When going on a trip, I always grab a couple of books to read and make sure my nook is loaded and charged. Our trip last month was no exception. We were headed up to see my in-laws and help them pack. In addition to my usual historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy books, I made sure to take a new book by my friend, Christina Fox, A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament. The book is due out this week, and Christina had sent me a copy and asked me to review it.
Sitting on the plane, I opened the book and began to read. My eyes began to fill with tears as I realized that this book was exactly what I need to read at that moment. I read these words:
What happens when we don’t find the answers to our problems, when we can’t find peace through our Google searches, or when the solutions we have found fail us? What do we do when we are worried about our children or fearful about the unknown future? What do we do with those emotions? When the sorrow just won’t lift and the loneliness is more than we can bear, where do we go for help? For some of us, we seek comfort in food, shopping, or Facebook to quell the emotional turmoil stirring in our hearts. We might busy ourselves with projects or work long hours to keep our mind off our pain. We might look at our circumstances and seek to change our situation in the hope that we will finally feel at peace once our life has changed. (16)
You see, as I sat on that plane early in the morning, I was a bundled knot of anxiety, fear, worry, and sadness. I was worried about my son’s ear and how it would handle the flight. I was anxious about all the details that go with travel. I was grieving over broken relationships with family and friends. I was afraid of what the future might bring. And I was doing everything in my power to distract myself (reading a book …) and to control my surroundings so that I, myself, could overcome my circumstances on my own and be ready to stand on my own power for any bad thing the future might bring. And then I read that paragraph. And I stopped. And I cried. And I realized that God was using Christina’s words to get my attention and to work on my heart.
A Heart Set Free is a book about learning from the Psalms of Lament how to cry out to God. Instead of pretending our emotions don’t exist or that we aren’t hurting, we need to learn how to lament, how to express our emotions in our Christian walk:
In fact, the Psalms, especially the Psalms of Lament, give us a structure for how to express our feelings. They remind us what is true. They point us to God’s love and faithfulness. They help us journey through the dark valleys until we can emerge on the other side and bow in grateful worship. (17)
Christina starts the book with the bad news. Our worry, anxiety, fear, doubt are the result of sin:
Sin is the cause of all our pain and sorrow. It might be the sins of others committed against us that bring us feelings of shame. It might be the effects of sin on the creation around us that bring a natural disaster, resulting in loss and our subsequent grief. It might be the brokenness of our bodies, causing us emotional turmoil or the failure of our minds to work as God intended. It might be our own sinful responses to what happens in our lives. It might even be a combination of all these, but at its root, sin is what brings us all our sorrows, griefs, and fears. (39)
She goes on to explain that our normal means of coping (distraction, control, or simply giving in to the worry and fear) are not helping the situation. We’re making the problem worse and not actually dealing with our emotions. I was particularly convicted by what she had to say about using “control”:
Some of us try to handle our emotions, such as worry, fear, or anxiety by attempting to control all the things we worry or fear about. We make to-do lists and refuse to rest until each item is checked off . We research thoroughly everything that worries us. Google and Clorox are our two best friends. … Control is something we all desire but none of us have. … Our desire and pursuit of control are in fact a denial of God’s control. We don’t trust that His plans are good enough. We think we know bett er what we need. All the worrying, fretting, and stressing we do over our life situations stem from a lack of trust in God’s good and perfect plan for us. (40-41)
Thankfully the book doesn’t stop there and leave us condemning ourselves for our failures. Christina moves on to share the hope of the gospel for the believer wracked with fear or worry or depression:
The gospel of grace has not only saved us from our sins in the past and those in the future, but also empowers us in the present. It is applicable in our daily struggles of walking by faith. It frees us from the bondage of bitterness, anger, worry, fear, despair, and doubt. (59)
But the journey doesn’t end with recognizing our need for a Savior. Knowing that sin has caused our hearts such pain and accepting the grace that God gives us in our salvation through Christ, we still face the day to day challenge of living in a sinful, broken world. And this is where A Heart Set Free is very helpful.
Christina lays out the format of the Psalms of Lament and explains the various elements. The purpose it to teach us to make our own laments using the Psalms as a model. In the Psalms of Lament, there is a “three-part structure” that we can use in our prayers: crying out to God, asking for help, responding in trust and praise (87).
Using these steps we can begin to learn to express our emotions to God and learn to trust in Him through our painful situations. That last part is the one that really challenged me. Since the death of our daughter years ago, I have learned to cry out to God, to tell Him what I’m feeling. I realized months after Bethanne died that I was angry and that I was hurting. And it dawned on me that there was no use in pretending before God that I wasn’t. He knew. And not only did He already know, He loved me. He loved me even though I was angry and hurting. So I cried out to Him and told Him what was on my heart. And He heard me. The pain was still there, but things changed that day. I knew I wasn’t forgotten or unloved.
When my boys were born, I learned to ask God for help daily. Being a mother showed me how much I needed Him all the time. But I have always struggled with the final step. Having cried out and asked God for help, I tend to short circuit and go back to worry and trying to control my situations. The book reminded me that the next step is to trust God and praise Him:
This step of the laments is the part where many of us get to and we stop. It’s easy to cry out to God and ask for help but to trust Him in the darkness where we cannot see what’s ahead of us? That’s the hard part. (134)
And that’s where I found myself, with tears streaming down my face on that flight, crying out to God, asking Him for help, and then actually finishing my lament. I laid down my own struggle for control and praised God for His love and care and put my trust in Him to take care of my future. It was the first step in a lifelong journey of learning to trust even when life is painful.
I know that life will not be all sunshine and roses just because I’m learning to trust. Christina reminds us of that:
There may also be times when we go through this journey with the psalmist and we respond in trust and worship and still feel grief. We may still feel intense sorrow. This process of following the structure of the laments is not a magical incantation that erases all our emotions. It’s not a step by step list to follow that will take away our problems. But it is a journey that draws us closer to God. (138)
But even in the sadness, I can learn to have joy in Lord. He is my strength, and He will never leave me or forsake me. And that is the hope we can all cling to:
This joy can co-mingle with other emotions. It can co-exist side by side with other feelings and circumstances like sorrow and fear. Even when life is at its hardest, gospel joy is still there. It is always present, like an anchor in the storms of life. (139)
Like Christina recounts of her own life, I have struggled with anxiety, worry, and depression for much of my life. It’s my “thorn in my side” and so far, God has not removed it from me. Christina’s book has offered me hope, though. Not that I can finally fix this for myself, but that when my heart is filled with doubt and fear, when my anxious thoughts consume me, I can cry out to God. And He will hear me. Just like He heard the psalmists in their laments.
I highly recommend this book to anyone, male or female, young or old. No matter your struggles, God speaks to us through the Psalms of Lament, and through the Psalms of Lament , we can learn how to speak to God. Thank you, Christina, for writing this gem of a book. I pray many will read it and be helped by it.