There was a time when I could only read the Psalms. Not a week or two—over a year I deliberately avoided Paul, Moses, Jesus and John, among others. I went to church most of the time so I’m sure I heard the Christian Scriptures read aloud, printed on bulletins. But when my Bible cracked open, I could only find myself at home in the Psalms. In retrospect, it was a great mercy visited from outside myself that I managed to open a Bible at all. St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul remained untouched on my bookshelf; the title description was apt enough to do me good without reading it.
These days every Sunday afternoon, a deacon stands in front of a gathered people of whom I am a part and says, “The Psalter is the prayer book of the Bible. Join me in praying responsively by half-verse Psalm fill-in-the-blank.” And then in stark contrast to the beautiful prayers I’ve begun to pray in the Book of Common Prayer, we together intone the most alarming words.
Why do you stand afar off, O Lord? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you.
O my God, I cry by day but you do not answer; and by night but I have no rest.
It doesn’t stop there with feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. A former colleague ridiculed me when I confessed that the imprecatory psalms bring me relief. I have seen injustice crack its rod on the bent backs of the oppressed, in Africa and America and I join the psalmist praying:
Requite them according to their work and according to the evil of their practices; Requite them according to the deeds of their hands; Repay them their recompense. Because they do not regard the works of the Lord nor the deeds of His hands, He will tear them down and not build them up.
I pray that not because I am vindictive or unmerciful (although I can be) but because voicing that plea gives me hope for the future without recklessly needing to force my own justice with these often misguided hands. I can plead with God for his good justice to come because I know my justice is as venal and oppressive as what I am watching unfold.
Real life surges through these songs and prayers. These words heave and pitch with raw pain, with the fragile, lacy foam of hope tipping the edges of harsh waves, with honest sparring with a God who seems to disappoint, even abandon. It isn’t a hatred of mercy that makes me find a home in these words but a love of honesty.
Betrayal. Sin. Depression. Loss. Grief. Lament. Abandonment. Joy. Confusion. Loneliness. If you have felt it or can name it, you will find it there: fully sanctioned by a holy and friendly God, inspired by his Spirit, ready for your hottest feelings to find a voice before him.
It can be a little embarrassing. In some way our honest calling, our pleas laced with anger, hurt, disappointment or our all-out, shaking-our-fists-skyward hollers for help find their way to this:
Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you and you will honor me.
God chooses to relate to me in a vastly different way than I relate to my own children. These prayers that are as likely to start with a complaint or question as with a word of praise are welcomed. There is no divine “If you don’t have anything nice to say, just say nothing” mandate apparent in the Psalms. His command to call to him isn’t limited to when we can call nicely; his promise to rescue us isn’t dependent on our humble and grateful praying life, if the Psalms are any indication. These prayers are what I don’t often pray: a conversation, an honest expression of self that remains grounded in the truth of God’s character, that doesn’t lose itself completely in the wretchedness of its overwhelming emotions, even when all hope seems lost.
The human desire to clean ourselves up and present ourselves to God and others on our own terms, hiding behind as many leaves as we can hold, remains. The honesty reflected in these pleas and prayers can make me shudder because they most honestly reflect me and the state of my heart. This me is not at all what I would like to show the world, less still the God who has the final say in my life. I prefer a little more control, a little less mess.
But in the Psalter I find with God’s people all of the mess. The shouts and silence, the joy and fear, the anger and sense of abandonment. And when I join my voice in these prayers uttered by saints through the ages, I find exactly what I need: the paradox that “the seeming absence of God could be countered by recognizing the actual presence of God in what [the psalmist] had experienced as God’s absence.” (Scot McKnight, Fasting, on Psalm 77, pg. 55)
The beautiful gift of God in the Psalms is the truth that he is big enough. For my grief and my sorrow. For my questions and my anger. For my loneliest sense of abandonment. For the dark nights of the soul. He is big enough to receive my song, to sanction these songs and give me voice.