by Matthew C. Harrison
Luther famously wrote that there are three things that make a theologian (and this applies to all Christians): (1) prayer; (2) meditation on God’s Word; and (3) trials. He then observed that the trials we experience really bring it all together. They drive us to rely on God’s Word, and they drive us into prayer. He quipped, “I thank God for the pope. Through all his ranting and raving, he’s made me a pretty good theologian.”
Trials always come. You have yours; I have mine. They tempt us to believe that the Gospel is not ours, that Scripture is not true, that God does not really love us, that He might even hate us and want to punish us, if He exists at all. The art of being a Christian is, in large measure, believing in God against God. We believe the clear Word of the Gospel of free forgiveness and trust in Baptism, Absolution and Christ’s body and blood in the Supper for forgiveness. We trust His promises against the pain, death, spiritual struggles and disappointments we so often experience in this life and which God allows and even brings upon us. Does God will suffering? Contemplate Jesus’ prayer in the garden for the answer: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). The art of being a Christian is to experience suffering, yet to trust that it is sent for good, not harm. It is to pray with Job: “Though [God] slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15).
In my feeble walk of faith, in my challenged prayer life, through a multitude of trials, the Psalms have been a solace. Raising children and grandchildren; facing illness, tragedy or problems in the family or at work; struggling with faith due to assaults of the sinful flesh and the devil — all drive us to prayer and meditation on God’s Word. That’s how God makes “theologians” or “Christians” of us. That’s what He did with the prophets too (Gen. 22). That’s what He did with the apostles (2 Cor. 12). That’s what He does with you. “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1).
Open on my kneeler is the LSB Altar Book, which contains all the Psalms. The Psalms are God’s prayer book especially for us. Jesus had them memorized. They express the full range of human emotion — frustration, pain, faithlessness, but also happiness, joy and steadfastness. They tell us who God is and how He regards us. They have their own contexts, like prayers for royal events. But they console us now because they tell us that God acted in the past, even as He promises to act today and shall continue to act for the well-being of His saints into the future (Ps. 145). The enemies of the faithful remain the same: the devil, the world and our flesh. The weaknesses of Christians are the same: doubt, sin and faithlessness.
My trials have driven me to the Psalms. I am daily shocked and delighted at how the words I pray from 3,000 years ago are so applicable now. I am struck low by the Law and raised to life by the Gospel. “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5; see Ps. 130; 143). I resonate with the complaints of David (Ps. 9; 10; 124; 129). I am led by the words to give thanks to God for all His manifold blessings to the contrite (Ps. 147). And time and time again, the inspired and living words of these prayers pray me into joy and rejoicing. “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Ps. 32:11; see Ps. 122; 126). I am consoled by the Lord’s promises (Ps. 119:151).
More than any other prayers, the Psalms lead us directly to the life St. Paul wills for us because it is Christ’s will for us. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).