A few weeks ago, someone asked me, “How can I be a disciple if I must endure highs and lows, faith and doubt, trust and fear? I feel like I must doing something wrong.” If someone had asked me that question a year ago, I would have responded with a solution and a relevant quote. But that day, I suggested we read the Psalms. This was not my relationship with the Psalms twelve months ago. Before this past year, I only read the Psalms to complete my Bible reading plan. I decided that I was too left-brained to enjoy the Psalms and that maybe they were only helpful for the more creative-types.
Then, as I was reading and studying, I started to notice a recurring theme—almost everyone I admired was into the Psalms from George Muller to J. Hudson Taylor to Eugene Peterson to Tim Keller. As I was reading the gospels, I noticed Jesus was into the Psalms as well—quoting or alluding to them in hillside teachings, temple courts, and from the cross.
The same thought kept nagging at me—if I am learning to live like Jesus, how can I ignore the Psalms? I began to realize that true gospel-centered discipleship requires us to become friends with David, Asaph, Solomon, the Sons of Korah, Moses, Ethan the Ezrahite, and the dozens of other unknown Psalmists.
In response, I started reading and praying the Psalms as an integral part of my own discipleship. Before long, the Psalms influenced the way I discipled others—especially in the way the Psalms validate our emotions, shape our imaginations, and teach us to pray.
1. The Psalms Validate Our Emotions
From the cross Jesus cried out Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Not only did Jesus have the Psalms so rooted in him that they were his words in the most agonizing moment of his life, he experienced abandonment—a feeling shared with the author of Psalm 22.
When I started ministry, people (including my wife) would approach me with emotions they were experiencing. I made the rookie mistake of subtly (and not so subtly) downplaying the truth of their emotions. “Sadness and abandonment didn’t line up with the truth of the gospel,” I would tell them. The more time I spent in the Psalms, though, the more I realized that the gospel is roomy enough for all human emotions.
As a pastor to young adult, I’ve seen how liberating it is for their emotions to find a home in the Psalms. In a letter titled “On the Interpretation of the Psalms” Athanasius writes, “You find depicted in [the Psalms] all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.” You cannot read the Psalms without seeing delight (Ps. 1:2) and depression (Ps. 42:5), gratitude (Ps. 100:4) and grief (Ps. 42:3), and nearly every other emotion (John Piper has a good list). The Psalms teach us that it’s okay to ask God why (Ps. 10:1) or how long (Ps. 13:1-2) and to be honest with how you feel.
The Psalms don’t leave our emotions as they are though. They shape our emotions and give them proper context. I had professor in college who said, “The Psalms provide direction for our emotions without repressing them or giving full vent to them. The Psalms help you learn how to feel.” Each of the Psalms has its own rhythm. We enter these through our emotions and are carried into deeper emotions. Although this rhythm may be compressed into a few verses in a Psalm, our experience may last days or even years.
2. The Psalms Shape Our Imaginations
If we want to live like Jesus, our imaginations must be flooded with what he knew about life with God. What we believe and how we think about God are critical to living the gospel-centered life. Where, then, can we learn to think and believe like Jesus? The Psalms.
The Psalm writers were deeply familiar with God, his plans, and life in his kingdom. Here are just a few examples of how the Psalms shape our imaginations:
- That life with God is the good life (Psalm 1)
- That God is our refuge and safety (Psalm 16)
- That God always provides what we need (Psalm 23)
- That God is full of grace for sinners (Psalm 51)
- That God’s heart is for the nations (Psalm 96)
- That God is always present with us (Psalm 139)
The Psalms train our imaginations to chew (Ps. 1 “meditate”) on truth about God. Jesus saw the world through the lens of the Psalms (e.g. Ps. 37:11 & Mt. 5:4, or Ps. 8:2 & Mt. 21:16). And in the long history of the church, the Psalms have been one of the primary resources for the “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2). In my own experience, the Psalms have dramatically altered the way I see the world in daily life.
As growing disicples, we often draw conclusions about God based on what we are enduring (especially when things aren’t going well). I’ve often heard things like, “I’m suffering . . . so God must be mad at me.” When we let the Psalms shape our imaginations though, we see how suffering are a normal part of life on fallen earth and God will redeem it for good (Rom. 8:28, Ps. 73).
3. The Psalms Teach Us to Pray
In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes, "The great and sprawling university that Hebrews and Christians have attended to learn to answer God, to learn to pray, has been the Psalms.” This was a strange for me. Although I knew the Psalms were written as “sung-prayers," I had difficulty seeing how praying someone else’s words would be a helpful practice. It seemed inauthentic.
Then I hit a season of life where I struggled to pray. Prayer had been easy and natural, but now I didn't know where to start. So I began praying the Psalms—sometimes line-by-line and sometimes just one line for a half-hour—and God began to shape the vocabulary and tone of my prayers into something new. In his Letter on the Psalms, Athanasius also describes this, “In the case of all the other Psalms it is thought it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.” It’s possible praying the Psalms might be one of the ways that the Spirit intercedes for us (Rom. 8:26-27).
The Psalms teach us how to confess (Ps. 51), how to hope (Ps. 42 & Ps. 43), how to plea (Ps. 69), and how to worship (Ps. 100). Now when I am helping new disciples learn how to pray, I guide them through the Lord’s Prayer and through the Psalms.
The Psalms & Discipleship
As I have discovered the beauty of the Psalms and their practical benefits for gospel-centered discipleship, I’ve started a few new discipleship habits.
First, I’ve started reading through a few Psalms each day. In the morning, during lunch, before dinner, and before bed, I’ve let the Psalms interrupt whatever happens in my mind and surroundings. Sometimes I’ll read a Psalm and get back to work while other times I’ll read a Psalm and chew it over for the entire afternoon. Sometimes I read five Psalms and sometimes I read one.
Second, I often read a Psalm when I get together with other disciples. This subverts our discipleship in important ways. I love the unplanned conversations or listening to the way someone prays differently. If you’re reading a Psalm with a new disciple, the writer often provides fodder for a discussion about theology they might not be familiar with (which is something I learned from Justin Buzzard’s “Discipleship 101: How to Disciple a New Believer”). The Psalms are filled with good news about Jesus.
Returning to the story I started with, after reading through some Psalms, my friend realized life is messy and that’s okay. Highs and lows are normal. Faith and doubt exist together. David, amidst his enemies, summarizes this tension when he prays, “Teach me your way, O Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors” (Ps. 27:11).
Austin Gohn (@austingohn) serves as the young-adults minister at Bellevue Christian Church in Pittsburgh, PA. He holds a B.A. in intercultural studies and never intended to be a pastor. He’s been married to Julie for two years and you can follow him on twitter @austingohn.