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).
The Psalms teach us to express our emotions to God. This is vital to learn. God is not a cold and distant father we must approach with impeccable composure and icy obedience. The Psalms dare us to tell God our deepest needs, longings, resentments, pain, griefs, and joys. And in doing so, we learn to admit the truth about ourselves.
In an age in which we often run to distraction, numbing both pain and joy with endless hot takes, retweets, and busyness, the Psalms call us out to the depths—the depths of the human person, the depths of pain and joy, and the depths of knowing God.
But reflecting on, memorizing, and praying the Psalms also help us find banks that direct our emotions away from self-worship or narcissism and toward God himself. The practice of praying the Psalms teaches us over time that, along with our minds and our wills, our emotions need to be discipled. This emotional language in Scripture tutors us in honesty and centers our passions on God and his work in the world. Praying the Psalms allows us to locate our own story—and the joy, loss, struggle, and wonder of our own life—within God’s larger story of redemption.
Praying the Psalms does not simply teach us to express our emotions to God; the practice also shapes our emotions. It gives banks to the powerful currents in our hearts. Like the slow process of erosion, praying the whole Psalter over time, again and again, forms the landscape of our inner life. The Scriptures work back on us, through prayer, to determine what we believe and how we respond to the things we feel. This makes us who we are and shapes what we worship. In short, praying the Psalms names what we feel, but it also transforms who we are.
In Rejoicing in Lament, J. Todd Billings writes, “Praying the Psalms brings our whole heart before the face of God, reorienting our own vision toward God and his promises. … The Psalms are given to us by God to guide our prayer and to transform us more and more into our identity in Christ, as members of the body of Christ.” Ultimately, when we pray the Psalms, we pray them in and with Christ. Jesus himself learned, studied, and prayed the Psalms. He quoted the Psalms more than any other Old Testament book, and as he died, the Psalms were ready at his lips (Matt. 27:46).
In the end, all of our emotions and every experience of our lives can be taken by God and used as the raw material with which he transforms us into people who live as his beloved. “In and through Jesus Christ,” Billings writes, “with whom Christians have been united by the Holy Spirit, we can praise, lament, petition.” And through this practice, we find that our experiences and the emotions we feel—all of our loss, joy, grief, anger, longing, and happiness—are not the most foundational and defining story of our lives.
As we take up the Psalms in daily prayer, our own stories—full to the brim of both loveliness and pain, both hardship and beauty—find banks and direction. We are honest about the mercurial realities of our inner life, and, through that practice of vulnerability, we pray the Psalms with Jesus and enter into the larger reality of who God is and what he has done.
And that’s the thing about banks. They aren’t primarily a means of control. Their chief purpose is not simply to limit or hem in. Banks are what keep a river flowing in the direction it is intended to go. Banks are what allow a river to reach its end, its ultimate aim, its telos. In the same way, these prayers of the Psalms allow our inner life, with all its variegated currents and twists and turns, to find its culmination in the roaring sea of God’s love.
This article is part of “Why Women Love the Bible,” CT’s special issue spotlighting women’s voices on the topic of Scripture engagement. You can download a free pdf of the issue or order print copies for yourself at MoreCT.com/special-issue.
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