“God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systemic theology.”
That quip comes from Sebastian Moore and should be highlighted at a time when less and less people want to pray the psalms because they feel offended by what they find there. More and more we see criticism of the psalms as prayer (or the desire to sanitize them) because they speak of murder, revenge, anger, violence, war-making, and patriarchy.
The objection to praying the psalms takes a number of forms. Some ask: “How can I pray with words that are full of hatred, anger, violence, and speak of the glories of war and of crushing one’s enemies in the name of God?” For others the objection is to the patriarchal nature of the psalms – where the divine is masculine and the masculine is too-much deified. For yet others, the offense is aesthetic: “They’re terrible poetry!” they say.
Perhaps the psalms aren’t great poetry and they do, undeniably, smack of violence, war, hatred of one’s enemies in the name of God, and the desire for vengeance. They’re also patriarchal in character. But does that make them bad language for prayer? No, to the contrary.
One of the classical definitions of prayer suggests that “prayer is lifting mind and heart to God.” Simple, clear, accurate. Our problem is that we too-seldom actually do this when we pray. Rather than lifting up to God what is actually on our minds and in our hearts, we treat God as someone from whom we need to hide the real truth of our thoughts and feelings. Instead of pouring out mind and heart, we tell God what we think God wants to hear – not murderous thoughts, desire for vengeance, or our disappointment with him.
But expressing those feelings is the whole point. What makes the psalms great for prayer is that they do not hide the truth from God and they run the whole gamut of our actual feelings. They give honest voice to what is actually going on in our minds and hearts.
Sometimes we feel good and our spontaneous impulse is to speak words of praise and gratitude and the psalms give us that voice. They speak of God’s goodness in all – love, friends, faith, health, food, wine, enjoyment. But we don’t always feel that way. Our lives have too their cold, lonely seasons when disappointment and bitterness spontaneously boil under the surface. Again the psalms give us honest voice and we can open up all those angry and vengeful feelings to God. Other times, we fill with the sense of our own inadequacy, with the fact that we cannot measure up to the trust and love that is given us. The psalms again give us voice for this, asking God to have mercy, to soften our hearts, to wash us clean, and give us a new start. And then there are times too when we feel bitterly disappointed with God himself and need some way to express this. The psalms give us this voice (“Why are you so silent? Why are you so far from me?”) even as they make us aware that God is not afraid of our anger and bitterness, but, like a loving parent, only wants for us to come and talk about it. The psalms are a privileged vehicle for prayer because they lift the full-range of our thoughts and feelings to God.
For a number of reasons, we struggle with that. First, because our age tends to eschew metaphor and, taken literally, some of the images within the psalms are offensive. Secondly, we tend to be in denial about our true feelings. It’s hard to admit that we feel many of the things we do feel, from our private grandiosity, to our sexual obsessions, to our jealousies, to our occasional murderous thoughts. Too often our prayer belies our actual thoughts and feelings. It tells God what we think God wants to hear. The psalms have more honesty.
As Kathleen Norris puts it: If you pray regularly “there is no way you can do it right. You are not always going to sit up straight, let alone think holy thoughts. You’re not going to wear your best clothes but whatever isn’t in the dirty clothes basket. You come to the Bible’s great `book of praises’ through all the moods and conditions of life, and while you feel like hell, you sing anyway. To your surprise, you find that the psalms do not deny your true feelings but allow you to reflect them, right in front of God and everyone.”
Feel-good aphorisms that express how we think we ought to feel are no substitute for the earthy realism of the psalms which express how we actually do feel. Anyone who would lift mind and heart to God without ever mentioning feelings of bitterness, jealousy, vengeance, hatred, and war, should write slogans for greeting-cards and not be anyone’s spiritual advisor.