What to do when despair sets in

A model of lament in Psalm 88

January 23, 2020

There are some things that life brings that alter your family forever. Our family faced one of those moments when I was nearing the end of my pregnancy with our fourth son. In a matter of minutes, we went from a happy family anticipating a newborn, to a terrified family wondering if Ben or I would live. After Ben was born, I thought we would come home from the hospital and just return to life as “normal.” I thought we would bring a baby home alive, bring me home alive, be reunited with the rest of the family, and just put the painful hospital chapter behind us.         

We didn’t. I couldn’t.

It was constantly in front of me—taunting me, terrorizing me, and taking every ounce of energy and joy I had left. I thought checking out of the hospital meant leaving that difficult episode behind us, never to be revisited again. I was so very wrong.            

We seemed like a happy family on the outside, but inside the darkness raged. Nearly dying and nearly losing your son has a lasting impact. I couldn’t just return to normal life because in my mind any semblance of “normal” was gone. I had to learn to live with what I was left with. I was afraid to leave the house. I was afraid to go to sleep. I was afraid to leave my kids in the care of anyone else. I was afraid of dying. I physically felt the pain of my own and my son’s mortality, and I had no idea how to return to the world, now that it seemed dark and scary.                

I wasn’t going back to my mental “normal” and I wasn’t going back to my physical “normal” either. With each passing month, my physical difficulties increased too. Recovering from the C-section proved far more difficult than from my previous ones. I kept getting sick. I needed another surgery. For nearly a year and a half, our family was marked by a relentless stream of trials. What began as an isolated instance of suffering became an ongoing pattern of having to face the brokenness of this world again and again and again. 

We were drowning. I was drowning.                    

When it feels like God is against you

There were days when I couldn’t get out of bed because the depression, darkness, and physical pain were more than I felt I could face. I lived with a constant fear of what would happen next. One night I looked at my husband and said, “I feel like God is against me.” And I meant it. God didn’t appear to be in our corner. The feeling of despair was real and potent. The depression lingered on with no sign of relief. I began to realize that I was going to have to come to terms with a new normal—one I saw in Psalm 88:

You have taken from me friend and neighbor— darkness is my closest friend. (v 18, NIV)

I did feel as if “darkness [was] my closest friend” and brokenness my constant adversary. That is where I was. This is where a lot of us are. This is where the psalmist was in Psalm 88. Despair is a common feeling, and God intends to comfort us by reflecting our despair in his word. It’s as if God is saying to us, I know you, and I know your struggles. I’m showing you that you aren’t the only one who feels this way. 

When we look at Psalm 88 closely, we see that the resolution might not come, but the cry of desperation is going to the right place—God.

Your circumstances might look different, but the despair is the same. The origin of despair is as varied as the genetic makeup of every person—a chemical imbalance in the brain, or a relational difficulty, or a change or lack of change in circumstances, or physical suffering, or a combination of all those things. And sometimes, there is no explanation for it. Psalm 88 is for us when we are in that place, when the darkness doesn’t seem to let up and instead weighs heavy on us, like a wet blanket in the dead of winter. The psalm is generic enough in its expression of despair that Christians of all personalities and situations can find hope in its words. Whatever the darkness we are walking in, and however long we have walked in it, Psalm 88 is given to us in that darkness.        

The pattern of lament with no resolution            

This is a lament psalm, which follows a certain pattern—a cry to God, a complaint about circumstance, a turning point of trust, and then praise for deliverance. Except you will find something noticeably absent in this particular lament psalm. There is no turning point of trust. It ends in darkness.                    

Psalm 88 carries all the marks of a typical lament psalm, like Psalm 55 and others—and then all of a sudden it doesn’t. It moves all through the feelings of despair that come from physical suffering, relational suffering, and even depression—and then there is no “but.” It is dark and sad and doesn’t find a resolution quickly—or, in fact, at all. Many call Psalm 88 the darkest psalm in the Psalter, and for good reason. Just look at how it ends:    

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. (v. 18)                    

The end.

And yet I find this psalm—one of deep, unresolved sorrow—comforting. Life isn’t tidy. Within this life, our circumstances don’t always resolve in a neat and hope-filled ending. Sometimes, like the psalmist, we spend years or even our entire lifetime afflicted and depressed (v. 15). And there are some days when we can’t see how God is working or even muster the faith to trust him. Like the man in Mark 9:24 whose son had an illness that raised questions to which there had been no answers, we need God to help our unbelief—but sometimes we don’t even have the words to pray those words.         

Whenever I talk about the psalms, I almost always mention Psalm 88. I’m often surprised how few people know much about it. I think some of that is owing to the fact that it scares us. We don’t know what to do with a person who doesn’t tack on an expression of trust and praise at the end of lament and complaint, especially when it comes from holy Scripture. But it is holy Scripture. It is inspired by God. It is there to instruct us and encourage us, so we must deal with it. But even more than that, I know there are many Christians who, one way or another, live in this psalm daily (I am one of them), so to ignore its rich truths is to neglect the provision of hope for weary Christians. We need Psalm 88. 

Where Psalm 88 fits in the Psalter

Psalm 1 sets us up by telling us what the blessed/happy life looks like—meditate on the Word. And Psalm 2 tells us about the promised King and his Kingdom that will bring blessing to all who trust in him. In Psalm 88 we get none of that. There is no blessing, and there is no prevailing kingdom. So how do you live in light of that? The psalm writer tells us that you appeal to God and what you know about him and what he’s promised. I’m meant to praise you, he basically says. But I can’t do it when I’m dead. Help me. 

The key is this: in his darkness, Heman [the psalmist] does not stop praying, and he does not stop being honest with God. You might not get relief right now, and there is no real formula for finding relief, but you can still cry to him day and night (v. 1, 9, 13). God might not bring relief, but he does always hear (Rom. 8:26-27; 1 John 5:14-15).         

When we look at Psalm 88 closely, we see that the resolution might not come, but the cry of desperation is going to the right place—God. It begins with God: “O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you” (v. 1); and ends with God: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me” (v. 18). It’s a dark, despairing psalm of unanswered prayers. But it reminds us that we aren’t alone. We aren’t the first, and we won’t be the last, who have dealt with such despair. And we can keep crying out, for as long as it takes. 

If you find yourself in Psalm 88, you can know that God sees you there. And he has given you language in your despair, so even if you feel alone, you can grasp in the dark at the shadow of his presence. It might not bring relief, but it does bring hope—which is what despairing Christians need. 

This is an edited excerpt from Reissig’s new book, Teach Me To Feel: Worshiping Through the Psalms in Every Season of Life.

Courtney Reissig

Courtney is a wife, mother, writer, and speaker. Born in California, raised in Texas, all with a couple stints in Michigan before finally graduating from Northwestern College (MN). After doing some graduate study at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, she met her husband Daniel and fell in love. They now … Read More