PRAYING THE PSALMS WHEN DO NOT FEEL LIKE PRAYING

Bob Marsh

Years ago, I had the privilege to teach at what was called PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDIES INSTITUTE, PSI. In those days it was integral to George State University, and students from various states attended. A vital part of their academic pursuits was to integrate the Christian faith with psychological disciplines, and the study of Biblical Applications was required. My delight was to teach BIBLICAL STUDIES, and seek principles from the Scriptures that would relate to contemporary counseling.

Teaching the BOOK OF PSALMS was my favorite. The first assignment was to have the students (some of the brightest and goal-driven I have known) dive into the BOOK OF PSALMS. They were to describe some of the human emotions found in the PSALMS, and take note that these emotions would pop up in their subsequent counseling experiences. Especially define the negative emotions that may cause psychological, emotional, damage to future patients. A collective groan usually followed. “How would ancient Old Covenant writings relate to present day struggles?” was not verbally thrown at me, but the groans and looks shouted out this question.

The students began to read, search the Psalms, and always, always, came to the conclusion: what the writers of the Psalms experienced in damaging emotions are basically the same that disrupt the lives of modern Americans. Listen to the Psalmists complain, grieve, question, and agonize. They hurl questions and doubts at God, wonder” WHY has this happened to me.” Furthermore, it is more than an academic exercise to note how they worked through these emotions: their struggles in and through the emotions would help our patients when they face similar emotional challenges.

For example: Psalm 69 begins with the elegiac cry: “Save me O God for the waters have come up to my neck! I sink in the miry depths where there is no foothold!”  No image captures better what it feels like when the bottom falls out than the image of flooding waters. Mixed metaphors brushed aside, the Psalmist emulates the cry of many contemporary strugglers. That image is prevalent in the Psalter’s prayers of disorientation, also called PRAYERS FOR HELP AND LAMENTS. Again, hear the cries in Psalm 130 which begins with “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Psalm 42:7 is a cry of despair, “all your waves and your billows have passed over me.” The image still speaks with surprising force. When have you felt like you were “up to your neck” and couldn’t take any more? When have you felt like you were simply “drowning” in stress or crisis? We still speak this way. The Psalter’s prayers for help give voice to the deepest expressions of human pain, crisis, and doubt.  So the point is well taken: when we feel like circumstances are overwhelming us, that the flood waters of inexplicable sufferings are pulling us under, when we are struggling to extricate ourselves from the quick-sands of tormenting emotions, we are in the company of good men and women who through the ages have been assaulted by similar damaging emotions.

Have you ever struggled in knowing how to pray when the “waters are sweeping over you?” PRAY THE PSALMS, for that essentially is what they are, PRAYERS AND PRAISE. Matters not that they were prayed by suffering men and women 2500 years ago, for they can be our prayers today as we face similar emotions. Notice the emotions of Psalm 10. “Why O Lord do you stand far off, why do you hide yourself in the times of trouble?”  How about the despairing question of Psalm 13: “How long O Lord will you forget me? Forever?” How many of us understand well the fear that gripped the Psalmist in chapter 73:2: “as for me, my feet had almost slipped, I had nearly lost my foothold.” We could stay in these dystopian cries for hours, but look at Psalm 77 before we move on. “He raises questions you and I have raised through the journeys of life: “Will the Lord reject me forever? Has his love vanished forever? Have His promises failed forever? Has God forgotten how to be merciful and lost His compassion?” Talk about being overwhelmed with the flood waters of damaging emotions!!!

The question that faces each of us is the same question in the BOOK OF THE PSALMS: how do we deal with “flood waters, quick-sand, and feelings of being rejected by God?” In Psalm 77:10 the writers begins to virtually shout out: “I will, I will, I will.”” I cannot choose what happens to me, but I can choose how I will respond to what happens to me.” Psalm 8: “I choose to focus on the majesty of your Name O Lord, and consider who you are and what you have done.” Now go back to the plaintive cry of Psalm 13:1, and grasp the Psalmist’s response in vs 5: “I will, I will. I choose to trust in your unfailing love and I choose to sing to the Lord, and I will focus on Who He is and what He has done.”            The Psalms of disorientation admit that life is not as well-ordered as a simple Sunday school faith may pretend. They acknowledge that life is really messy, and they protest to heaven that things should not be as they are. But these psalms, through prayer, evoke action from God -- they help move the sufferer to a new place. They give us words for the deepest, darkest nights of our lives -- when the bottom drops out, when the pain seems too much to bear. They tell us that God is big enough for everything we've got -- our pain, our anger, our questions, our doubts. They even suggest that genuine biblical faith is comfortable challenging God. Also, that God is present with us precisely when it feels like God isn't there.

Again, “we do not get to choose what happens to us, but God has given to us the capacity to choose how we respond to what happens to us.” The prophet Habakkuk looked around and saw that everything in life had caved in (Habakkuk 3:17-19).  His response was that of the Psalmist: “I will rejoice, I will be joyful, for He enables me to go on the heights.” He taught us that what we focus on in life will determine how we get through the challenges of life. The “I will focus on you O Lord” gave the Psalmists strength to face what life forced them to face.  You may feel like Psalm 22:1, “why have you forsaken me O Lord,” defines your existence, but move on to Psalm 23:1 and focus on “The Lord is my shepherd.”

I do believe those wonderful students of years ago gave to the hurting patients who came to them looking for help some of the best counsel: “when you cannot pray, pray the Psalms!” When you face the DARK HOURS OF THE SOUL, Pray the Psalms. When the flood waters of adversity cause you cry out “Why?” Pray the Psalms. Jesus did. So may we. THANKS BE UNTO GOD!

Webmaster, Ryland Scott

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