The Psalms of Anger

Is There a Place for Anger in Worship

Q

I have a high view of Scripture. Thus I am sympathetic to the idea that all the psalms are fitting for worship. Yet any time one of the truly angry psalms of protest is suggested for worship, our team rejects the idea. Wouldn’t expressing our anger in worship be better than repressing it?

A

To answer this we need to understand each psalm in its larger scriptural context as well as the nature of emotions, particularly anger.

Understanding in Light of the Rest of Scripture

I share with you a high view of Scripture and affirm that all Scripture “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). I am convinced that the psalms of anger, bitterness, and protest have much to teach us, and that—as with every other type of text—we need to understand them in light of the rest of Scripture. As we do that, we gain insight about their place in worship.

What we find, for example, is that not every psalm is fitting for use in worship as our own prayer, whether sung or spoken. It is incongruous to pray the imprecatory psalms (those that curse the enemy) after hearing Jesus command us to pray for our enemies. It is more promising to notice the ways in which psalms of protest and imprecation relinquish revenge, entrusting the execution of justice to God (Romans 12:19–20). Without setting these protest psalms inside a robust trinitarian theological context, they can be terribly misused to promote violence.

This careful exegetical work needs to be done with all Scripture that is being employed in worship lest we bend Scripture for our own uses.

The Nature of Emotion

Even after we have this theological context firmly in place, there are still additional questions to explore, especially related to common assumptions we bring to the text about the nature of emotions.

Minimize or Repress

First, many assume that all anger and bitterness is bad, or something we need to get over or minimize so we can live a happy life. This stands in contrast with many biblical texts that depict righteous anger as a fitting response to injustice and acts of violence. Resolute, righteous anger is a sanctified response to evil in a fallen world—following Paul’s advice to “be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26a, NRSV).

Second, it’s common in some cultural contexts to assume that all anger is fickle, capricious, and unmanageable. True, many expressions of anger in this world are tragically capricious, featuring flare-ups of sudden, surging rage. That’s why Paul’s advice is wise to “not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26b, NRSV). In contrast, God is slow to anger, suggesting constancy in opposition to injustice. Capricious, abusive flare-ups of anger must be firmly denounced. Constant, resolute vigilance against injustice should be affirmed—and can be strengthened by the psalms of protest.

These two reasons lead many of us to avoid naming or dealing with anger, resentment, and bitterness at all in our lives and in our worship. Repressing all this can, as you suggest, become a significant problem, leaving us unable to deal with our resentments in a healthy way.

Let Go and Vent

But our efforts to deal well with anger can also go wrong, especially when we operate uncritically with a cathartic view of emotion—the idea that we can purge ourselves of a negative emotion by expressing it. This idea is often expressed with hydraulic metaphors, such as “letting off steam,” or “venting anger,” or “boiling over with rage,” or “bottled-up fury”—all expressions that picture the body as a holding tank or a set of pipes ready to burst, in need of an outlet for our negative emotions. A cathartic view of emotion is sometimes used to defend the value of violent video games and movies. It’s behind the idea that if we just let out a primal scream, we will feel better afterward. Strikingly, this view is often used (at least informally) to explain psalms of anger and protest. For example, someone might say, “I love how the Bible encourages us to vent our anger” or, “Those anger psalms are challenging, but I guess they really do show us how to unload our bitterness.” Note that the Bible itself doesn’t directly affirm or reject this cathartic view of emotion. We’ve absorbed this view of emotion from the culture around us and simply assume it to be true.

One gift of recent psychological research is the insight that simply expressing a negative emotion does not get rid of it. Just the opposite, in fact: expressing anger can strengthen our “anger muscles” by fanning the flames of our fury rather than quieting them. This is similar to how learning to express gratitude can, over time, help us build “gratitude muscles,” forming us to become more grateful people.

Reframing the Conversation

Fortunately, engaging the psalms of protest constructively does not require that we hold a cathartic view of emotion. The psalms of protest—each in their own way—do not just vent anger. They also redirect it, guide it down unexpected pathways, and frame it in terms of arresting images and metaphors.

Some psalms of protest and anger are notable because they do not simply express anger or disappointment, but relinquish it, entrusting the pain or source of bitterness to God. When Psalm 94 prays, “Pay back to the proud what they deserve,” the assumption is that God alone can bring about justice.

Some psalms of lament take us on a journey from bitterness toward something quite different. Psalm 13 starts with what could be either bitterness or disappointment, but then turns that into a prayer and eventually into a vow to praise God.

Psalm 88, the bleakest of all psalms, expresses utter despair, but still attaches that despair to an opening statement of trust: “Lord, you are the God who saves me.”

Rather than introducing a psalm of protest as an act of catharsis, introduce it as a text that within a larger biblical context has something to teach us about resisting evil.

This approach avoids the two unhelpful extremes of pure repression and pure catharsis.

For congregations that rarely or never deal with these texts in worship, consider these steps as a place to start:

  • Introduce the psalm by saying, “As we hear now these words of protest and anger, call to mind all the people around us and among us who are living with these emotions today.”
  • Then read or recite the psalm.
  • Then offer a prayer that names particular sources of injustice, violence, pain, and bitterness in the world around us.
  • Conclude with a reading of Hebrews 4:14–16 or a similar passage that speaks about Jesus’ own identification with the travails of the world and assures the congregation of Jesus’ own present-day ministry of intercession.

One last note: responding faithfully to the psalms of protest and anger is a particularly challenging pastoral act. It’s best when this is done well in community rather than by a solitary leader. It’s worth taking time to pray and learn together with your team as you continue to explore this topic.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.