Since prayer is talking with God—the only Person in the universe worthy of being called awesome—why don’t people pray more? Why don’t the people of God enjoy prayer more? When you’ve said the same old words about the same old things about a thousand times, how do you feel about saying them again? Could the Bible help shape your thoughts and petitions?
Bible Gateway interviewed Donald S. Whitney (@DonWhitney) about his book, Praying the Bible (Crossway, 2015).
Why does God want us to pray?
Dr. Whitney: God wants us to pray for the same reason you want your newborn to cry—it’s a sign of life. Just as the spirit of life in a baby causes it to cry, so the Spirit of life in child of God causes him to cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
God also wants us to pray because that’s how we communicate with him. We can’t send Him an email or text (even though He sees them all). But we can speak to Him. Prayer is also the means God has ordained by which we receive many of the blessings He has for us.
It seems people don’t really enjoy praying. Why is that?
Dr. Whitney: Christians should enjoy prayer, right? After all, prayer is communion with God Himself, the Creator of the universe. And yet, we can lose the enjoyment of God in prayer if we say the same old things about the same old things when we pray. Repetitive prayers soon lead to wandering minds. Wandering minds lead to aimless, joyless prayer.
How are people’s prayer methods problematic?
Dr. Whitney: As I mentioned, when people pray the same old things about the same old things, problems arise. Prayers without variety tend to become words without meaning. Repetitive, meaningless prayers are boring. And when prayer is boring, you don’t feel like praying. And when you don’t feel like praying, you don’t pray—at least with any fervency or consistency. Five to seven minutes of prayer can seem like an eternity, and your mind wanders for half that time. You’ll suddenly come to yourself and think, “Now where was I? I haven’t been thinking of God for the last several minutes.” And you return to that mental script which you’ve said so many times, and as a result almost immediately your mind begins to wander again. That’s because you’ve said those same words so many times that’s it’s almost impossible to keep your attention focused in prayer.
Now, the problem is not that people pray about the same old things. In fact, to pray about the same old things is normal. My observation has been that when people pray, they tend pray about the same six things: family, future, finances, work or schoolwork, church/ministry/Christian concern, and the current crisis in life. If you’re going to pray about your life, these things are your life. If you don’t think so, how much of your life has no connection whatsoever to your family, future, finances, work or schoolwork, church/ministry/Christian concern, and the current crisis? And thankfully, these six things don’t change dramatically very often.
So if you’re going to pray about your life, and these six things are your life, and these six things don’t change dramatically very often, that means you’re going to pray basically about the same old things most of the time. That’s normal. That’s not the problem. The problem is when we say the same old things about the same old things. That’s boring.
What are you recommending as the simple solution to the boring routine of praying the same old words about the same old things?
Dr. Whitney: The simple, permanent, biblical solution to saying the same old things about the same old things in prayer is this: when you pray, pray through a passage of Scripture. When you do this, you’ll continue praying about the same old things, but you’ll pray about them in brand new ways.
In other words, pray the words of Scripture and you’ll never again suffer with saying the same old things about the same old things. Each time you pray it’ll be a different prayer than you’ve every prayed in your life. And this will be true even though you continue to pray about the same old things.
What are the practical steps of praying the Bible?
Dr. Whitney: Simply turn what you read in the Bible into prayer. In other words, talk to God about what comes to mind, verse-by-verse, as you go through a passage.
Now let me unpack that in little more detail. After your Bible reading, choose a passage from which to pray. Normally that will either be a passage you’ve just finished reading or else a psalm. So after you read a chapter in your daily Bible reading, you might go back and pray through—as time allows—what you just read through.
Most days, however, after my Bible reading I usually go to the book of Psalms and choose one of the Psalms to pray through. That’s because the Psalms are the only book of the Bible inspired for the very purpose of being reflected to God. (As you know, the Psalms were the songbook of Israel; words inspired by God for the purpose of being reflected to God in song.)
So let’s say I’ve chosen to pray through Psalm 23. I read the first line—“The Lord is my Shepherd”—and I pray what comes to mind from that line. So I might pray:
“Lord, I thank you that you are my shepherd. You’re a good shepherd. You have shepherded me all my life. But, Great Shepherd, would You shepherd my family today? Please guard them from the ways of the world and guide them into the ways of God. I pray that You would cause my children to love you as their shepherd too. Please make them Your sheep. And would You shepherd me in this decision I need to make about my future? Please shepherd me into Your path on this. I also pray for our undershepherds at the church. Please shepherd them as they shepherd us.”
I would continue to pray in this way about whatever comes to mind as I read “The Lord is my shepherd” until nothing else comes to mind. When that happens, I look at the next line, “I shall not want.” Just like with the first line, I talk to God about whatever that verse brings to mind.
What do you mean when you say pray a Bible passage, line by line, even if what comes to mind has nothing to do with the text?
Dr. Whitney: When praying line-by-line through a passage, sometimes you may encounter verses you don’t understand. Or maybe you do understand the verse but it doesn’t prompt anything to pray about. It’s fine to skip those verses. Nothing says a person has to pray over every single verse, or that a person cannot dwell for their entire prayer time on a single verse. And nothing says a person has to finish the entire psalm.
You simply talk with God about whatever comes to mind as you are reading a passage, even if what comes to mind has nothing to do with the text.
Now, let me defend that from the text. What does the text of Scripture tell us we can pray about? Everything! In other words, we can take every thought Godward, even if what we think while reading the Bible doesn’t relate to the text.
For example, suppose you’re praying through Psalm 130 and you read verse 3, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” As you do, your friend Mark comes to mind? You know that verse is not about your friend Mark when it uses the verb “mark.” But what should you do? Pray for Mark!
Or what if you’re praying through a passage and sinful thoughts come to mind? You know for certain that the verse is not teaching the sinful thoughts you are having. What should you do? Turn those thoughts Godward. Confess them. Pray about them.
I use those extreme examples to make a point. But frankly, I believe that most of the time what comes to people’s minds as they’re praying through a passage will be something much closer to the true meaning of the text. Furthermore, is there any better way for people to learn the true meaning of the text—if all they have is the Bible and the Holy Spirit; no other tools or resources—than to pray over a passage? Besides, as I’ve already mentioned, I think in most cases if someone comes to a verse they don’t understand, they’re going to pass over it and go to the next verse.
What’s the difference between interpreting the Bible and praying the Bible?
Dr. Whitney: In every other case I can think of, when we come to the Bible a primary concern should be accuracy of interpretation. We never have a right to read into the text what we want it to say. It’s our job to dig out of the text what it says and means. Hermeneutics—being concerned to interpret the text of Scripture accurately—is foundational to all biblical Christianity.
But I want to emphasize that what I’m teaching is not about Bible study, but about prayer. With Bible study our primary concern is the meaning of the text—using cross-references, extra-biblical tools, etc.—to discover that meaning. Only secondarily are we praying, perhaps occasionally thinking, “Lord, what does this mean?” or “How do I apply this?”
With what I’m advocating our primary activity is prayer, not Bible study. We’re praying, but while occasionally glancing at the Bible. We’re simply talking with God about whatever His Word suggests as we read it.
By this means our prayers become Word-shaped. Moreover, the Word of God teaches us as we pray, something that rarely happens when we don’t use the Bible as the basis of our prayers.
I have enough confidence in the Word and the Spirit that if people would pray the Bible, their prayers would be far more biblical than they would be if they just made up their own prayers, which is what most people do nearly all the time.
How do you pray through a psalm when it calls for God’s judgment upon his enemies?
Dr. Whitney: Yes, those Imprecatory Psalms! This is not the place for a lengthy treatment on interpreting them, though ultimately I think we put all the Psalms—in one way or another—in the mouth of Jesus. I’m doubtful we should pray specific people’s names when we pray through the Imprecatory Psalms. I often put the enemies of my soul—that is, those enemies that come from that sin factory that beats in my chest—in those psalms. I sometimes put our national sins in there, as when asking God to destroy racism, abortion, etc., in this country.
Essentially I think we can pray the Imprecatory Psalms in general against all unrighteousness, against all who remain lifelong, unrepentant enemies of God. In the end we’re saying that we stand with God and His righteousness and that we want all unrighteousness and all who stand as His eternal enemies to be destroyed.
What do you recommend as a systematic approach for praying a psalm each day?
Dr. Whitney: I recommend something that didn’t originate with me—a little plan called “The Psalms of the Day.” The benefit of this plan is that it gives the reader specific psalms to turn to each day. It eliminates the random turning of pages, looking for just the right psalm. That tends to be a drag on the prayer life.
Start with the day of the month. That’s your first psalm. So if today is the 15th of the month, the first psalm you consider is Psalm 15. Then, because there’s often 30 days in the month you add 30 and get Psalm 45. After that you simply continue adding 30 until you get five Psalms. So on the 15th of every month, your five Psalms of the Day are 15, 45, 75, 105, and 135. On the 31st, pray through a section of Psalm 119.
If you’ll take just 30 seconds or so to scan five psalms every day, it’s uncanny how one of them will put into expression something that’s looking for expression in your heart.
A second benefit of this method is that it systematically exposes people to all 150 Psalms. All the Psalms are equally inspired, even though they’re not all equally easy to pray through.
After Psalms, what other parts of the Bible do you recommend people pray through and how should they do that?
Dr. Whitney: All the Bible is worthy of praying through, of course. But I find that the easiest place to do this is the Book of Psalms. Not only were the Psalms inspired by God for the purpose of being reflected to God, but as someone has said, there’s a psalm for every sigh of the soul. With 150 psalms, the entire range of human emotions is found there. You’ll never go through anything in your life where you will not find the root emotion expressed somewhere in the Psalms. That’s why if someone will quickly scan five psalms every day it’s amazing how one of them will put into words what’s swirling in your soul.
Beyond this, I find that the New Testament letters are the next best place in Scripture from which to pray Scripture. That’s because there’s so much truth compressed into them that virtually every verse will suggest something to pray about.
The narratives are a little more difficult. Instead of looking at the text microscopically as in the Psalms and New Testament letters, I find that by looking for the “big idea” presented in the particular story I usually have no difficulty in praying through a narrative section.
What do you hope will be the ultimate result as more people pray the Bible?
Dr. Whitney: That those who know how to pray the Scriptures will teach others how to pray the Bible until every Christian on the planet has learned how to pray God’s Word.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Dr. Whitney: Use them to pray through the Bible!
Bio: Donald S. Whitney (PhD, DMin) is professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s written several books related to Christian spirituality, including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Spiritual Disciplines for the Overwhelmed, and 10 Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health. Don blogs regularly at BiblicalSpirituality.org.