Can we learn how to pray like Jesus? We know he prayed in the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane. We hear snippets of his conversation with the Father in John 11 when he raised Lazarus from the dead and in Luke 23 when he hung from the cross. We listen in on his lengthy intercessory prayer on behalf of the disciples in John 17. And we possess a record of the definitive prayer he entrusted to his disciples in Luke 11, only moments after the Gospel tells us he was “praying in a certain place.”
But what exactly did Jesus say to his Father when he wandered the wilderness? What words did he return to again and again when he retreated to the mountains? And might we, too, wish to pray such words?
While at first glance it may seem impossible to discover what Jesus prayed—because the gospel writers did not include an extensive record of his prayer life—and while it may seem preposterous to seek to pray like the Second Person of the Trinity, I would like to suggest that the prayer life of Jesus and the goal of praying as he did is far simpler than we may initially imagine.
The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength.
How to pray like Jesus? Do what he did
How did Jesus pray? The Psalms tell us how. They tell us, at one level, everything we need to know about the habits that marked Jesus’ prayer life, and they offer us an opportunity to pray like he did.
A close reader of the Gospels discovers that Jesus repeatedly summons the language of the Psalter, particularly in moments of trouble. When challenged by the teachers of the law for his actions in the temple, for example, Jesus responds by quoting Psalm 8:2 (Matt 21:12–17). When the chief priests question his authority, Jesus appeals to Psalm 118 (Matt 21:23–27). And in conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus cites Psalm 110 as evidence of his Davidic vocation (Matt 22:41–45).
Predicting his betrayal at the hand of his disciple, Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9 (John 13:18). A little later he appeals to Psalm 35:19 to show how his ministry is the fulfillment of the law (John 15:25). On the cross, he gives voice to his acute pain by uttering the words of Psalm 22:1 (Matt 27:46). And in his final hours with the disciples, Jesus instructs them one last time, showing them how all things concerning himself “in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
For Jesus, the Psalms frame both his life and ministry because he has internalized the psalmists’ words through a lifelong habit. It is a habit we do well to emulate if we wish to be formed in the prayer life of Jesus, the faithful intercessor (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25).
Psalms as prayer
What then do we learn about the nature of prayer when we look to the Psalms? We learn that they are prayers for people who know already how to pray, and they’re prayers for those who don’t know how to pray at all. . . . The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it well: “The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength.”1
We learn also that we get to say all kinds of things to God in prayer. This may be one of the most surprising discoveries for newcomers to the Psalms. The Psalms don’t invite us to say only a few things to God—for example, only the “proper” or “holy” things one supposes God wishes to hear from us. The Psalms invite us to say all sorts of things, such as:
- You are holy (Ps 22)
- Help us (Ps 12)
- Forgive me (Ps 25)
- Why? (Ps 22)
- How long? (Ps 13)
- I am alone (Ps 88)
- Defend me (Ps 43)
- You are good (Ps 100)
- We shout for joy (Ps 98)
- Remember us (Ps 105)
- We praise you (Ps 66)
- Bless us (Ps 67)
- Thank you (Ps 100)
The Psalms show us what prayer looks like, what prayer sounds like, what prayer says to God—and it says quite a lot. It says what needs saying. It names the joy of good news in full-throated and wholehearted ways. It names also with full-gutted, wholly honest confession the sorrow and loss that accompany our pilgrimage on earth.
Psalms provide us with edited poetic language to give expression to our unedited emotions.
—W. David O. Taylor
No emotion is excluded from such prayer; no topic is out of bounds. The Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis rightly maintains that the Psalms “enable us to bring into our conversation with God feelings and thoughts most of us think we need to get rid of before God will be interested in hearing from us.”3
Again, this should come as good news for those of us who feel that we should always have our act together when we pray. With the Psalms on our lips, we can be confident that all of our hearts can be brought to God. In Tim Keller’s words, the Psalms “are a medicine chest for the heart.”4
In turn, the Psalms provide us with edited poetic language to give expression to our unedited emotions. Their structure frees us to “let it all out” in faithful ways.
But while personal prayer is always a basic concern of the Psalms, the Psalter would also have us pray for others—beyond our immediate interests. This includes, for instance, the sorrows of our neighbor, the need for justice in the world, the absurdity of evil, the reality of death, the gift of new life, the care of creation, and the requirement to bear witness to the nations of God’s steadfast love. The Psalms take us on an outward journey as often as they take us on an inward journey.
In doing so, the Psalms train us in the work of sympathetic and empathetic prayer. Why do sympathy and empathy matter to our prayer life? They matter because they are the way that we, like Jesus, can give care and receive care.
To pray the Psalms, on some days, is to feel for others what we may not feel at the moment. For example, to enter into my neighbor’s pain, as we read Psalm 88—when we actually feel joy and might prefer to read Psalm 96—is a way to exhibit the sympathetic love of God.
On other days, to pray the Psalms is to feel with others what we feel ourselves. To pray Psalm 51, for instance, on an occasion when I feel acutely the need for forgiveness, is to enter into my neighbor’s need for the forgiveness of God, whether or not his sins are familiar to me. In praying this way, we exhibit the empathetic love of God.
To pray in these two ways is to be trained in the kind of care that Jesus offers sinners and saints alike. On the one hand, to pray the Psalms with Jesus is to pray with the one who enables all faithful prayers. In praying this way, we are reassured that God attends to every aspect of our humanity. He sees and loves us. All aspects of our life— “all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries,” in Athanasius’ words—are carried up in Jesus’ own prayers and, by the Spirit, faithfully offered to the Father.5
On the other hand, to pray the Psalms with Jesus is to pray with the one who embodies our prayers. With Jesus, we too feel forsaken. With Jesus, we too feel God’s protection against enemies. With Jesus, we too feel the grief of loss and the pain of suffering. With Jesus, we too feel the life of God’s Spirit making us new again. And with Jesus, we too find ourselves gratefully singing the praises of God in the midst of the congregation.
In the end, to pray like Jesus does not, thank God, require a divine nature or the use of impressive language. It requires only a willingness to read these ancient but ever-new—and ever-renewing—words of the Psalms: to learn them, to love them, to pray them, to sing them, and to inwardly digest them, as Jesus himself did.
This post was adapted from the original post in the September/October 2020 issue of Bible Study Magazine.
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- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christ in the Psalms,” lecture given to students on July 31, 1935, quoted in Edwin Robertson, My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone (Guildford, UK: Eagle, 2001), 8.
Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (New York: Viking, 2015), viii.
- Athanasius, On the Incarnation (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 103.