One of the most helpful tools for learning how to pray is the book of Psalms. Not only praying through the Psalms but also taking the time to understand the form and function of the various types of psalms is an excellent practice. (For an overview of studying the Psalms see my series of posts beginning here.) The most numerous type of psalm is the prayer for help, or as it is more commonly called, the lament (Mays, 21; Miller, 55). Both James Mays and Patrick Miller have been a tremendous help to me by way of explaining the common structure of the lament psalms. Honorable mention goes to Walter Brueggemann (see bibliography below).
These are the most common elements of prayers for help:
- Direct Address
- Lament or Description of Trouble
- Expressions of confidence or trust
- Offer or vow
These elements will vary in the order of their appearance, and one or two (in particular the offer/vow) may not appear at all in some instances. When working through a psalm I find that identifying these elements proves to be extremely helpful. The various elements are pregnant with implied meaning and purpose. For instance, the typical address in the prayers for help is brief and distinctly personal. This implies an urgency and a familiarity with the one addressed. The use of motivation, or reasons to hear and answer the petition(s), typically draws upon an intimate knowledge of the one addressed, and/or a distinct history between the pray-er and the addressee. At times the motivation is cloaked in praise which may appear at times to border on coercion.
Something that Patrick Miller points out in They Cried to the Lord, is that even outside of the Psalms the Old Testament is filled with prayers for help. I'm sure I knew this, but my focus on the Psalms has been so narrow that I overlooked the value of considering the prayers for help throughout the rest of Scripture. Miller identifies and outlines these laments in Appendix 1: A Structural Outline of Prayers for Help and Intercession in Prose Texts (pp. 337-357).
Well, the New Testament also includes prayers for help, especially in the passion narratives. I am currently studying Mark 14:26-52 which includes Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. This is an astounding example of a prayer for help. It is also significant in that it puts the Old Testament laments into perspective. Jesus fulfills and answers the deepest cries of the soul.* Here's how I would outline Jesus' prayer in the garden according to the elements listed above:
ADDRESS Abba, Father
MOTIVATION All things are possible for you.
PETITION Remove this cup from me.
DESCRIPTION OF TROUBLE [My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.]
CONFIDENCE Yet not what I will, but what you will.
It is worth noting that this particular address is far more intimate than the typical, "O Lord," "O God," or even "My God." There is an aspect of motivation coupled with the address that is absolutely stunning and beautiful. Also, the description of trouble is pulled down from verse 34. It seems appropriate to include it here, because it clearly identifies the circumstance from which this prayer arises. (The English text is that of the ESV.)
James L. Mays, Psalms. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994.
Patrick D. Miller, They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.
Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit. Winona, MN: St. Mary's Press, 1982; 2nd Edition. Cascade Books, 2007.
_____, The Psalms and the Life of Faith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.
Note* - Today I stumbled across the abstract for Rebekah Ann Eklund's dissertation, Lord, Teach Us How to Grieve: Jesus' Laments and Christian Hope. unpublished (Duke Divinity School), 2012. Eklund notes that, "lament has a dual function in the New Testament: it points to Jesus as the beginning of the fulfillment of lament’s cries, and it points forward to the consummation of God’s kingdom as guaranteed in Jesus’ resurrection" (iv). With this I am hooked. I downloaded her complete dissertation here, and am looking forward to reading more.