The Psalms are unique in the Bible because on one hand, they are prayers of people pouring out their hearts to God; but at the same time, they are the words of God. When we pray with them, our thirst for him meets his thirst for us. The psalms reveal HIS heart while they bare OUR hearts. They connect with us in our humanity – our weakness, longing, hurts, joys, praise – and lift our eyes and hearts to the One all those emotions are meant to point us to.
How do they do this? By giving us words to pray that (when we pray them) help form us in knowing how to pray. St. Augustine recommended that we intentionally learn to use the words of the psalms in our conversation with God. In places where what we read doesn’t express our own thoughts and emotions, he said, we can use them to express the praise and pain of people we’re praying for. Augustine said that by giving him true language to pray with, the psalms set his faith on fire and gave him a voice. They taught him the prayer of his own heart.
I love that! Who doesn’t want better words to pray with; to express what we’re really feeling in our heart? Who doesn’t want their faith set on fire?! Did you have any idea that praying with Scripture could do that for you?
Seven Psalms help us return to God
I’m soaking in the Penitential Psalms this Lent, sharing weekly with the Mother & Home online community. One woman told how after praying with Psalm 6 for days (which is what we are doing, to help the scripture sink in), it went from meaning nothing to her, to bringing a powerful message: that assurance comes less from repeated petition than it does from repeatedly seeking God’s presence; from returning to him again and again and choosing to trust the Lord who hears and accepts our prayer (vs. 9).
Similarly, meditating on the Penitential Psalms as I do in Lent has planted in my heart a longing to experience God’s mercy and love in a deeper way. Not a wistful longing for something that will never be, but a longing full of HOPE because I know he’s there.
So, what are the Penitential Psalms?
In a nutshell, they are seven psalms that help us recognize our sin, offer up our sorrow, and ask God’s forgiveness. In order, they are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. At one time, it was obligatory to pray them during Lent. Even now, it’s common to pray them either daily or on Fridays. I first thought that was morbid, or depressing—and then I tried it. I found it so enriching, I now pray with them in some way every Lent.
HINT: Watch in these—and all—psalms for the phrase “steadfast love” or, depending on the translation, “loving kindness.” The Hebrew is hesed: the deep, faithful love of a father. At times it shows as “tough love,” when that’s best for us. But it is always available with his mercy.
Here’s one way I look at them, in light of the word GRACE:
G: Give up (Psalm 6)
We begin by emptying ourselves so the Lord can shine a light on our hearts and we can be more aware of our need.
R: Repent (Psalms 32, 38)
Next in true sorrow, we throw ourselves on God’s mercy and love and repent of our sin.
A: Adore (Psalms 51, 102)
Then we adore God, as we long for his purity and our end in heaven.
C: Confidence (Psalm 130)
We grow in confidence as we’re confirmed in our trust in the divine mercy.
E: Exult (Psalm 143)
Having returned to the Lord, having been received with love and forgiven, we exult in joy!
Find GRACE in these Psalms as you continue your Lenten journey
I encourage you to reflect on the Penitential Psalms many times during Lent. Maybe as you sit before the Lord in adoration, before you go to confession, or in your daily prayers. And may your heart open wide to the graces Christ has for you!
© 2023 Sarah Christmyer
- Here’s a free download to show you how (this also explains how to pray with them for intentions related to the seven deadly sins):
- Use this simple journal to find inspiration and to track your progress
- It’s not too late to join the conversation at Mother & Home! Sign up here.
 From According to Your Mercy by Martin Shannon.