Imprecatory Psalms, Integrationism, and Biblical Counseling


Helpful distinctions between different views about theology and psychology often become battle lines that impede helpful, constructive dialogue about the intersection of these disciplines. Too often, partisan polemics and political lines control critique, and are driven by the agenda of proving allegiance more than understanding truth. A journal that is devoted to exploring the intersection of theology and psychology, coming from a generally integrationist perspective, is the Journal of Psychology and Theology. Dominick D. Hankle published an article in the journal several years ago called “The Therapeutic Implications of the Imprecatory Psalms in the Christian Counseling Setting.”[1] I would challenge biblical counselors to read the article, and honestly assess if it is not a way of using the Psalms in counseling that is very similar to, for instance, David Powlison.

Hankle strongly emphasizes the need for the highest respect for and obedience to what the imprecatory psalms say on their own terms: “Because many therapists are not theologians the need to respect certain boundaries in biblical interpretation is imperative so that scripture is not misused by either the client or the therapist.” (p. 275) Moreover, “Proper understanding of the text . . . allows the therapist to implement scripture therapeutically while avoiding pitfalls leading to unhealthy spiritual and psychological conclusions.” (p. 275) Even more, “Proper exegesis helps [the client in transforming negative emotion to a healthy resolution]. When the therapist understands the proper context of the imprecatory psalms he or she allows the client to experience [their] anger first and foremost.” (p. 278)

Psalm 3:1-3 is used as an example: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying to me ‘There is no help for you in God.’ But you, O Lord are a shield around me, my glory and the one who lifts up my head.’”

How does Hankle suggest this can be used in the counseling context?

(1)  “When one submits to God by praying a curse he or she is no longer free to take revenge, because vengeance is transferred from the heart of the speaker to God, who plays an interested role in the believers life.”[2] (p. 278)

(2) “God hears the cry of those he loves and wants them to express in their terms the pain and suffering they feel. Yet, God is the one who administers justice so the client must develop a trusting relationship with God allowing him to take ownership of the situation.” (p. 279)

(3) “A further psychological benefit of using the imprecatory psalms is they express the violence that is a part of our fallen human nature. . . . Natural does not imply good, but rather a product of fallen nature needing to be redeemed.” (p. 279)

(4) [Quoting Augustine on Psalm 34]: “‘There is not one who does not love something, but the question is, what to love. The psalms do not tell us not to love, but to choose the object of our love.’ . . . The job of the therapist is to walk with the client through the . . . psalm to encounter Christ within them.” (p. 278)

Hankle goes on to explain how the psalms can function in a counseling context, while respecting their original context:

(1) “The psalms provide clarity and emotional expression important for the pastoral and Christian counseling experience.” (p. 276)

(2) The psalms themselves are poems strongly emphasizing the emotions and sentiments of people . . . with a timelessness regarding the human condition.” (p. 276)

(3) “Within the psalms one finds a great amount of somatic and psychological vocabulary expressing emotional distress.” (p. 276)

(4) “[The lament psalms] address strong emotions in the form of prayer and the desire for deliverance from pressing afflictions.” (p. 276)

(5) “The ‘praying man’ and God interact leading to psychological and spiritual change . . . This change is transformative and psychologically healing.” (p. 276)

(6) Psalms are exceptionally effective when working with individuals . . . [with] feelings of loneliness, despair, and fear.” (p. 276)

(7) Yet Hankle qualifies: “If a client uses the imprecatory psalms to justify their emotions without progressing to resolution the client is left in a state no better than when they entered counseling.” (p. 277)

Hankle’s proposal is insightful and simple. And so, I would be interested in hearing a biblical counselor explain to me the difference between how Hankle proposes we are able to use the imprecatory psalms in counseling, and how he or she would use them. No battle lines here. Just curious.

[1] Dominick D. Hankle, “The Therapeutic Implications of the Imprecatory Psalms in the Christian Counseling Setting,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 38, no. 4 (Winter, 2010): 275-280.

[2] Hankle is quoting Konrad Schaefer, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrews Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 2001), xi.

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