaneously is necessary and scriptural;  praying the Psalms is actually praying scripture, (God speaks to us as we speak to Him) and can be wonderful, especially (to us) when they are memorized.  

On the other hand, I had a Professor in Bible College who had never memorized even one Psalm, but had prayed five of them daily (he liked to pray them out loud in his private prayer time) for over twenty years.  He could tell you everything in each one of them from memory (but not word for word), and considered this practice to be of the greatest benefit to him in his Christian life. 

We spend an hour a day either praying Psalms that we have memorized and/or  praying/memorizing new ones, in which case we are praying them in an attitude of prayer while we are memorizing.  This can be done for any length of time.


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