Persevering Through Sorrow in Prayer

July 10, 2017

Sorrow and despair are painful realities for all of us. Unsurprisingly, many of us often respond to deep sadness with unrealistic optimism or awkward denialism. Loss or ache can be difficult to engage with, so we seek to avoid it. I know this is true not only because of my experience as a counselor but also because it is my own tendency! We find it difficult to face the sorrows we experience.

That is why I have found Psalm 88 so helpful. Psalm 88 teaches us how to persevere through sorrow in prayer. It’s a song we can learn how to sing. Speaking of Psalm 88, Derek Kidner says, “There is no sadder prayer in the Psalter. Here, as with other laments, the reader’s part need not be that of spectator, whatever his current mood, but that of companion in prayer to the depressed or outcast people whose state of mind the psalm puts into words: words which are for use.” [1]

So let’s think about how these words can be put to use in our lives.

Identifying Pain

In the first 9 verses Heman explains how he feels, and he tells us that his experience of life is that it is without light. His life is like a living death: his description is permeated with images of death and darkness; of social isolation, psychological anguish, and spiritual forsakenness. The picture I envisaged from meditating on this description was of a ship in a brutal storm. As the waves continually beat against the ship, it becomes overwhelmed and it slowly but inexorably goes down—down to the darkest depths of the ocean. Heman is saying, this is what is happening to me—I am drowning. His soul is sinking; his life is without light.

Because of our tendency to avoid dealing with pain, it is important for us to reflect on Heman’s description and see if we resonate. We need to look at his fear, his despair, his confusion—and like him, we need to bring those things to God. We need to talk to God about our sorrows, our hopelessness, and our pain. Can you do that?

Praying and Asking

Heman has become my hero because after cataloging his pain to God, he continues to seek God! In verse 9b he says, “I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you.” This perseverance in prayer, even in the midst of sorrow, was something the Lord Jesus wanted his disciples to know and do (see Luke 18:1-8). Despite being in such pain and sorrow, Heman keeps praying. When we keep Jesus’ parable from Luke 18 in mind, we know that we should always pray and not give up because God (unlike the unjust judge) is sensitive to our cries. Your Heavenly Father hears your ceaseless crying, and when you are yelling in pain, God notices. He hears. He cares.

As we continue to read the psalm we see that Heman’s cry for help in verse 13 becomes a cry for explanation in verse 14: “I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?”

Bible teacher Christopher Ash says that there are two ways of asking theological questions: we either ask armchair questions or we ask wheelchair questions. We ask armchair questions when we ourselves are removed from suffering; armchair questions can be asked in a superficial (and even an insensitive) manner. But wheelchair questions are asked by those who are suffering. These questions grapple with God in the darkness. You’re personally invested in wheelchair questions. And if you’ve ever known deep sorrow, anguish, spiritual confusion, or pain, then you don’t ask armchair questions, you ask wheelchair questions. Heman asks staggeringly honest wheelchair questions.

Waiting on God

As we approach the end of the psalm we realize that Heman is not going to get an answer. Even the final verse ends without resolution. The Hebrew poetry in verse 18 is fractured, so that we might render the verse: “You have taken from me friend and neighbor, those who know me; oh, darkness!” The final word is a despairing cry. The fractured poetry is probably meant to point to the fractured state the psalmist finds himself in; the poetry is shattered, and he is shattered too. He ends on a dark note because, right now, he has no praise to offer. He stops, and he waits. He waits for the God of his salvation (verse 1) to arrive. And sometimes it is enough to wait. We often mouth platitudes that we don’t really mean. But it is better to wait, even as we live with the possibility of unrelieved suffering. And so we wait for the God of our salvation.

This psalm is difficult for us to process. I want a quick-fix, an easy solution. But this psalm slows me down, teaching me that there can be long seasons of waiting, and in those seasons of waiting I can persevere through sorrow by continuing to pray.

Finally, it would be remiss of us to end our reflection on this psalm without thinking about the One who ultimately sang it. This song of pain was composed for Jesus; it is His song before it is ours. “Christians know that Jesus took the ultimate darkness of God’s wrath.”[2] In our pain and depression, we may feel that God has abandoned us—but he hasn’t. Because Jesus went into the deepest darkness for us, God the Father will now always be with us in whatever darkness we face. And so our Father is with us, even when we can’t feel him. He is with us in the dark, so we can talk to him, and we can wait for him—persevering through sorrow in prayer.

Questions for Reflection

How can you apply Psalm 88 to your own life or to the life of your counselee? How has prayer helped you to persevere through times of sorrow in the past?

[1] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975).

[2] Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus (New York: Viking, 2015).

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