One of the better quotes I’ve come across in my study of the Book of Psalms this summer comes courtesy of Mistie Shaw in an on-line article entitled “The Psalms – Emotions in Prayer and Worship.” Shaw writes that the Psalms “were not words written by politically correct politicians but by people who weren’t afraid to be honest with themselves, each other and with their conception of God.” This would account for the wide array of human emotion that’s found within the 150 songs that are part of the scripture canon, and as I said in an earlier blog post, as disconcerting as it can be to open the Bible and encounter feelings that are very raw and even unpleasant, I’m grateful it’s all there on display, because such emotion is indeed the stuff of life – yours and mine.
In fact, in her article Shaw posts a list of topics found within the verses of the Psalms, including emotions ranging from contentment (Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” [v. 1]) and awe (Psalm 68: “Awesome is God in his sanctuary, the God of Israel; he gives power and strength to his people. Blessed be God!” [v. 35]), to depression (Psalm 42: “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” [v. 3]) and guilt (Psalm 13: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” [v.1]).
One psalm on Shaw’s list that particularly piqued my interest was Psalm 55, which, according to its own heading, is a 23-verse “Complaint about a Friend’s Treachery,” and it can easily be described in modern terms as a world class rant! (It’s also described as “A Maskil of David,” meaning it was special music, so this was a rant with stringed instruments, no less!) “It is not enemies who taunt me,” the psalmist sings. “I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me – I could hide from them. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng.” (vs. 12-14) Then, briefly moving beyond his self-pity, the hammer of anger comes down with a vengeance: “Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.” (v. 15) And then, the vindication: “But I call upon god, and the LORD will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan and he will hear my voice.” (vs.16-17)
Whoa! Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say here, but I have to confess to you that this is my kind of psalm! I mean, who among us has not found ourselves in a situation when we’ve discovered that a friend or a family member was not the person we thought he or she was; who with “speech smoother than butter” and “words that were softer than oil” (v. 21) betrayed our trust and hurt us deeply? And let’s be honest, now: in such situations, haven’t there been moments for each of us when we’ve silently yearned for a little bit of biblical-styled justice to come down upon our “frienemies?” I thought so – and this is a psalm who gives voice to that kind of thirst for retribution.
The only problem with this kind of attitude is that it will inevitably eat you alive. I’m reminded here of something that Frederick Buechner has written, that “of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
That’s why it comes as a relief and a blessing to know at the end of this particularly “tasty” psalm comes an entreaty to God to move beyond the hurt and the anger: “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” (v. 22) Granted, this turns out to be an uneasy prayer at best; the next and final verse returns to the desire that God “cast them down into the lowest pit” – but the final word of all ends up as a prayer of surrender: “But I will trust in you.” (v. 23) In other words, Lord, I’m trying to let this go, but it’s not easy; in fact, today the hurt and anger I’m feeling runs so deep that it feels almost impossible to get beyond it. Help me, Lord; please, help me to move on! And I suspect that no matter what the situation happens to be about, we’ve all been there.
Look at any number of Psalms that teem with lamentations, and you’ll find that eventually, if only in a small fashion, the psalmist comes full circle from faith/righteousness/peace to lament/anger/grief/fear/despair back to faith/righteousness/peace. Raw emotion is very human, indeed, and as these psalms illustrate, a very real part of our lives – and our faith. But sooner or later, if we are to live in true abundance, “letting it go” has to be the next step of the journey. And it’s not easy; it requires from us the need to be naked before God and to truly pour our hearts before him. But, if I may borrow a second quote from Buechner, “if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry