Playing Psalms: Goodness and Games — Tag

Simultaneously, my friends and I shouted, as if loudness affected the quickness of our words, “Not it!”
“Not it!”
“Not it!”

Well, quickness counted. Because whoever was last to get the words out became the infamous IT, the one who had the hard task of tagging the rest of us who scrambled about the yard, arms flailing, voices taunting. 

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

The simplest of games in theory, Tag can also be the longest, most exhausting of games. Especially if you’re IT. Literally, IT chases the other players, trying to touch, or tag, them. When someone gets tagged, they become IT. And so it goes. And goes. And goes.

Yet, Tag has endured through the generations. Maybe it’s the thrill of the chase. Perhaps it gives wiggly kids full of unspent energy an excuse to run about. I wonder if it might also be the elicited feeling of belonging.

My husband and I sat at an outdoor table for dinner one night. The restaurant had become a popular hangout during the summer evenings of the pandemic. Just beyond the tables, a padded area for kids drew families in, beckoning play to happen. I watched with some sadness as I noticed the effects of social distancing — kids would look at parents longingly, “Can’t I go ask them to play?” I could feel their need for closeness, for fun with friends, for interaction.

Finally, one little boy, with all the glee and unhindered joy kids should have, playfully ran toward a little girl and tagged her. Then hopped back, hoping she’d take the bait and give chase. She did.

And my heart soared.

Then, it occurred to me — the boy hadn’t needed to say a word. His tag was all it took to get the game going.


I wonder how often we come at prayer like a game of tag. We come up to God, maybe from behind with timidity or charging full force toward His face, giving Him a good whack: “Tag, You’re it.”

Then we dart off, waiting. Running. Questioning when He’ll answer that prayer. Tagging Him again and again. And again. Answer. My. Prayer.

But that’s not really prayer. That’s not what God invites us into — a game of tag. No.

Whether corporate or in solitude, prayer is meant to be conversation. Relationship. An authentic act of faith and hope and trust. It can even be a very real dispersal of deep feelings that Walter Brueggemann describes as “a place of disorientation.” 

It should be striking that the one thing Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them was how to pray. Not how to make disciples. Or to preach a good sermon. Or save souls. But to pray. Jesus’ response (The Lord’s Prayer) models for us the language and heart behind prayer — worship God in heaven, seek His kingdom, ask for daily needs and forgiveness, and surrender to His will.

Nowhere in Scripture did Jesus model for us this prayer-as-a-game-of-tag way of praying. Instead, He consistently and continuously found quiet places to get alone with God. To pray. To listen. To know His Father’s will. 

Psalm 143 — A Penitential Psalm

Today’s Psalm sets the example for such prayer. King David shows us what it looks and sounds like to come to God with the kind of honesty prayer is meant for. In fact, Psalm 143 stands as one of a few “Penitential Psalms,” a subcategory of Laments, which we’re familiar with by now. Very specifically, the penitential lament is one of seeking God’s forgiveness for sin and failure.

We can, quite literally, use this Psalm as our own prayer, and today we’ll venture through that practice together. As we become proficient pray-ers of Psalms, we will witness within ourselves a subtle shift — a deepening of our love for Jesus, a strengthening of our relationship with God, and a solidifying of our faith because of the Spirit.

Try not to give in to the urge to run, keeping yourself at arms length from God. Instead, draw near. Lean in. Speak David’s words as if they were your own.

Seeking Mercy — Pray these four verses as your own prayer, aloud is best:

1 Lord, hear my prayer,
    listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
    come to my relief.
2 Do not bring your servant into judgment,
    for no one living is righteous before you.
3 The enemy pursues me,
    he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
    like those long dead.
4 So my spirit grows faint within me;
    my heart within me is dismayed.

Psalm 143:1-4 NIV

Immediately, David asks for mercy. We could pause there. And sit in the reality of our need for God’s mercy. Allow ourselves to feel that need for God’s mercy. 

We move forward, acknowledging God’s faithfulness and righteousness — putting Him on the throne, removing ourselves. Then we ask for the relief our hearts seek.

Photo by cottonbro on

David confesses a truth we often fight against: no one is righteous but God. No matter what we do or who we are, we can’t do it all right. We can’t make ourselves righteous. We are incapable of saving ourselves. In fact, we sin. What a relief to finally admit that and give it to the Righteous One. 

That confession exposes us to all the hard things — the enemy, the crushing, the darkness, the dismay. Our honesty with God and ourselves opens us to hurt but also to the coming healing.

Remember — Pray these verses with a heart that looks back at God’s faithfulness:

5 I remember the days of long ago;
    I meditate on all your works
    and consider what your hands have done.
6 I spread out my hands to you;
    I thirst for you like a parched land.
7 Answer me quickly, Lord;
    my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
    or I will be like those who go down to the pit.

Psalm 143:5-7 NIV

Do you feel David’s words becoming your own, coming from a place of humility and honesty? Rest in that. Don’t overthink it. Spread your hands and receive what God has for you.

David demonstrates many times throughout the Psalms this practice of remembering, of rehearsing the times God came through, proved faithful, and answered prayer. David did this not to dwell in the past but to bring to mind the fact that God is faithful. He is worthy of our trust.

When we pause to think about all the times God has shown up, the memories trigger within us hope and faith — if He did it then, He’ll do it again! As our hope and faith rise, our fears subside. Our focus shifts. And instead of panicking about how the situation will work out, we start to thirst for more of God.

When we move into His presence, He fills. Satisfies. Quenches our thirst yet gives us a desire for more of Him. And we can breathe.

Then our pleas for God’s answers come from a deeper place, a gut-revealing, honest place. We recognize our need for God is greater than anything else — a feeling that whispers, if we can’t find God, we might as well die… 

Holy Conversation — Pray these verses with fervency and faith:

8 Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
    for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
    for to you I entrust my life.
9 Rescue me from my enemies, Lord,
    for I hide myself in you.
10 Teach me to do your will,
    for you are my God;
may your good Spirit
    lead me on level ground.

Psalm 143:8-10 NIV

David’s prayer rolls off our tongues as if we originated the thoughts. Because they are our thoughts. He gives us words for what seemed wordless.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

Like Jesus with His disciples, David gifts us with expressions that guide us in holy conversation with God, revealing our deepest desires and fears. But also anchoring us in God’s truth.

Personal Portion

At some point during lock-down last spring, I came across Psalm 143:8-10. They immediately become my personal prayer portion. And when I found them in the NASB 1995 version, their poetry blossomed in me and brought me closer to God. I printed them. Prayed them. Made them my phone’s lock screen. Found songs that sang them. In other words, I immersed myself in them.

I’ll share “my” version with you here: 

Let me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning;
For I trust in You;
Teach me the way in which I should walk;
For to You I lift up my soul.
Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
I take refuge in You.
Teach me to do Your will,
For You are my God;
Let Your good Spirit lead me on level ground.

Psalm 143:8-10 NASB-1995

I’ve not found another version of these three verses that follows such a perfect pattern:


The pattern may mean little to anyone else, but to me it speaks of purposeful prose that leads to intended outcomes. I love how the movement flows and guides. 

Framing the section with the two lets encourages a release of tightly clasped hands. Asking God to “let me hear” or to “let Your good Spirit lead” engages the process of letting go, of trusting God. It reminds us that we don’t have control — so quit holding life as if we do. 

Photo by Jem Sanchez on

And in the middle of the chaos of pandemics and moves and changes, I’ve required much releasing of clenched fists. I am getting better at holding things loosely and doing the work of letting go, for I trust in Him — a great faith-building refrain if there ever was one.

On either side of let is teach. Having given space for God to step into our situations, we can move aside. We can get out of the way so that God can teach us His ways, His will. We can do this with great confidence because we are His and He is ours — For I lift my soul to Him. For He is my God. 

Then smack in the middle of this prayer is the heart of our cry for help: deliverance. And because He is the Deliverer, we can take refuge in Him.

Such truths. They lead us. Give us hope. Point us to Jesus. Anchor us in all that God is. 

Our prayers become our trust walk.

Righteous Reverence — Pray these final verses, bowed low but bold:

11 For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;
    in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
12 In your unfailing love, silence my enemies;
    destroy all my foes,
    for I am your servant.

Psalm 143:11-12 NIV

David points us back to God’s righteousness, back to God Himself, as he makes his final requests known. This heartfelt prayer comes from bent knees and bowed head, in full faith of God’s love and ability, with a reminder of David’s place before the Almighty.

If we step back and look at this particular penitential prayer, we might be surprised to absorb its simplicity. But it carries with it all we need to pray effectively — acknowledge God and confess our sin, make our request and release control, ask God to teach us and lead us, then surrender to His will and ways, reminding ourselves just how faithful He is.

Penitential and Personal

Probably all our prayers should carry the penitential. Even Jesus taught us to ask, “forgive us our trespasses.” But, there will be days or seasons when the gravity of our sin and the burdens of our brokenness weigh us down so heavily that our prayers become our path to wholeness in Jesus. Our penitent hearts get personal. Real. Raw. And oh so brave. 

“As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.”

NT Wright

Receiving the grace offered, we not only find forgiveness and healing but hope and renewed strength to reenter life. 

And, yet, that’s not where it ends. Like that little boy at the restaurant, we’re meant to engage others with the freedom and peace and joy we’ve found in Christ.

Photo by Pixabay on

We come alongside those who need a friend, who need help finding their way to the God who heals and forgives. Not walloping them with trite sentiments or platitudes, but with gentle nudges that let them know they’re not alone. Sometimes we don’t even need to speak a word to get the game going.

Ready to repent, Shelley Johnson

The header photo is by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash

PS’s — 

  1. The other Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130) can easily be prayed just as 143 because they’re written in first person. Skim them to see which ones speak to where you are now. And pour out your heart to God.
  2. If you’d like to read ahead, check out Psalm 139.
  3. Invite friends to come play with us!
  4. Don’t miss a post. Sign up to receive them in your email.
  5. Finally, if you’d like to be further encouraged, I’ve created a “Playing Psalms” playlist on Spotify. I pray these songs help you enter God’s presence and sow God’s Word deeply into your soul. 

Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

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