On Sunday I preached the darkest Psalm in the Bible: Psalm 88. It’s 18 verses of unrelenting anguish and confusion and yet… the Holy Spirit authored it, Jesus prayed it and the Father hears it. In fact he has continued to hear it prayed by millions around the world for the best part of three millennia. It belongs to a whole category of Psalms – laments – which are the most common forms of prayer in the Psalter. Almost 1 in 3 Psalms are laments, voicing either individual or corporate suffering before God.
That should be pause for thought. In God’s song book, every third song explores darkness and the pit. How many of our songs are so raw? Not nearly so many. And yet, if we were to follow biblical patterns of worship, then sorrow, anxiety and anger would be common themes.
Can despair be worship? In God’s book it is. Despair is worship when it is prayed. And the Psalms of lament show us how.
For me the best teacher of the Psalms was the 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon. It’s no coincidence that he also suffered greatly with depression. Here are some of his comments on Psalm 88. His vocabulary – “melancholy, “the nervous”, “the hypochondriacal” – may not be ours but his descriptions are timeless. And brutally close to the bone:
[The Psalmist] felt as if he were as utterly forgotten …as if even God himself had quite forgotten him.
How low the spirits of good and brave men will sometimes sink. Under the influence of certain disorders everything will wear a sombre aspect, and the heart will dive into the profoundest deeps of misery. It is all very well for those who are in robust health and full of spirits to blame those whose lives are sicklied over with the pale cast of melancholy, but the evil is as real as a gaping wound, and all the more hard to bear because it lies so much in the region of the soul that to the inexperienced it appears to be a mere matter of fancy and diseased imagination. Reader, never ridicule the nervous and hypochondriacal, their pain is real; though much of the evil lies in the imagination, it is not imaginary…
The mind can descend far lower than the body, for the flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour…
If faith could but be allowed to speak she would remind the depressed spirit that it is better to fall into the hand of the Lord than into the hands of man, and moreover she would tell the despondent heart that God never placed a Joseph in a pit without drawing him up again to fill a throne; that he never caused a horror of great darkness to fall upon an Abraham without revealing his covenant to him; and never cast even a Jonah into the deeps without preparing the means to land him safely on dry land. Alas, when under deep depression the mind forgets all this, and is only conscious of its unutterable misery…It is an unspeakable consolation that our Lord Jesus knows this experience, right well, having, with the exception of the sin of it, felt it all and more than all in Gethsemane when he was exceeding sorrowful even unto death.
In Gethsemane, Jesus confessed “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). It’s virtually a quotation of Psalm 88:3 – an admission that sadness itself had engulfed Him. But here is God’s response to suffering. He does not tell us to quieten down and count our blessings. We should not plaster on a grin and deny the darkness. Instead the Lord urges us to voice our despair – to pray it. But more than this, He doesn’t only hear our anguish, He feels it, He enters it, He bears it, He sums it up, falling under its infinite weight – all the while praying it out in our name and on our behalf. He rises up, ascends to the throne, and He still prays, still He bears us on His heart before God – our suffering Servant, our great High Priest.
When we’re in the pit – and the Psalms assure us we’ll all be there at times – God gives us two incredible gifts. First, we have a High Priest for sorrows, and He prays in our name, joining us in our pain. Therefore, secondly, we have His Psalms of sorrow and can pray them in Jesus’ name, joining Him in His worship.
Can despair be worship? In prayer and in Jesus, it already is.