Welcome to this week’s edition of In the House of Tom Bombadil. Today I want to talk about how the Psalms can help us process our emotions.
Georges Seurat, Horse and Boats (Study for Bathers at Asnières ), 1883–1884
“God does not permit you to feel that way.” This response from a pastor, given after I shared that I was feeling discouraged, left me, well, even more discouraged and frustrated. His message was clear: “Good Christians don’t have those kinds of emotions. Stop feeling what you feel. Fix yourself.” Besides resembling the Newhart Method of Counseling™, the pastor’s well-meaning but tone-deaf response left me without a path forward. If I could’ve simply willed away the discouragement, I wouldn’t have shared my struggle in the first place. I needed better counsel, something more than “Stop it!”
Maybe you can relate. Each day you’re treading water in a sea of emotions—some pleasant, others not so much—and you’re not quite sure how to keep your head above water. Take heart, you’re not alone.
Most of us are unskilled at dealing with all the feels. Many of us try to suppress our feelings. We try to hide them from ourselves by ignoring or dismissing them. We try to hide them from other people and God himself because we’re afraid of what they’ll think about us. The trouble is, suppressing emotion is like trying to hold a beach ball under the water: it only works for so long. Eventually, one way or another, the emotion shoots back up to the surface.
So, what do you do with the mad that you feel? The fear? The sadness? The loneliness and frustration and envy and shame?
The Psalms show us.
In the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin wrote, “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” In the Psalms we see and hear God’s people experiencing sorrow and joy, anger and contentment, fear and confidence, in all the varied circumstances of human life.
The Psalms give us permission to feel and permission to express those feelings. You won’t find any kind of “stiff upper lip” nonsense in the Psalms. The psalmists are honest about their feelings, sometimes uncomfortably so. Author Courtney Reissig has written that “[i]n the Psalms we get real feelings about real life in this beautiful yet broken world.” That’s part of the gift that is the Psalms: they get us. They understand the human condition. They show us that what we feel is a common human experience. You’re not a weirdo. We all are!
It’s important to understand, though, that the psalmists are doing more than venting. The psalmists unburden themselves in God’s presence. They talk to him about what’s going on inside them. They’re doing what Psalm 62:8 urges God’s people to do: “pour out your heart before him.” Again, our inclination is to hide our emotions from God, but the Psalms invite us, both by precept and example, to bring our emotions before him, to work through our many and varied emotions in his very presence, the place from which true healing comes.
I frequently find myself at a loss for words to describe the storm of emotions swirling around inside me. The Psalms give me a vocabulary for my feelings, not technical jargon but word pictures and metaphors that capture what I feel.
Unlike many other portions of Scripture, we can take up the words of the Psalms as if they were our very own. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century, marveled at this feature of the Psalms. Writing to a friend, he said:
[T]he reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feeling being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up.
By taking on my lips the words of David or Asaph or the many unknown composers of individual psalms, I’m enabled to give honest expression to what I feel. That, my friends, is no small gift.
When we bring our emotions before God, when we pour out our hearts before him rather than hiding or remaining silent, our eyes are redirected to the steadfast love and faithfulness of our covenant Lord. Processing our emotions in this way helps us trust his promises. And as we do so, God, by his Spirit, reshapes and reorders our emotions, deepening our trust in him.
Dive into the Psalms. Let them teach you how to feel. Let them teach you how to speak about what you feel. Let them teach you how to be open and unafraid in God’s presence.
Since its inception in August 2020, In the House of Tom Bombadil has been a private newsletter limited to a handful of invited subscribers. Now that I’ve been at this for a little over a year, I’ve decided to make the newsletter publicly available. Past issues can now be found in the archive.
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Children’s songwriter Michael J. Tinker discerns parallels between the hobbits’ experience in Tom Bombadil’s house in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and our own pilgrimage through life. In case you’ve forgotten, the title of this newsletter is In the House of Tom Bombadil, the meaning of which I explain in the very first issue.
The story of Tom Bombadil is bookended by danger. The hobbits are being chased by the Nazgul and are soon to traverse the haunted Barrow Downs. The story has been moving on at a pace, with heart-pounding excitement as we wonder whether the hobbits will even make it past the edge of the Shire. And then, with peril on every side, what do we find? A pause. A meal. A night’s rest.
The marvelous spatuletail is a beautiful little creature, a hummingbird that lives only in the Andean forest of northern Peru. The Creator sure delights in beauty and flair, doesn’t he?
Sarah Archer writes about how the television transformed the physical layout of our homes.
The history of television’s place in domestic interiors fits into a much larger story about the look of technology in the home. Are pieces of consumer technology machines, furniture, or something else?
Ernst Schiess (1872–1919), Southern Farm with Field
A Brook in the City
By Robert Frost
The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square
With the new city street it has to wear
A number in. But what about the brook
That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
And impulse, having dipped a finger length
And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
The meadow grass could be cemented down
From growing under pavements of a town;
The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.
Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
How else dispose of an immortal force
No longer needed? Staunch it at its source
With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown
Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
In fetid darkness still to live and run—
And all for nothing it had ever done
Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
No one would know except for ancient maps
That such a brook ran water. But I wonder
If from its being kept forever under,
The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
This new-built city from both work and sleep.
Lake Hodges, Escondido, CA, February 2020
Check out more of what I’m up to in the reading department at Goodreads.
Beautiful. Just beautiful!
Check out last week’s newsletter where I asked readers to help me think about emotion.