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What the Psalms Teach About Negative Emotion and Prayer


"But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness."

And with that, Psalm 88 abruptly ends, leaving it as the only psalm that has no happy ending and no sliver of positivity anywhere. This is a psalm addressed to the choirmaster, implying that it was supposed to be sung in public worship. Public worship of all things. Who would've thought?

As unique as Psalm 88 is, it's definitely not the only psalm with a negative tone. Over 65 psalms are classified as laments, and many others have negative aspects. These laments are not tame either; they are fully unbridled cries to God of sorrow, sickness, despair, pleading, and even doubt, protest, and anger.

We often think of negative emotions as... well, negative. Undesirable. Even sinful. Especially when it comes to strong, confrontational emotions such as doubt and anger. It's even more serious when those emotions are directed at God in prayer (which is essentially what the Psalms are-- a series of prayers). We're supposed to have complete trust in Him after all. And because of this, bringing those emotions to Him and expressing them with all their raw and exposed darkness just feels wrong.

So we hide and pretend they don't exist instead.

Whether you are quiet about your emotions or loud, whether you try to wish negative emotions away with positivity or you tend to wallow in them, human beings naturally want to hide these things from God -- fig leaves and all -- ever since the Fall, and now is no exception.

But this is not what we see in the Psalms. The psalmists leave everything bare before God, all of the ups, all of the downs, all of their fears, and all of their questions. Yes, even their confrontational, almost accusatory questions.

"Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" (Psalm 10:1) 
"How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?" (Psalm 13:1) 
"Awake! Why are you sleeping O LORD? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!" (Psalm 44:23)

How should we process this? What is the place of negative emotion in our prayers?

Before we answer these questions, let's look at the bigger picture of the Psalms.

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The Psalms are not a haphazard jumble of old Jewish poetry.  They're a very intentionally arranged collection broken up into five books -- compiled sometime after the Babylonian exile. These five books are sandwiched by an introduction, a conclusion, and some "editorial notes" here and there. If you want to know more about the structure and design of the Psalms, I highly recommend the video linked here.

But the most interesting thing is that while the Book of Psalms starts off with more psalms of lament, psalms of praise begin to overtake them until they taper off altogether at the very end. This already shows us so much about the nature of prayer (and the nature of God's work in general).

We see this same arc in all of the psalms of lament (excluding Psalm 88 of course). First, the psalmist cries out to God, detailing the depths of his emotions and situation, and then he turns around, and -- with the same breath and equal intensity -- he praises God. In many of these psalms, it's not even clear if God has delivered the psalmist yet; he just seems certain God will deliver him.

"O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear. . ." (Psalm 10:17

On the rare occasion where he isn't so certain, the psalmist expresses his trust that God is (and will be) his salvation such as in Psalm 42:11.

"Hope in God for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."

Clearly, the Psalms are not encouraging you to wallow in your negative emotions or to doubt God and question His authority. They have their place, but they certainly should not rule you.

No, the Psalms instead encourage you to be open and honest about your emotions to God -- negative or otherwise -- so you can properly deal with them and strengthen your relationship with Him instead of becoming bitter and fearful. Just like any relationship, you need to talk out your issues, not bottle them up and pretend they don't exist.

Thankfully, God has graciously given us room to do that, and He wants us to, as we can see in the Psalms. He wants us to trust Him with our sorrows and fears. How amazing is that? God -- with all His splendor and holiness -- delights in us trusting Him with our comparatively petty little worries. And He delights in answering His people. So ask away.






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