Praying the psalms unselfishly

If the psalms cover all the different emotions I experience in life, chances are good that there’s at least one psalm that expresses what I’m presently feeling. But because there are so many different emotions and corresponding psalms, chances are also good that the particular psalm I read today will not directly connect with what I’m feeling. For example, today’s psalm in my daily psalm reading may be a psalm of lament which does not match my good mood and general optimism at present. Or today’s psalm may be filled with praise even though I may be nearly in tears with frustration.

There are at least two ways to deal with discrepancies between the tone of a particular psalm and how I am presently feeling. One way is to simply skip ahead to another psalm until I find and can pray one that more accurately expresses the state of my heart and mind. The despair in Psalm 22 is followed by the hope of Psalm 23. At least one line in one of those two psalms ought to resonate with me!

But a way to stick with a psalm that doesn’t happen to match my present mood is to consider how it does perfectly match the feelings of othersHolding hands graphic found via Google near or far in the faith community. I may not feel like lamenting at the moment, but I can still express the lament in solidarity with sisters and brothers in Christ who are presently experiencing pain. Or if today’s psalm in my daily psalm reading is one filled with praise despite me being in foul mood, I can still read and pray it thinking of others who are having a great day, learning to thank God (and not complain to him!) for their happy circumstances. A suitable prayer to accompany reading a psalm in this way goes something like this: “God, these words do not reflect my present experience or state of mind, but there are others in the world for whom these words fit perfectly. I lift them up before you and pray these words in solidarity with them knowing we are united in Christ.”

Moreover, reading and praying a psalm that doesn’t match how I’m presently feeling may help me better identify with someone who is feeling the emotions the psalm portrays. For example, reading a pain-filled psalm may help me better understand and relate with someone who is presently filled with anguish. When I skip over such a psalm to find a cheerier portion of Scripture, I deny myself the opportunity to grow in empathy by putting myself in someone else’s shoes.

Instead of finding a psalm I can more easily relate to, I hear the Holy Spirit inviting me to read each psalm unselfishly, praying for and identifying with those for whom the words may hit closer to home. The Spirit may even surprise me from time to time by showing me how the words are more applicable to me than I originally presumed.

This post is inspired in part by Martin Tel’s comments
in the webinar he led last month for CRC Worship Ministries
titled “Creative Use of the Psalms in Worship.”

There’s a psalm for that

Years ago the Visine marketing people produced clever commercials saying that no matter what problem your eyes were having, a Visine product offered relief: Red, irritated eyes? There’s a Visine for that. Itchy, allergy eyes? There’s a Visine for that. Irritated by contact lenses? There’s a Visine for that, too.

The same marketing campaign could work for the book of Psalms: Happy with how life is going? There’s a psalm for that. In the depths of depression? There’s a psalm for that. Worried about the injustice in Psalms graphic found with Googleour society? There’s a psalm for that. Angry with God? There’s a psalm for that, too.

It was Martin Luther who made this observation: “The Psalms is the book of all saints, and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”

I suspect this at least partly explains the popularity of the Psalms: Read long enough and I read myself – I read words I could have written at this very moment of my day and of my life. But more than reflections written in a journal, each psalm is inspired Scripture filled with words the Holy Spirit invites me to pray. Through the psalms, instead of bottling up what I’m feeling, I express back to God the joy or angst of my heart. I’m not left to process it on my own but to and even with the One who gave me my emotions in the first place and loves me more than words can describe.

Reading a psalm a day has been a habit of mine since before that Visine ad campaign. Try it for a while and let me know what you think of the practice.

Slower to anger

Anatomy of anger graphic found via GoogleAnger is a complex emotion. Things would be easy if we could just say that being angry is always sinful. But that cannot be as the Bible records instances of God becoming angry (such as when the Israelites rebelled and made a golden calf). And when Paul urges us not to sin when we’re angry, the assumption is that it’s possible to indeed be angry without sinning.

I learned a lot about anger while reading Glittering Vices by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. She points out how anger is actually connected to love as it can reveal what I really care about. Glittering Vices by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoungAnger can also provide the motivation I need to make right something that is wrong. As Prof. DeYoung writes:

Anger, when it is a holy emotion, has justice as its object and love as its root. Both love and justice are focused on the good of others… Motivated by good anger, we hunger and thirst for righteousness, an appetite that depends on justice for its object, but on love for its right expression. Anger in these cases adds energy and passion to the execution of justice. The love that underlies it, however, keeps it in check, for love does not seek to destroy the other, but to set things right. (p. 130)

Vicious, sinful anger, on the other hand, Prof. DeYoung continues, is rooted in selfishness and harms others. Here’s my favorite line in her description of when this emotion gets misdirected:

Unhinged from justice, bad anger aims at another’s injury,
rather than another’s good.
(p. 130)

Put less poetically, sinful anger causes more harm than good. How I need discernment to know when my anger is righteous and when it is making a hurt-filled situation worse!

Thinking about anger reminds me of this part of Psalm 103:

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
– – slow to anger and abounding in love.

God’s anger is perfect, yet He is slow to get angry. My anger is imperfect. I suspect it would most often be best if I were even slower to get angry than God!

(I’ve blogged about anger before.
It includes a classic Goofy cartoon!)

After God’s own heart

David of the Hebrew Scriptures is famously known as “a man after God’s own heart.” A great example of David living up to this description is when he oversees welcoming the ark of God to his capital city, Jerusalem.

That David is a man after God’s own heart is obvious in his excitement over bringing the ark of God to his home. For the Hebrew people of David’s day, the ark represents the character and very presence of God Himself. That it is coming to Jerusalem has David and all of Israel “celebrating with all their might before the Lord” (2Sam 6:5). Further, we see David “dancing” (6:14 & 16), “shout[ing]” (6:15), and “leaping” (6:16). David loves to worship in God’s presence; David loves God’s presence; David loves God. No wonder he’s called a man after God’s own heart.

Artwork of David dancing by Michael Yosef Robinson –

However, it takes David two shots to get the job done: The first attempt to bring the ark to Jerusalem was tragically interrupted when Uzzah “put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God” (6:6-7, KJV). It sounds to us like such a harsh punishment for someone who was just trying to help. David, it seems, feels the same way: He becomes “angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah” and he is “afraid of the Lord that day” (6:8-9).

Reading about David’s anger and fear also reveals how he is a man after God’s own heart: David is real with God – both in celebration and in lament. I learned from Mark Buchanan earlier this summer in a course on David he taught at Regent College how this was unheard of in the pagan religions of his day where people brought only their “best self” into the presence of their fickle gods lest they not get what they ask for. David, in contrast, brings his true self. And our gracious God welcomes David into His presence, even when David is angry and afraid.

God does not want us to think we have to edit ourselves or our emotions before we are welcomed into His presence. On the contrary, God invites us to bring all our messiness (to use Michael Yaconelli’s wording) into His presence rather than leaving it at the door, pretending it doesn’t exist or interest Him. Jesus confirms this truth in His conversation with the woman at the well where He refers to how “true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” The truth to which Jesus refers involves facts – things that are objectively verifiable; but it also involves honesty, including honesty about oneself and one’s circumstances and emotions. David brings it all into God’s presence, presents it all in his sacrifice of worship. This kind of real worship of and love for God is what also makes us men and women and children after God’s own heart.

Happy parents, happy children

An article in The Globe and Mail last month got Monica and I talking.  In it, writer Sarah Hampson posits that parents are only as happy as our least happy child.  Quoting paediatrician and author Dr. Meg Meeker, Ms. Hampson affirms that “we have come to this point where we measure our success as parents on the happiness of our children.”

While I wonder how healthy that might always be, Monica and I certainly relate: When another student is unkind to our daughter at school, we get upset, too; when our son gets an owie, we empathize with his pain.  Indeed, St. Paul’s directive to “rejoice with those who rejoice [and] mourn with those who mourn” applies not only to people “out there” somewhere, but within our own homes, too.

Thinking about this article, Monica and I wondered whether the corollary is also true: Are children only as happy as their least happy parent?

Yes, I know that everyone has to “own” and take responsibility for their emotions.  And consistently faking happiness so as not to inconvenience another person can’t be healthy.  But if I’m a generally grumpy, discontent person, how much of that disposition infects my children?  Will they learn to be generally familyunhappy and dissatisfied because it is precisely what I am modelling?  That makes sense to me.

On the other hand, if I remember and live by another directive of St. Paul – to “rejoice in the Lord always” – wouldn’t that positively impact my children?  I would think so.  My joy – something deeper than happiness because it is connected to my relationship with God and not with changing circumstances – is contagious.  That leads me to hope and pray that my children learn by my example and my teaching to live daily in the joy of the Lord.  That will ultimately give them more happiness than I ever can.

The weeping pastor

The prophet Jeremiah lived through horrific times and endured great pain in his ministry.  He prophesied during the final years of Judah before the country was taken into Babylonian exile, a traumatic event he lived to see.  The kings of his day were mostly corrupt and divided their loyalty between Egypt and Babylon instead of depending on God.  With several notable and delightful exceptions, much of Jeremiah’s prophesy spells out doom for Judah for turning away from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Perhaps not surprisingly, his messages were not warmly welcomed.  The people of his day despised the prophet for his warnings about God’s judgement and tried on at least one occasion to kill him just to shut him up.

While the content of Jeremiah’s oracles are indeed significant, it’s their tone that repeatedly strikes me.  You might think Jeremiah enjoyed announcing the destruction of such a wicked people who caused him such misery, that he had a smug, I-can-hardly-wait-until-God-judges-you attitude.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Jeremiah is often referred to as “the weeping prophet,” and accurately so.  He often expresses anguish over the words God instructs him to speak.  It’s as though he says, “Oh, Lord, please say this isn’t true!”  Take Jeremiah 4:19 for example, where Jeremiah sees Judah crushed under the Babylonian war machine:

Oh, my anguish, my anguish!
—- I writhe in pain.
Oh, the agony of my heart!
—- My heart pounds within me,
—- I cannot keep silent.
For I have heard the sound of the trumpet;
—- I have heard the battle cry.

I’m about halfway through rereading Jeremiah, but have found at least three more instances of Jeremiah having a profound emotional reaction to the words he’s called to proclaim (see: Jer 8:21-9:1; 13:17; and 23:9-10).

"Jeremiah," colour lithograph, Marc Chagall

My sermon this past week was about the harm caused by pornography and the healing grace we find in Jesus.  I suppose I could have stood in front of the people and said, “If you look at pornography, you are bad, and I personally cannot wait until I see God smite you for your sin!”  However, I’d rather be like Jeremiah, feeling anguish for people who struggle with addictions, or who are grieving, or whose marriages are disintegrating, or who are lost.  Pastors are called to come alongside people in their hardships – to weep with those who weep.  When necessary, they are also called to point out the harmful error of a person’s ways.  They do it because they care deeply and, at the same time, want to show by example what it means for Christians (regardless of vocation) to be the presence of Jesus.

Jeremiah was the weeping prophet.  He serves as a model for the weeping pastor, a “title” I think I would be honoured to be known by.

”Jeremiah” colour lithograph by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Found online at
Spaightwood Galleries.

Stuck at Psalm 137 (part three)

(Continuing my reflections on Psalm 137 from the other day…) 

That these words from the lips of the Jews exiled in Babylon are preserved in holy Scripture is scandalous:

Happy are those who repay you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy are those whose seize your infants
and dash them against the rocks.

I haven’t heard it myself, but I don’t think I’ll be surprised if someone tries to undermine the credibility of the entire Bible with this one text.  You can’t say things like that!  It’s offensive.  It’s politically incorrect.  It’s hate language.  If Jesus calls us to love our enemies, what’s this doing here?

Allow me to point out that while the Jewish exiles may have wanted to dash Babylonian infants against the rocks, there is no biblical or historical evidence they ever did so.

In a course I took at Regent College called “Praying By the Book,” Professor Darrell W. Johnson suggested something to the effect that the very reason the Jews didn’t kill any Babylonian infants is because they expressed their lament without trying to hide or deny it.  Acknowledging their anger – their rage even – helped them at least in part to deal with it.

Thinking of Jesus’ call for us to love our enemies, it’s been pointed out to me that in order to love my enemies, I have to identify my enemies.  Who is causing me pain?  Who is provoking my anger?  Often the pain and anger come not from vague, indefinable circumstances but from particular incidents involving particular people.  Once I’m honest with myself and with God, declaring, This is what I want to see done to So-and-so, then I can pause and ask for the Holy Spirit’s help to do exactly the opposite.

I don’t recall any instances when that wasn’t terribly difficult.  I also don’t recall any instances when that wasn’t absolutely necessary.

Stuck at Psalm 137 (part two)

(Continuing my reflections on Psalm 137 from the other day…)

To add insult to injury, the Jews’ Babylonian captors demand to hear some of music the Jews were famous for singing in their temple.  The demand is hurtful and offensive – hurtful in that recalling those old songs only make the Jews longingly yearn for home and offensive in how these pagans reduce Israel’s sacred hymnody to just another entertainment option from which to choose depending on their mood.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?

The question betrays emotions:  How can our callous tormentors expect songs of joy from grief-filled, homesick slaves?  For the Israelites, “the joyful harp is silent.”

But it is also a theological question:  What does it look like to “sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”  The Law of Moses and Israel’s hymnody were created with the tabernacle and, later, the temple in mind.  But they are destroyed, and Jerusalem – the centre of Israelite worship – “is left in ruins; its  gate is battered to pieces.”  Having been deaf to the prophets’ warnings, nothing has prepared Israel for this scenario, leaving them disoriented and confused.  They not only do not want to sing their old songs of praise, they’re not even sure how to do that in their present context.

I can hear myself and others substituting the words “foreign land” for other types of hard places.  “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while grieving? while depressed? while struggling with sexual disorder? while dealing with zero self esteem? while questioning a vocational calling? while deep in doubt?”

The questions are not answered in Psalm 137 – evidence of how the Bible does not first of all give us all the answers, but rather preserves all the good questions!  That the questions are not easily answered invites me to sit in silence before the Lord, not asking Him to explain or fix anything, but simply asking Him to be present with me in my confusion.

(To be concluded.)

Stuck at Psalm 137 (part one)

I’ve been “stuck” at Psalm 137 for a week or so now.  Despite turning to a new psalm each day, my mind keeps returning to this particular psalm’s words of lament.

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

It’s an exilic psalm, written by Jews during (or perhaps afterwards in remembrance of) their captivity in Babylon.  They are far from home, having been torn away from everything familiar.  They have been violently relocated into a foreign country with a foreign language with a foreign culture with foreign food and foreign customs.  Anything good about life seems to be in the past with little hope for the future.

Where is God in this mess? they ask themselves.

Psalm 137 does not answer the question for them.  But it gives voice to their grief and pain.  It also gives voice to our grief and pain.  Michael Card writes in A Sacred Sorrow how “those who are truly intimate with the Father know they can pour out any hurt, disappointment, temptation, or even anger with which they struggle” (p. 31).  When I am filled with hurt or anger or pain or grief to an extent beyond words, the words of Psalm 137 can become my words.

Granted, the words of Psalm 137 are not very pretty.  But neither is life.  And the words of Psalm 137 don’t exactly sound very “churchy:” It’s hard to imagine a worship team welcoming the thronging worshippers on a bright, warm Sunday morning with a rendition of this lament.  And yet, God invites me to use these words and to say them, to make these words of pain my own.  Why?  Because He can handle it.  Since it’s in the Bible, He even welcomes it.

God is isn’t interested in my “plastic happy face” that might fool other people.  God desires for me to real with Him.  If that means exuberant praise, great!  If it involves tears or even yelling in frustration, that’s fine, too.  Psalm 137 proves it, for which my emotions are grateful.

(To be continued.)