The Psalms Dare Us to Bring Our Whole Selves Before God

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Praying the Psalter can give shape to the river of our emotions.

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 …

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