How Do I Pray the Bible?
Welcome back to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast, with longtime author and pastor John Piper. Thanks for making us a part of your day. Today is episode number 999, and our question today comes from a listener named Dalibor — I think that name is Czech. “Pastor John, can you give an example or two on how to pray the Scriptures? This seems right, but also foreign to me. How do I read in such a way that the words become alive and speak to me here and now? How do my feelings reflect or get aligned with the text I’m reading now? Or even better, perhaps you would be willing to pray through a section of Scripture with us / for us?”
I love this question, because praying the Scriptures is so important in the Christian life. If we don’t form the habit of praying the Scriptures, our prayers will almost certainly degenerate into vain repetitions that eventually revolve entirely around our immediate private concerns, rather than God’s larger purposes. So, let me try to help Dalibor see this as less foreign. He said it felt foreign to him. Let me see if I can help make it feel less foreign.
First, we should notice that the early church prayed the Scriptures in Acts 4:24 and following. In fact, they explicitly quote Scriptures. Threats had been made against them and it says, “They lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them.’” They are exulting in what they know from God in Scripture. Then verses 25–26: “Who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.’” That is a quotation from Psalm 2. So, we know that the early church prayed back to God the very words that God had given them — for example, in the Psalms.
“We know that the early church prayed back to God the very words that God had given them.”
Here is a second thing. Don’t forget the obvious; namely, that many parts of the Scripture are prayers. So, simply to read them is to pray, if we are awake — if you are thinking about what you are doing. Paul has got numerous prayers that he prays for the people that he is writing his letters to. And every time we read that, we should pray with Paul. And a great portion of the Psalms are prayers, and Jesus gave us some prayers. I have used the acronym IOUS from the Psalms to guide how I pray the Scriptures:
I, Incline my heart to your testimonies (Psalm 119:36).
O, Open my eyes to see wonderful things (Psalm 119:18).
U, Unite my heart to fear your name (Psalm 86:11).
S, Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love (Psalm 90:14).
So, the Scripture models for us how to pray about reading the Scriptures and turning them into prayers.
And then think about this, which is so obvious: The Scriptures either tell us something about God and Christ when we are reading so that we can praise him. Or, they tell us something about what God and Christ and the Holy Spirit have done so that we can thank him and express faith in it. Or, they tell us what God expects from us so that we can cry out for his help. Or, they tell us about something we failed to do so that we can confess our sins. So, it seems to me that virtually all the Bible is doing one or more of those four things: something about God, something about what he has done, something about what he expects, something about how we have failed, so that they naturally lead into praise to God, thanks to God, crying for help to God, and confession of sin to God.
But one caution here: Let’s be realistic. What we are praying is the meaning of texts, not just words. This is important. So, for example, when reading part of the Old Testament history book that takes a whole chapter to tell a story, say, about Ahab’s wickedness I just read this morning (1 Kings 21). Ahab’s wickedness. And I also read this morning a whole chapter about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faith and courage in front of that fiery furnace. Now, how do you pray Scripture like that? You don’t probably turn every verse into a prayer, because it takes more than one verse to make a point. And that is my point. We are praying meaning. We are not just praying words.
So, you have to read enough of the Bible to catch the meaning. What is the author trying to say here about boldness and courage and faith in Daniel 3? And so, you might wait during three or four minutes of reading and then pause and say, “O God, make me like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and forgive me for my pansy like relation to feeling embarrassed” or whatever. And the same thing with Ahab. I just got so mad at him this morning when he took Naboth’s vineyard and killed him (1 Kings 21:1–16). Oh! And the prophet came and really laid into him and told him: You are going to be in big trouble (1 Kings 21:17–24). There is so much there to pray about. But you have to read the whole chapter before you can get it right in your head.
“Virtually all of the Bible leads us to praise God, thank God, cry to God, and confess to God.”
Okay, Dalibor asked me to do this. So, I am going to close by doing it, and I wanted to do a big section, but I realized it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work that way for me. So, I am just going to start with Colossians 2:6, because I have been in Colossians in my devotions, and I am going to show you how I turn Colossians 2:6–7 into prayer. And I will break it up in two pieces. It just turned out that way. So, here we go. This is reading from Colossians 2:6–7: “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
Yes, Lord Jesus, I have received you and I do receive you afresh right now this morning. I welcome you to take full control of my life. If I am estranging you in any way, pushing you away at all, show me and help me to kill that sin. I want to walk in you, in your power, in your way, in your fellowship. I dedicate myself to this right now again, just like I have so many times in the past. And I turn from all others, anything else that would compete with you as my closest friend and helper. You have given rootedness and foundation to my life. Thank you.
I didn’t create these roots in you or these great foundation stones of faith. You did that. Thank you. Thank you for sending teachers into my life. Thank you for my father and Daniel Fuller and Jonathan Edwards and John Owen and J.I. Packer and R.C. Sproul and dozens of partners in ministry over the years that have exhorted me and kept me on the narrow way. Oh, how I thank you, Lord! It has all been owning to you. My reaching you and my walking in you and my rootedness and foundation in you, it is all owing to you. All my teachers were from you. You are kind and merciful, a mighty God. I love you this morning.
And then I keep reading: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy or empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:8–9).
Lord Jesus, I am not even sure I know what “the elemental spirits of the world” are. But until I find out, I pray that you would protect me from them. Your work in me is way more important than my perfect understanding. Guard me. But I know something of the dangers of human tradition and philosophy. I have felt the pull of forces away from you. Oh, thank you that I am still here, right now praying and not over the cliff of unbelief. Oh, give me discernment so I can see what is according to Christ, like you said, in the books that I read, in the TV shows that I watch, in the movies and the news.
O Lord, these forces are so strong, and I am so prone to be entertained by ideas and actions that are not according to Christ. Have mercy upon me and give me the courage to say no to anything that tends to undermine my fellowship with you and my boldness in witness. How could I ever be lured away, Lord? For in you is the whole fullness of deity, Paul says, the whole fullness of deity dwelling bodily. Amazing. Amazing. Absolutely amazing. O Christ, help me all day, every day, this very day to be more amazed at you and your fullness of deity that I will never turn away — more amazed than I am at anything else. Let my amazement at your fullness of deity spill over at work today. Make me a means of others being amazed, I pray, in Jesus’s name. Amen.