Without a doubt, an adult’s life carries many burdens.
To paraphrase one of the psalmists, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord when we don’t really feel like it?” (see Psalm 137:4). Yet God ever calls, even commands, us to praise and thank him for his love and faithfulness. God doesn’t want the burdens of life to crush our joy. Instead, he calls us to come to him when we are burdened and weary so that he can give us rest and refreshment (Matthew 11:28-30).
The Battle for Prayer. No one would deny that it takes discipline, devotion, and dedication to develop a vibrant prayer life. Very often, the decision to pray is what lifts us into God’s presence and enables us to receive his consolation and the grace we need to do his will. At the heart of this decision to pray is setting our minds to recall all the good that the Lord has done in the past and to imagine his gracious promises being fulfilled in our lives and in the world. Sometimes this is easy, and our praise and thanksgiving flow like a river. Often enough, however, prayer requires a certain discipline of mind and will.
St. Teresa of Ávila once observed how her prayer would often start out as hard work, like having to lower a pail into a well to draw up water. Still, as she persevered, she would experience a transformation, as if the well had become a spring of living water within her (John 4:14). What began as 90 percent her effort ended up as 90 percent the Spirit’s power. This can be our experience as well if we but ask, persevere, and receive!
Memory. In the psalms, we have firsthand examples of how people like us stepped out in faith and determined to praise and thank God. Like Teresa of Ávila, they too began prayer as 90 percent their effort and ended up experiencing prayer as 90 percent the Spirit’s power. Time and again in the psalms, we see that memory played a vital role in transforming their prayer into joyous praise and thanksgiving. In some cases, the psalmist recalled a desperate situation in which he called out to the Lord and was delivered (Psalm 116:1-2). At other times, we read of a psalmist who is still in the midst of trouble but again uses his memory of God’s eternal attributes to move him to faith and thanksgiving as he waits for God to come to his rescue (7:1-2, 10).
We too can treasure all that the Lord has done. It is good to keep a journal and jot down all the ways we have seen God work in our lives and throughout salvation history. Then, as we do the work of drawing upon these memories in our prayer, we will begin to experience a change in our disposition. Our hearts will be lifted up, and praise and thanksgiving will begin to flow freely from our hearts and from our lips. What started out as our work will become God’s work as we allow the Spirit of truth to move within us.
Imagination. The psalmists also used their imaginations to move their hearts to joyful praise. They pictured the Lord as being “girded with might” (Psalm 65:6), or “clothed with honor and majesty” (104:1). They called him their “Shepherd” (23:1), and the “King of glory” (24:7). They imagined him stooping toward them and rescuing them from a miry pit (40:2) and pictured all of creation joining with them in singing his praise (96:11-12). Concrete images such as these helped move them to joyful praise, even in trying circumstances, and kept them open to receive more revelation of his love and promises.
It is good for us to ask the Holy Spirit to enkindle our imaginations so that we too might have a taste of the glory of God. Again, this will start out as 90 percent our work, but as we persevere, we may discover the Spirit lifting our imagination up and filling it with images of God’s majesty, power, or compassion welling up from our innermost being.
Intellect. Finally, the psalmists engaged their intellects as they gave praise for creation and not only for the starry skies above them (Psalm 19:1-6), but also for the law of the Lord planted within them (19:7-10). As they meditated on God’s word, they gave thanks that it was like a “lamp” for their feet and a “light” for their paths (119:105). They relied on the promises of God as truths which set them free from despair and negative thinking (85:8-9; 91:14-16). They took negative thoughts captive and set their hearts free to affirm the goodness of the Lord and his unfailing love for them (73:15-28). They asked God questions and opened themselves to hear his words in their hearts (2:7-9; 110:1, 4).
Like the psalmists, we too can set our minds on the unshakable truths of the gospel. This will enable us to overcome the negative thoughts that so often invade our prayer and our everyday lives. We can learn to say things like, “I feel like God has forsaken me, but I believe the truth that he loves me and I will praise him. I know that he will bring good out of this situation” (Psalm 22). Or when we feel we don’t measure up, we can counter this with the truths of God’s mercy and his desire to fill us with the joy of salvation (51:6-7, 12).
The Work of the Spirit in Our Praise. Even our smallest efforts at prayer can take on infinite value when we offer them to the Lord and believe that he wants to touch our hearts. God loves it when we reach out to him. He loves to run and meet us just as the father of the prodigal son did. Surrendered to his will, we rest in his arms and receive a love we do not merit.
What starts out as our work and an act of our will can be transformed as we ask the Holy Spirit to lift up our hearts (Psalm 146:8). At the heart of this transformation is the presence of Christ in us, the hope of glory. Like St. Teresa of Ávila, as we pull the water up from the well, God’s grace will begin to well up from within and cause spontaneous prayers of praise and thanksgiving to come out of our hearts and our mouths.
As we open ourselves to God’s work in prayer, the Holy Spirit will provide us with an ever-deepening revelation of Christ at the center of our lives. This discovery of Christ in us can lead us to the understanding that ultimately it is Christ in us who is praising his heavenly Father and giving him thanks (Romans 1:8; Ephesians 5:20).
As we lift our hearts in prayer and thanksgiving, we recall God’s wonderful deeds of creation, salvation, and the birth of the Church on Pentecost: We pray for a new Pentecost to touch every heart in the whole world as we eagerly await your coming. Pour out your Spirit that we might be lifted up in praise and thanksgiving and cry out like children, “Abba, Father, make your home in our hearts!” By the power of the Holy Spirit, our praise can ascend with Christ and in Christ to bring praise and honor and glory to God our heavenly Father.