I’m a person of strong emotions. Our culture largely values rationalism and logic, and it’s easy for me to think that I need to ignore or overcome my emotions. The Psalms present a different narrative. This book of the Bible is a compilation of prayers, and was in many ways the prayer book for the Jewish people. In it is expressed every human emotion and type of experience. The psalms give us permission to be human and to experience deep emotions, and they offer a guide for how to bring these emotions to God.
Psalms of Praise – Believe the hype
When we think about praising God, we often presume an element of happiness and joy. We praise God in response to something good that happened or that we observe in the world. This is not a bad thing and we should certainly offer songs of praise and gratitude when we are reminded of God’s goodness and power to work in our lives. At the same time, it is also deeply necessary to praise God when we are in the midst of darkness and struggle. When we are most overwhelmed by fear and despair, we need to remind ourselves and others of what is true: The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord (Ps. 33:5). The Psalms employ many metaphors and beautiful language to describe God’s traits and the way He interacts with the world. But keep in mind that the psalmist is not merely speaking in hyperbole to puff God up. When we extol the goodness of the Lord, we state the facts about the truth of the universe.
From heaven the Lord looks down
and sees all mankind;
from his dwelling place he watches
all who live on earth – Psalm 33:13-14
This means that to praise God while in the throes of trouble does not mean putting on a happy face to pretend everything is great. It is to silence lies of hopelessness through telling the truth about the God we serve. To praise God is to offer gratitude and joy, and also to reorder our focus and understanding of how the world works.
Psalms of Cursing – You mad, bro?
The imprecatory psalms can be very difficult to process and often make us uncomfortable with the harshness of their language. Should we really be praying for our enemy’s children to wander as homeless orphans (Ps. 109)? Aren’t we supposed to forgive and turn the other cheek? First of all, the psalms of cursing show us that we should be upset when evil seems to have the upper hand and that we are allowed to desire the punishment of unrighteousness and injustice. We are required to be honest about what is wrong in our world and to name those things before God. Secondly, we are assured that God hears the cries of His children. These psalms show us that even if no one knows the ways that we have been injured by others, God knows and we expect Him to care. Imagine how comforting these psalms could be to a young girl kidnapped by Boko Haram, or to brothers and sisters constantly threatened by ISIS, or to a child who is being abused and is afraid to tell anyone. God sees every wound inflicted within His creation, and even if human advocates don’t arise, we know that God will bring justice in the end.
Also, take time to turn the psalm on yourself. In our thoughtlessness and selfishness we have all acted as an enemy towards someone else. It could be through obvious offenses that cause us guilt and regret, or cursing at a driver that aggravated you on the highway. On a regular basis we malign and injure other image-bearers. We have also all been enemies of God.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – Colossians 1:21-22
Because we all fit the category of “enemy”, Christ turned the cursing psalms on Himself to bear the curse that we deserve. He stood condemned in our place and drank the Cup of Wrath that we couldn’t have survived. Next time you feel uncomfortable with one of these psalms, think of Jesus enduring that punishment so that you might be spared. And give thanks.
Psalms of lament – You can cry if you want to
A seemingly obvious but important truth of the psalms of lament is that they assume the followers of God will suffer. Sorrow is not inherently a sign of failure or punishment, but an expected part of life. They again show us that when we cry out to God in our distress, we can expect Him to hear and to care.
You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book? – Psalm 56:8
Our tears are precious to God. He doesn’t just tell us to buck up and get over it, but keeps close record of our weeping. These psalms also show us that something happens when we are honest about our sorrow before God. Depression and anxiety can be very isolating and cause us to withdraw. But God invites us to come forward and bring our thoughts and feelings into the light of His presence. The psalms never describe a tidy resolution to the psalmist’s distress (“I told God and then I got everything I ever wanted”), but they always shift in tone by the end. Not because the situation has changed, but because our hearts are changed when we know we have been heard. It may take days, months, years for us to know that we have been changed. It took me two years of crying out to God during a season of grief and darkness before my heart was healed. But it was this continual process of honesty and rawness in prayer that moved me down the road of healing. Silence, isolation, or a mask of happiness will not bring renewal to a hurting heart. Full and authentic expression of sorrow in the presence of Christ is what will bring the balm of healing and restoration.
If you would like to study the psalms in more depth, please feel free to utilize my three-part Bible study series. My thoughts in this post and in our study guides have been significantly influenced by Ellen Davis’s book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, a work which I highly recommend.