I love the Psalms! It seems that every emotion I've ever felt is expressed there, ready to be prayed to God. Sometimes I feel like getting older is just working through the Psalms, one emotion at a time!
There's no better guide to what to do with our feelings before God than the Psalms. I like Tim Keller's way of putting it: that the Psalms teach us a gospel third way of responding to our emotions.
1. Many Christians are uncomfortable with feelings, so we deny and suppress them.
2. The world tells us that we need to acknowledge, express and follow our feelings, so we vent and dump them.
3. The Psalms give us a gospel third way of responding to our emotions: to pray our feelings.
But what about suffering? How do we pray our tears? How do we use them to soften, rather than harden our hearts? Here's what Keller says. I've included a few quotes: they're wonderful, so take the time to read them. I know they'll live on in my heart and mind for a long time.
1. Expect tears
I'm often surprised when I suffer. Isn't God good? Isn't he supposed to protect me? What have I done to deserve this?! But I should expect to suffer more as I become more like Jesus. If I don't expect tears, I'll always be crying about two things instead of one. "You're weeping about the thing that made you weep, and you're weeping about the weeping .... You're going to sink under that. Once thing at a time is all we can take."
2. Invest your tears
"Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy" (Ps 126:5-6). If a farmer leaves his seed in the shed, or dumps it all in one spot, there will be no harvest: he must sow his seed. We shouldn't deny or dump our tears, but see them as an opportunity for growth. Tears give way to joy (Ps 30:5) but they also produce joy (2 Cor 4:17). So how do we plant our tears?
3. Pray your tears
When we pour our tears into prayer, it transforms both the tears and the weeper. We should plant our tears in three things.
a. A realisation of God's grace.
We need to know before we start crying that it's safe to pour out our hearts to God. That's why the Bible includes disturbing psalms like Psalm 39, which ends "get away from me, God!" Derek Kidner says,
The very presence of such prayers in the Scripture is a witness to God's understanding. He knows how we speak when we are desperate. ... Psalm 39 shows where your deepest feelings - your anger, your tears - belong. ... Ultimately where your tears belong is not managed or packaged or manicured in some little confessional prayer. They belong in pre-reflective outbursts from the depths of your being in the very presence of God. ... "I want you to speak and feel in my presence. It's safe. I understand what it's like to be desperate. ... I'm a God of grace. I understand."
b. A vision of the cross.
God understands our desperation because Jesus experienced desolation. Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and found heaven empty, so that when we cry "Turn your face away!" God won't abandon us (Ps 39:13, Matt 27:46).
When I look to the cross, I can suffer without guilt, for I know God isn't punishing me because Jesus was punished instead of me. I can suffer without impatience, for I can trust that God's purposes are good even when I don't understand, just like people didn't understand the cross. I can suffer without self-pity:
Weeping is fine. Weeping and grief is fine. Weeping and disappointment is fine ... but weeping in self-pity will make you a small little person, someone who can't forgive, someone who is always feeling ill-used, someone who gets incredibly touchy and incredibly over-sensitive. ... Look at the cross and say, "... My sufferings are nothing compared to yours. If you suffered for me I can be patient with this suffering for you."
c. An assurance of his glory.
All sorrow ends in joy (Ps 126:6). The final psalms are all psalms of joy. But how does a prayer of tears become a prayer of joy? Eugene Peterson says,
What the psalms are teaching us is that all true prayer pursued far enough will become praise. Any prayer, no matter how desperate its origin, no matter how angry and fearful the experience it traverses, will become praise. It does not always get there quickly. It does not always get there easily. In fact, the trip can take a lifetime! But the end is always praise. This is not to say that other kinds of prayer are inferior to praise, but that all prayer pursued far enough becomes praise. Don't rush it. Don't try to push it. It may take years, it may take decades before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs of Psalm 150. Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the psalms are a true guide, are not. But prayer is always reaching toward praise, and if pursued far enough, will arrive there.
Sometimes we're afraid to weep because we think we'll never stop weeping. But if we know that sorrow ends in joy - that sorrow produces joy - we can dare to weep. Tim Keller asks, are you happy enough to be a weeper? - to get involved in the lives of others even when it's painful? If so, there will be a harvest of joy for them and you.
He prays, "Father, make us happy enough to weep." Amen.
images are from Chapendra, IRRI Images and Jacopo Cossater from flickr