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

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24