In a recent Wall Street Journal article, therapists shared their favorite coping strategies for anxiety. They include normal recommendations like sleep and exercise, and surprising ones like looking at memes of pets, jumping off of cliffs on vacation, breathing slowly to classical music, and spending time with tomato plants.
I see nothing wrong with these surprising remedies to anxiety (and think we can thank God for them as signs of common grace). But as I read the article, I couldn’t help but be thankful for the gift of prayer. In prayer, the God of the universe invites us into His presence to experience peace beyond all understanding (Philippians 4:6–7). When troubling emotions come, our first place to turn is not to the tomato plants, but to our heavenly Father.
And yet, my emotional problems aren’t just with the troubling ones. I’ve recognized how a lack of certain emotions poses a problem. A lackadaisical attitude toward sin, evil in the world, or the glories of God fall short of God’s desire for me. He created us as emotional creatures to love what He loves and hate what He hates.
As I’ve processed my troubling emotions and sinful apathy, I’ve found one part of Scripture particularly helpful: the Psalms.
The Psalms and Emotion
The Psalms not only help us know what we can say in prayer (often one of our biggest struggles), they help us know what to feel. They are, as Calvin wrote, “an anatomy of the soul” and share all shades of human emotion from deepest despair to exuberant praise. We find saints processing the good and bad of life in a godly way. Reading and praying the Psalms takes us into their emotional world, how they wrestled with God and eventually found hope.
Consider these two ways the Psalms can help us:
1. When Emotions Are Out of Control: Channel Your Emotions in a Biblical Way.
Sometimes our emotions feel like a runaway train. We may feel justified in having intense emotions but can’t stop their momentum from crossing the line into sin.
These days, nothing boils the blood quite like politics. A politician’s foolish word or wicked action can light a fire in me, and when unchecked, can quickly grow and spread to other areas of my life. Psalm 2 tells me how to channel my anger toward godly ends. Yes, the nations and their kings will rage against the Lord and His Christ (verses 1–2), but God doesn’t wring His hands in defeat—He laughs (verse 4). He has chosen His King, the Lord Jesus Christ, to judge and rule all of creation and to dash the nations and their kings to pieces like a potter’s vessel (verse 9). The Psalm doesn’t stop there. I see our God warn rulers and invite them to honor His Son in repentance (verses 10–12). He wants to save our world’s foolish leaders who shake their fists at Him in rebellion. This leads me to worship and to pray that wicked politicians would take refuge in Christ (verse 12).
Without embracing God’s perspective in Psalm 2, my worldly perspective on politics leaves me stuck in a cesspool of anger, tempted to mouth off in public or online. With Psalm 2 guiding me, I take my anger at politics and go to my knees in Christ-centered hope for rebellious politicians and worship the one true King over them all.
2. When Your Emotions Are Lacking: Expand Your Emotional Range.
“Meh” is neither the proper response for sin exposed in our lives nor remembering the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done.
Psalm 32 has helped me experience the right mix of positive and negative emotions as I think about my sin. David doesn’t preach a cheap grace but remembers the groan-inducing experience of unconfessed sin. His “bones wasted away” (verse 3) and strength had “dried up as by the heat of summer” (verse 4). As David’s words spur my own prayers, the soul-crushing, Spirit-quenching weight of my sin begins to taste more bitter, and my desire grows to root out other sin in my life.
As my hatred for sin deepens, Psalm 32 also deepens my love for Christ. “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” (verse 1). Yes, my sin is as ugly as death, but I am blessed because Jesus is willing and able to put it all away when we turn to Him. What a glorious thing it is for sinners to worship God for the blessing of forgiveness!
Every Christian should regularly cycle through the Psalms for prayer and devotion. As I work through the book, I ask myself for what situation(s) might I use this Psalm in the future? and scribble my answers in the margins of my journaling Bible. A few times through the Psalms later, I now have a go-to list of favorites to use for prayer in a variety of situations.
Here are a few recommendations:
- Anxiety & Fear: 27, 42–43, 46, 55, 61, 62
- Comfort & Strength: 16, 23, 116, 119
- Confession & Repentance: 32, 38, 51, 130
- Deliverance & Protection: 6, 34, 40, 91, 121, 140
- Guidance: 25
- Justice: 7, 82, 89, 140
- Praise: 8, 19, 33, 103, 104, 139, 148
- Trust & Fear of God: 27, 112, 115
- When the Wicked Prosper: 2, 10, 37, 49, 73
Hearts that Beat with His
Reading and praying the Psalms is emotional training, a godly course-correct to our wayward (or absent) emotions. It’s preventative medicine for when a crisis comes our way.
Yes, praying the Psalms poses a challenge for 21st century readers as we wrestle with their meaning and message. But I’m convinced we will be rewarded for our labors, and in the end they will help our hearts to beat with God’s, filling us with eternal hope in Him as we navigate the troubled waters of this world.
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Psalm 62:8.