Column: When Darkness Is Your Closest Friend
By Drew Williams
Heman the Ezrahite has the infamy of writing what is probably the most miserable Psalm in the entire Bible. Psalm 88 stands alone as one long, hopeless complaint. Here’s just a taste: “You [Lord] have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape…” (Psalm 88:6-8).
And then it gets worse! Heman signs off with a final flourish of doom, concluding that “…darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:18b). The implication being that if “darkness” is Heman’s “closest friend,” then let it be clearly understood—it’s obviously because you, God, are not!
So what is God’s response to Heman the Ezrahite—or to any of us who have felt, or are now feeling, such miserable and despairing thoughts about our lives and even about our God?
A few brief reflections:
1) The Lord makes a space for us to be this honest. Think about it: God Himself could easily have erased Heman and his 88th Psalm completely—literally “lasered” it from the Canon of Scripture, as if it were some embarrassing adolescent tattoo. Failing that, the Holy Spirit might easily have appended a more upbeat ending—like one of those “And yet, I will praise You…” clauses that generally redirect a lament into a trajectory of hope and renewed faith. But in this Psalm, there is no such upswing. The Psalm just “belly flops” into complete despair without the slightest inkling of faith, hope or light. In a word, Psalm 88 is just plain miserable! So we might ask the question, Why would a God of hope want us to retain and read such a hopeless prayer? Commentator Derek Kidner writes insightfully, “The presence of such prayers in scripture is a witness to His understanding. God knows how men speak when they are desperate.” In other words, knowing our moments of sheer, agonizing desperation, God has made a space for us to be this brutally honest with Him in prayer.
2) The Lord knows the true depth and reality of our pain and suffering. If I had a dollar for every time a doctor asked me to quantify my pain on a scale of 1-10, I could put myself through medical school. I understand why they need to ask the question, but each time they do, I feel the need to “validate” my pain—to justify it as actual, real pain, not just unnecessary complaining. Being British, I am embarrassed to be in any pain at all, so I often try to minimize any complaining (and especially any feelings of hopelessness despair). The mere inclusion of Psalm 88 in the Bible tells me I don’t have to try to convince the Lord my pain is very real. If there is one person who is not going to ask me on a scale of 1-10 how much pain I am in, it is Jesus, because He already knows it Himself.
3) The Lord shares our outrage and fury at the reality of suffering and death. Tim Keller invites us to consider Jesus’s approach to Lazarus’s tomb. In the account recorded in John 11:1-43, we are told that Lazarus has now been dead four days by the time Jesus arrives at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Most translations tell us that Jesus was “deeply moved” as he came to the tomb (verse 38). Lazarus was a close friend so we would expect him to be sad. The Greek word used by John actually means “to bellow with anger.” This is not Jesus drawing near to the gravesite to pay his last respects, consumed with uncontrollable grief; this is Jesus consumed with irrepressible anger! Jesus is quite appropriately furious at evil, death and suffering. John Calvin says that here we find Jesus bellowing with rage against “the general misery of the whole human race.”
4) The Lord promises to meet us in our pain and suffering. If God had added a more upbeat ending to Heman’s prayer or just blotted out this Psalm altogether, we might have been tempted to think that God is either uncaring or maybe even absent, especially when bad things happen to us. Yet here is a man, despite feeling abandoned, persistently crying out in expectation to the “God of my salvation” (verses 1, 2, 8, 13). Despite our struggle to find Him in our suffering, the Biblical truth is that we have a Savior who comes alongside us in our agony, sometimes sight unseen, and willingly enters into our anguished abandonment: “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12).
God’s response to Heman the Ezrahite and to any of us who are struggling to find Him in the midst of suffering is to remind us that no matter how bad it gets, how deep and dark the pit, He remains right there with us. The apostle Paul wrote, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Almost two thousand years later, Corrie ten Boom expressed the same conviction when she wrote, “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”
The Rev’d Drew Williams, Senior Pastor of Trinity Church, has been living with severe, debilitating chronic pain for more than three years. After five surgeries and innumerable neurological procedures, he knows the desperation that comes with wondering if he would ever be pain free. At the same time, he shares, “By the grace of God, that desperation has also brought an increased intensity and honesty, as well as a deeper intimacy, in my relationship with God.” He now shares something of his struggle in a series of devotional writings for the Greenwich Sentinel. One of the more perplexing features of the past three-year saga around my health has been the ongoing battle between hope and disappointment.