When I was a kid, I was obsessed with mood rings. You probably remember them - cheap plastic rings with swirly stones shaped like hearts or moons that promised to reveal your true feelings. I wasn't allowed to wear jewelry growing up, but every time we were at a gift shop I would sneak over to the mood rings and try one on, fascinated by the way the color changed in reaction to the warmth of my skin. The diagram on the box always promised a rainbow of possible colors, with myriad emotions to match - "stressed," "nervous," "happy," "tired," and my personal favorite, "in love." Every time I tried them on, though, I got stuck with the same uninspiring blue color: "relaxed." No matter how hard I tried to change the stone by thinking about how much my brother annoyed me, or picturing my crush's face, it stayed the same. The actual experience wasn't nearly as varied as that promised by the box.
Church can often feel the same way. When we read the Bible and accept Jesus, we are promised joy, passion, sacrifice, courage, and peace. When we get to church, however, the mood is almost always the same: calm, respectful, and placid. Any difficulties in life can be presented and resolved in a three-verse praise song or a five-minute testimony. We're often encouraged to show up already triumphant, full of faith and peace, ready to shake hands, make small talk, and not cause any trouble at potluck.
As this Casting Crowns song points out, this attitude doesn't do anyone any favors.
Do we have room at church for people who are grieving, broken, or angry at God? Is there space for questions and shattering doubt? Is it acceptable to have anything other than a Happy Sabbath?
The antidote to all these plastic steeples and broken mood rings is the book of Psalms, a record of the hymns and holy songs of the Jewish people. The majority of the poems and songs found in Psalms are written by King David, a warrior-poet who we have seen slay giants, commit adultery, and swing between total faith and seeming abandonment of everything he believes. David was nothing if not passionate - in my favorite story about him, he danced so vigorously in celebration of the Ark of the Covenant's return that his clothes fell off, and he didn't even notice! Most striking, however, is the fact that 1 Samuel 13:14 calls him "a man after [God's] own heart" (KJV). Psalms reflects an incredible range of emotions: anger, despair, resentment, hope, doubt, peace, and joy - all from a man after God's heart.
As John Calvin writes, "There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn…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."1
A quick flip through the book can feel like listening to your iPod on shuffle, or finding an old diary from your angsty teenage years. The Psalms go from mountain tops to deepest depths on the turn of a dime. There's Psalm 6's agony ("My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?") and Psalm 21's victory ("The king rejoices in your strength, Lord. How great is his joy in the victories you give!"). David expresses his confidence in a good future (37:4), questions whether God will abandon him (77:7), calls on mountains and rivers to worship God (98:8), and tosses and turns at night, trapped by insomnia and depression (102:7).
As Richard H. Schmidt writes, "It is not that every sentiment expressed by a psalmist is admirable, but that in praying the Psalms, we confront ourselves as we really are. The Psalms are a reality check to keep prayer from becoming sentimental, superficial, or detached from the real world."2
*The Christian life, after all, is no less complicated or varied than any other life. Christians are not promised that their lives will be placid and easy, simplified to mood ring-blue. The only thing we are promised is the same sentiment that David returns to again and again: through it all, we will never be alone. *
Even David's Psalms of despair or anger usually contain a restatement of God's past goodness and eventual providence. As a believer, is it ever alright to pray prayers of anger or frustration without coming back to God's goodness? See Psalm 139, Psalm 42-43, and Psalm 88 as examples.
Choose a Psalm that your particularly like. What appeals to you about it? What emotions does it express?
What are modern examples or types of art that could be psalmic in nature?
Watch this helpful overview of the Psalms by the Bible Project for more details. What do you learn about the Psalms from this video? What are the different emphases in the different "books" of the Psalms?