Have you ever wondered if there is a Christian way to feel? All of us experience deep seated anger, depths of depression, and delights of joy. Sometimes we let emotions overwhelm us without giving it a second thought. Yet there is a distinctively Christian way that we should experience these emotions. It is the Psalms that teach us how to handle times of joy and sorrow.
The early Christians understood this. Consider the words of Saint Athanasius in his Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms: “These words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul” (§12). When he reads the Psalms he sees himself as if looking into mirror, reflecting back to him the emotions of his soul. When the Psalmist cries, Athanasius sees his tears; when the Psalmist shouts with joy, Athanasius sees himself smile.
Consider Psalm 73, gazing at Asaph as he works through his bitterness at the success of others. Asaph confesses the goodness of God, but his confession doesn’t match up with his emotional experience. In 73:1–3, he says: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”
Asaph later resents his efforts to please God, since he envies the lives of high rollers or the successful who, unlike him, have not aimed to live with a clean heart: “Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence” (73:12–13).
Asaph’s twisted soul, contorted by clamps of bitterness, becomes straight when he enters into the presence of God. Only after he digs low into the pit of bitterness does he discover the truth, bringing himself back to level ground. In 73:16–17, Asaph recounts: “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”
What Asaph discovers is that not everything you see is true. Wicked people may mimic success. They may, for a time, experience ease. But their destiny, their end is complete failure and fear: “How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” (Ps 73:19).
Listen to how Asaph heals his tainted emotions, his dark soul condition:
When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. (73:21–28)
The presence of God drew out his bitterness as medicine draws out disease. Asaph knows what lies ahead of the wicked: death. But glory lies ahead of him: “you will receive me to glory.” The glory of God, that glory into which we will enter, recalibrates the soul’s emotions, taming their age and turning it to joy.
The Psalms uniquely teach us how to feel and how to unscrew our twisted souls when we suffer the souls’ dark night.