3 Things the Psalms Teach about Emotional Health

The Psalms are a treasure-trove of scriptural delight. In fact, many memorable worship songs are drawn from this part of the scripture. From Marty Nystrom’s “As the Dear” (Psalm 42) to Matt Redman’s “Better is one day” (Psalm 85), contemporary praise and worship often re-articulate the psalms in modern language.

Reliance on the psalms also occurs in more traditional, or liturgical, churches. Congregations may pray The Venite (Psalm 95), or The Jubilate (Psalm 100) as part of their regular rhythm of prayer. Indeed, monastic communities throughout the ages have even sought to pray through the psalms monthly, or in rare occasions, daily.

Yet more than a resource for worship songs or liturgical texts, the beauty of the psalms is the visceral articulation of the full range of human emotion.

From rejoicing to sadness, from frustration to deep ire, the psalms give voice to the deep emotions of human life. Sure, this makes for some hard passages to read. Who doesn’t cringe at the thought of heads dashed against stones? Yet even these difficult verses are instructive—for we find that the psalms depict just what it means to communicate our raw, sometimes ugly, emotions to the Lord. 

In this way, reading through the psalms (or better yet, praying the psalms) has a lot to teach us about emotional health. The psalms help us uncover how to be faithful when we are filled with our negative or ugly emotions. There are three main lessons the Psalms teach about emotional health.

1. It’s Okay to Struggle

You can’t get too far into Psalms without noticing that they’re rarely written from palaces of ease and comfort. In fact, the very second psalm references nations that conspire and people that plot in vain.

Many of the psalms articulate the personal struggle of the psalmist. This struggle could be because of the presence of an enemy, the schemes of the wicked, or a general lament over personal sin. Whatever the reason, the psalms give voice to how we feel when things are not right in our lives. 

Take the first couple of verses from Psalm 77 for example. We read:

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble, I seek the Lord. In the night, my hand is stretched out without wearing. My soul refuses to be comforted. I think of God and I moan; I meditate and my spirit faints” (Psalm 77:1-3).

While we may not know exactly what the situation is at hand, these verses give voice to someone who is struggling in his/her life. Further on, the psalmist articulates questions that arise from such struggling. Questions like: Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Has God forgotten to be gracious?

Who has not, from time to time, asked such questions? Who has not been thrust into an uphill battle and found their faith stretched, or their patience wearing thin? 

It’s a mistake to believe that faithfulness to God means we’re always pleasant and stoic in our lives. Worse yet is the belief that only the weak in faith go through times of struggle. This is not true. The psalms present to us, in vibrant fashion, the biblical truth that even the strongest in faith struggle at times. Struggling against some hardship, an enemy, or even against our own human failings, doesn’t indicate a weakness in faith. Struggling is part of life, and of faith. 

As the after-school specials used to always remind us, it is okay to not be okay.

2. It’s Okay to Feel

Did you ever have a Bible that included a list of where to turn when feeling a certain way? Whether one felt angry, or sad, confused, or frustrated, the list pointed to an appropriate verse for divine comfort. Most of the Scriptures suggested in these lists are either reminders of God’s promises, or a call to perseverance. While this is valuable, in some regards, it could lead to the assumption that the faithful response to negative emotions is to push past them. 

For example, imagine you’re feeling angry. Acknowledging your anger, you turn to the previously mentioned list in the back of your Bible, searching for an appropriate Scripture. Undoubtedly, the suggestions will be along the lines of Ephesian 4:26: “In your anger do not sin, don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Or perhaps it would point you to James 1:20: “for your anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” A passage from the psalms, likely, would not be mentioned.

The point is, such lists of what to read when you are angry rarely give voice to the anger.

Too often they point to the verses that speak to how anger is contrary to the life of faith. This can leave us with the impression that the faithful response to anger is to not feel angry! We come away with the impression that it is wrong to feel angry, or whatever emotion we are feeling. Thus, we attempt to move past the emotion, or deny it altogether. 

All this does is produce feelings of guilt and shame, for the fact is, we do feel angry!

Anger is a human emotion like all the rest, and it is common to all people. Furthermore, our anger may, in fact, be an appropriate response to whatever situation we are facing. Even Jesus got angry, and sad, and frustrated. Emotions are never wrong. They may be misdirected at times, and we may wrongly act on such emotions, but the feeling itself is not wrong in and of itself. 

When we deny our emotions, we allow them to fester within us. We may trick ourselves into believing that we have dealt with the matter at hand, but all we have done is turn a blind eye to the deep matters of our heart and soul.

The psalms give us license to hold our feelings before the Lord. We are given the freedom to feel, and to feel deeply, viscerally, and passionately.

3. It’s Okay to Scream

The psalms often give voice to the deep inner emotions that we feel. The sadness, frustration, and anger that we so often experience in our lives are articulated in gritty detail. In this way, the psalms do not just give us license to feel the emotion, the psalms also allow us to voice our emotions.

Psalms point us to the ability to bring our hurts to the Lord.

When we are filled with negative emotions, and let’s be honest, we all have these types of emotions from time to time, we are encouraged to express those feelings to the Lord. God is big enough. 

So, instead of reading Ephesians or James when we feel angry, what would it be like to read Psalm 13?

Instead of denying our anger, what would it look like to express it?

Psalm 13 does just this. It begins “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” In this psalm, David pours his heart out before God. He gives voice to the deep emotion that he feels. Nothing is withheld. The psalms show us that we are free to scream, or yell, or shout, or weep.

Praying the Psalms

Praying the psalms can be a healing experience. When we give voice to our deep emotions, not hiding from them or pretending they do not exist, we invite Jesus into the deep inner places of our lives. We open the door to his healing presence.

What would it look like for you to try this the next time you’re faced with an uncomfortable emotion? Instead of turning to a prepackaged list of what to read when you feel x, what if you turned to the psalms and prayed from within the emotion itself?  

The process is simple. Simply read each verse of a psalm, pause, and then pray the verse again, this time using your own words and referencing your own situation. For example, retuning to the opening of Psalm 13, your prayer may look like this:

Lord, I feel like you are forgetting me. How long must I feel like this?

Are you hiding from me? Do you care for me?  

I feel in pain. I feel angry. I feel burdened, and I feel that you do not even notice!

Praying this way may seem uncomfortable, but it is deeply honest. More to the point, praying this way honors the deep emotions within us, thereby helping us move toward health and healing.

Emotional health is not about only living with positive emotions. Faithfulness to God is not about pasting smiles on our faces and singing “Shine, Jesus Shine,” no matter what we may be feeling inside. No. Emotional health, in the life of faith, is about inviting Jesus into our emotions, whatever they may be.

Emotional health is about knowing that it is okay to struggle, it is okay to feel, and it is okay to cry out to God. The psalms teach us these lessons beautifully.

The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada.  He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.comibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others.  He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca.  He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.