O Lord, God of my salvation,Psalm 88:1-7 (ESV)
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
I’m continually amazed by the range of depth and emotion expressed within Scripture. Whether it’s joy or sadness, pleasure or pain, courage or fear, there’s something immensely relatable in how the biblical writers expressed emotion. And while much of our talk about Scripture has to do with it being “God’s Word,” there’s something undeniably human in how the biblical writers conveyed emotion. Scripture is thoroughly emotional, filled with passionate highs and hopeless lows. Despite the emotional range we find in Scripture, I find that we do a better job of acknowledging the highs than we do the lows. We gravitate toward certain texts while ignoring, and even shunning, others. We probably feel more comfortable with the unequivocally positive and uplifting tones we find in other texts. Psalm 88, for example, offers a negative sentiment that some might find difficult, perhaps even off putting. Thus, like the depression it conveys, we find that we don’t know how to respond to it.
I know this might sound odd to some, but Psalm 88 is one of my favorite psalms. In fact, it might even be my favorite psalm. I don’t find this odd at all, but I’ve also never been particularly drawn to some of the more uplifting psalms favored by others. It’s not to say I dislike them, more like they express a sentiment that’s hard for me to relate to. And I feel that other psalms move too quickly, almost manically, away from the same feelings of darkness and burden that this psalm expresses.
What I appreciate most about this psalm is the honesty it conveys about emotion. It’s the honesty that not everything in life is going to be joyful or even pleasant. Rather life is often full of troubles that we carry like a burden, a suffering darkness that lingers within the soul. And this suffering darkness stays with us, often a very long time. It becomes the filter through which we see all life. Like the psalmist, we are in “the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.” We can’t see past the darkness. Thus, the darkness becomes our new normal—the darkness becomes our only companion.
Depression feels like an open wound that won’t close. It’s a feeling that this psalm, the Psalm of Depression, so effectively captures. You can almost feel the psalmist’s pain, the way depression creates a burden, a weight of helplessness and unworthiness that lingers long within the soul. And that weight carries us down into a seemingly inescapable pit of darkness, forgetfulness, and death. Depression is the inability to see past the darkness. It surrounds you, making it seemingly impossible to find your way out. In effect, you’re trapped by your own life. The psalmist writes, “I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow.” And that darkness leads you further and further into a place of forgetfulness. You forget family and friends. You even forget yourself as you venture into the pit. The land of the living has been swallowed up by a grave of despair.
The psalm doesn’t end on a happy note. There’s no quick resolution. The psalmist isn’t rescued from the darkness and despair. We’re left without a reassurance that the psalmist’s pain ever subsided. Did the psalmist find a way out of the darkness? We’ll never know for sure. And yet, I believe the lack of a resolution makes this psalm all the more relevant and powerful. Depression isn’t cured overnight. Even with someone lighting and guiding the way, finding your way out of that the darkened pit of helplessness and suffering may still take years. Thus, we must all make room in our hearts for those afflicted by the darkness. For it’s no fault of theirs that they cannot see their own worthiness, their beauty and radiance. It’s near about impossible to see anything in darkness. How can you see yourself, your true self, when you can’t even see those around you? Stay long enough in the darkness and it’ll become your only companion.
We must accept and acknowledge the lows as well as the highs. Thus, what this psalm helps us to see is the complexity of life. Because for every Psalm 23 there is a Psalm 88. Healing can only begin when we learn to acknowledge, even if we can’t understand it, the darkness that some live with each and every day. We can’t just flip the page when something makes us uncomfortable. We must face it and confront it, learning to accept that faith consists of both darkness and light. And the knowledge that God is able to transform both into something truly remarkable. To close, I’m reminded of the below quote from Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and theologian who notably and openly struggled with depression. Nouwen reminds us that even depression can become a place of renewal, blessing, and communion. Our own brokenness can give way toward a full acceptance of ourselves as beautiful and worthy people. Darkness leads us toward the light, for God works in both darkness and light.
Even a small burden, perceived as a sign of our worthlessness, can lead us to deep depression—even suicide. However, great and heavy burdens become light and easy when they are lived in the light of the blessing. What seemed intolerable becomes a challenge. What seemed a reason for depression becomes a source of purification. What seemed punishment becomes a gentle pruning. What seemed rejection becomes a way to a deeper communion. [i]
[i] Alternative translation: darkness has become my only companion.
[ii] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (The Crossroad Publishing Company), 98. Kindle Edition