Posted by: Walk.Build.Proclaim | July 16, 2013

“What Language Shall I Borrow? How About the Psalms?”

We are so excited to welcome a very special Guest Blogger Today. Gary Neal Hansen, author of one of my favorite books on prayer, Kneeling with Giants. Head Shot Gary Neal Hansen

Gary is sharing with us today some insights on Calvin and the Psalms.

“What Language Shall I Borrow? How About the Psalms?”


The medieval passion hymn “O Sacred Head” asks Jesus a great question:

“What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?”

That’s prayer’s essential problem: What can we say to the creator of heaven and earth?  Many feel that problem too deeply and give up.  Others, it seems to me, don’t take the problem quite seriously enough, approaching God bossily or flippantly.

The great Christian answer has always been “Try the Psalms.”

Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours know that the Psalms form the heart of every time of prayer. But it was Protestant reformer and theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) who helped me understand why we pray the Psalms — and helped me pray them with deeper understanding. (I say a lot about this in my chapter on Calvin in Kneeling with Giants but here’s the short version.)  Calvin described the Psalms under the metaphor of a textbook:

“I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”

A medical student learns all about the bones and nerves and organs of the human body in an anatomy text. A Christian can learn about his or her own inner life (and the inner life of every other person) by studying the Psalms.

The unique thing about the Psalms is that they are God’s Word and our words at the same time.  Within them people pray about every possible kind of experience:

  • Joyful praise? Check.
  • Lonely abandonment? Check.
  • Thankfulness for good gifts? Check.
  • Desire for revenge? Check.
  • Genuine penitence? Check.

The list could go on — and on and on.

And by the Spirit’s imprimatur on these prayers, we too are invited to pray about these things. That can give us courage to bring our whole selves to God in prayer, but we need to let the Psalms teach us how to do so. The Office puts the Psalms on our lips day in and day out, but Calvin’s example gives us a way to take them from our lips to our heart — through the pathway of a studious mind.

Calvin’s way of praying the Psalms was to study them. For him study of Scripture was something that was essentially a way of prayer, since it began with calling on the Spirit to be present and shed light that we may see and find God’s Word. Without the good company of the Holy Spirit study of the Bible would be fruitless. (It is closely akin to classic lectio divina actually.)

So if you want to try praying the Psalms in a new way, try Calvin’s method.  Get your Bible, a journal and a pen.  Pick a Psalm. Take Psalm 42 if you don’t have a preference. (That’s “As a deer longs for flowing streams…”, Psalm 41 in the Vulgate numbering.)

  1. Pray for the Spirit to be present and guide you.
  2. Read the Psalm through a couple times.
  3. Read it again looking for patterns, structure, sections, and write down what you find.
  4. Read it again to see who is speaking and whether there is a dialogue, and write down what you find.
  5. Read it again to discern what you can about the life circumstances the writer was facing.
  6. Read it again to find the emotions expressed, and whether they change during the Psalm, and write down what you find.

Then stop and ask yourself some questions.

  1. Think about what in your life is similar to what you find in this Psalm — past or present, circumstances or emotions — and talk to God about it. Better still, write out your prayer.
  2. Think about who else in your family, your community, or elsewhere in the world is facing something like this, and talk to God about it. Better still, write out your prayer.

Calvin found that studying the Psalms lent him the words to pray about his own life in greater depth.  I hope you do too.  I’d love to hear about your experiences!

What is it like for you to pray the Psalms?

Bio and Links:
Bio: Gary Neal Hansen is the Associate Professor of Church History at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.  He is the author of Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers (InterVarsity Press: 2012), winner of Christian Resources Together’s “Devotional Book of the Year” in the UK and Hearts and Minds Books “Best Book of the Year on Spirituality” in the US.  His current book project explores movements in the history of the Church whose ways of being Christian community blossomed into effective mission and service in the world. He lives in Dubuque Iowa, USA with his wife and their two small children.


Facebook page: Gary Neal Hansen

Twitter: @garynealhansen

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Gary Neal Hansen

Theology. It's good for you.

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