The Psalms: A Vocabulary for Faith

This is a follow up post to “Pastoral Ministry and the Practice of Prayer.”

I have two daughters. Bailey is nearing three and a half years old. Hope just turned 18 months. Bailey speaks quite well. She has, as a matter of fact, since she was about 18-20 months old. I remember once during a check-up around that time that the pediatrician asked Carly, my wife, if Bailey has “between 5-10 words” (or something close to that) in her vocabulary. Carly nearly laughed. Bailey could probably say about five dozen words. “Oh yes,” Carly replied. “She definitely can.”

Hope, on the other hand, has second-child speaking syndrome. Her big sister often speaks to her and for her. So, she grunts, whines, points, or cries. She tells us she’s done with dinner by throwing her plate or food particles on the floor. She can say about 5-10 words, but not particularly well. She does not have a large vocabulary and, because of that, it is difficult for her to express and articulate her desires or feelings, likes and dislikes with words. We know she will mature and eventually learn our language. But it will require her to continue to be immersed in everyday vocabulary, led primarily by our speaking so that she hears, understands, and contextualizes our words in order that she, eventually, speak words of her own.

When it comes to the Christian life—the life of faith in the God of Scripture—I wonder how many of us live like an 18-month old second-child who has no vocabulary. If we are going to walk with and relate to and experience God, if we are going to know what he is like and how he acts and therefore properly respond to him, if we are going to express to him our desires and feelings, likes and dislikes, complaints and praises, confessions and thanksgivings, then we need a vocabulary of faith.

Enter the Psalms.

The Psalms provide us a vocabulary of faith—a basic and advanced grammar, if you will. In the the Psalms we encounter a new language that few of us have ever tried to learn and if we do learn it, even in part, it beautifully devastates and renews us at the same time. This book is the inspired prayer book of ancient Israel and it exposes us to the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience. And it is here we must turn if we are going to learn how to pray.

Tim Keller, in his new book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, comments,

There is no situation or emotion a human being can experience that is not reflected somewhere in the Psalms. Immersing ourselves in the Psalms and turning them into prayers teaches our hearts the “grammar” of prayer and gives us the most formative instruction in how to pray in accord with God’s character and will (Prayer, 255).

The Psalms draw us in and give us suitable words to praise God, thank God, complain to God, and repent of sins. They teach theology, yes, but more than that, they make theology real and felt. The Psalms give us an experiential dimension to our faith in order to keep us from cold-hearted intellectualism. In other words, the Psalms show what a real relationship with God is like. That’s what I want. Do you want that, too?

In the next few posts on prayer, I’ll talk about the depth of the psalms as a prayer book and also how I’m learning to use the psalms in prayer.

How have the Psalms shaped your prayer life? If they have not, what’s stopping you from learning a new language?