A woman on Twitter asked me tonight if I could suggest a prayer “to help (her) stay strong, positive.” She commented that most of what she had found online were prayers that seemed too formal for her. What a great question!
While it is always fine to pray in our own words, Jewish tradition offers us a treasury of prayers covering a vast landscape of human emotion. That treasury is the Book of Psalms, or to use its Hebrew name, Tehillim.
When people first look in the book, it may seem foreign. Unlike many books in the Bible, it doesn’t tell a story. It’s a collection of prayers that Jews (and others!) have found helpful for putting words to human experiences.
Some psalms address experiences I have not yet had, and they don’t speak to or for me. That’s ok. I browse past them and find the ones that speak to my experience in the present. It might be an entire psalm, or just a few verses. I can choose whatever I want.
I can also choose to omit what is not helpful to me. Psalms use language about God that may seem archaic to a modern ear. If the theology seems foreign, I am free to skip those verses. I am also free to seek an accessible translation.
The nourishment in the Psalms is in the way they offer me a words for feelings that I can barely express. In giving me the words for those feelings, they put me in touch with generations before me who have had the same exact feeling. They can help me identify feelings more precisely, too. For example:
(1) For the leader. A psalm of David.
(2) How long, O LORD; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?
(3) How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
(4) Look at me, answer me, O LORD, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;
(5) lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exult when I totter.
(6) But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in Your deliverance. I will sing to the LORD, for He has been good to me.
This is a little psalm but it packs a punch for me. It expresses the frustration I feel when some painful, stupid problem refuses to go away. The ancient author and all who have prayed it since have felt the same impatience. I’m not alone! People have been here before!
And then, if I am open to it, Psalm 13 offers hope. The author was comforted by faith; they offer me that comfort. “my heart will exult in Your deliverance” – my troubles will not last forever, and when they end, my heart will rejoice! I can borrow the author’s faith and courage long enough to survive the moment. Like the writer of Psalm 13, I can endure.
Other psalms address other situations. I recommended Psalm 27 to the questioner on Twitter. If I am full of joy, I might look to Psalm 150.
There are many lists online of “psalms for such-and-such situation” but I recommend browsing the treasury for yourself. I am awesome by the range of emotion available: everything from murderous rage to giddy delight. Psalm 23 offers poetic images that comfort. Psalm 58 is perfect when I totter on the brink of cynicism or despair, when I have watched too much of the news, or let social media get to me.
I invite you to dig around in this closet of goodies. Some psalms may shock you with raw violence; others express great joy. Only the individual can know which one fits their moment, and so it is worth the investment of time to become familiar.
Notice how even the darkest psalms offer at least a bit of uplift at the end. Those psalms say yes, life can be terrible, but despair is not our way. Take the hands of the others who have walked this path, and know that you are not alone.