Learning to Pray with Jesus — Bonhoeffer on Praying the Psalms

For years I’ve read the Psalter daily; there is no other book I know and love so well as this one.  I can no longer read Psalms 3, 47, 70 and others without hearing them in the music of Heinrich Schutz.  Knowing them in this way belongs to the greatest enrichments of my life.”

So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents from his Nazi prison cell at Tegel on May 15, 1943.

Throughout his life Dietrich Bonhoeffer not only read the Psalms, but was spiritually formed by them. It was his simple, yet rigorous, discipline of daily reading the Psalms that was so significant in his spiritual formation and the development of his courageous life.

It is a rich source of inspiration for us to be immersed in the Psalms and also to read Bonhoeffer’s amazing last book: Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible.  Bonhoeffer wrote this book in the late 1930s at the height of the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler. The Nazi Board for the Regulation of Literature fined and chastised Bonhoeffer for publishing the book as subversive — they did not approve of any book that lifted up the Old Testament or the Old Testament people of God, the Jews.  Although they removed the fine, they banned all future publications — and arrested and executed him before he could publish anything else.

Bonhoeffer’s little book on Psalms desires to retrieve the Psalms as the prayer-book of Jesus.  Like Luther, Bonhoeffer understood the Psalms as first and foremost prayers in the mouth of Jesus.  He saw Psalms as side-by-side with The Lord’s Prayer as Jesus’ answer to the plea of the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray.”  The Lord’s Prayer is to be the lens through which we read the Psalms as we pray with Jesus whenever we pray the Psalms.

What Bonhoeffer found so amazing was that in the Psalms we have both the Word of God and the prayers and songs of human beings.  These are the prayers that Christ Himself prayed every day, which means that we find in the Psalms both the prayer of God-the-Son’s human heart and the inspired (God-breathed) Word of God. (Just ponder this for a minute!)

The Holy Scriptures are the Word of God to us. But since prayers are human words, the only way prayers could come to be in the Bible — the only way human words could come to be God’s own Inspired Word — is as the prayers of God-the-Son to God-the-Father.  Jesus Christ brought before His Father every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, every hope of humankind.  In Jesus’ mouth, the Word of God becomes again a human word.  Let us make no mistake about it, the Bible is the Word of God even in the Psalms.  Then are these prayers to God also God’s own word?  Yes, once we remember that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, from the Word of God-the-Son, the Son of God, to God-the-Father. In His mouth, human words become the Word of God, and if we pray His prayer with Him, the Word of God becomes once again a human word.

Praying is so much more than “pouring out one’s heart to God.”  Instead, prayer means finding the way to God and speaking with Him, which is why the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. And so Jesus taught them — by giving them the Lord’s Prayer and the Biblical Book of Psalms, the prayer-book Christ Himself used every day.

Luther said, “Whoever has begun to pray the Psalter earnestly and regularly will soon take leave of those other, easy little prayers of their own and say:” There is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire in my own prayers which I find in the Psalter.”

Those who pray the Psalms soon find they should be prayed in their entirety since they mirror life with all its ups and downs, its passions, and its discouragements.Bonhoeffer loved to pray the Psalms because they offered him the sustaining and liberating foundation of God’s own words in coping with the vicissitudes of everyday living.

Bonhoeffer writes: “If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.  We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and then we shall be able to pray them.  It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at any given moment in our heart.  If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart.  Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray.  If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer.  But God wants it otherwise.  The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”

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