Tish Harrison Warren on the Psalms Dare Us to Bring Our Whole Selves Before God

Photo: Unsplash/Olivia Snow

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She’s the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night (IVP, January 2021).

A river cuts through my parents’ land. It is the backdrop of countless happy memories. Every time I travel home, I still walk to the water’s edge, visiting it like a dear, old friend.

But at times, my beloved river has become dangerous and destructive. In floods, its swollen currents toss debris like a tornado. Once, the river flooded my parents’ house, even though they live hundreds of yards uphill from it. People have been swept away in that reckless water and drowned.

The difference between the river I love, a quiet place pulsating with life and vitality that nourishes all the land around it, and the river that destroys, bringing chaos and terror in its wake, is, quite simply, banks. The river gets dangerous when it jumps its banks, but within its banks, all of the power of its deep, subterranean springs is harnessed to give life and joy. The movement and changeability of that water, the way it never looks the same day to day or season to season, are part of its beauty. But all of that fluctuation finds a telos, a purpose and destiny, only within the steady shape of a solid shoreline.

Our shifting emotional currents of joy, sadness, anger, and longing are like that river. Human emotions are good, needed, beautiful, and even nourishing things. Some movements within Christianity subtly mingle the gospel with stoicism, portraying the emotions as threatening or profane. They end up elevating reason and a cold kind of piety above all else. But in fact, Scripture makes evident that emotions are a vitally important part of being whole, and even holy.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes that emotions give us true information about the world and ourselves. She calls them “hot cognitions”—emotions are not irrational, but rather informative. They show us what we value. They teach us how to live. Learning to admit, observe, and name our emotions changes our internal life, making room for the breadth of human wisdom, for fear and sorrow but also for love, beauty, and goodness.

But emotions can be destructive forces if they jump the banks—if they overwhelm all else, determine the whole course of our lives, dictate our responses to others, or become centered as the only true or real thing about our experience of life.

So how can we remain alive to our internal life without being washed downstream by whatever we feel from moment to moment? And how, as Christians, do we bring our whole selves, including our emotional lives, before God?

The Scriptures give us a practice: We pray the Psalms. The Psalms were the first prayer book of the church. Our most ancient Christian brothers and sisters practiced prayer primarily as the daily memorization and recitation of the Psalms. Taking up this practice as a community, year after year for millennia, in nearly every language and location on earth, teaches the church, both as individuals and as a people, to remain alive to every complex human emotion. As we pray the Psalms, we learn to celebrate and we learn to lament. We learn to be honest with God about our anger and our sin. We learn to grieve and doubt. We learn to admit shame and express gratitude.

Repeatedly praying the Psalms allows us to come before God with emotional honesty, authenticity, and transparency. John Calvin wrote that the Psalms are “the anatomy of all the parts of the soul.” He goes on to say that there is no human emotion that “anyone find[s] in himself whose image is not reflected in this mirror. All the griefs, sorrows, fears, misgivings, hopes, cares, anxieties, in short all the disquieting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated, the Holy Spirit hath here pictured exactly.” When we are in deepest sorrow, we can pray with the psalmist, “I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength” (Ps. 88:3–4). When we are full of joy, we can pray, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands” (Ps. 100:1, KJV).

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Source: Christianity Today