I think something’s missing.
It’s something that Jesus loved (and studied) a whole lot.
It’s missing because it doesn’t really fit into our Discovery Bible story sets. It doesn’t seem to add value to our NGOs or leadership trainings. It doesn’t offer an immediate return on investment or accelerate the planting and growing of churches.
It’s the Psalms. We’re missing the Psalms, and it’s hurting us.
I grew up reading the Psalms. Our family did the “read a Psalm and then add 30 until you can’t go any further” thing. For example, on the 12th of the month we’d read Psalm 12 and Psalm 42 and Psalm 72 and so on. It was boring and predictable, but also transformational.
I began re-reading the Psalms in earnest about a year ago. I bought a commentary. I started reading books and articles. I began teaching them, singing them, and preaching them. And I started noticing their conspicuous absence.
And I’ve come to believe that my country of origin (America) and my country of destination (Cambodia) desperately need the depth and breadth of the Psalms. We need more Psalms in our families and our agencies. We need more Psalms in our church plants and Bible schools. We need to steep our discipleship strategies in the Psalms. (Many of our more liturgical siblings never really stopped reading the Psalms, and for this portion of their orthopraxy, I’m very grateful.)
But we don’t spend much time in the Psalms. We really don’t. The prayer book of the Bible, the book most oft-quoted by Jesus himself, gets relegated to the background with an occasional nod to the pastoral Psalm 23 and a sideways glance at the beautiful Psalm 139. But that’s not enough.
Full immersion is needed.
Making the Case for the Psalms
We need the Psalms; not because the Psalms will teach us how to be super Christians, but because the Psalms will teach us how to be human Christians. I know that sounds silly, but there are a lot of dissociated folks who are trying to follow the Son of Man divorced from their own earthy humanity.
The Psalms teach us what it means to live and breathe and feel and follow. Here. Now. What does it look like to follow Jesus and still FEEL all this stuff? Life’s a freaking roller coaster. Just like the Psalms.
Author N.T. Wright describes the Psalter Coaster like this:
The celebration is wild and uninhibited; the misery is deep and horrible. One moment we are chanting, perhaps clapping our hands in time, even stamping our feet. … The next moment we have tears running down our cheeks, and we want the earth to open and swallow us.
Sounds a bit like life. Basically, the Psalms identify (and make allowance for) our humanity. In fact, the Psalms allow more raw humanity than many churches. Again, Wright illuminates:
The Psalms not only insist that we are called to live at the intersection of God’s space and our space, of heaven and earth, to be (in other words) Temple people. They call us to live at the intersection of sacred space, the Temple and the holy land that surrounds it, and the rest of human space, the world where idolatry and injustice still wreak their misery.
How do we live at that intersection, connecting worlds, without being ripped apart? The Psalms will show us.
The Full Spectrum of Emotions
The Psalms speak to core human needs and feelings without resorting to cliché. There are more than enough platitudes floating around already; we need the Psalms to teach us how to care about people without adding to the detritus.
What emotions is a believer allowed to have? What feelings are against the rules
? The Psalms show us, and the answer is shocking: they’re pretty much all allowed. That’s not to say that all actions
are allowed, but pretty much all the feelings are. In fact, the Psalms teach us how not
to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
Whatever the emotion, keep talking to God. The Psalmists sure did. We are to pray with (maybe because of) our uncomfortable emotions. We enter our prayer closets with all of our hearts. There’s no need to cut pieces off before initiating a conversation with our Papa. We don’t have to “make ourselves presentable” for God. Jesus did that already.
Many people have a hard time identifying and allowing emotions; some countries and cultures (and denominations) struggle with this more than others. But wherever we’re from, the Psalms draw back the curtain and help us to see things as they really are.
The Psalms provide emotional nomenclature.
Furthermore, the Psalms can help people to acknowledge the presence of pain, an important first step towards healing. This is especially crucial in honor/shame cultures; the Psalms give the reader permission to feel negative emotions: “Well hey, he felt this and he’s in the Bible! Maybe it’s OK if I feel it too.”
Once, after watching a young believer read a Psalm that discussed “unacceptable” feelings, I simply asked, “Have you ever felt that?” The resulting heart-level conversation would not have happened without the ice-breaking action of the Psalm.
Letting Others Make the Case for the Psalms
Are you tired of listening to me talk about the Psalms? How about these guys?
“Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church.” Bonhoeffer went so far as to say that “The Psalter impregnated the life of early Christianity.” — Dietriech Bonhoeeffer
“I used to read five psalms every day – that teaches me how to get along with God. Then I read a chapter of Proverbs every day and that teaches me how to get along with my fellow man.” — Billy Graham
“The Psalter promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly – and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom – that it might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.” — Martin Luther
And yet we hardly ever read or teach or preach them! Could we change that, please?
Letting Jesus Make the Case for the Psalms
You know, Jesus really loved the Psalms. In fact, Jesus quotes it more than any other book in the Old Testament. These are the four Old Testament books that Jesus quoted the most:
Kind of makes me think they’re important. But here’s the kicker, when Jesus quoted the Psalms, it was almost ALWAYS in a difficult situation. That is to say, when Jesus was in a stressful situation, he fell back on the Psalms. Here are some examples:
- Jesus outwits angry, accusing, scheming, educated guys (aka Pharisees) with the Psalms on several occasions (Ps 8:2, 110:1; Mt 21:16, 22:44; Mk 12:36, 14:62; Lk 20:42–43).
- He quotes the twenty-second Psalm while dying on the cross (Ps 22:1; Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34).
- Jesus is hated without cause, which he says the Psalms foretold (Ps 35:19, 69:4; Jn 15:25).
- He quotes the Psalms when talking about his betrayal (Ps 41:9; Jn 13:18).
- When the Jews want to stone him for claiming to be God, he responds with a line from the Psalms (Ps 82:6; Jn 10:34).
- He quotes Psalm 110 when Pilate asks if he is the son of God (Ps 110:1; Mt 26:64).
- After having his authority challenged, he quotes Psalms to the chief priests and elders, calling himself the chief cornerstone (Ps 118:22–23; Matt 21:42; Mk 12:10; Luke 20:17).
- He references the Psalms when foretelling Jerusalem’s destruction (Ps 118:26; Matt 23:39; Lk 13:35).
So basically, when Jesus quoted the Psalms, good things weren’t happening. In stressful situations, when he was under duress or attack, Jesus referred back to the Psalms. Maybe that’s when we need to remember the Psalms too.
And for what it’s worth, it’s not a great idea to pack for a trip after the trip started. (Although, with this audience, I’m sure some of you have tried!) You know life’s going to be crazy. You know it’s not all going to be smooth sailing. Pack your bags now. Read the Psalms now. Soak in the Psalms now.
Repeated exposure to the Psalms etches into the hearts of young believers (and old ones too) a Biblical response to pain and suffering. The Psalms show the new way.
Theologically, we need the Psalms.
Emotionally, we need the Psalms.
Looking for Balance
The Psalms balance Paul’s head with David’s heart. We tend to idolize Paul, valuing an intellectual (rational) approach that prizes productivity and aims at “finishing the task.” But if we’re not careful, we become automatons on an assembly line to salvation. We show up, clock in, put a rivet here and a prayer there. The Psalms protect us from heartless evangelism and cold workaholism, modeling integration and allowing the mind and heart to be simultaneously present.
The Psalmists weren’t scaredy cats, but they were sometimes scared. They weren’t sobbing piles of emotion, but they sometimes cried. They weren’t angry men, but they sometimes demanded sovereign revenge. They got depressed. They sang. They wept. They danced.
And they prayed.
We’re working in hard places in dangerous times; we need the Psalms.
We’re working among people who’ve suffered tremendously and endured courageously; they need the Psalms.
Jesus knew the Psalms and used them. A lot. So should we.
How? Read them. Sing them. Pray them.
Especially when you have no words to pray, pray the Psalms. Have you ever been there? Wordless but hurting? Bonhoeffer said, “That can be very painful, to want to speak with God and not to be able to.”
We need the Psalms to be deeply planted and carefully cultivated.
In Part 2
we’ll look at some quotes and resources to help you as you journey into the Psalms. We’ll also discuss what this might look like in a Muslim context.
Until then, check out the links below, and maybe go read a Psalm.
The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms, Tim Keller
The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential, N.T. Wright
Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer