All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as the apostle says; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure. Within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.
– St. Athanasius (from “On the Incarnation”)
There is a tendency to think of our emotional displays as pure. “If I feel something, it must be true.” Our instincts to be sad, to laugh, or to be happy are not necessarily thought of as something we have to learn. We will quickly realize the need for children’s emotions to be trained, but not our own. We are no longer immature like children (sarcasm). Sometimes the idea that our emotional displays need to be appropriated raises judgments that this is an argument against emotions in general. And of course this is not the case. God made us as emotional human beings and our emotions must NOT be viewed as a bad thing. But the need for our emotions to be rightly ordered may not be something we often think about.
In many cases, what “I feel” may be misguided and wrongly applied towards something or someone. We often give into the lie that our emotions are just part of “my personality” – as if we are all born with pure abilities to exercise our emotions in ways that are never selfish or sinful. Toddlers are perfect examples against this silly thinking. St. Augustine viewed the entire Christian life as a call to seek rightly ordered desires and rightly ordered emotions so that we may learn to love appropriately. Training our emotions becomes a crucial aspect within our sanctification because our emotions are tied so closely with what we desire. So how can we learn appropriate emotions or appropriate desires? Has God given us any tools to help us in this regard?
The answer is the book of Psalms. The emotional spectrum in the Psalms is full. Throughout the poetry of the Psalms, the authors guide their readers through the truth of human reality into its appropriate response to praise God. But the Psalms are not always about joy. Close to half of the Psalms are songs of lament. What does this tell us about human sorrow and suffering? It tells us that God wants to hear about our feelings, even the sometimes suppressed ones. The Psalms are fully open about the fact that our everyday experiences are not all happy. Our God wants us to lay our experiences at His feet so that He can transform these difficult emotions and redeem them. The Book of Psalms is the curriculum for appropriate desires.
We will find ourselves in chaos if we refuse to offer our emotions to God. We are apt to lash out in anger, wallow in depression, and even resent those who love us. Life can easily be seen as misery if we do not run to the one who offers to reshape our emotions and desires. This may be the reason why Jesus quotes the Psalms more than any other book in the Gospels. Jesus’ use of the Psalms reveals the amazing unity between Christ and his bride, the Church. How often are we tempted to think that God is not near us in our struggles and trials? By praying the Psalms, Jesus not only identifies with the suffering Christian, but He speaks our words to the Father on our behalf. Jesus speaks these words of lament and anguish because He felt those same emotions. This is a beautiful reminder that God will never forsake us.
Jesus’ use of the Psalms becomes the means for how we are drawn into His mission. When we pray the Psalms, we pray the very words of Jesus. These words are a gift for us to become more like our Savior so that we may carry out the will of the Father. To know God and to make Him known must include the curriculum of the Psalms so that our affections may be educated (transformed) more and more to be used by God for the blessing of the nations.
History instructs us, the law teaches us, prophecy foretells, correction punishes, morality persuades; but the book of psalms goes further than all these. It is medicine for our spiritual health. Whoever reads it will find in it a medicine to cure the wounds caused by his own particular passions. Whoever studies it deeply will find it a kind of gymnasium open for all souls to use, where the different psalms are like different exercises set out before him. In that gymnasium, in that stadium of virtue, he can choose the exercises that will train him best to win the victor’s crown.
– St. Ambrose of Milan
*Remember, God divinely inspired the Psalms for the purpose of Israel’s worship. The word “Psalm” means praise or song. The Hebrew word is “mizmor”, meaning song. Where it is entirely proper to read the Psalms, they are first and foremost meant to be sung. What does this say about music and the act of singing God’s word? I am happy to say, a lot.