Psalm 61: Just Be Yourself?

Hear my cry, O God;
    listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you,
    I call as my heart grows faint;
    lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
    a strong tower against the foe.

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Psalm 61

One of the most common phrases of advice in contemporary western society is, ‘Just be yourself.’ In some ways there is nothing wrong with that particular piece of pop psychology. The genius of the Psalms is their honesty. The writers do not hold back on their feelings: there are exuberant outbursts of joy, expressions of confusion, painful confessions of guilt. The Psalms remind us that prayer isn’t pretending and that we don’t need to hide our deepest selves from God. In John’s gospel it says of Jesus that, ‘He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person’ (John 2:25). So we can take our real selves to God – our worries, our moral failures, our brokenness – safe in the knowledge that God knows all about us and, amazingly, in spite of all that he still loves us, not because we deserve it but because his very nature is love (1 John 4:16).

At other times though the advice to, ‘Just be yourself’ is vacuous or dangerous. ‘Yes Adolf, just be yourself’ strikes me as the height of moral lunacy.  The gospel is the good news that God accepts us as we are but equally the good news is that God doesn’t want us to stay the way we are.  The Bible clearly tells us that our deepest selves are not only hurting and wounded but hurt others and need fixing.  

Another way in which ‘Just be yourself’ is unhelpful is it offers no comfort to the person who finds themselves in the same situation as the writer of Psalm 61. People can be incredibly resilient but there are times in all of our lives when we discover that our resources are just not enough. At those times, like the Psalmist, we need to be led to ‘a rock that is higher than I.’

Mixing metaphors, the Psalmist looks back and recalls that God has been to him a strong tower (v. 3). God is not just there for emergencies, he is there for every day. The good news is that when our hearts grow faint we can find refuge in God and protection from the wild weather of life. The Psalmist is not naïve – there will be storms – but they are also not defeated or despondent. In the midst of tempests, God is a mighty refuge.

More intimate images follow. The God who listens to the Psalmist’s cry is like the close friend or the tribal head in whose tent we are invited to find rest and to be restored. God is like a mother hen under whose wings her chicks might feel safe and secure from predators or the unintended damage of children or grown up’s feet (v. 4).

The God whom the Psalmist worships is a God who protects his children with love and faithfulness (v. 7) and grants them a heritage. Quite what David understood by that heritage is unclear, but it is clearer to us. Peter wrote that we have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4). We can look to the future with confidence that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’ (Julian of Norwich). And our hope is not based on some fantasy or wish fulfilment, but on the solid reality of Christ’s resurrection: the empty tomb and the appearances to disciples who were transformed by meeting the Risen Lord who ‘gave them many convincing proofs that he was alive’ (Acts 1:3).

In the midst of the difficulties of life, this is a Psalm that encourages us to pray (v. 1) and to praise (v. 8) wherever we find ourselves, even at the ends of the earth (v. 2).