Learning to Pray from Scripture Part 3: How the Psalms Teach Us to Be Ourselves in the Presence of God

How open are you about expressing your emotions? Do you typically hide your feelings from others? Or do you find it difficult to put how you are feeling into words? Maybe you’re not someone who is, as they say, in touch with their feelings. Perhaps you find the outward expression of emotions–be it anger, sadness, grief, disappointment, or fear–awkward and uncomfortable, even around those closest to you. It’s possible your upbringing trained you to see letting your feelings show as inappropriate. Our specific culture and family of origin play a profound role in this sort of thing.

What about in the context of your relationship with God? When you pray, are you the sort of person who wears your heart on your sleeve or do you couch your prayers in especially reverent language? Not that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive, but you get my point. That is, as we enter God’s presence intentionally with our prayers, what role, if any, do our emotions play? Put another way: is it somehow irreverent or inappropriate to come before God with feelings of anger or sadness, weariness or worry? Do we need to compose ourselves first, so to speak?

To get some answers to these questions, there is no better way than to turn to the Psalms. The Psalms are the prayer book and hymnal of the Bible. Even a cursory reading of a handful of psalms demonstrates that the psalmists did not hide their emotions from God in their prayers. Well-known pastor John Piper says that “One of the reasons the Psalms are deeply loved by so many Christians is that they give expression to an amazing array of emotions.” He’s exactly right. And because of this the Psalms give us permission to do likewise.

So let’s look at some examples. First, in Psalm 25:16 we read this: Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am alone and afflicted. Here the psalmist, David, is honest about his loneliness. I am alone, he prays. While our lives are much different than his, each of us knows loneliness. But for some, loneliness is an especially profound struggle. Whatever David’s reasons for loneliness are, he feels wholly free to bring what he’s feeling to God. He genuinely believes God cares about how he feels and can do something about it. Turn to me and be gracious to me, David asks.

This example alone reveals how we are free to come to God and tell him how we feel. We don’t do so in order to provide God with information about our lives; no, we do so to draw on the comfort of his presence, to seek grace from him.

Grief is another example. David helps us there too:

I am weary from my groaning;
with my tears I dampen my bed
and drench my couch every night.
My eyes are swollen from grief;
they grow old because of all my enemies.

Psalm 6:6-7

Again, for our purposes here the circumstances of David’s grief are not our chief concern. Instead, take note of how vulnerable he allows himself to be in the presence of God. There is no gap between how he feels and what he prays.

Let’s not forget who David is, either. David was a king and therefore a military and political leader. He knew how to handle himself on the field of battle. He took down Goliath as a young man, when the entire Israelite army cowered in fear.

At the same time, David was a poet, and a man after God’s own heart. He is the author of the majority of the Psalms. He was incredibly self-aware of what was going on in his heart. He was willing to dance before God with abandon, unconcerned with what others thought about such devotion. He had no problem coming before God with honesty, with being real or authentic, as we might say.

So David wept, and he brought his tears to God in prayer. So can we. I love what Gandalf says at the end of The Return of the King: “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

Here’s the thing. When as people of faith we experience the more difficult emotions, what do we do with them? What do we do about them? Do we pretend they’re not real? And what if we experience a difficult emotion about God himself? Consider this prayer from David:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 13:1

Here we see disappointment, confusion, uncertainty, doubt. A prayer in the form of questions. I wonder how many Christians find themselves experiencing a feeling like this, but at the same time feel as though they cannot express this to God. And all because doing so is not truly reverent or proper.

I think that when we have such feelings of disappointment or uncertainty about God, and do not allow those feelings into our prayers, it negatively affects our faith and our relationship with God. Think of hiding something you feel deeply towards a loved one from that loved one. If a husband or wife, for instance, hides their feelings of disappointment in their spouse from their spouse, how might this impact their intimacy, their trust in one another? At the very least, the feeling doesn’t simply disappear because we keep it to ourselves. It will continue to eat at us. At worst, it results in an unhealthy emotional distance. In such a situation it’s worth asking ourselves: “Why am I avoiding sharing how I feel? Don’t I trust that my relationship–my spouse–can handle it? What does it say about our relationship if I don’t think they can?”

Let me be bold and say that the same holds for our relationship with God. If I avoid bringing my feelings to God in prayer, including feelings of disappointment with him, what does this reveal about how I feel regarding God’s trustworthiness? Am I afraid of being that honest in his presence? If so, why? What about doing so makes me uncomfortable?

The difficult emotions don’t end there, of course. Psalm 137 expresses profound grief over the exile of Israel to Babylon. Through exile Israel lost her identity as a nation. She found herself in utter ruin and despair. For this reason this Psalm includes some of the most difficult words in all of Scripture.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who pays you back
what you have done to us.
Happy is he who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:1, 8-9

These words are in the Bible. We can’t avoid them. Psalm 137 is perhaps the most angry and hopeless psalm of lament in the entire psalter. The words are violent and vengeful. And not without reason, considering what Israel had been through. The question is what do we do with a psalm like this?

Psalm 137 isn’t alone. One of my favourite passages in all of Scripture is Psalm 139, but there are some verses in this psalm that seem almost out of place. They go like this:

God, if only you would kill the wicked—
you bloodthirsty men, stay away from me—
who invoke you deceitfully.
Your enemies swear by you falsely.
Lord, don’t I hate those who hate you,
and detest those who rebel against you?
I hate them with extreme hatred;
I consider them my enemies.

Psalm 139:19-22

I’m not going to pretend I have easy answers for how to apply such words to our lives as we seek to follow Jesus. I do not. I’m not altogether sure how to square such poetry with the biblical admonitions to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.

But I think there is something we can say.

Take note that while the psalmists in 137 and in 139 are expressing a profound anger, they bring this anger to God. In other words, these psalms are not teaching us to act out on our anger. We’re not being instructed to take vengeance on our enemies or those who have done us harm. No, we are being shown that the best place to bring such angry and vengeful emotions is to God in prayer.

In fact, praying such words of angry lament are an act of deep trust that God is a God of justice and righteousness. By asking God to kill the wicked the psalmist is effectively leaving the matter in God’s hands. Such prayers become, therefore, a safe place to vent our most troubling thoughts and emotions, a prayerful space where we can process our feelings that justice has been violated and something needs to be done–something only God himself can do.

Now, if we find ourselves wondering why we would ever be in a position to pray like this, might I suggest this is because we live in an especially privileged position? For those, however, who personally know the realities of injustice, such prayers may indeed be an important part of addressing their circumstances. Consider that approximately 70% of the Psalms include words of lament–what Bono of U2 once refered to as the blues music of the Bible:

That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God— “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?”

Bono

There are other difficult emotions, of course. Fear would be another. But in every case, the Psalms show us that we are free to come before God with the whole of our humanity. In doing so, our intimacy with God grows and deepens, and becomes more honest, grounded, and resilient.

The late Eugene Peterson says this about the Psalms:

Praying isn’t being nice before God. The Psalms aren’t pretty. They’re not nice. Faith often isn’t smooth, nice, or pretty, but it’s honest, and I think we’re trying for honesty in our faith, which is very hard in our culture.

Eugene Peterson

I think he’s absolutely right, both about the honesty of the Psalms but also about how difficult it is for us to be honest in our prayers.

Now, after all of this, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the Psalms only give voice to difficult emotions. Not at all. There is also joy and celebration, thanksgiving and praise, all through the Psalms.

You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and new wine abound.

Psalm 4:7

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
to declare your faithful love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
with a ten-stringed harp
and the music of a lyre.

Psalm 92:1-3

That’s the other thing. When it comes to prayer, our neglect is of an equal opportunity sort. We’re also not so open to being effusive in our joy and thanks. Often even our praise to God is muted. And it shouldn’t be!

I know that when it comes to my church experience over the years, emotions have been less expressed than not. I have been a Baptist pastor for nearly 20 years, after all. Like I said at the start, this in part is because of our culture. Travel to churches in other parts of the world (or to other churches!) and you won’t necessarily see believers holding in their emotions during prayer and worship.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be about what we see but what God sees. Because what we’re talking about is being honest–completely vulnerable–before God. In other words, we’re talking about being ourselves in the presence of God, in all of our messiness and brokenness, including when we pray. Actually, especially when we pray. Because if the Psalms teach us anything about prayer, it is this.

Tempus Fugit

Man, oh man, I cannot believe my vacation—much less the summer—is over. Next week our daughter begins grade 4 and our twin sons start preschool. Just a week ago my wife and I celebrated our 11th anniversary. And if I really want to think of how far life has come and gone, I need only recall that I’ve been out of high school for 23 years. Finished my undergrad 18 years ago. Received my Master’s degree 15 years ago. I mean, c’mon, this year I turn 41. Forgive the cliché, but it’s true (cue impressive Latin phrase!): tempus fugit. Or as we usually say it, “Time flies.” And, believe me, it does so even when you’re not having fun.

If most of you are like me, then most days you live as though your death is an eternity away. Continuing with the “time” image, we act as though we have “all the time in the world.” Whether the thought of our own death bothers us or not, dwelling on what the final date inscribed on our tombstone will be is likely not a regular routine. Moments occasionally come along when I realize that there is still much of the young boy and college student in me. I think more years  still lie ahead of me than behind. But as my wife likes to remind me, I am now middle-aged! In the U2 song from their album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, “City of Blinding Lights,” Bono sings reflectively, “Time won’t leave me as I am/ Time won’t take the boy out of this man.” It’s funny how both things can be true, isn’t it?

Psalm 90 seems to have been written by someone perhaps reflecting on the realities of age and of mortality. Sounding a great deal like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, the psalmist writes: “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” There is a definite realism and honesty in the biblical text about the temporal limitations we all face.

But we don’t like to face these limitations in our culture. Surely the big business of cosmetic surgery attests loudly to this. Other signs of our desire to avoid age and our own eventual demise abound. Think of the woman who says, “I turn 35 again this year.” Or the man who dyes his graying temples. Or parents who try to live vicariously through their children. In our society, youth is god-like, a sign of strength and success. And of course our culture is not alone in wanting to prolong life. Think of the legend of the Fountain of Youth, a spring that supposedly restores the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in its waters. Tales of such a fountain have been recounted across the world for thousands of years. According to an apocryphal combination of New World and Eurasian elements, Juan Ponce de León was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he traveled to what is now Florida in 1513. Imagine the money people would pay if such a fountain were ever found. Walmart would set up shop by the fountain overnight. Apple would design an app to use it.

Obviously, searching for some legendary fountain is not the way of dealing with our finitude. Thankfully, God in his wisdom offers us truth about how to think about this reality. Aware of his own unavoidable death, the writer of Psalm 90 brings this awareness to God in prayer: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” I see at least two things to note here. First, God needs to give us a better grasp of our own mortality. Teach us, the Psalmist asks. More than that, the psalmist asks because he wants to live wisely. Knowing, therefore, that we only have so much time is understood as a prompt to wiser living.

Think of people who make so-called “bucket-lists.” Often those who make such lists are people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness or who have in some other way been confronted by their own mortality. Having had the realization that they will really not live forever, such a list-maker thinks, “I better make a list of things that I want to do and should do before I die. This is my last chance.” Becoming more intimately aware that their days on this earth are numbered, such a person decides to use the time he or she has doing things they’ve put off. Being able to number our days rightly potentially rids each of us of the procrastinator within.

One other thing about what the psalmist is saying. He’s saying it all to God. This is prayer. Underlying his desire to have a more honest grasp of the length of his life is what the Bible calls a fear of the Lord. The Bible makes clear elsewhere that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). While meaning more, having a fear of the Lord at the very least means knowing that one’s life is ultimately in God’s hands. And not just this brief earthly sojourn. What happens to our life after we die is also in God’s hands. Wanting to live wisely, therefore, means wanting to live life—all of life, as much of it as we have—in relation to God. It means finding in God our very reason for living. “Lord,” the psalmist is saying, “help me to live for you in the time that you have given to me.”

Much of our culture tells us to do whatever we can to extend our stay on this blue-green planet in order to have more time to enjoy what we like, to do what we want to do, to live how we want to live. But the current of biblical wisdom runs in a considerably different direction. And Jesus, thankfully, describes it to us: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Being able to count our days wisely in order to live wisely means knowing that we can never save our lives—much less add days or weeks or years to our calendar. Tempus fugit. Since this is so, we should make the prayer of Psalm 90 our own before it’s too late.