Finding Peace, Hope, and Joy in the Psalms

How do you worship when you’re depressed? Where do you find words to express inexpressible joy? What do you pray when you need hope? In Soul Anatomy: Finding Peace, Hope, and Joy in the Psalms, George Robertson offers a biblical guide for working through emotional turmoil in a gospel-centered way.

Each chapter examines an individual Psalm for deeper study of the themes of peace, joy, rest, anxiety, depression, justice, God’s presence, and others. Robertson guides readers in how to listen for Jesus’s voice while walking through the hardest things of life and points them to Jesus’s humanity and divinity as they pray the Psalms along with him. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter make this an effective resource for both individual use and small group discussion.

WE INTERVIEWED George Robertson ABOUT his book AND WANTED TO SHARE the INTERVIEW WITH YOU.

Q: Tells us a little bit about your book, Soul Anatomy and where the inspiration for the title came from.

Soul Anatomy comes from my calling and a conviction. It comes from my calling as a pastor. Over the past 30 years of ministry, I have walked with people through a multitude of life circumstances that tap into the deepest recesses of the soul. While there is no one way to approach every person, every person does need to see that scripture is relevant to their situation because it leads them to Jesus, the ultimate supply for all our needs. John Calvin called the psalter “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.” He meant that the Psalms enable us to understand our own souls in the midst of life’s circumstances and to bring our souls to God for his grace.

The book also comes from a conviction to lead God’s people to respond to God in all of the ways the psalmist does. Soul Anatomy primarily addresses five of those ways:

  1. The Psalms invite us to understand ourselves—in all our ups and downs—in the light of God’s true reality
  2. The Psalms increase our boldness in prayer
  3. The Psalms give voice to our deepest griefs and show us a way to rightly process our suffering
  4. As poetic expressions of the faith, they ground us in life-changing theology
  5. They grow us in community; they show the church how to live together and how to care for one another.
Q: You have written and preached sermons on each and every one of the 150 psalms, so you most certainly have an affinity for this particular book of the Bible. Why is Psalms your favorite book to preach?

That’s right—I have preached through the Psalms twice and hope to be able to do it again! One of the reasons I love to preach through the Psalms comes from something I experienced the first time I did it. After almost every sermon, someone would come up to me and say, “That’s my psalm!” They meant God had used that Psalm to remind them who he was in some particular season in their life, and they had internalized that psalm in such a way that it was immensely personal to them.

Another experience from the first time I preached through the Psalms was an internal conflict. Preaching through portions of scripture that are packed with emotional experience and language meant I had to learn how to become transparent with my people about my own struggles with anxiety and depression. At first, I thought those experiences were shameful, but the Holy Spirit eventually taught me how to share those experiences in such a way that I was simply pointing people to the place where I had found the supply for my own need.

Q: How did you pick only twenty-five to delve into in Soul Anatomy? What are some of the ones that you chose?

It was certainly a challenge to choose just twenty-five. Spurgeon calls it a “Treasury” for a reason. I tried to select Psalms based on two factors. First, I selected psalms that have been of special meaning to me in my own times of distress. Second, I selected psalms that cover the whole gamut of emotional experiences.

For instance, Psalm 1 shows us the path to living a truly happy and blessed life. In other words, it shows us wisdom. Psalm 22 shows us how to lament in the hope of Jesus’ victory. Psalm 51 shows us how to repent when we’ve sinned against God and other people. Psalm 73 shows us what it looks like to have our perspective realigned when we become disillusioned. Psalms 129, 137, and 140 show us how to process our anger in a righteous way. And Psalm 139 humbles us as it shows us the depth of God’s love for us.

Q: You write that the psalms are ultimately the prayers of Jesus. Can you explain why this is true?

At the most basic level, I believe that all of scripture is God’s Word. While the various books were written by human authors, they were ultimately all inspired by the Holy Spirit. I also believe that God uses saints in the Old Testament to point us to Jesus. So, for instance, as we see David crying out in lament, it points us to Jesus, who prayed his own prayer of lament in Matthew 26 in the Garden of Gethsemane. And as we see David rejoicing in the joy of God’s presence (Psalm 16:11), we hear Christ praying in anticipation of his resurrection. One of the implications of believing that God became man in the person of Jesus is that Jesus experienced everything we experience in this life. So, as we read the psalms, we hear Jesus saying to us, “I understand.”

Men such as Andrew Bonar, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charles Spurgeon, and others couldn’t help but hear the voice of Christ as they read the prayers of the Psalms. The Holy Spirit has led his people throughout history to this conclusion. And finally, when you hear Jesus cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Matthew 27:46, he doesn’t say, “As it is written in Psalm 22:1…” he says it as his own words.

As you read the Psalms from beginning to end, you will find a God-authored script by which the full gamut of human experience can be expressed and was experienced and expressed by Christ himself.

Q: All Christians can benefit from a deeper study of Psalms, but who did you specifically write this book for?

I wrote Soul Anatomy for those who struggle with anxiety and depression and for those who want to learn how to process their emotions in a redemptive way—which is to say, everyone. By leading readers to Jesus through the Psalms (as they were intended to do), I also wanted to give my fellow strugglers an antidote to the shame that frequently accompanies anxiety and depression. If the Psalms represent the emotional battles Jesus fought in taking up our flesh, then we should not feel ashamed when we experience the same conflicts he did.

Q: Can you share a little bit about your own struggles with anxiety and depression?

I first experienced a panic attack when I was in the third grade. For the next three years I spiraled until I was hospitalized with clinical depression in the middle of the school year. I was paralyzed with fear and intrusive thoughts.

My parents sought answers from physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists. I was tested for everything from allergies to brain tumors. Educators made allowances for me, my friends tried to “cheer me up,” adults spent time listening to me. The Christians leading the school I transferred to laid hands on me for healing and constantly urged me to “cry out to Jesus.” In my hospitalization, a doctor tried a new anti-anxiety drug with me, and I had a terrifying reaction. Through that horrifying experience I cried out to Jesus to save me as I had been urged to do, and he did. The next day, I asked to go home.

I still have bouts of anxiety and occasional depression, but I have never again suffered hopelessly. A major component of my hope is the ability to pray, “Jesus, you know exactly how I feel, so please help me.” 

Q: In the chapter “Deliverance from Depression,” you share that some depression may need to be treated physically, but all depression needs to be treated spiritually. What are some steps to spiritually treating depression?

Psalm 6 gives us a helpful start just by following the progression of the psalm itself. We’re reminded of the attributes of God, which we must hold onto as our ultimate hope when we are depressed. While we may not be healed immediately or conclusively, we must receive the comfort God gives us in the midst of our depression.

Practically, when we are depressed, we can be tempted to isolate ourselves from others. This is understandable, as we can wrongly believe depression is a shameful thing or we may not want to feel like a burden on others. However, God gives us other Christians for such times. I have also witnessed multiple times throughout my ministry people who realized that as they engaged in corporate worship week after week, God slowly convinced them of his love and healed them of their depression, or at least brought them through the darkest parts.

Q: Why do you think so many Christians are afraid of embracing their emotions?

I think one reason may be that Christians have tended to “overcorrect” in response to emotions. What I mean is that we either seek to suppress our emotions because expressing them is seen as weak or shameful, or we seek to express our emotions at all costs and see them as the arbiter of truth. Interestingly, in both cases, we are being controlled by our emotions. We need to learn to acknowledge our emotions as legitimate experiences as people made in the image of God but also respond to them in such a way that we apply the gospel to them.

As you read the psalms, you notice a pattern in most of the psalms of lament. The psalmist begins by crying out to God in distress. He describes his situation. He expresses how he feels about it. And he asks for God’s help. By the end of the psalm, the psalmist is usually meditating on the attributes of God and praising God for them. I often tell the people I pastor that there is not a problem in your life that would not be solved or put in its proper perspective, if you really believed that God loves you.

Q: Why should we pray the prayers in Psalms as our own? What are some examples of prayers we should be praying?

One important reason we should do this is because it shows us how to legitimize painful life experiences and rely on God to sustain us through them. We can tend to form an unhealthy division between our feelings and our faith. We can dismiss feelings in ourselves and others by appealing to the truth. While it is right to apply the truth of scripture to all of life, the Psalms show us that we are not called to be unemotional creatures. We can both express our feelings, because we have a God who has moved heaven and earth to show his love for us, and also move forward in faith.

There is a line in Psalm 42:5 where the psalmist says,

Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you in turmoil within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my salvation.

Psalm 42:5

In his sermon on this text, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said Christians have to learn to “talk to themselves,” to “take their souls in hand” and exhort them to hope in their Savior. That’s dealing realistically with ourselves. It is fully to acknowledge our emotional struggle while vocalizing our only help is in Christ as it has been for all generations.

Q: Share with us why Psalm 23 is both the most loved but least believed psalm.

I would sum it up like this: As Christians, we all live with a kind of “redemptive amnesia.” As often as God provides our needs and as dramatically as he provides them, we are all prone to forget and fall back into fear and anxiety when we face adverse circumstances. Psalm 23 gives us the promise of God’s total protection and provision for us, and we return to it again and again as we forget.

Psalm 23 also counters our natural caricature of God as an impersonal, distant, and exacting force. However, in the 23rd God identifies himself as a shepherd (the most despised of professions), who walks with us through every valley, and whose goodness and mercy accompany us forever.

Q: What are some of the promises we can find rest in as revealed through the psalms?

I will mention two here. Psalm 36:9 says, “In your light do we see light.” The greatest benefit of studying the Psalms is that we come to a greater understanding of who God is. As the creator of the universe, it makes sense that understanding God better would help us to understand life better. One promise we can find rest in is that knowing and relating to God more helps us make sense of life’s sometimes perplexing realities and how we should live in response.

Another promise that has perhaps more acute relevance lately is the promise that God cares about the oppressed and is passionate about bringing justice. People often find the imprecatory psalms (that is, psalms in which the writer asks God to bring judgment on the wicked) surprising and even offensive. One thing we learn from them, however, is that God is a just God. We cannot pray those prayers without a serious examination of our own hearts. We also cannot pray those prayers without seeing that God will do justice on earth. For victims of injustice and those distressed at the many instances of injustice they see, that is a promise in which we can find rest.

Q: Is Soul Anatomy a personal study or would you recommend going through it with others?

I have tried to make this a dynamic resource for personal use or small group settings. At the end of each chapter there is a section called questions for reflection/discussion, which would be useful for a group discussing and processing each chapter. It is often helpful to walk with other believers for learning, encouragement, and accountability. Because the Psalms help us become more skilled at understanding and applying the gospel to our own hearts, we should find that we become more empathetic and attentive listeners to others who let us in to their own struggles.

I have also included a section at the end of each chapter titled, “prayer.” Because the Psalms are prayers, as we read and process, we should grow in our own prayer lives. Each prayer section seeks to guide individuals to pray as the psalmist does. As readers follow this guide, they may find that they are praying in ways they have not been accustomed to praying in the past. At the very least, I hope readers learn to walk with God more intimately as a result of reading this book.


Soul Anatomy Cover

SOUL ANATOMY: FINDING PEACE, HOPE, AND JOY IN THE PSALMS

Soul Anatomy by George Robertson is a biblical guide for working through emotional turmoil in a gospel-centered way. It shows how the Psalms serve as a God-authored script by which to express every category of the human experience.

About the author

George Robertson

George Robertson, PhD, is the senior pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN, and a council member for The Gospel Coalition. He previously served as a lecturer and adjunct professor at Covenant Theological Seminary. He is the author of Soul Anatomy: Finding Peace, Hope, and Joy in the Psalms. He is married to Jackie and they have four children.

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George Robertson

George Robertson, PhD, is the senior pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN, and a council member for The Gospel Coalition. He previously served as a lecturer and adjunct professor at Covenant Theological Seminary. He is the author of Soul Anatomy: Finding Peace, Hope, and Joy in the Psalms. He is married to Jackie and they have four children.

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