There are many people who call the Psalms beautiful. Some of them are certainly that.
They are also deeply jarring.
Read an entire Psalm top to bottom and it’s likely you’ll get whiplash. Many of them reverberate in the beginning with themes of depression, despair, and abandonment, only to sum up with an abrupt affirmation of the Lord’s goodness or a statement of gratitude. The psalmist who describes the depths of his sorrow and solitude in achingly vivid terms somehow ends the lament with a tidy acknowledgement of God’s nature or His goodness.
It makes for a strange reading experience. As a young believer, in order to read the Psalms and have them make any real sense to me, I had a tendency to let the “lament” and “despair” parts fade into soft focus in the background, and I highlighted and underlined the good, God-affirming bits. All’s well that ends well, I reasoned.
As an adult, though, and as I grow and walk through times of trial, I’ve come to see those Psalms differently.
In The Bible Jesus Read, Philip Yancey describes the strange nature of Psalms as follows:
… I am continually amazed by the spiritual wholeness of the Hebrew poets who, sought to include God in every area of life by bringing to God every emotion experienced in daily activity. One need not ‘dress up’ or ‘put on a face’ to meet God. There are no walled off areas; God can be trusted with reality. For the Hebrew poets, God represented a reality more solid than their own whipsaw emotions or the checkered history of their people. They wrestled with God over every facet of their lives, and in the end it was the very act of wrestling that proved their faith.
This rings true to me. And in addition to that, I would add that I tend to view many of the Psalms as object lessons for the process of coming to terms with God and walking in faith when in genuine doubt or distress. They are an astonishingly accurate representation of what faith looks like during those times.
Recently, I was expressing to God a good deal of my feelings and distress over a particular matter. I was confused about a situation in my life and bewildered by what God wanted from me in it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of my circumstances, and could not reconcile what God expected of me with what I felt God has told and taught me in the past. At the end of a very long and heartfelt prayer that probably much resembled some of the psalmists’ laments, I still felt no clearer than I had when I started praying.
These moments can seem like a recipe for doubt or a crisis of faith. But for the mature believer, there’s an odd sort of comfort in them. You sit there in your lack of clarity, your relative darkness, and your utter bewilderment with God, and you confront two questions:
Do I believe that God is good?
Do I believe that God loves me?
And if the answer is “yes” – and my answer was, indeed, yes – then even in your lack of clarity you recognize that a lack of clarity is irrelevant. Even in your heartbreak and your frustration and your despair, you recognize that feeling those things is not inherently incompatible with what you know about who God is. You recognize you are not in control. You accept there are things you don’t know and that won’t be revealed to you. And the revelation sounds a little like this:
“I’m falling apart, God! Everything’s a mess! I don’t know what you’re doing down here! …but I believe You are good, and I believe You love me. So I thank you.”
Sounds a lot like the abrupt, whiplash turn of a psalm, no?
The strange structure of Psalms resembles the gritted-teeth resolution of faith in action. There’s no closure, no clarity, no clear promises of instant deliverance from trouble or explanation for current circumstances, and yet at the end of the psalm there is gratitude. Affirmation of God’s nature. Affection.
Several years ago, my husband had a major job interview in another city. We were to leave our house that day after he got off work and then drive six hours – six hours! – to the hotel where we were staying. That put our arrival quite late in the evening; the interview was early the next day. To say we were on a tight schedule was an understatement.
We were an hour out of the city when my husband realized he’d forgotten his suit for the interview in his closet at home.
We looked at each other. I think we both wanted to cry. It was an enormous problem: a careless error that would add an entire extra hour to an already-rushed trip. And yet the only things in our suitcases were two pairs of jeans and a few casual shirts – nothing remotely appropriate for an interview with a major corporation. Any suit-selling stores would be long closed by our arrival. My husband took a breath, found an exit, and then turned around so we could go get the suit. Regardless of whatever we might have been feeling or however inconvenient the circumstances were, reality was reality: we needed a suit, and the only way to get it was to go home.
Sometimes, the Christian walk requires a similar iron resolution in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances. We’re somewhere we don’t want to be, or didn’t expect to be, or we’re faced with a situation that inspires all sorts of emotion and negative feelings. Regardless of however we might be feeling, though, we recognize that reality is reality: that God is good, and that God loves us. So, pushing our sleeves up and sometimes mid-lament, we keep slogging forward.
It isn’t always graceful. Sometimes it is abrupt. Sometimes the refrain of lament-to-praise feels like whiplash, like a contradiction. To those unfamiliar with it, it undoubtedly reads that way. And yet it’s the walk of faith: the sometimes-grim or sorrowful recognition of what feelings exist, the acknowledgment of one’s circumstances, paired with the resolution that God is who God is.
“I am poured out like water,” laments the psalmist of Psalm 22. “And all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax.” And then, only a few stanzas later: “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.” In the middle of his misery, the writer trusts God’s desire to save.
And so do we. That’s what the abrupt beauty of the psalms are all about.