Recently, on one of those "too much time on social media" days, where my frustration and anger about all manner of things reached a Twitter-fueled boiling point, I took a break from technology and opened my (physical) Bible. I turned to the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) and spent some time there.
The exercise was powerful, sobering, cathartic, spiritually enriching; an antidote to the "who and what can I rage about today?" posture that so dominates Internet existence.
These psalms remind us that, in a world where everything external can seem unjust, oppressive and problematic, the internal reality of personal sin should concern us the most. Social media distracts us from this reality and encourages us to blame systems and politicians and ideologies for everything bad. But not ourselves.
The penitential psalms are glorious, grounding, chastening reminders that G.K. Chesterton was right when he answered the question, "What is wrong with the world?" with two simple words: "I am."
The sober realism of the penitential psalms is both comforting and discomforting.
It is comforting to read such raw, painful words of groaning and longing; comforting to know that God chose to include these honest emotions in his divine revelation to us; comforting that we can turn to these pages and resonate with wanting God to speak, to listen to our pleas, to aid us in our plights, to heal us of our self-inflicted wounds.
But these psalms are also discomforting. They unsettle because they hit so close to home. They confront me with my depravity and the reality that I too seldom cry out to God about my sin; I too seldom use language like "there is no health in my bones because of my sin" (Psalm 38:3) or "against you, you only, have I sinned" (Psalm 51:4). They confront me with the fact that rarely in my deepest moments of distress do I cry out to God with such neediness and anguish.
The bold, declarative, at times demanding language of these psalms convicts me too. "Have mercy on me, O God" (51:1), "Create in me a clean heart" (51:10), "Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!" (102:2), "Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!" (130:2), "Give ear to my please for mercy!" (143:1). Am I this bold and assertive in my prayers? Do I come to God with confidence that he is big enough for my rollercoaster emotions and the "tumult of my heart" (38:8)?
These psalms also remind me that rehearsing the attributes of God is a good thing to do in my low moments. These penitential psalms are full of confession and brokenness and an almost physical sickness caused by sin (e.g. "my wounds stink and fester... my sides are filled with burning," 38:5,7; "my strength was dried up," 32:4), yet they don't dwell on this. They are realistic about brokenness but don't fetishize it. Sin is confessed not for the sake of poetry but for the sake of repentance. The point is less about looking at sin for what is as much as looking to God for who He is, the source of the help we need (Psalm 121).
Each of these psalms finds hope not by looking within, nor by looking to the social media masses, but by looking to God, who "looked down from his holy height... to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die" (102:19,20).