Reading through the psalms every month is a delightful discipline. On multiple occasions, I’ve written of the importance of the psalms to our spiritual formation, and earlier this year I released a Psalms in 30 Days prayer guide that features a three-times-a-day rhythm for working your way through the hymnbook of Jesus.
The psalms are food for hungry souls—a feast of varied delicacies that nourish and sustain us in the Christian life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.
When the Psalms Strike You the Wrong Way
When you commit to reading through all the psalms according to a set plan, you soon find yourself scheduled to pray through a particular song that in no way lines up with your emotions in the moment. “So many times the psalm I’m supposed to read doesn’t express what I’m feeling,” people tell me. “I don’t feel the words I’m saying. Does that mean praying the psalm is fake?”
I understand the sentiment. It comes from an expressive view of prayer and worship—the idea that the purpose of talking to God or singing to him is to tell him whatever it is we’re feeling in the moment. And certainly, expressing our hearts to God is part of our relationship with him. The psalms themselves express something of the emotions that David or Asaph or any number of writers were feeling in the moment.
So what happens when your feelings don’t line up at all with your words, when you’re praying through a psalm from David or Asaph but don’t share the same emotions?
Take Psalm 88, for example, often referred to as the darkest of all the lament psalms. It’s the only psalm that never turns from despair toward hope; darkness closes in as the psalmist’s “closest companion” at the end. On many occasions, Psalm 88 has come up in my reading plan on days when things were going well and I felt happy in the Lord.
What do I do when the deep sadness of Psalm 88 doesn’t jive with my experience? I remind myself that many believers around the world are not feeling the happiness and peace I do in that moment. Someone somewhere can’t see light beyond the shadows. And so I pray Psalm 88, joining my voice to theirs even if I don’t happen to feel the same despair.
Or take the flip side. Not long ago, I was reeling from some bad news—an inexplicable tragedy that led to the loss of a friend. In the moment, I had no words. I didn’t feel like praying, and I confessed I had no idea what God was up to—why he would allow a young man to be snatched away in his prime. That afternoon’s psalm was one of those “Hallelujah! Bless the Lord for all the good things He has done” songs of praise. Really, Lord? I thought to myself. I don’t feel like praising you right now. I feel like turning to Psalm 13 and crying out to you, or reciting Psalm 102 and groaning in my affliction.
Now, there would’ve been nothing wrong with finding a psalm that better expressed the emotions of my heart in that moment, but in choosing to stick with the psalm for the day, I was telling myself: Even though I’m discouraged and depressed right now, I know that all creation around me is singing Hallelujah and praising the majesty of the Lord, and so I’ll lift my voice to join their praise even if I don’t feel particularly joyful in the moment.
The psalm struck me the wrong way—giving me words of praise when all I felt was sadness. But that was the point.
Deeper Vision for Prayer
In order to better understand how to pray the psalms, we must better understand prayer. It is not only about expressing your heart to God. That’s an important part of a relationship with God, but that’s not all that prayer encompasses. Here’s N. T. Wright making this point:
Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate emoting session, however “Christian,” but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms.
The same is true of singing together in church. When you sing a praise song that doesn’t line up with your feelings, or when you pray through all the psalms, not just the ones that strike you the right way, you open yourself up to a kind of spiritual formation that will take your faith beyond whatever emotions may be most present in your heart in the moment. Praying the psalms is an exercise in redirecting your emotions to something beyond the pain of the present moment.
What’s more, when you pray and sing the psalms, you join your voice with countless other believers who are saying the same words; you lift your voice in harmony with the ancient writers who gave us these inspired words.
The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent nonpsalmic “worship” based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.
When you read through the psalms every month, you set yourself up for being jarred from time to time, but in this disorienting experience your faith is growing deeper. Even the imprecatory psalms that call down curses on God’s enemies teach us to thirst for and love God’s justice. (For a good conversation on how to consider these psalms that contain emotions some Christians worry are problematic, listen to this interview with Trevor Laurence.)
So don’t feel like something’s not right when the psalms strike you the wrong way. This is part of their power. Bring your heart in line with the psalmist’s, join your voice to the prayer warriors whose words have echoed through the ages, and let the psalms expand your heart and grow your soul.
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