Move from Stress to Gratitude by Meditating on the Psalms
2020 has been a year of uncertainty. It has been filled with stress, anxiety, isolation, fear, and unpredictability. And things don't appear to be dramatically improving soon. Social distancing, "stay-at-home" orders, and mandatory face masks are standard practices in the COVID-19 era. The long-term impact - psychologically, socially, and spiritually of these preventive efforts is currently unknown.
How can we counter the negative effect of such isolation and uncertainty? Fortunately for the Christian, we can use a two-step strategy. We can cry out to God amid the pain and discomfort and keep a sense of hope and gratitude that help is just around the corner.
After all, God is powerful, active, and always present to offer His loving care from moment to moment. The psalmists understood this. Even a quick reading of the Psalms reveals the two-step strategy that can help us gain much-needed insight into the human problem of suffering on this side of heaven. What is this strategy? Offering a "complaint" and then a "praise" to God.
The Seasons of Life
In the Psalms, the various writers revealed three seasons of life. As they moved through these "seasons," we notice "orientation," "disorientation," and "new orientation" (Brueggemann, 1984). An understanding of these "seasons" can help us in our times of difficulty and uncertainty.
If we're fortunate, we will spend much of our time in seasons of "orientation." This season is when we're in a state of well-being, experiencing God's blessings and in relative comfort. Things are good and in balance.
Then, when we least expect it, things go sour. Often to the point of suffering, hardship, and adversity. These are our seasons of "disorientation." We're placed "off balance." We experience discomfort. All because we're living in a fallen world.
Finally, following this season of despair, we find new hope in the power, presence, and past faithfulness of God. Here we enter into seasons of "new orientation," reflecting a state of gratitude, thanksgiving, and new-found hope. We recognize God has or will deliver us from our suffering and provide us again with His blessings.
By following the pattern of the psalmists, we can often move from seasons of "orientation" to "disorientation" to "new orientation." We can gain a new and deeper awareness of, and trust in, God's providential care.
The Psalmist's Model
No one would argue that we're in a season of "disorientation" during this era of COVID-19, political unrest, recovery from natural disasters, and economic upheaval. If the psalmists were writing today, we would hear them lament to God in easily recognizable steps.
The first step of the lament would involve some sort of "plea" or "complaint." This step includes a request to God, the reason for the complaint, and pretty authentic language reflecting their anguish and pain.
The next step would include remembering the times in the past when God has delivered them from similar circumstances. This remembrance would naturally ignite the spark of hope and begin the next phase of the process.
In the last step, the psalmist would offer his "praise" to God, acknowledging their trust in Him, realizing He's heard their "plea" and would come through for them again.
In other words, the bridge from "complaint" to "praise" usually involves an expression of our pain, followed by gratitude and an awareness of God's providential care. The beauty of this process is we can move through these "seasons" to our new-found hope regardless of the outcome.
The Psalmist's Example
There are many examples of this process in the Psalms. One such example is Psalm 13 (NLT). This psalm captures a "complaint," followed by a "praise":
"O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? Turn and answer me, O LORD my God! Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die. Don't let my enemies gloat, saying, "We have defeated him!" Don't let them rejoice at my downfall. But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me."
Here we can easily see the psalmist's "complaint" (e.g., "How long…"), then his "praise" (e.g., "I trust in your unfailing love," "I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me"). These steps offer us a model as we lament to God in our difficult times.
In these uncertain times, meditating on the Psalms can help us move from our "disorientation" to gratitude and a "new orientation" by:
a. crying out to God from moment to moment, especially in our seasons of stress, uncertainty, and widespread suffering, and
b. praising and thanking God, anticipating that we are inevitably moving toward a new season of hope where we can be surprised by His blessings.
What follows is a two-step approach to meditating on the Psalms during our periods of stress and pain. These will help us to:
a. lament to God to authentically expressing our true feeling and state of mind in the present moment, and
b. cultivate gratitude, thanksgiving, and praise to God, even when it doesn't seem our current predicament will be resolved soon.
When we follow this pattern, we prioritize our relationships with God and turn to Him in response to social distancing, online-only social interactions, and financial instability that may increase daily stress.
A Two-step Strategy for Meditating on the Psalms
To begin your time of meditation, find a quiet location free from distractions. Sit up straight in a supportive chair and offer up a prayer expressing your willingness to yield to God's providential care in the here-and-now.
For the next 20 minutes, you will be using a two-step strategy, lamenting to God, and then thanking Him. As much as possible, try to slowly and deliberately stick to the following steps. Feel free to take a break if you begin to experience significant discomfort or distress.
1. Select a psalm of lament (e.g., Psalm 13) that includes both a "complaint" and "praise," slowly reading through the passage to immerse yourself in the biblical author's experience.
2. Apply the psalm to your current situation, selecting one verse that captures your "complaint" to God, as well as one that reflects your gratitude to God.
a. Lament. Slowly meditate on the chosen passage, such as, "How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and have sorrow in my heart each day?" In this very moment, express your pain to God, sharing your experience of whatever is causing you pain in the moment. Repeat the passage over and over again, slowly absorbing it as you sink deeper and deeper into your heartfelt cry to God.
b. Give thanks. Slowly meditate on the chosen passage, such as, "I trust in your unfailing love." In the here-and-now, thank God for His perfect, loving presence, even as your future seems uncertain. Repeat the passage with confidence, knowing that God will hear your lament and respond to your need.
3. Whenever another thought, feeling, or sensation arises, simply acknowledge it, and then return to the two-step strategy of "problem" and "praise."
4. Carry this two-step process with you throughout the day, presenting your pain to God and then expressing gratitude to Him for His active, loving presence during the times of confusion in your life.
Even though our earthly future is uncertain, we can trust that a new season is just around the corner as Christians. As we continue to move from one season to the next, God is walking with us, loving us, and offering His perfect presence.
After all, it's God's will to "rejoice always, pray continually, [and] give thanks in all circumstances…" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).