J. Todd Billings: The Psalms Show Us That Anger at God Can Be Righteous

After I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, I returned to the Book of Psalms anew. I started to pray with psalms that I had merely read before or had skipped altogether. While I was receiving intense chemo, a seminary student told me he was praying Psalm 102 for me.

In my distress I groan aloud
and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins. (v. 5–6)

My heart skipped a beat. As I read on, I found that the psalm contained a complaint and a petition that I felt deeply but did not know how to express:

In the course of my life he broke my strength;
he cut short my days.
So I said:
“Do not take me away, my God,
in the midst of my days;
your years go on through all generations.”
(v. 23–24)

Please, Lord, my children are one and three. Please don’t cut me off “in the midst of my days.” Your years, oh God, “go on through all generations.” You have plenty.

Evangelical Inconsistency

In this experience, I came face to face with an inconsistency built into my evangelical upbringing. We were a Bible-centered church, memorizing and singing verses from the Psalms along with our other more contemporary songs of praise. Yet, as I began to notice in high school, we picked a narrow band of sentiments: Praise and thanksgiving? Yes. Sadness turned to joy? Yes. Confession to God? Yes. Yet as I read the Book of Psalms, many (if not most) of the Psalms didn’t fit into these molds.

What about psalms that seemed to protest to God, to express anger and fear? I had been taught the Psalms were God’s Word given for our own prayer. But I had no way to incorporate the most widespread type of psalm (about 40 percent of the book)—the psalms of lament. When the psalms’ melody was in minor, even dissonant keys, I just didn’t sing along.

I was not alone in my inexperience with psalms of lament. Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve spoken with numerous Christian audiences who shared my unfamiliarity with lament psalms. Whether a college student who grew up in a Christian home or a 65-year-old accountant with decades of lay leadership experience in the church, the refrain was the same: It had never occurred to them that they could pray psalms that did not fit the praise/confession/thanksgiving mold. They had high views of Scripture, but in fact, they cherry-picked the Psalms, just as I had cherry-picked my preferred verses, skipping over the difficult parts. This was not, they found, a high view of Scripture after all.

Should our prayers be as wide and deep as the Psalms? I believe our answer—in theory and practice—should be an unequivocal yes. But in order to travel this road, we need to consider two key issues: whether it is acceptable to bring before God the negative sentiments we’ve been avoiding, and secondly, whether it is acceptable for us to be angry with God himself.

The Muscles of Whole-Life Discipleship

Recently, I visited a physical therapist because of sharp pain in my back. After an exam, she pointed to a poster on the wall displaying muscular anatomy. “These muscles in your back are working way too hard,” she said. “When you sit at the computer, when you lift things, you’ve been using these same muscles. They’re tight and fatigued and it’s painful—not because they are weak, but because they are overused.”

I asked her how I could give them some relief and address the problem this pain was signaling. “We need to strengthen these other muscles,” she said. Overusing some muscles led other muscles to weaken, and the result was bodily dysfunction. Rather than feeling strong, even my stronger muscles felt painful and tight because they were unsupported by other essential muscles in the anatomy.

The Psalms, like the chart on the wall in the medical office, give us a lesson in anatomy. In introducing the Psalms, John Calvin says they are “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.” For “there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”

Creatures with many kinds of emotions need a prayer book with the same wide range. Thus, the prayer book of the Psalms includes laments expressing anger, hopelessness, and other intractable parts of creaturely anatomy. If we skip over the “negative” psalms for the “happy” ones, we’re missing out on a gift the Spirit of God desires for us. For, as Calvin reminds us, in the Psalms, “the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”

I’ve noticed that many Christian radio stations play “positive Christian hits” interspersed with “encouraging words from the Bible.” Likewise, many church sanctuaries only resound with a narrow range of emotions, not the full scope of the psalmist’s repertoire. Joy and encouragement are wonderful, but what of the other emotions in the psalms: hopelessness, anger, confusion, loneliness?

“All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears,” the psalmist says, “My eyes grow weak with sorrow” (Ps. 6:6–7). He apparently didn’t receive the memo about “positive and encouraging” words. Yet while this psalm expresses a vulnerable hopelessness that might seem out of place to us, it brings these deeply human emotions before the Lord.

We can and should celebrate God’s faithfulness in joy and thanksgiving, but if we want to use those muscles in our anatomy well, we need to exercise our other muscles, bringing responses like disappointment, pain, and grief before the covenant Lord in prayer. Joy and thanksgiving can become exhausted, even cynical, when we disregard the more “negative” emotions in the Christian life. Indeed, more than a few have turned away from the faith altogether because they felt it had no place for their feelings of hopelessness, anger, and fear.

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Source: Christianity Today