by David Murray
Despite hundreds of new Christian songs being composed each year, the ancient Psalms are experiencing something of a revival. Why? I believe the main reason is their therapeutic value. in a day of so many disordered emotions, worshippers are discovering how the Psalms minister so powerfully to their emotional lives.
First, the Psalms balance divine revelation and human emotion. Some Christian songs are emotionally stirring but have little theological content; the heart is engaged but not the mind. Overreacting to this, some have composed songs that are full of theological facts but don’t engage the worshipper’s feelings. They are more like sung sermons.
The Psalms strike an inspired balance of doxology and theology; they combine the objective with the subjective in perfect proportions. Time and again we read, “Praise the Lord,” followed by reasons and motivations for this praise. God is always declared and described in such a way as to stir up our hearts and cause us to interact with Him through His self-revelation.
Second, the Psalms richly express the full range of human emotions: grief and joy, doubt and confidence, loneliness and fellowship, despair and hope, fear and courage, defeat and victory, complaint and praise.
Is it any wonder that John Calvin called the Psalms “an Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul”? He explains, “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”
The Psalms also paint a realistic portrayal of Christian emotions. The Psalms do not portray the Christian life as victory upon victory. Derek Thomas has pointed out that since a lot of contemporary worship is upbeat and positive, and thus at odds with what Christians experience in the rest of their week, it produces a disconnect that eventually leads to cynicism and a loss of assurance.
But when we turn to the Psalms, we find bold and bald honesty. Although the strong expressions of stark reality can initially jar our refined ears, we are soon relieved to find kindred spirits who helpfully express what we often think, feel, and experience in our messy daily lives.
Fourth, the Psalms are a welcome outlet for our painful emotions. Have you ever sung about assurance while being full of doubt? Have you ever sung about joy when feeling depressed? Me, too. It’s horrible, isn’t it? Why can’t I sing what I really feel? With the Psalms, you can. Some allow us to express doubt and even despair (Ps. 88); others help us describe our struggles with providence (73); still others guide us in explaining our battles with depression (42, 78).
The Psalms open the pressure valves of our hearts and direct us in how to articulate our most painful emotions. We don’t need to bottle them up or deny them. Instead, God has inspired songs by which we can admit them and let them out. As someone said, “What a relief! I can sing what’s really on my mind and heart, and God provides me with words to rightly express these emotions. The Psalms reach in to find these emotions and then reach upward to God with them.”
The Psalms not only permit us to “vent” our emotions but also call for their transformation. We are not left to wallow in our feelings but are shown how to move from fear to courage, from sorrow to joy, from anger to peace, and from despair to hope. The painful starting point is legitimate, but it’s only a starting point. The end point of emotional healing must be kept in view and moved toward with the help of each psalmist’s guiding hand.
Fifth, the Psalms call us to sympathetic emotion. As a rebellious teenager, I often sat in my Psalm-singing church wondering why I was singing words that had no relevance to me whatsoever. Why sing about sorrow when I was perfectly happy? Or, some Sundays, why sing about joy when I felt so depressed about my life?
Of course, such is the mindset of a self-centered teenager. But when God saves us, we begin to look beyond ourselves and to realize that while we may not feel these things, the others around us certainly do. The Psalms call me to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice, even if I feel exactly the opposite. They remind me of the emotional diversity of the body of Christ, and they invite me to share in the sufferings and successes of other believers. The Psalms turn me inside out.