You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, O Lord every day; I spread out my hands to you.
(Psalm 88 6-9)
This psalm is unusual because although – like many others – it contains great depths of lamentation and grief, there is no respite, no lightening of the darkness. The author ends his prayer-song with the heart-breaking verse:- “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)
We are left to sit in silence, reflecting on the dreadful experience of suffering which has been poured out, and sharing in the unresolved tension between the psalmist’s conviction that God can save him, and the brutal reality of unabated suffering.
It can be hard for us to be silent in the face of suffering. If our faith is of any value then it must have an answer for even the deepest pain. We believe in a God who is all-powerful, loving and just; surely then there will be reasons to give and grounds for optimism? And if we cannot find answers, we fear that our faith is worthless, a mere folly and delusion.
My thoughts have been prompted by the many I know who are either suffering themselves from long-term mental health issues; or whose children are suffering in this way. For all our mastery of the tools of medicine to heal our broken bodies, we are still relatively powerless in the face of eg. severe depression, bi-polar disorder, and that demon which haunts the parent of every teenage girl, anorexia nervosa. To watch one’s own child disappear into the darkness, to see them destroy themselves and be unable to forestall the dreadful end is a torment beyond the imagination of those who have not experienced it.
What can I say when I meet such people? What has my belief in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, in the eternal loving Father and the ever-present Spirit got to do with their agonies?
My faith is in a God who cared so much for a world hopelessly marred by the rebellion of humankind against his loving lordship, that he suffered the outrage of losing his own son to the darkness in order to heal us. His compassion for our plight is where I must begin when I meet those who are lost and raging against the oppressive darkness which is upon them. May we be so filled with God’s love that we do not shy away from such encounters, fearing the pain we might witness. May we be the means by which the presence of God is made real to those who suffer, weeping with those who weep – like Job’s friends who sat seven days in silence with him. Sometimes no words are needed.
I believe in Jesus, who while he walked among us witnessed great suffering, and saw the impact of pain upon the faith of the people. He dealt so gently with those who were struggling to believe in the face of their troubles, commending even the smallest grain of faith where he found it. Remember how Thomas was finally drawn out of his desperate doubts by Jesus? There was only encouragement, no rebuke. Our dear Lord knows that when we are in the dark – for ourselves or perhaps even more for those we love – that our faith is shaken. Let us then recall the words of Isaiah describing the Saviour’s gentleness :- “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out,” (Matt 12.20). May I be willing to pray for those who can barely pray for themselves, and to trust that God hears and will answer. We depend on his keeping of us, not our hold on him, and what a relief that is!
Finally, let us pray for ourselves, to be strengthened in our faith, willing to live with mystery, and not defeated or broken by the suffering which God graciously permits. The book of Job is very precious in this context, with its overriding theme that we are unable to understand the ways of God. Our comfort lies not in getting all the answers, but in encountering our great God. Only then can our trust in him be renewed.
I believe that one day, in glory, all our suffering will be seen to form part of God’s re-creating of his world, his making all things new, and of glorifying his beloved son, our Lord. In the great wonder of God’s providence, nothing is wasted.
These few words barely touch a profound mystery, but I pray that God might graciously use them to help us to think and live in accordance with his word.
the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised