The Hard-Edged Psalms

The Psalms have sharp edges. They cut the unwary and cut the bonds of the broken. I’ve just prayed my way through them, at roughly one a day. I’m starting again at the moment.

I knew they were raw but have often been surprised by how raw. Which I really shouldn’t be, but my church experiences—including in the churches I’ve led, this is on me too—have not prepared me for the reality of the Bible.

And there’s something about not just reading them but praying them, trying to appropriate their words for my own as best I can, that brings this home. There’s a healthy dynamic we’ve often missed. Alain Emerson suggests that the Psalms know that human beings will only orbit around their pain until they pray it out to God.

A counsellor taught me that our emotions need to be expressed using the formula “Honest. Express. Decide.” Broadly if you’re feeling something you first need to be honest with yourself about what you’re feeling—or to put it another way you need to actually let yourself feel it. I’ve spent years not feeling the pain of particularly difficult things that have happened to me because I thought that was the stoic or masculine or Christian thing to do.

After you’ve felt it, you can then express those emotions, primarily to God and indeed to anyone else in your life who needs to know. Then, and only then, can you make a godly decision about what to do with them: which might mean repenting of whatever was underlying them, or it might mean acting on them, or a host of actions in between.

I’ve found it remarkably helpful. Figure out what I’m feeling without judgement. Express those emotions to God, copying the Psalms. Then begin to forgive, repent, and act accordingly depending on the situation.

Emerson moves on to suggest, following Walter Bruggeman, that the way we go on singing happy songs when things are anything but is sub-Biblical at best. It’s important that we express that things are hard. So many people in our churches genuinely think they’re the only ones struggling. A dear friend messaged me after reading this piece to say thank you for the line that said ‘it’s not just you.’ She was beginning, I think, to wonder if it was.

There are not emotions that are inappropriate for God’s ears. We can be too reverent about what we think we can say to God. Read the Psalms. Read Psalm 88, the nadir of the book’s emotion, but it’s hardly the only choice. Approaching half of the psalms have moments of lament even if they aren’t an out-and-out ‘Lament’. What would it look like if our worship was the same?

It’s not like contemporary song writers don’t write the songs for us, but we need to choose to sing them.

Honestly if someone read Psalm 88 in worship, most of us would be embarrassed. I wonder if I would be. It is raw. It is dark. “Darkness is my only friend.” I would hope that Jesus’ entering the darkness for us would be where we next turn, and perhaps to his victory on the cross, but hopefully without suggesting that it isn’t ok to feel just like this.

Sometimes groaning is all we can do. It’s OK to groan in church, friends. Perhaps our worship and groaning can swirl together into what Levi Lusko calls a ‘holy moan.’ There is something unreal about us if we don’t ever groan. Church should be for real people.

Larry Crabb suggests that church is too often ‘a place of pretence’ and therefore a ‘place without hope.’ We are not used to expressing vulnerability. We’re familiar enough with that fake kind of vulnerability that preachers often use and call ‘authentic’ and with the way people are vulnerable on social media, but none of that is real. Real life eye-to-eye authenticity is foreign to most of us. So often our churches don’t want it.

They should, and that needs to change. But friends, in the meantime know this, God does want it. God wants your raw, poorly expressed, sharp-edged, genuine pain.

There’s this strange, ineffable thing that as we approach the face of God with our complaints and voice them, as Leslie Allen says, the pain and torment in our minds catches up with the pain in our hearts. Where the kindness of almighty Yahweh towards his children does not burn us for the temerity to speak of our anguish, but contains to shine from his face as we breathe our sorrow to his ears. The edges of our pain soften in the face of his love.

The pain does not go, but somehow it is more bearable than before.

Read the Psalms

Lusko says that trials reveal our foundations, but the middle of a trial is a terrible time to start building one (riffing on Psalm 10). It does us well to build foundations for sorrow now by becoming familiar with the language of the Psalms. Read them. Then go a step beyond and pray them.

My friend Phil likes to say that if the best time to do something is in the past, the second best time to do it is right now. So even if you are in the middle of a buffeting wind, or a full on hurricane of nightmarish proportions, turn to the Psalms.

I find their realism helps me pray. I find the insistence that I look up and praise the Lord of Hosts even when I’m in the depths of despair a vivid challenge that wakes up my soul—sometimes painfully. I find their hope for the future, which is never quite the same as the small hopes we’re peddled so often in our churches but lifts our heads to the Resurrection and the Land of the Living, is like water to a thirsty soul.

Most of all I find that they are, as St. Augustine said, the voice of Christ. All of them speak of him. Sometimes less obviously, sometimes in their grand movements but they do speak of him. I’ve written an exploration of the plot of the Psalms that you can read if you like.

But read them, dear friends. They will buttress your soul and help your sob out your sorrow. It’s alright to hurt. It’s alright to be in pain. It does matter what you do next, there are good and bad responses, but to begin with dare yourself to do a difficult battle: feel what hurts and tell Yahweh the Lord of Hosts about it.

Photo by Jonathan Caliguire on Unsplash

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