Confession is good for the soul. Lots of people I greatly admire, greatly admire Bonhoeffer. You can tell because they have read him extensively. That’s not me. In fact, until I was reading them extensively, I was not really interested in Bonhoeffer or his books. To be perfectly open and honest, this is the very first time I have ever read Life Together. But here is the strange part. I have had a copy of the book in my library for years, but how it got there is a mystery; a mystery I am hoping to solve to my satisfaction in a few seconds. Let’s start with the facts. I have a hardback copy of Life Together that was published in 1954 (originally published in 1939 in German, 1954 was the first English translation). On the flyleaf, there is a stranger’s name stamped (I could be misreading it, but it looks like the name is Voldemort). At the time of publication, this book sold for a whopping $2.95 (you can’t even buy a cup of coffee so you can enjoy it while reading Bonhoeffer at that price today!). Whoever this Voldemort was (Jo says the name is Vimont), he (or she) gave the book to The King’s Academy. King’s is a private Christian school in West Palm Beach,FL, that Jo attended (but not in 1954). King’s took this donation and placed it in their library. According to the library card on the inside front cover, only one person (one!) ever checked it out. After Jo finished her undergrad, she returned to teach at King’s. And now, it’s time for wild conjecture. One day, I must have been picking Jo up after school, and I walked past the library which had a table of unwanted books. So, I adopted one and that’s how Life Together made its way onto my shelves. Here’s the kicker: That means I have been in possession of this book for over 40 years (40 years!); and in all those years, I never once read it (no, not once). Now, I am hoping that this is a case of “Nothing is so powerful as a book whose time has come,” but I fear it is more likely the case where I was just a big doofus. Youth is wasted on the young (and maybe even on the middle-aged).
For Bonhoeffer, Christian community is not made up of friendship, common interests, political opinions, or on having similar viewpoints. At the heart of all Christian community is Jesus revealing himself in our worship, our prayer and through the Word. There is no mystery here or wild conjecture needed. Our community must be a real, tangible entity, not just a doctrine that we articulate. We can say we are “one in the bond of love” until we are blue in the face, but until we actually love one another in the nitty-gritty of life together, we are just blowing smoke. And that is the issue. Christian community is hard because it is made up of people we often dislike, or if that is too strong, to whom we are completely indifferent. That is why prayer is so important to our community. Bonhoeffer explains:
“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members
for one another, or it collapses.
I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray,
no matter how much trouble he causes me.
His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me,
is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother
for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.”
For Bonhoeffer, true Christian community depends on prayer. But here’s the problem: We cannot teach ourselves to pray, nor is it a skill that we already have that simply needs to be uncorked. No, we need someone to teach us to pray. The disciples were at least smart enough to realize this. After they overheard Jesus praying in Luke 11, one of them went to him and said (Lk. 11:1), “Lord, teach us to pray.” Now, remember, these were Jews. We would have thought if anyone knew how to pray, it would be them. After all, since they were three, they had been praying multiple times a day. But these disciples realized that they needed someone to teach them how to pray. And if they did, we most certainly do. But where do we go to learn how to pray?
Here is the good news. God has provided us with such a teacher in the book of Psalms. As such, it is uniquely qualified, but it raises an interesting question. Bonhoeffer writes:
“The Psalter occupies a unique place in the Holy Scriptures.
It is God’s Word, and, with a few exceptions, the prayers of men as well.
How are we to understand this?
How can God’s Word be at the same time prayer to God?”
Now, that is a question worth pondering. Yes, the Psalms are thoroughly the prayers of God’s people offered up to God, but at the same time they most definitely are the Word of God given to us. The Psalms are also the worship of God’s ancient people lifting up their praises to God, but at the same time they most certainly are the Word of God conveyed to us. The Psalms are a unique mixture of the human and the divine and, as such, they stand in the perfect place to mentor us in prayer. And in this book, we learn two key truths about prayer so that we may pray properly.
First, it is in the Psalms that we learn what prayer means. Bonhoeffer writes:
“[Prayer] means praying according to the Word of God,
on the basis of [God’s] promises.
Christian prayer takes its stand on the solid ground of the revealed Word
and has nothing to do with vague, self-seeking vagaries.
We pray on the basis of the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ.”
In Bonhoeffer’s small work on the Psalms (Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible), Bonhoeffer fleshes this idea out in greater detail. Here, Bonhoeffer says:
“But it is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians,
to think that the heart can pray by itself.
For then we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicings—
all of which the heart can do by itself—with prayer.
And we confuse earth and heaven, man and God.
Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart.
It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him,
whether the heart is full or empty.
No man can do that by himself. For that he needs Jesus Christ.”
So, what is prayer? Prayer is seeking God through Jesus. It is not us bringing our requests to God, but coming to God so that we may listen and, once we hear his voice, to do his will.
Second, it is in the Psalms that we learn what we should pray. At first glance, that is patently wrong. The Psalms are filled with all sorts of things that we cannot and maybe even should not pray. It is not hard to construct a list. There are Psalms where the one praying professes he is innocent (e.g., Ps. 18:23 and 25 and 26:1 and 11). There are Psalms where violent imprecations are made against the enemies of the Psalmist (e.g., Ps. 109:8-15 and 137:8-9). And there are Psalms which make little sense unless they are spoken by Jesus as he suffered (e.g., Ps. 22 and Ps. 69). Certainly, we can’t pray these prayers. If someone on a Sunday morning prayed against his enemies with the words from Psalm 137 (“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks”), we would all be outraged. And if someone dared to pray the words of Psalm 26 (“Vindicate me, Lord, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered”), we would all shake our heads in disbelief. So, if we can’t pray these Psalms, how can we use the Psalms to mentor us in our prayers?
Bonhoeffer wisely explains:
“A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us,
is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we;
that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment,
who has come to such infinite depths of suffering,
is none other than Jesus Christ himself.
He it is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter.”
Yes, we can pray the Psalms but only when we pray them through Jesus. And when we do that, these prayers are set free from being expressions of our will, but rather, seek what Jesus wants us to do. Maybe these words will help:
“Can we, then, pray the imprecatory psalms?
In so far as we are sinners and express evil thoughts in a prayer of vengeance,
we dare not do so.
But in so far as Christ is in us–the Christ who took all the vengeance of God upon himself
for our sake and for our salvation
and who was stricken by the wrath of God so that his enemies might go free–
we, too, can pray these psalms, through Jesus Christ
and from the heart of Jesus Christ
so that our enemies may find forgiveness.”
One last quote from Bonhoeffer’s book on the Psalms. Bonhoeffer writes (in what has become one of my favorite quotes on prayer):
“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.
We ought to speak to God, and God wishes to hear us,
not in the false and confused language of our heart,
but in the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us
in Jesus Christ.”
What God wants us to pray is revealed in the Word of God. To pray then is to pray according to the Bible so that the Bible guides our thoughts and shapes our intercession. See, I can’t trust myself to pray aright. I need the Word to mold my requests so that they reflect what God wants and not what I want. The Psalms model that for us.
Our prayer is always through Jesus and centered in Jesus’ will for us. And as we pray, we are reminded once again of all that Jesus has done for us. He has made our enemies our friends and has placed them into our community.
But isn’t this whole idea of praying the Psalms misguided? Shouldn’t our focus be on praying the Lord’s Prayer? I am very sympathetic to this objection, but Bonhoeffer’s rebuttal is worth hearing. In his book on the Psalms, he wrote:
“At the request of the disciples, Jesus gave them the Lord’s Prayer.
In it every prayer is contained.
Whatever enters into the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer is prayed aright;
whatever has no place in it, is no prayer at all.
All the prayers of the Holy Scriptures are summed up in the Lord’s Prayer
and are taken up into its immeasurable breadth.
They are, therefore, not made superfluous by the Lord’s Prayer,
but are rather the inexhaustible riches of the Lord’s Prayer,
just as the Lord’s Prayer is their crown and unity.
Luther says of the Psalter:
‘It runs through the Lord’s Prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer runs through it,
so that it is possible to understand one on the basis of the other
and to bring them into joyful harmony.’
The Lord’s Prayer thus becomes the touchstone
for whether we pray in the name of Jesus Christ or in our own name.
It is the prayer of the church of Jesus Christ.
It belongs to the Lord’s Prayer.”
Here’s my advice: When in doubt, pray both. And when you are not in doubt, pray both.
Here’s the bottom line: We all need all the help we can get to learn how to pray. But we often fail to realize that the health of our prayer life goes far beyond our spiritual well-being, but it affects our community, as well. Our churches need to learn how to pray so that love may truly abound. Our communities depend on our prayer. That statement will either cause great joy or bring discomfort. Which are you feeling right now?
May I offer an assignment. For the next seven days, pray through seven Psalms and allow the richness of God’s Word to shape your prayers and your heart. If I was choosing seven psalms to pray, I would choose Psalm 20, 34, 40, 51, 103, 107 and 130 (but you can pick any that you want). And if you need one last piece of encouragement to do this, listen to this last quote from Bonhoeffer:
“The more deeply we grow into the psalms
and the more often we pray them as our own,
the more simple and rich will our prayer life become.”
Don’t be a doofus like I was. Don’t wait forty years before you decide to pray through the Psalms. Instead, adopt a psalm today and begin praying through it tonight. And if you want, buy a $2.95 coffee to accompany you on this new journey.