When our son Matthew was just two or three years old, he informed Holly and me that he couldn’t skate. “I can’t skate. I can’t skate,” he said. We didn’t really get it, until we realized that he was sick, but didn’t know how to tell us. He needed words and couldn’t find the right words to say, so he quoted what he knew best: Winnie the Pooh!
We all sometimes struggle to find words to express our feelings.
That’s why God gave us the Psalms.
An Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul
The sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin called Psalms “the Anatomy of all the parts of the Soul” and observed that
There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn . . . 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.
Or, as someone else noted, while the rest of the Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us. The Psalms provide us with a rich vocabulary for speaking to God about our souls.
When we long to worship, we have psalms of thanksgiving and praise. When we are sad and discouraged, we can pray the psalms of lament. The psalms give voice to our anxieties and fears, and show us how to cast our cares on the Lord and renew our trust in him. Even feelings of anger and bitterness find expression in the infamous imprecatory psalms, which function something like poetic screams of pain, lyrical outbursts of anger and rage. (The point being honesty with your anger before God, not venting your anger at others!)
The Drama of Redemption in the Theater of the Soul
Some of the Psalms are downright bleak. Take Psalms 88:1, which contends for one of the most hopeless passages in all of Holy Scripture. But even those psalms are helpful, for they show us that we are not alone. Saints and sinners from long ago also tread through the valley of death’s dark shadow. You’re not the first person to feel enveloped in the hopeless fog of despair.
But more than that, the psalms, when read as a whole, depict the drama of redemption in the theater of the soul. Some biblical scholars have observed three cycles in the psalms: the cycles of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.
· Psalms of orientation point us to the kind of relationship with God we were created for, a relationship marked by confidence and trust; delight and obedience; worship, joy, and satisfaction.
· The psalms of disorientation show us human beings in their fallen state. Anxiety, fear, shame, guilt, depression, anger, doubt, despair – the whole kaleidoscope of toxic human emotions find a place in the Psalms.
· But the psalms of reorientation portray reconciliation and redemption in prayers of repentance (the famous penitential psalms), songs of thanksgiving, and hymns of praise that exalt God for his saving deeds, sometimes pointing forward to Jesus, the Messianic Lord and Davidic King who will fulfill God’s promises, establish God’s kingdom, and make all things new.
Most individual psalms fit into one of these categories, while the psalter as a whole largely moves from disorientation to reorientation, from lament and complaint to worship and praise.
These cycles mirror the basic story line of Scripture: creation, fall, and redemption. We were created to worship God. As the old catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But the fall and personal sin leave us disoriented. Our lives, more often than not, are fraught with anxiety, shame, guilt, and fear. But when we encounter our redeeming God in the midst of those distressing situations and emotions, we respond with renewed penitence, worship, thanksgiving, hope, and praise.
The Psalms as Tools for Prayer
Just learning these basic cycles will help us understand how the various psalms can function in our lives. To echo Eugene Peterson, the psalms are tools for prayer.
Tools help us get a job done, whether it is repairing a broken faucet, building a new deck, changing an alternator in a vehicle, or hacking our way through a forest. If you don’t have the right tools, then you’ll have much more difficulty accomplishing the task.
Have you ever tried to use a Phillips screwdriver when you really needed a flathead? Frustrating experience. But that’s not because of a defect in the Phillips. You just chose the wrong tool for the task at hand.
One of most important things we can learn in walking with God is how to use Scripture as he intended. All Scripture is inspired by God, but not all Scripture is suited to every state of heart. There is a God-given variety in the Spirit-breathed word – a variety that befits the complexities of the human condition. Sometimes we need comfort, sometimes instruction, while at other times we need prayers of confession and the assurance of God’s grace and pardon.
For example, when I’m struggling with anxious thoughts, I am strengthened by psalms that point to God as my rock, my refuge, my shepherd, my sovereign king (e.g. Psalms 23:1, Psalms 27:1, Psalms 34:1, Psalms 44:1, Psalms 62:1, Psalms 142:1). When I’m beset with temptations, I need the wisdom of psalms that direct my steps in the ways of God’s righteous statues (e.g. Psalms 1:1, Psalms 19:1, Psalms 25:1, Psalms 37:1, Psalms 119:1). But when I’ve blown it and feel overwhelmed with guilt, I need psalms that help me hope in God’s mercy and unfailing love (e.g. Psalms 32:1, Psalms 51:1, Psalms 103:1, Psalms 130:1). And at other times, I just need to tell God how desperately I desire him, or how much I love him, or how I long to praise him (e.g. Psalms 63:1, Psalms 84:1, Psalms 116:1, Psalms 146:1).
Finding and praying the psalms that best fit your varied states of heart will, over time, transform your spiritual experience.
Don’t Wait Till You’re in Trouble, Start Now
I hope that people who are currently struggling and suffering will read this and immediately take refuge in the psalms. But for those who aren’t presently in dire straits, let me say this. Don’t wait till you’re in trouble to read and pray the psalms. Start now.
Build for yourself a vocabulary for prayer. Get well acquainted with the anatomy of your own soul. Immerse yourself deeply in the drama of redemption that plays out in the theater of the human heart – in the theater of your heart. Familiarize yourself with these divinely given tools. Learn to use them well.
Use God’s word to talk with God.