Become a Modern-Day Psalmist: Personalizing the Psalms for Your Actual Life
When I was thirty-one years old, my husband died on my bedroom floor. My sons were five and three years old, fatherless before kindergarten. The doctors thought he had the flu, but they missed a sepsis diagnosis, an infection in his bloodstream that attacked his heart and his lungs over just a matter of hours. They sent him home from the hospital to recover with popsicles and Gatorade. They said, “He won’t die from this, but he will feel like it.”
He died the next morning. He was thirty-five and healthy, and he was suddenly gone. It was two days before Christmas, the eve of Christmas Eve.
If you and I are new to each other, I’m sorry to throw that curveball at you. It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it, that paragraph of raw facts? There isn’t really a gentle or easy way to say it, to read the words on the page, or to hear them hang in the air. I know this well. That curveball hit my life with the velocity of an asteroid. It blew my world to bits.
I have learned many things, more than a decade after it all happened. Some wounds become a scar that doesn’t show. It doesn’t bleed anymore, and it doesn’t need the constant care it once required. Healthy tissue has been grafted over the scar, and sometimes even I no longer see it.
But it’s there, part of the landscape of my life. Sometimes, during a hard rainstorm or a change of seasons, it feels tender once more.
When Robb died, the Bible and I were not the best of friends. I didn’t know what to do with it, this Old Testament that portrayed an angry God who let people die if they broke the rules, or this New Testament Savior who seemed to perform miracles only for people with enough faith. So, it could be said that either Robb died because we made God mad, or he died because I didn’t have enough faith to keep him alive.
Everything felt like too much or not enough.
I closed the Bible for a while, like an amateur athlete who hangs up her equipment. I didn’t know how to use it, and I felt like I didn’t want to learn. What good could it do now? I felt like it was my right to say, “No, thank you.” If God was going to take away my husband and leave my children fatherless, then I was going to silence him for a bit. A long bit. He didn’t keep his end of the deal, so I didn’t intend to keep mine.
The word entitled comes to mind. I felt entitled to shut him out.
Entitled to numb myself.
Entitled to take my questions elsewhere.
But here’s what entitlement gives you: very little. You can “right” your way down the wrong path.
Everything felt empty. I remember trying to lose myself in a mindless novel, but I couldn’t make sense of the plot, couldn’t identify with these shallow characters. I remember trying to numb myself with the endless updates of social media, but I felt infuriated by a newsfeed of updates that were filled with inflated optimism or contrived crises. Once again, everything was too much or not enough.
My Only Hope
At some point, I began to discover that I had nowhere else to go. And that triggered a memory buried deep inside my mind, of Jesus’ friends coming to the very same conclusion. Jesus had said some very difficult things that most of his followers didn’t want to hear. This life He had invited them to wasn’t easy, shiny, or sparkling with wealth and popularity contests. They wanted something easier, and they began to turn away.
Jesus looked at the Twelve and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”
And Peter, in his straightforward way that makes me love him so much, replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Peter didn’t say, “I love every word you say.” Or “This is easy to understand, and I have no questions.” Or “I will never wonder or wander again.”
Essentially, he said, “This is difficult, but I think it would be harder still without you. I would rather walk through this with you—and find meaning—than take another path that leads to meaninglessness, no purpose, no healing, and no life.”
In my mind, I imagined Peter, weary in his eyes and tired in his bones, saying, “You’re my only hope. Let’s do this.”
In his moment with Jesus, Peter answered for me too.
So I delivered my little boys to preschool, and I packed up my pens, my journal, and my Bible, and I went to Starbucks. I ordered my decaf grande salted caramel mocha, I took a spot at the corner table, and I waited. I waited for words. I waited for feelings. I waited for presence and goosebumps and inspiration. But just because I showed up didn’t mean I knew what to say. The Bible still seemed so foreign to me, a treasure map I couldn’t read.
Beginning in the Middle
I didn’t want the Old Testament stories. (See previous point.)
I didn’t want the New Testament stories. (See previous point.)
So I started somewhere in the middle. The book of Psalms.
The Psalms are a great collection of songs, poetry, and prayers written by many different writers, and together they reflect the heart, soul, and emotions of humanity. Martin Luther once said that this book “might well be called a little Bible,” since it holds “most beautifully and briefly” everything that is in the entire Bible.1 It felt like a good place to start.
I opened to the very first one, and I began to copy it into my journal.
I copied one psalm, then another. Then another. And I’ll be honest—sometimes the words felt empty still. But the words gave me something to do with my thoughts; the copying gave me something to do with my hands; and the practice gave me something to do with my mornings.
And here’s what I found.
I found prolific writers who cried out to God in the midst of real conversations in their actual lives.
I found writers begging God to listen.
I found writers in very real pain, wondering how bad this could get.
I found people who were sleepless from crying.
I found praise that was also a plea to God to keep his promises.
I found poetry that was transparent despair, sistered with deliberate truth telling.
I found words I could claim in the darkness, even if I couldn’t feel anything.
I found longing that said exactly what I felt.
Over time, as I copied the psalms, I began to weave my words into theirs, adapting the psalms to become my own, becoming a modern-day psalmist in the pages of my journals. I would write the psalmists’ words on the left side of the page, and I’d write my own on the right. I watched the pages turn, and I felt my heart soften.
The book is entirely void of clichés, which is maybe my favorite thing about it. As we read through the Psalms, we’ll find writers saying the honest thing, not the easy thing. They are honest as they cry out to God from the deepest moment of their darkest night, and we will also find them honest as they sing in the heights of celebration.
This practice, this pouring out of words, doesn’t guarantee healing or a softer heart. But it is a path to honesty. When we rely on empty words and recited phrases that we’ve repeated for decades, we limit our communication with God. Sure, He hears our words and He understands our attempts, but He longs for genuine communication. Since I am a longtime avoider of small talk, one who dives deep and fast, I like to think that our desire for authentic conversation is part of being made in the image of God. He knows us, and He wants us to know Him.
I have learned this about God—He doesn’t let us languish in monologues. He’s a conversational God. As we learn to listen, as we speak out the words of our deepest pains and longings, eventually, we hear Him speaking back. The path to any level of understanding must begin with honesty, and the psalmists pave the way. They show us how to tell God the truth about how we feel, what we’ve done, where we’ve been, what we love, and what we need. We can borrow their words until we find our own.
Read more from Tricia in her book This Book Is for You: Loving God’s Words in Your Actual Life, available today from Tyndale House.
Learn how to stay grounded during difficult times at Revive ’21: Grounded, a conference from Revive Our Hearts.We’d love for you to join us in Indianapolis for the in-person event October 8–9.Visit Revive21.com to register today, and let’s get grounded together!
1 Martin Luther, Preface to the Psalter.