Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Bonhoeffer on the Psalms, part I: the Body of Christ
Something I've found over the past few years is that my prayers become expanded and transcendant when I stop focusing only on the wants and troubles of my own life and begin to intercede for others. I spent many times in the summer of 2004 praying with a copy of Voice of the Martyrs magazine and Hebrews 13:3: "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." In those times, the church became more important and God more mighty as I thought of others and the ways God was manifesting his power veiled in weakness throughout the world (2 Corinthians 12:9; 13:4).
Then over the past few years, I've read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings about the book of Psalms. We often find it difficult to pray many psalms, finding their joy too high, their pains too sharp, their sufferings too distant. And how easily do we balk at the psalms of deep lament, let alone those "imprecatory psalms" calling for divine retribution upon the enemies of the righteous? Yet Dr. Bonhoeffer gives us such clues as to unlock these difficult prayers:
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. . . . He prayed the Psalter and now it has become his prayer for all time? . . . Jesus Christ prays the Psalter through his congregation. . . .
Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the Body of Christ on earth, continues to pray his prayer to the end of time. This prayer belongs, not to the individual member, but to the whole Body of Christ. Only in the whole Christ does the whole Psalter become a reality, a whole which the individual can never fully comprehend and call his own. That is why the prayer of the psalms belongs in the peculiar way to the fellowship. Even if a verse or a psalm is not one's own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ and his Body on earth.*
Bonhoeffer says that the prayers written by and for the Davidic kings are most fully taken up on the lips of the Messiah, the David who was to come. Only he met the truest requirements of innocent suffering, of true righteousness, of just kingship, and of inheriting the covenant promises through his obedience. And so the Psalms are ultimately Jesus' prayers. As such, they become the perfect prayers of the New Man to whom we belong and in whom we are found. When we pray the Psalms, we pray as Christ's body and in Christ, that is, our cries and praises come to the Father as if from the Son himself, his Beloved with whom he is well pleased! And when the Son prays, he is never rejected: "Father, I thank you that you have heard me," he prays in John 11:41-42. "I knew that you always hear me."
Additionally, I have found my prayers to be enriched and my love for the church to grow when I realize Bonhoeffer's insight that "[e]ven if a verse or a psalm is not one's own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship." Offering up petitions of sad lament, praises of glad adoration, pleas for justice have had this sort of transforming effect on me, as I put myself in others' shoes. Even when the Psalms are joyful, I can find myself thanking God for blessings he is shedding that day on others whom he loves--people I don't know, his work in ways I can't even see.
I find it odd that now it's my turn to go through suffering and loss not only alongside other members of the church in Turkey, but I feel it myself. And it's good to know that all along we've been, through the Psalms, praying and preparing and seeking God in this moment together.
*Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), pp. 45-7.
at 12:11 PM