Hello darkness, my old friend...

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This morning I did a search on my bible app for the word “despair.” The first verse that popped up was from Psalm 88. I slowly read through the verses… yes, wow, that’s most definitely despair.

Thank you, Heman (the psalm’s author) for laying it out so… um, darkly. Not only is the psalm incredibly sad and depressing, but it also has NO HAPPY ENDING. 

There is no final verse saying, “I will trust in You” or “You helped me”… nope. Apart from the opening few words, it is all darkness. All sadness. All the time. Some have described Psalm 88 as the bleakest chapter in the entire bible.

And that seems about right.
Have you ever experienced a heartbreaking situation? Something like illness, divorce, grief, abandonment, mental illness, a troubled child? A scenario that seems to go on and on and on? One that, no matter how much you pray or work or intervene or obsess… only seems to get worse? Have you ever felt abandoned, ignored, and judged by God? Have you found yourself clinging to a mustard seed of faith… only to realize that mustard seed might be too generous of a description?
Well, you are not alone. You may find few fellow Christians admitting to Psalm 88 seasons, at least in places like social media. Why? Because to confess such darkness makes others assume you’re losing your faith. And in fact, recently, several Christian leaders have confessed to being in despair and turning their backs on their faith.  I have great hope that they will come back. I suspect they are likely in a Psalm 88 season of despair. Despair and faith can actually go hand in hand.
The theme of Psalm 88 is darkness. Heman is pouring out his despair to God. Raw, brutal sadness. Hopelessness. No sugar coating. Where are you, God? Why have you done this to me? Why have you left me? Are you even real?

The Irony of Despair

And yet, there is an irony here. Heman is communing with his Maker in spite of total, utter devastation. Can there be anything more beautiful to God? That one of His precious ones, laid low and with nearly no hope left… turns his complaints to the One who he suspects has caused them? It is the highest form of faith… belief… trust. Because somehow, Heman recognizes on some buried, deep level, that God is real and the only hope for relief… even as he suspects He has turned his back on him.
The next time you are overcome with despair, turn your honest complaints to God. Be angry, be sad, be depressed, be entitled and arrogant and double-minded. Be real. Because there is something in that darkness and honesty that touches the heart of God. You need Him, and talk to Him, even as you fear and doubt Him.
As Jesus suffered and approached death, He had a similar cry of despair. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Utter darkness approached. And yet, his cry was to the One who had created all this suffering. Where are you? Why do you hate me?
Ultimately, the beauty of this moment (death, followed by resurrection) on the cross would echo through all time. Grace. The promise of unconditional love. The lifting of judgment for eternity.

Despair now. But not forever.

Faithful, and Also Human

Please, don’t feel guilty about your despair. Tell God about it. Walk through it, one complaining moment at a time.  Be a little child with God, crying, sniffling, questioning, doubting. There is beauty in that sacred darkness.

Oh, and by the way… Heman’s name means “Faithful” in Hebrew.  Yes, the one responsible for writing the darkest, bleakest, most depressing chapter in the bible? Faithful. I also find it ironic that his name, translated into English, is very close in spelling to the word human. Heman. Human. 

Here are a few practical tips for surviving a Psalm 88 season.

How to Be a Human (presented by a human)

  1. Do yourself no harm. As much as possible, do not engage in any behaviors that are self-destructive during this time.
  2. Do others no harm. Do your best to avoid lashing out, blaming, directing anger at those around you.
  3. Make no major life decisions. Sometimes we want to escape the pain of despair via a new job, ministry, relationship, changing locations, etc. If you can, hold off a little bit on these major decisions. Things might look very different shortly.
  4. Give yourself a break. You will not meet your normal ideals for spouse, employee, parent, housekeeper, etc. Give yourself permission to not be at your best during this season. If others don't understand, that is O.K. God does.
  5. Prioritize. Let everything slide except the most important things. Which leads us to the next one:
  6. Rest. As much as you need. Please.
  7. Reach out to other humans when needed. Sometimes we need eye contact with another human who feels our pain and loves us deeply. 
  8. Use any and every non-harmful aid available. This includes: antidepressant medication, professional counseling, exercise, etc. Regardless of how painful your circumstances are, it is God's intention that you survive them (and, in fact, someday- thrive because of them).
  9. Get a good laugh wherever you can (and don't feel guilty about it). #pinterestfails
  10. Keep talking honestly to God. He loves you, and He can handle your honest emotions. (In fact, He's already aware of them).

I have great respect for those who have experienced seasons of deep despair and loss. I trust their humility, their wisdom, their maturity. They have been challenged in torturous ways, and are still standing. They do not cling to a rosy faith that ties everything up with neat little bows.  No, these individuals hold onto a faith that is real and hardy, tried and true. These wise ones have earned the right to speak into my life, because they know what it is like to have darkness as your only friend. For a season. 

Surviving despair comes with a certain badge of honor.

P.S. If your despair becomes intolerable (which it sometimes does), please reach out for concrete help. That is also an act of great faith.

Bottom line: Even despair is faith.

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