Depression: When Darkness Is Your Closest Friend

Depression: When Darkness Is Your Closest Friend

Psalm 88


Doesn’t this Psalm just lift you up? Doesn’t it make you want to jump out of your seat, crazy with joy? No? Yeah, me either. How many of you knew there was a passage in the Bible this dark? This sad? This … depressed? One of the things I love about the Psalms is that no matter how your day is going or has gone, there’s a Psalm for that. I think the most powerful thing they do is give us an actual honest look at the inner life of people living in a loving relationship with God in a very broken world. In other places of the Bible we can read about things that happen, and even the spiritual activity behind things that happen, but nowhere else do we get such a close and honest look at the inner life of God’s people. If you want to know what it’s like to follow Jesus, read the Psalms. You’ll find the full gamut of human experience and emotion, and the Psalmists held nothing back. They bare their souls before God.


This Psalm, Psalm 88, has been called the saddest of the Psalms. Now, I’ve often told you that 1/3 of the Psalms, roughly 50 of the 150 Psalms, are Psalms of Lament. Sadness. Blues. But like any work of art or literature, Psalms of Lament tend to follow a specific structure. And so after offering their lament, their complaint, after pouring their heart out before God, there is typically, somewhere between half way and 2/3 of the way through the Psalm, though sometimes as late as the last verse or two, a turn to praise. Like the Psalmist has been reminded that in spite of the pain and the struggle and the difficulty and the sadness of life right now, God is still enthroned in heaven and is working in the lives of his people. So it’s significant when, for whatever reason, a biblical author deviates from the typical structure for the type of writing they are doing. And that’s exactly what the writer of this Psalm does. There’s no turn to praise at the end. This Psalm starts bad, gets worse, and ends in darkness. In fact, in the Hebrew text the last word in this Psalm is darkness. Even Psalm 22, which includes the words “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” turns to praise at the end. This is the Psalm that Jesus literally lived out on the cross, and it turns to praise at the end. But not this Psalm. It is one of the darkest corners of the Bible.


Even the introduction to this Psalm is depressing. “According to Mahalath Leannoth.” “Mahalath” can mean either “sickness” or “a sad melody.” And “Leannoth” means “for singing” or “for humbling.” Not exactly an uplifting introduction, is it? This is the mother of all blues songs right here. You think the blues can be depressing? Or old time country music? They’ve got nothing on the words in this song. Sad words. Sad music. For when life has brought you low. And we aren’t talking about a bad day or two. We’re talking about real, tangible darkness here.


And I don’t think we as followers of Jesus are comfortable with that. Because we’ve turned joy into a synonym for happiness, and we’re supposed to have the “joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts,” as the song goes, we don’t know what to do with people who are in this state. The good news is that unlike most Christians, the Bible doesn’t pretend that life is rosy and sweet for everyone. These aren’t the words of someone who has hit a rough patch. Some of the other Psalms of Lament are, but these words aren’t. These are the words of someone who has known far more darkness than light in his life. These are the words of someone for whom life has been a struggle far more often than not. These are the words of someone who knows not just sadness, but depression. They may know how to wear the mask of a happy face to fit in. But inside, all they know is darkness. Not a demonic darkness. Not the darkness of sin. Just darkness. Unremitting, unrelenting darkness. Darkness from beginning to end.


Depression is a depth of sadness and lack of energy that goes beyond the normal sadness people experience as they go through life. Between 13 and 14 million Americans suffer from depression each year, and 16% of us will struggle with a major bout of depression at some point in their lives. And depression doesn’t have any one cause. Sometimes it’s a physical thing, a chemical imbalance that can be corrected with medication. Sometimes it can be cause by life circumstances. Sometimes there are psychological factors. And yes, sometimes there are spiritual factors. But we cannot ever assume that just because someone is dealing with depression there’s a spiritual problem in their lives. As followers of Christ, we’re as susceptible to depression as anyone else.


Unfortunately, because we’ve tended to regard depression as a moral issue, we don’t typically admit that we’re struggling as someone else. We think we’re supposed to have this happy face on all the time. And we think that because that’s the standard that we as followers of Jesus have held people to. In the process, we’ve created churches in which everyone puts on their happy mask for a few hours every Sunday morning and then gets back to real life later. We’ve created places in which people are fake with one another, pretending to have it all together when we don’t. And that makes it impossible for us to have authentic, loving Christian fellowship. By insisting that we wear our Sunday morning masks, and that everyone else wear theirs too because we aren’t comfortable with struggle and pain, we make real relationship impossible.


What this Psalm makes crystal clear is that it’s possible, and it’s okay to struggle as a follower of Jesus. Look at Vv. 1-2. Look at the name, or title, he uses for God. It’s translated as “Lord” but there’s something funny about it. Do you see it? It’s written in ALL CAPS. Have you ever noticed that. In the Bible, when the word “Lord” appears in all caps, as it does here, it means that the name God gave himself in relation to Israel, “Yahweh,” is the word being translated. It isn’t the Hebrew word for “Lord,” Adonai, which might refer to a human lord or to the Lord God. It’s the Hebrew word “Yahweh.” It’s translated as Lord because a good Jew never pronounces the name of God, right? So this is a way of staying true to the original text, which has the name of God, Yahweh there, without actually saying it.


Actually, the original Hebrew text has the four consonant letters for Yahweh, YHWH, with the vowel markings for the word Adonai, so that anyone reading this text aloud in a worship gathering would know to substitute “the Lord” for the name “Yahweh” there. And the mashing of the consonants for Yahweh with the Hebrew vowels in Adonai makes the word Jehovah. It emphasizes God in relationship to his people – God as a covenant making, covenant keeping God. And he uses this word over and over again in the Psalm. He isn’t just talking to God. He’s talking to “Jehovah,” my God, God with whom I have a relationship. And he is the God “of my salvation” to whom he prays, and regularly. Down in V. 9 he says that he prays, pouring his heart out before God, “every day.” This isn’t someone who has come to God because he’s hit a rough patch in life and needs God to fix it. This is someone who has a relationship with God! This is a child of God!


And he isn’t having a bad day. He’s having a bad life. Look at how he describes his condition. “Afflicted and close to death from my youth up …” That’s like saying “for as long as I can remember.” He’s been in this state for a long, long time, and it’s engulfing him. It’s all he can see (Vv. 16-17). His friends have abandoned him. He’s alone (Vv. 8, 18). He’s cried out to God over and over and over again (Vv. 9, 19). And nothing. No relief. The only relief he can see for himself is death. Only death will bring freedom from his suffering. There is absolutely no hypocrisy here. He’s just being real. This is where he is. He’s been suffering in this darkness for a very, very long time. He’s isolated and alone, engulfed in a misery so deep that all he wants is to die. He’s suicidal. And he’s a child of God.


And he’s blaming God. Look at V. 6. And V. 7. And V. 8. And Vv. 14. And 15. And 16. And 18. In his eyes, he’s in this state for one reason and one reason only … God won’t do anything about it. We don’t tend to question God’s strength. We question his love. The other word he uses for God in this Psalm is “el,” or it’s plural, “Elohim.” It’s the word we translate as God, and it emphasizes God’s power and strength. It’s almost like he’s reminding God, “Hello. You are MY God. I worship you. I pray to you. I’m one of YOUR children. I’m suffering here. I’ve been suffering for a very long time. My whole life, actually. And you’re God. You’re the one with infinite power and might. So why aren’t you doing anything about this?” And that’s where the Psalm leaves us. No turn to praise at the end. Just … darkness. Pain. Abandonment. Betrayal. Psalm 22, which starts out with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?” (22:1) turns to “You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!”(22:23). Why? Because “He has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (22:24). But that doesn’t happen here, does it? Just … darkness. We’re left with that tension. God can act. He just … doesn’t. No nice and tidy package here. No resolution. And that’s the way life is sometimes, isn’t it?


So what do we do with this? What’s the one thing the Psalmist refuses to stop doing? Cry out to God. Even though his prayers are bouncing off the ceiling, he keeps sending them up. “I cry out day and night before you” (V. 1). “Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! (V. 2). “But I, O LORD (there’s the all caps again … Jehovah, the God I know and love), cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you” (V. 13). He refuses to stop crying out to God. Not for a day. Or a week. Or a month. Or a season. Or a year. Or even for a few years. “From my youth up …” (V. 15). Year after year after year after year after year. And not just years. Decades.


And when he cries out, he is nakedly, unabashedly honest. He isn’t even trying to see things from God’s perspective here. But he certainly wants to make sure that God sees things from his. Matt Woodley, in his book “The Folly of Prayer,” tells the story of a man in his congregation named David. “Shortly after I moved from Minnesota to Long Island, I met David, a Jewish follower of Jesus who constantly challenged me to view the Bible through Jewish eyes. David’s also a passionate, brilliant, full-blooded New Yorker. For the first two years of my ministry on Long Island, David would often approach me after a worship service and begin with something like, “Hey, nice sermon, I liked that third point a lot, but I think you also missed something crucial in that passage. Let me tell you how I would see this through Jewish eyes.” And then he’d launch into his weekly five-minute rebuttal-argument about the finer points of biblical exegesis. I thought he was trying to pick a fight with me, but I politely listened and thanked him for his “insights.” But after listening to his rebuttals for two years (Minnesotans are notoriously nice and longsuffering), I couldn’t stand it anymore. So I finally blurted out, “David, what is the deal? Don’t you get anything out of my sermons? Doesn’t God tell you something? Why must you always nitpick about some minor point of theology?” My face flushed with anger and David stood there frozen in shock.


Finally, David broke the icy silence. First, he laughed. Then he said, “Maybe I should explain my cultural background, which is probably different than your ethnic background. When New York Jews like me argue about Scripture, we’re asking for a dialogue. When I tell you that I disagree with something you’ve said, I’m expecting you to fire back and say, ‘O, yeah, well I think that you’re wrong too and let me tell you why.’ You see, Jewish people sometimes get close by working through unpleasant feelings, even by arguing if necessary. Confronting each other is a sign of intimacy in the relationship. So when I dish it out, I want you to dish it right back. That’s how trust and intimacy grows in the relationship.”


This concept of achieving trust and intimacy with God through intense dialogue, and even a rousing argument, was certainly new to me. But through my friendship with David, God has started to teach me an important lesson about prayer: sometimes prayer involves being completely honest with God. Sometimes we grow closer to God by bringing God all of the “unpleasant” things about our relationship: our sadness, disappointments, laments, complaints, and even our anger. Based on the numerous God-given prayers of complaint and lamentation, it’s obvious that God can handle our honesty.[i] Maybe what we need are more followers of Jesus willing to wrestle with, contend with, God when they’re struggling. Like Jacob. Like the Psalmist here.


And then he points out something he really needs, but doesn’t have – fellowship. Relationship with other followers of Jesus. He’s been abandoned. He’s alone. He’s lonely. And to be honest, he probably isn’t great company. If he’s willing to talk like this to God, what do you think he’s willing to say to another human being. There probably aren’t many people beating down his door to go hang out on Friday night. But this isn’t about someone being good company. This is about someone needing good company.


Rick Warren is a pastor and best-selling author of the books “The Purpose-Driven Church” and “The Purpose-Driven Life.” His wife’s name is Kay. In 2013 Rick and Kay Warren’s son Matthew committed suicide at the age of 27 after a long struggle with mental illness … depression. About a year after his death, Kay Warren posted the following advice on her Facebook page: The truest friends and “helpers” are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re ok with messy and slow and few answers.”[ii]


Here, in the body of Christ, we must be willing to take off our masks, to say that we’re not okay. We must be willing, even insistent, that others take their masks off too. And we must make absolutely sure that no one, absolutely no one, within our reach has to face anything, go through life, alone, even if they try to push us away. God could handle this Psalmist’s honesty. God can handle our honesty. Can we? No masks. Let us pray.


[i] Matt Woodley, The Folly of Prayer (InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 84


[ii] Alex Murashko, “Kay Warren Says ‘Don’t Tell Grievers to Move On’ as 1 Year Anniversary of Son’s Suicide Approaches,” The Christian Post (3-16-14)