Getting Real and Drawing Near
Let’s face it—we are emotional creatures. And we don’t have to apologize for that fact. After all, God designed us that way, and in the Psalms we see that God works through our emotions to draw us closer to him and to mature us spiritually. We want to be careful that our authority is God’s Word, not our feelings, yet we don’t want caution to become suspicion, leaching any credibility out of what we feel.
In the Psalms we find how to be real with God and simultaneously reverent.
The psalms are so helpful in this regard! They show us that emotions can be an instrument of discipleship rather than a hindrance to it. The psalmists are unapologetic in their prayers and praises as they pour out love and longing for God as well as sorrow, guilt, desperation, fear, faith, and hope. No other book of the Bible expresses the full range of human feelings so fully and demonstrates how those feelings are formed and reformed through prayer and praise.
In the Psalms we find how to be real with God and simultaneously reverent—how he wants us to relate to him as his children. The relational realness we see there can be ours too, and one way to grow up into it is to journal the Psalms. As you read a psalm, note what you see. Do the psalmist’s emotions fluctuate from beginning to end, and if so, why? How does God’s character impact the psalmist’s thinking? Where is God in the midst of depression? How is anger expressed and dealt with? What causes joy and happiness? Prayerfully identify how your own feelings are reflected in the psalmist’s words, and then seek to imitate the psalmist’s response.
So you might journal your way through each psalm under three subheads: Prepare, Personalize, and Pray. Let’s give it a try with Psalm 3.
Step 1: Prepare
Begin by reading through the entire psalm in order to take in the big picture. You’ll discover that Psalm 3 is a lament written by David when his son Absalom was seeking to kill him. We see in the psalm that David was greatly distressed, but he trusted that God is a powerful defender. As we ponder his lament, we can identify a range of emotions: distress, anguish, helplessness, fear, confidence, trust, and peace. These emotions are evident from David’s words, from the tone of those words, and from the circumstances he writes about.
Then we make note of who God is revealed to be. In Psalm 3 he is the God who protects—and listens, sustains, and saves. Notice how David’s emotions change as the psalm progresses, as he focuses on God and God’s character. Which of God’s attributes connect to which of David’s emotions, and how do David’s feelings change in the process? Your journal might look something like this:
- Helplessness becomes confidence because God hears David’s cries.
- Distress becomes peace because God is his protector.
- Fear becomes trust because God has promised to save him.
- Anguish becomes peace because God sustains him.
There is no right or wrong here in terms of making connections. All David’s emotions are impacted as he ponders each of God’s attributes and prays. Journaling the correspondences you see is a simple way to make them more concrete.
Step 2: Personalize
Now make it personal. Are you experiencing any (or all) of the emotions you’ve identified in Psalm 3? If so, what in your life has triggered these feelings? Can you identify additional emotions or variations on the ones you’ve noted?
After you’ve identified how you are feeling, spend a few minutes pondering the attributes of God in Psalm 3 and then connect them, as David did, to your present circumstances. How can the fact of God’s protection, listening ear, sustaining grace, and promise to save impact your current thoughts and feelings?
Step 3: Pray
The final step is prayer. Pray Psalm 3, or portions of it, and then make it personal:
- Lord, I feel utterly helpless in this situation, but I believe you have heard my cries for deliverance and that you’ll save me out of this somehow, some way.
- Father, I can’t seem to overcome my fear, so I ask to know your protective care in a way that deepens my trust in you.
- Dear God, I dread going to bed because anxiety has been keeping me awake, but I am reminded that you’re the one who sustains my life, so I pray for help to be mindful of that as I prepare for bed tonight.
If you decide to embark on a personal study like this one, don’t limit yourself to just one kind of psalm. Be sure to include psalms of praise and thanksgiving as well as lament. Our relationship with God in Christ is intimate, and like all such relationships, intimacy develops as we share both the highs and the lows—every aspect of shared life.
The Psalms were written for ordinary Christians leading ordinary lives—lives marked by depression, discouragement, despair, frustration, or maybe even numbness toward God or anger toward others.
The 'ESV Journaling Psalter' allows readers to think, pray, question, lament, and give praise, in written form, along with the psalmists.
The Psalms are in the Bible to give a us a full range of ways to approach God. They're not just for those who are happy and they're not just for those who are in pain. They cover the whole range of emotions.