If our public worship and prayers echoed what we find in the Psalms, we’d likely shock people and might even find ourselves called before the Church board for questioning and correction.
Unlike the stoic legalist or safe Churchman, the psalmist expressed the full range of emotions in worship. He felt no need to pretend that he had it all together. Nor did he limit himself to using only safe clichés in prayer and worship.
Yet one of the reasons the Psalms are deeply cherished by God’s people is because they openly express many of the emotions we feel. Sometimes the psalmist expressed debilitating anxiety and fear; other times he was plagued with a sense of despondency and discouragement. He didn’t hesitate to vent with anger over injustices and he admitted a loss perspective when he envied the prosperity of ungodly people.
The psalmist reminds us that there is a language of lament that is permitted in worship. One writer suggested that, “…it is precisely those who have the closest relationship with God who feel most at liberty to pour out their pain in protest to God – without fear of reproach. Lament is not only allowed in the Bible; it is modeled in abundance. God seems to want to give us as many words with which to fill out our complaint forms as to write our thank-you notes.” (Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith).
Although the psalmist pondered dark questions out loud — even expressing feelings of helplessness and despair, more often, he overflowed with joy and praise to the God who is his “mighty rock and refuge” (Psalm 62:7). His astonishment at the compassion and unfailing love of God resounds throughout the psalms as one amazed that God “does not treat us as our sins deserve” (Psalm 103:10).
The Psalmist worked through all of these emotions and frustrations in worship and prayer. Yet while he readily admitted deep struggles with difficult realities common to mankind, he did not allow wrong responses to God to win ultimate control over his heart.
Whatever his frame of mind or condition of heart, he openly expressed his thoughts and feelings to the God he loved and longed for. He worked things out in God’s presence. Isn’t this part of what prayer involves? Can you identify with what it means to wrestle in prayer? (cf. Colossians 4:12).
The psalmist also engaged in what some call “self-talk.” He wrote letters of protest to himself. Sometimes he confronted his soul with accountability questions: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” Then he launched firm exhortations to himself: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:5-6). “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone” (Psalm 62:5).
The psalmist often paused – in the midst of his struggles – to offer a lesson or word of challenge to God’s people:
“Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Lowborn men are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie; if weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath. Do not trust in extortion or take pride in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them. One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done” (Psalm 62:8-12).
If the psalmist, David applied for a staff position in our Churches and gave us his “diary of worship” to better understand his life, we might hesitate to give him serious consideration? We would at least want clarification on his imprecatory psalms. Is it possible that we have a lot to learn in our churches from this man after God’s own heart? Do we sanitize our worship in a way that would never allow someone to express the range of emotions found in the Psalms?