The following is a slight adaptation of a lesson I recently gave to our Women’s Bible Study on Psalm 88.
We don’t typically introduce ourselves by sharing the darkest, most difficult pieces of our stories. So when we confront a lament in the Bible, written by a man we only know by the name Heman, we might be taken aback. At the very least, we’re forced to enter into his pain, to sit in the dark with him as he communicates with God.
But I think more than that, some sort of response surfaces. Some might wonder how a person could feel such intense grief. Others can relate to the psalmist’s suffering, but can also remember God’s deliverance. Then, there are some who would raise their hand and say, “I get it. I can’t see God right now in this circumstance, this relationship, this illness, this loss. It’s not getting any better. I, too, am sitting in the dark.”
Each of us will experience the effects of a broken, sin cursed world. Sometimes in a way that feels utterly hopeless. So, when God seems distant, when we have more questions than answers, when our pain in this life feels endless, what do we do?
The Direction of Our Worship
In the midst of his loss, confusion, pain, longings and grief, the psalmist expresses his feelings to the Lord.
He acknowledges God’s power to save (Psalm 88:1). He acknowledges God’s ability to do something about his situation (Psalm 88:2) He acknowledges God’s faithfulness to keep listening (Psalm 88:9). He acknowledges God’s character, even though he doesn’t see it at work (Psalm 88:10-12). He acknowledge God’s promise to listen to his people (Psalm 88:13).
The psalmist might be clinging to God by his fingernails on the edge of a cliff, but he’s still holding on. This is worshipping God in the dark.
I’ll never forget the day my brother died. It was the middle of the afternoon when I got the phone call from my Dad, telling me that my nineteen year old brother and his girlfriend had been murdered. I don’t remember every word he said, but I do remember getting off the phone, stumbling to my living room and grabbing my Bible. I felt the darkness closing in and I needed every word that I could find to remind me that even though the life of my family had been turned upside down, God remained the same.
Psalm 139:11-12 says, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Our darkness can never put out the light of the glory of God.
Our circumstances don’t remove any aspect of God’s character or even dim it. He remains the same, regardless of how we feel or what our life might look like. He’s always worthy of our worship, even from the dark.
The Details of Our Worship
What exactly are we supposed to do when we’re worshipping in the dark?
We come as we are and we hold nothing back.
The psalmist didn’t polish up his feelings or put together an elegant prayer. He didn’t smile and say the words that everyone wanted to hear or sweep his grief under the carpet as though it didn’t exist. His cry in verse one is better translated from the Hebrew as a shriek, or a shrill cry.
Psalm 88 gives us permission to scream to God in our pain. Not scream about God, remember we’re still directing our worship to the Lord. Our worship of God in the dark includes cries of our pain, expression of our exact feelings in response to what we’re experiencing, but it’s never directed anywhere but to the Lord.
Remember the story of Job? He lost everything — family, possessions, health, friends. He lamented this way, “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 7:11). Verse after verse Job cried to the Lord, searching for hope, relief from his suffering, and understanding of God’s ways.
We’re never told what caused the psalmist so much distress in Psalm 88, but his overarching cry to God in the midst of physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual pain is: “I’ve had enough, and it’s all your fault.”
I didn’t fully grieve my brother’s death until our third child was born, close to three years later. On the morning after he was born, our Doctor came into my recovery room, handed me my son and said, “I’m concerned that your son might have Down syndrome.” Two weeks later the diagnosis was confirmed, and for the next six months I wrestled with God in a way I had never wrestled before. Fearful, grieving the loss of a life I had expected for my son, and uncertain of what the rest of our lives would be like, I poured over the Psalms. My journals are filled with lament.
I remember getting dressed for a women’s event at our church, and attempting to put on my new favorite sweater. After living in a perpetual state of postpartum body changes for five years — we had a five, four, almost two year old, and a seven month old at this point — I was finally brave enough to wear skinny jeans and boots. My new sweater didn’t fit. Bradley had done the laundry over the weekend and and instead of laying this sweater flat to dry had put it in the dryer on high heat. I came undone. Body on the ground, fists hitting the carpet, legs kicking the floor, I screamed and cried like a two year old throwing a temper tantrum.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t crying over the sweater. A minor irritation in my wardrobe opened the door for me to pour out what had been simmering in my heart for months, and I screamed to the Lord in my pain:
“Isn’t it enough that Mason has Down Syndrome? Wasn’t it enough that Jennavieve was in the hospital for two weeks? Wasn’t it enough that you let me have a miscarriage? Isn’t it enough that David was murdered? I don’t want anymore of this!”
Left unspoken our suffering and pain will only produce bitterness and discontentment toward the Lord. Poured out without restraint, our suffering and pain will reach the heart of our Savior.
So, to the woman who has unresolved circumstances in your life that continue to cause you pain and grief, you can say to God, “You have the power to get me out of this, and yet you’re only making it harder! Prove to me your faithful love.”
The woman who doesn’t like the lot she’s been given in life can say to God, “You had the power to prevent this, and you didn’t. Help me to believe that you are righteous and good, because it sure doesn’t feel like it right now.”
The woman who has unfulfilled longings can say to God, “You could give me what I’m asking for, but you’re still withholding it. Show me your wonders in the midst of my unmet expectations.”
The Duration of Our Worship
How long are we supposed to worship from the dark?
As long as we’re in it.
Day and night, every day, from my youth up — these are the words the psalmist uses to describe the duration of his cries.
If our suffering is endless, our worship should be endless.
It’s been over nine years since my brother was murdered. They still don’t know who did it. This case is unresolved, ongoing, and it continues to be a source of unanswered prayer for my family. In many ways, we’re still in the dark.
Mason is almost seven years old. His life is a gift. His smile lights up a room, and he brings much joy. I love him fiercely.
But there are days when I lie on my bed and have really frank conversations with the Lord. I weep. I pound my fists and scream into my pillow. Because it would be nice if I didn’t have to change my almost seven year old son’s diapers anymore. I’d love to be able to listen to him talk about his day at school and actually understand what he’s saying. I want to see him read and write and play sports with other kids his age. The struggles that come with disability are real and hard and in some ways, never ending.
But we have a Savior who is real and holy and well acquainted with our grief.
Psalm 88 doesn’t end on a positive note, like so other psalms of lament. Praise God we have the rest of the Bible. Psalm 88 isn’t the end of the story.
We can worship in the dark because for those of us who are in Christ, darkness will never have the final say.
Jesus motivates us to worship in the dark.
Jesus, the light of the world who came to earth to live a perfect life and die a perfect death. In his agony on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The psalmist only felt like God had forsaken him. God actually did forsake Jesus. Jesus was put into the pit, the tomb where he stayed for three days, suffering the wrath of God that we deserved. Jesus understands what it’s like to be in the dark. If you need someone to know you, to see you in your pain, and get it, you can look to Jesus.
When I was screaming on the ground in my skinny jeans, boots, and sweater that didn’t fit, the Lord whispered to my soul, “Am I enough?”
If my circumstances never got easier, if I felt like pieces of my life were covered in darkness forever, could the fact that Jesus was with me be enough?
In her book Hearing Jesus Speak Into Your Sorrow, Nancy Guthrie says this:
“When Jesus offers himself to us in the midst of our pain, most of us think, That’s it? That’s the best you can do? I was hoping for more. The truth is, we’re often more interested in getting what God’s got, not getting more of God. We’ve put in our order for a miracle of healing or relief, and the miracle of his presence to us seems like the consolation prize.”
I can tell you with confidence that Jesus is enough. Both his understanding of your pain and his presence with you in the midst of it. You can cling to him in the darkness.
But here’s the best part of Psalm 88. In verses 10-12, the psalmist asks some seemingly sarcastic questions to God. My favorite one is from verse 10, “Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?”
On this side of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, we can answer the psalmist with a resounding “Yes!” and “Amen!”
Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”
Jesus is alive, and he’s seated at the right hand of the Father.
And one day, when Jesus returns, once and for all, we will experience the glorious hope of the resurrection:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
Christ conquered the grave. He’s coming again. This is our hope when the darkness presses in. This is our hope when the darkness gets darker. One day all of our grief will be turned to glory and we will worship around the throne in everlasting light.