How the Psalms Saved My Life

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Fifteen years ago I began a trip down a very dark path. I’d like to say I didn’t realize where I was headed, but I did. I had prayed, I had pleaded, I had tried all my own methods to make things better — make things change — within the framework of my faith and my sense of right and wrong. And nothing helped. Nothing changed.

So I made a choice. Instead of acceptance or releasing what hurt me, I became resentful. I shifted blame. I hardened and rationalized and nursed that hurt until I had convinced myself I deserved to change things however I needed to do so. I grew up doing what was right, being what was right, and my life wasn’t supposed to turn out the way it had. I had followed God’s principles; I deserved God’s blessings. Of course, I didn’t consciously say that. But underneath all the gymnastics, I was angry that God didn’t do what I thought He promised. So I was going to do it myself.

I won’t go into the specifics in this piece about exactly what that was. Not because I want to hide — I have shared and alluded to it before in my writings — but because it really doesn’t matter. Many of us have done this in a variety of ways. We get tired of waiting for God, or we don’t like His answer, so we take things into our own hands. It goes as far back as Sarah and Abraham in Genesis.

In Genesis 12, God promises Sarah and Abraham, who are already well past childbearing age, that He will give them a son. They are overjoyed. However, a decade later, it still hasn’t happened. So Sarah decides she has waited long enough, and she “helps” God along. She tells Abraham to sleep with her handmaiden to give them a son that way. Technically, the baby would still be their son. Maybe that’s what God meant, right?

Sure enough, Hagar, her handmaiden, gets pregnant and has a son. However, Sarah cannot stand it. She mistreats Hagar and eventually sends her and her son away. Hagar cries out to God, and because God had promised to make Abraham’s seed a great nation, He says he will also do the same for Hagar’s son. But that wasn’t how God intended to keep His promise to Sarah and Abraham.

I won’t give you a history and politics lesson, but suffice it to say that one fleshly, impatient decision of Sarah and Abraham’s has had international consequences for thousands of years.

I didn’t have a handmaiden to give away, but I did give away my own moral code to get what I believed I deserved. And it absolutely created a war — a war within me and a war within my family. Because God convicts and chastens His children, I was plagued with guilt and what preachers call “conviction.” I confessed and cried out to God, and He made it clear that I also needed to come clean to those I hurt. It was scary, but I obeyed.

In the movies, someone can make an emotional grand gesture, and everyone hugs, has an epiphany, grants forgiveness, and wonderful violin music plays. In life, it isn’t that neat. It is ugly and painful and filled with collateral damage. And that damage was on me, even the damage to myself. Less than six weeks after I came clean, I was suicidal.

People talk a lot these days about toxic shame, and that is never good. However, being ashamed of our wrong and hurtful behavior is healthy.

I wanted to return to God, and I had confessed and repented (turned away, stopped the wrong, and worked toward the right). But I was so ashamed. I needed to be ashamed. People talk a lot these days about toxic shame, and that is never good. However, being Ashamed of our wrong and hurtful behavior is healthy. A lack of that kind of shame is a sign of mental illness or a disordered personality.

I couldn’t pray except to cry. I certainly couldn’t have my typical Bible study where I wrote down all the amazing things God was teaching me while I dissected a passage of the Bible. It’s hard to explain, but I was so overwhelmed and broken, I felt like I was dying literally and figuratively. But I knew I had to hang onto God, even though I felt more unworthy of His love than I ever had.

So I turned to the book of Psalms.

I began with Psalm 119. I can vividly remember sitting in the waiting room of the psychiatrist/therapist’s office, blocking out the television, conversation, and sweet ramblings of “Merry Christmas” coming from one man who wished everyone the seasonal greeting regardless of what time of year it was. I read Psalm 119, and I wrote. I copied down verse after verse in a notebook until I had copied down nearly the entire Psalm. After that, I moved on to Psalm 51 and Psalm 32. In particular, Psalm 32 was meaningful because these verses were the ones that finally broke down my fear of confession:

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah.
I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”;
And You forgave the guilt of my sin.
Psalm 32:3–5, NASB

Day after day I read through the Psalms. I read through the sorrowful and repentant ones first. I read through the psalms that talked about God raising someone out of a miry pit. I read verses about being brought low and being rescued and hiding one’s face from God. I avoided the joyful ones. I didn’t believe for a while that I deserved joy. I was worried that if I allowed myself to be joyful or embrace the hope in those psalms, God and everyone else would believe I wasn’t really sorry. I grew up Baptist, so I didn’t know much about self-flagellation or penance or anything, but I understood why people had clung to them for centuries. I understood why people felt they needed to suffer mightily when they sinned.
It was hard not to let the dark thoughts take over. I didn’t have the strength to reason with them or think my way out of the fog. So I just opened my Bible, turned to Psalms, and read. I copied verse after verse. In the beginning and for a while, I mainly did it to consciously distract from all the pain. However, slowly, the words began to sink into my soul. I would recall them in the middle of the night and during the day, and instead of pummeling me, they began to comfort me.

I let myself begin reading the more hopeful Psalms. I remember in particular finding comfort in Psalm 67. When I was in college, our chorus had sung a song by Charles Ives based on the 67th Psalm. It was unique because the men’s parts and women’s parts were written in different keys. Ives did this occasionally. You can hear it below.

I began to see God’s grace in a way I never had before. You see, I grew up in a home where my parents were loving Christians, we attended church regularly, and I spent most of my life trying to live according to my faith. I had strong boundaries. I was careful about how I talked, behaved, and what I allowed into my mind and heart. I didn’t drink and party. I was a virgin on my wedding night at 26. I knew I needed God’s grace as everyone does, but I also thought I’d been a pretty good person. A pretty good Christian. Matthew 6:33 said I should seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Psalm 37:4 said to delight yourself in the Lord, and He would give me the desires of my heart. I didn’t live by those verses in a transactional way, not consciously. However, when faced with painful circumstances I couldn’t change, I felt let down by God. And I had rebelled.

I won’t go into the relative sins of humans compared to the holiness of God, but I will say that I understood why people thought that way.

For months, I shied away from the very grace I had learned about growing up. In our conscious minds, we don’t think people who have done the “really” bad things should have grace, including ourselves. I have heard more than one person remark how Christianity is unfair because “Hitler could have confessed his sins on his deathbed and been forgiven!” I won’t go into the relative sins of humans compared to the holiness of God, but I will say that I understood why people thought that way. And now I was the person who didn’t deserve grace when I really blew it. I deserved it when I lost my temper or fudged on my homework or kissed a little too long when I was with a boy. But this?
I realized I had never deserved God’s grace, and for the first time, I understood how desperately I had always needed it. I had needed it just as desperately when I lied to my parents about skipping a class as I did in the midst of this horrible darkness. I was humbled in a way I never had been before. And although I didn’t think I was worthy of it, I finally accepted it.

Nothing He creates is worthless.

There is a difference between being unworthy and being worthless. And that difference is vital to understand. Yes, in light of who God is and how perfect He is, I was absolutely unworthy of His grace and forgiveness and comfort and love. However, I was not worthless. God created me (and every other human on earth) in His image. Nothing He creates is worthless.

And so I embraced His grace and His mercy. I allowed His Word to do what it does best. I allowed Him to change me. To fix my eyes on Him. I leaned on Christ as my Shepherd, my fortress, my righteous right hand. I let Him remind me that His presence is with me wherever I go, that I was fearfully and wonderfully made, and that His faithfulness endures to all generations.

It has been 15 years since that dark time, and it took a long time for the wounds I inflicted to heal. However, because God never changes and His love never fails, He rescued me from myself. I haven’t been perfect since 2005. None of us are. However, thanks to God’s Word, I survived to truly understand the joy of these verses:

Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which You have broken rejoice.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Your praise.
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
Psalm 51:7–8, 14–17 NASB

One thought on “How the Psalms Saved My Life

  1. I have a saying to people when they’re repenting,” it’s not how you start, but how you finish ” God’s timing is perfect, think about the thief on the cross, I mean hours or even minutes to death, and Jesus forgives…, grace grace, God’s grace…to love Him more, thanks for sharing, God Bless, Dave


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