Psalms: Open and Unafraid

Photo by Ruvim (www.pexels.com).

By W. David O. Taylor

In February 1995, I confessed my sins publicly in front of five hundred fellow students at the University of Texas in Austin. This took place at a concert of prayer sponsored by a parachurch campus ministry. Standing on the auditorium stage of a large classroom, I confessed the sins of lust, pride, impatience, anger, and others I have now forgotten. While I had previously confessed my sins to a pastor or a group of friends, I had never confessed my sins publicly. (It is rather terrifying.) As part of a worship and prayer service, the invitation to confess our sins had offered us a chance to be free from the secrets that distort and oppress us.

Everyone, of course, has a secret of one sort or another. Every family and every community and every country has its secrets too. For some it is an addictive behavior. For others it is an abusive or traumatic experience that may only intensify feelings of shame. For still others it is the fear of being rejected, the lust for power, an uncontrollable temper, emotional infidelity, a vicious prejudice, a program of terror, an insatiable jealousy of others, repeated acts of self-indulgence, or something else.

Whatever they may be, with our secrets we hide. We hide from others and we hide from ourselves. Ultimately, we hide from God. In our hiding, we choose darkness over light; we embrace death instead of life; we elect to be lonely rather than to be relationally at home with others. And the certain result of all our hiding is that we become cut off from our Source of life, strangers to ourselves, and alienated from creation, which, in the end, is pathetic, disfiguring, and an utterly tragic loss of life.

The Psalms understand the human condition. In it we see a mirror of humanity at its best and at its worst. We see our very selves reflected back, “be he a faithful soul or be he a sinner” as Athanasius once described the experience of looking at the psalms, as if in a mirror of the soul. Walter Brueggemann writes that the Psalter “is an articulation of all the secrets of the human heart and the human community, all voiced out loud in speech and in song to God amidst the community.”

If we are to be free, Brueggemann argues, our secrets must be told. If we wish to flourish in our God-given calling, our secrets must be brought into the light so we are no longer governed by their corrosive and destructive power. And if we desire to be truly human, we must abandon all our efforts not just to hide our secrets but also to justify them. This is what the psalms help us to do: to tell our secrets faithfully.

To share our secrets with another person naturally requires a great deal of courage. It requires an ability to trust others in ways that few of us feel safe to do. And to tell our secrets to the community requires an extraordinary ability to believe that it will not take advantage of our vulnerable disclosure – by judging us unfairly, by rejecting us, or by gossiping about us – and that we will not be undone by our confession. To be this brave and to trust this readily is a gift that God would willingly give us, if we but asked.

To be open and unafraid with God in the manner that is modeled for us in the psalms is to counter the devastating effects of our primordial sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, their first impulse was to hide. In making clothes for themselves, they hid their bodies. When they heard the sound of their Maker’s voice, they hid from God. In their telltale lies, they hid from the truth, and in their mutual accusations, they hid from each other. All the ways in which Adam and Eve hid resulted in one thing: their dehumanization.

Like Adam and Eve, when we hide from God, we become alienated from God and thus spend our strength trying to transcend life’s limits: death, dependence, moral laws, God-given boundaries. When we hide from others, we cut ourselves off from the life-giving gift of community. When we hide from creation, we deny our God-ordained creaturely nature and often seek to exploit rather than to care for creation. And when we hide from ourselves, we become strangers to ourselves through selfish, self-indulgent behavior that ultimately does violence to our nature as humans made in God’s image.

What the psalms offer us is a powerful aid to un-hide: to stand honestly before God without fear, to face one another vulnerably without shame, and to encounter life in the world without any of the secrets that would demean and distort our humanity.

The psalms invite us, thus, to stand in the light, to see ourselves truly and to receive the reformative work of God through the formative words of the psalmist, so that we might be rehumanized in Christ.

The honesty of the Psalms. Psalm 139 is the paradigmatic psalm of the honest person. There is nothing the psalmist hides from God. He invites God to see it all. “You have looked deep into my heart, LORD, and you know all about me” (v. 1 CEV). It is a cleansing and healing self-disclosure. To be known by God in this way, through and through, nothing hidden (v. 15), nothing excused (v. 23), is beyond the psalmist’s capacity to fully grasp. “It is more than I can understand,” he says (v. 6 NCV).

It is only in standing open before God in this way, naked like a baby and unashamed as the beloved of God (vv. 13- 16), that the psalmist discovers his truest identity. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (v. 14). In the psalmist’s waking hours and asleep at night, the Lord is there (vv. 2-3). No height, no depth, not the darkest night, not a secret thought, neither heaven nor hell, can hide the psalmist from the Lord’s searching gaze (vv. 8- 12). He cannot escape the Lord’s presence (v. 7).

Nor does he wish to. The psalmist feels as precious as all the Lord’s thoughts toward him (v. 17). He is secure in the Lord’s sovereign care (v. 16). All the days of his life are seen by God. It is for that reason that the psalmist welcomes the (often terrifying) searching gaze of God. “Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me; cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about” (v. 23 The Message). This is similar to the language we find in Psalm 17:1-3:

Listen while I build my case, God,
the most honest prayer you’ll ever hear.
Show the world I’m innocent –
in your heart you know I am.
Go ahead, examine me from inside out,
surprise me in the middle of the night –
You’ll find I’m just what I say I am.
My words don’t run loose.
(The Message)

To what end does the psalmist pray in this manner? It is so he might walk in the life-giving “way,” echoing the words of Psalm 1.

To walk in this “way everlasting” is to walk in the way that leads to wholeness. We become whole by praying our honest joys and our honest sorrows. We pray our honest praise of God and our honest anger at God; we pray also for honest speech in our words to God. With the psalmist we pray that God will protect our tongues from deceit (Ps. 34:13). We pray that we not sin with our words (Ps. 39: 1). We pray that we resist the urge to gossip and flatter (Ps. 12:3), and that we choose to live with integrity (Ps. 41:12), rejecting words that both inflate and deflate us before God (Ps. 32).

To pray in this way is to keep ourselves open to others and to God. In refusing the temptation to hide from others and from God, we refuse the temptation to use words as a cover-up. We speak instead plainly, trustingly. When we do this, we find ourselves praying freely to God, in a way that frees us. The Psalter understands that we do not often succeed at this kind of speech and prayer, and so it repeatedly welcomes the penitent to confess to God, in the hearing of God’s people:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
(Ps. 32:1-2)

The psalmist describes the experience of “keeping silent” about sin as a kind of disintegration. His bones turn to powder (Ps. 32:3). He risks returning to the dust (Ps. 22:15). But when he honestly confesses his sin, the Lord forgives him. Instead of “covering up” his sin, God covers his sin (Ps. 32:1, 5), and instead of hiding from God, God becomes his “hiding place.”

If honesty is the capacity to speak truthfully to God, sincerely to others, and without any lie about the world in its real condition, then the psalms invite us to honest prayer about all things, not just the things we suffer or regret. We pray honestly about our shame and bouts of depression (Ps. 88). We pray honestly about our hate (Ps.137). And we pray honestly about our experiences of trust and thanksgiving and joy (Pss. 23; 46; 27; 91).

We pray honestly about God’s trustworthy character, the wonder of creation (Ps. 104), the beauty of torah (Ps. 119), and the virtue of wisdom (Pss. 37; 49; 112).

“It is easy to be honest before God with our hallelujahs; it is somewhat more difficult to be honest in our hurts; it is nearly impossible to be honest before God in the dark emotions of our hate,” writes Eugene Peterson in Answering God. “So we commonly suppress our negative emotions (unless, neurotically, we advertise them). Or, when we do express them, we do it far from the presence, or what we think is the presence, of God, ashamed or embarrassed to be seen in these curse-stained bib overalls. But when we pray the psalms, these classic prayers of God’s people, we find that will not do. We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be.”

When we pray the psalms by the empowering and transforming presence of the Holy Spirit, we pray not just who we actually are but also who we can be and shall be by grace. As Athanasius sees it, the psalms not only enable us to be wholly ourselves before God, they also enable us to be wholly our true selves. This is only possible, he argues, because Christ himself makes it possible. Before coming among us, Athanasius writes, Christ sketched the likeness of true humanity for us in the psalms. In praying them, then, we experience the healing and reformation of our humanity.

The good news for the follower of Jesus is that the decision to be honest to God, which the psalms require of us, does not result in self absorption because we have become obsessed with the cross examination of our heart and mind. Nor does it result in self-hatred because we feel that our sin has the last and most definitive word on our life. Grace has the last word, not sin, as the German theologian Karl Barth rightly reminds us. No matter how great our fault or failure, we cannot sin apart from the grace of God.

“We are forbidden,” Barth writes, “to take sin more seriously than grace, or even as seriously as grace.” Why? Because God in Christ does not take sin more seriously than grace, even if it remains true that God takes sin with deadly seriousness. We can be honest to God about the best and worst parts of our human condition, because we know that the grace of God precedes our honest confessions, the grace of God undergirds our honest thanksgivings, and the grace of God follows our honest laments.

What happens when we pray the psalms under the light of God’s grace? We become free to pray with abandonment because we have abandoned ourselves to this gracious God. We have no need to hide from this God, because we are so confident in his grace. And because Jesus comes to us “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), we can be confident that we shall be found and filled with grace. We, too, can pray daring prayers because we trust that Jesus himself prays them with us and in us by the power of his Holy Spirit.

Expressing all the emotions. To this day I regret that I failed to keep the piece of paper on which I had written the eleven sins I had originally confessed to both friends and strangers at the University of Texas. I also regret the failure of courage that I experience repeatedly in my resistance to honestly confess my faults. It is for that reason that I return again and again to the psalms. The psalms show me how to be honest to God. They retrain me to be honest with God’s people, and they remind me how deeply good it feels to be this open, unafraid, and free.

“The Psalms are inexhaustible, and deserve to be read, said, sung, chanted, whispered, learned by heart, and even shouted from the rooftops,” observes N.T. Wright. “They express all the emotions we are ever likely to feel (including some we hope we may not), and they lay them, raw and open, in the presence of God.”

The psalms welcome all such honest speech in order that we might encounter the “life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19). If the common saying within recovery ministries is true, that we are only as sick as the secrets we keep, then the secrets we keep result in the deterioration of our humanity. Kept hidden, our secrets rob us of vitality. But when they are brought into the gracious light of God, they no longer hold a destructive power over us, and a space is made for God, who “knows the secrets of the heart,” to rehumanize us (Ps. 44:21).

One of the great benefits of the psalms, Athanasius believed, is that in reading them “you learn about yourself.” You see all your failures and recoveries, all your ups and downs. You see yourself as both a saint and a sinner. But the psalms are not only interested in helping us to be open and unafraid before God; they also help us to be open and unafraid with the people of God: vulnerable, porous, freed, fully alive. And in seeing ourselves in this way, honestly, with others, we find ourselves being reformed by the love of God.

W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and director of Brehm Texas, an intuitive in worship, theology, and the arts. Taken from Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life by W. David O. Taylor. Copyright © 2020 by David Taylor. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. (www.openandunafraid.com).

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