May 7, 2013

'That's Exactly how I Feel!'

Let me revisit a subject I took up in a Sunday sermon a few weeks ago – namely, the inestimable value of the book of Psalms.

The psalms are the great hymnbook of the people of God. They have also been called “the medicine chest of the soul.” For many years, though, I confess that I found myself not peculiarly attracted to the psalms. I went through an epistles phase, in which I was loading up on all sorts of good, hardy doctrine which I had never noticed before. Then I went on a bit of a narrative kick, in which I found myself loving the stories of the Old Testament – especially when skilfully preached. But the psalms? I just had a little more difficult time connecting with their emotional themes, and the way in which they seem to rehearse those themes again and again. I preached the psalms as part of my regular plan of trying to cover the whole counsel of God; but I didn’t necessarily feel them.

But life (God’s providence, really) has a way of eventually sitting us down in exactly the same places in which the psalmists sat. Circumstances play out in such a way that “Why?” and “how long?” unexpectedly become very pertinent, even pressing questions. Raw emotions, and fears, and doubts find their way onto our paths … and suddenly, it’s like we are reading the psalter with new eyes. Light bulbs go on everywhere. ‘That’s exactly how I feel’ becomes a regular realization as we thumb our way through the Bible’s great collection of inspired praise and prayer.

Sooner or later, I think this must happen for every true believer who keeps living … and keeps reading. The psalms come alive to us. Or, rather, we come alive to the psalms … because we need them so desperately. They put words on our trembling lips when, in the midst of cloudy providences, we are not exactly sure how to pray. Indeed, the psalms give us a kind of permission to be raw, and honest, and bold with God in times of trial. ‘If the psalmist can beg God to hurry up (Psalm 70); if the psalmist can ask God “why?” and “how long?” (Psalm 74); if the psalmist can be frank about his doubts (Psalm 77) … perhaps God won’t mind if I come to Him with the same sorts of words.’

Here is one supreme (though by no means the only) value of the psalms – the way they help the troubled soul to pray; the way they free us to come to God with a level of honesty that we might not otherwise be sure was appropriate or reverent. If we live long enough, each of us will need that kind of freedom with the Lord, and those kinds of words. So read (and sing!) the psalms … even when you don’t feel what the psalmist feels. But especially turn to this great treasure trove of Christian experience and prayer in the times of sadness, and anxiety, and insecurity, and opposition that will inevitably come. Take the psalmists’ words on your own lips. And believe that you can walk, and talk, and even weep with God just like they did … and that, as He did for them, He will also surely gladly hear your raw, blubbering, emotional, sometimes repetitive cries.

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