The Scandal of the Word

It is of the very nature of the Bible to affront, perplex and astonish the human mind. Hence the reader who opens the Bible must be prepared for disorientation, confusion, incomprehension, perhaps outrage. (Thomas Merton, Opening the Bible, p. 11)

I used to avoid the Psalms. Sure, I’d occasionally use some in worship, the safe, sanitized verses – “praise the Lord” and “sing a new song” and so forth. But I avoided most of them, with the repeated imagery of God as “warrior,” and the requests (even demands!) of the author that God smite this foe and devastate that one…

They didn’t seem… faithful, I guess. I couldn’t relate to expressing outrage or anger at enemies and expecting God to do something to them. In fact, for years I wasn’t sure you could express outrage and anger to God at all.

Over the years, that part of my faith life changed. I realized, from people with deep seated faith, that God desires us to express our inner most emotions and thoughts; that God doesn’t want us to hold anything back; that prayer is, in fact, sometimes less about us telling God what God doesn’t already know and more about our making the effort to actually express it.

And recently I’ve been shown that the Psalms have been held and used as a prayer book for centuries, by Jews and Christians, precisely because of the reality of their expression. Their relevance to us is precisely in their ability to express the darker urges that we have within us. (Who among us hasn’t wanted God, at some point, to shower down wrath and vengeance, or at least some mild discomfort, on someone we perceived to have hurt us?)

So lately I’ve begun reading the Psalms devotionally, and the scandal of the whole thing is that I’m still discomforted by some of the expressions in these poems. I can resonate or understand some – perhaps more than before – but some of them still stand “other” to my experience with faith and life. But in prayerfully considering them, in hearing the depth of betrayal and pain that the author experienced and the questions of where God was in such times, I’m finding greater freedom to allow some inner part of myself to rise and ask the hard questions I don’t want to ask, to express the dark stuff that plagues my heart.

And, perhaps in the expression of that dark stuff there is some degree of expulsion, as well. And if I desire a “pure heart,” then I need to express it. (Reminds me of Psalm 51, actually, where David expresses his sin and then seeks forgiveness, seeking God’s work in the purification of his heart!) So despite being affronted, perplexed, astonished, disoriented, confused, and even outraged by some passages of Scripture, I’m beginning to find that those that discomfort me the most are perhaps the ones that I most need to hear…

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