“God does not permit you to feel that way.” This response from a pastor, given after I shared that I was feeling discouraged, left me, well, even more discouraged and frustrated. His message was clear: “Good Christians don’t have those kinds of emotions. Stop feeling what you feel. Fix yourself.” Besides resembling the Newhart Method of Counseling™, the pastor’s well-meaning but tone-deaf response left me without a path forward. If I could’ve simply willed away the discouragement, I wouldn’t have shared my struggle in the first place. I needed better counsel, something more than “Stop it!”
Maybe you can relate. Each day you’re treading water in a sea of emotions—some pleasant, others not so much—and you’re not quite sure how to keep your head above water. Take heart, you’re not alone.
Most of us are unskilled at dealing with all the feels. Many of us try to suppress our feelings. We try to hide them from ourselves by ignoring or dismissing them. We try to hide them from other people and God himself because we’re afraid of what they’ll think about us. The trouble is, suppressing emotion is like trying to hold a beach ball under the water: it only works for so long. Eventually, one way or another, the emotion shoots back up to the surface.
So, what do you do with the mad that you feel? The fear? The sadness? The loneliness and frustration and envy and shame?
The Psalms show us.
In the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin wrote, “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the 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.” In the Psalms we see and hear God’s people experiencing sorrow and joy, anger and contentment, fear and confidence, in all the varied circumstances of human life.
The Psalms give us permission to feel and permission to express those feelings. You won’t find any kind of “stiff upper lip” nonsense in the Psalms. The psalmists are honest about their feelings, sometimes uncomfortably so. Author Courtney Reissig has written that “[i]n the Psalms we get real feelings about real life in this beautiful yet broken world.” That’s part of the gift that is the Psalms: they get us. They understand the human condition. They show us that what we feel is a common human experience. You’re not a weirdo. We all are!
It’s important to understand, though, that the psalmists are doing more than venting. The psalmists unburden themselves in God’s presence. They talk to him about what’s going on inside them. They’re doing what Psalm 62:8 urges God’s people to do: “pour out your heart before him.” Again, our inclination is to hide our emotions from God, but the Psalms invite us, both by precept and example, to bring our emotions before him, to work through our many and varied emotions in his very presence, the place from which true healing comes.
I frequently find myself at a loss for words to describe the storm of emotions swirling around inside me. The Psalms give me a vocabulary for my feelings, not technical jargon but word pictures and metaphors that capture what I feel.
Unlike many other portions of Scripture, we can take up the words of the Psalms as if they were our very own. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century, marveled at this feature of the Psalms. Writing to a friend, he said:
[T]he reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feeling being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up.
By taking on my lips the words of David or Asaph or the many unknown composers of individual psalms, I’m enabled to give honest expression to what I feel. That, my friends, is no small gift.
When we bring our emotions before God, when we pour out our hearts before him rather than hiding or remaining silent, our eyes are redirected to the steadfast love and faithfulness of our covenant Lord. Processing our emotions in this way helps us trust his promises. And as we do so, God, by his Spirit, reshapes and reorders our emotions, deepening our trust in him.
Dive into the Psalms. Let them teach you how to feel. Let them teach you how to speak about what you feel. Let them teach you how to be open and unafraid in God’s presence.