You and I live in troubled times. Right now our attention is focused on a deadly virus and the accompanying financial instability. But this news has only eclipsed countless stories of violence, political free-for-alls, public moral failures, and general cultural upheaval. We also face more personal crises like backstabbing by the hands of a friend and parental breakups. For these and more reasons we worry about our future. What will it be like to grow up or grow old in these troubled times?
It isn’t surprising that many people turn to the Psalms amid trouble. Psalm writers were not recreational poets. Instead, they often wrote from within the chaotic, unsanitized place of disaster. David, God’s anointed, was hunted by Saul. His best friend was butchered by enemies. His own son tried to steal his kingdom. And David’s troubles only hint at the turbulent life of Jesus, who left the bliss of heaven for thirty-three agonizing years on earth.
Especially in troubled times, Christians should read and pray the Psalms (James 5:13) so that they can guide and refine us. Why are psalms so precious in troubled times?
1. Psalms give us perspective.
These troubles are not new. In our day, as in all times, the righteous can feel like “the foundations are destroyed” (Ps. 11:3). Three hundred years ago, Matthew Henry noted in his reflection on Psalm 14 the common assumption that problems were never so severe as they are now. He responds by saying, “But we see the former days were no better.” We are not the first to face our challenges.
And we don’t face them alone. Even when the foundations appear to be destroyed, “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven” (v. 4). Our problems are God’s problems. Following a deadly shooting in 2015 a newspaper ran this presumptuous headline: “God isn’t fixing this.” But he is. Our minds are just too puny and our memories too short to appreciate what God is doing. God uses troubled times to “test the children of men” (v. 4) and purify his people’s faith. In troubled times God also forces us to remember the coming of the great Day of Judgment. Some heartaches only heaven can cure. Sin is so terrible that without hell justice remains unanswered. By thinking of the restoration of all things Paul pressed “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
2. Psalms help us pray.
Easy times can be prayerless times. Sometimes we feel too strong to pray; too competent. But times of crisis throw us to the ground in distress. Prayers in troubled times are like the silent gasps for help from a man pitched in battle. Here’s how David begins Psalm 10: I need help and you don’t seem to be anywhere! He boldly calls God to act: “Time to get up, God—get moving” (v. 12; MSG). David has been mobilized to pray by the destabilizing effect of trouble. Not surprisingly, prayers offered in troubled times are often shockingly raw, uncommonly genuine. In Psalm 62, David, again in trouble, says, “Pour out your heart before him” (v. 8). Alexander Maclaren put it this way: “Tell God all, if you mean to be a friend of his…Complaints, regrets, questionings, petitions … take them all to Him; and be sure that instead of their breaking, they will … cement the friendship which is disturbed by secrecy on our parts.”
And our prayers must be penitential. In troubled times we are tempted to point the finger of blame in all the wrong directions. After the 2012 Newtown school shooting John Piper wrote, “The murders of Newtown are a warning to me and you. Not a warning to see our schools as defenseless, but to see our souls as depraved.” The psalms urge self-examination (32:5) and grief over what we find (51:1–5).
3. Psalms bind believers to Jesus.
An old proverb says, perhaps too strongly, that “A friend cannot be known in prosperity, and an enemy cannot be hidden in adversity.” Still, if Christ is “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:4) we can know him best when he and we suffer together. Abiding in Christ means sharing his suffering. Paul wanted to know him and the power of his resurrection, sharing in his sufferings, “becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:10). We best share in Christ’s suffering when we experience suffering in union with Christ.
The Christ in whom we abide knows our pain. One reason believers can trust God in troubled times is because he sent his Son to suffer for us:
Christ…took a human head so it could be struck, crowned with thorns, and beaten with a reed. He took a human body so it could be ripped open with a Roman scourge. He took human arms and legs so they could be stretched out on the cross, and human hands so that they could be nailed to its wood. He took a human soul so He could feel the unspeakable pain of His Father forsaking him in the darkness. He took our very nature so that He could bleed and die for the sins that we committed.
All of these terrible trials of Christ are previewed in the psalms.
Troubled times are painful. But by responding in psalm-like fashion, they can bring us not further, but closer to the God who showed his love for us through the sufferings of Jesus.