A few weeks ago I preached this sermon on the importance of Lament using Psalm 88 as a basis. The following is developed from my sermon notes. I believe that Lament is an important biblical concept that we need to appreciate afresh during these Covid days. Lament is appropriate for all sorts of occasions including during times of illness, suffering, redundancy, relationship issues, and stress.
We live in a time when Christianity is generally very upbeat, even equating faith to a positive outlook on life and the challenges we face. Sadly, at times, it can even appear that those who are not healed, who continue to suffer, and have to battle hard in life, are lacking in faith.
Faith is not about human positivity – it is about trust and confidence in Christ which give us a divinely inspired confidence rooted in Christ as we walk the pathway of discipleship and life.
Even for the strongest Christians – not everything runs smoothly, and there are times, just like for everyone else, when Christians suffer, get ill, die, are made redundant, struggle with life, and find themselves being overwhelmed by circumstances. The apostle Paul faced horrendous difficulties and suffering in his life, yet was a mighty man of faith.
As Christians, we have a Rock for our souls, the Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how we feel, or what we are going through, Christ is true, and we are His. This truth, and the reality of it, makes a tremendous difference and ultimately, even in death, our salvation is sure.
The Age of the Unthinkable
We are living in an ‘age of the unthinkable,’ as the Christian thinker, Alan Hirsch describes it. It is a time when so many things we took for granted are temporarily suspended – freedom of movement, freedom to congregate, freedom of travel, and the freedom to socialise.
It is important to note that they are suspended for the time being – not ended forever. However, perhaps there is more than simply a suspension of these freedoms – maybe we are entering a new age, an ‘age of uncertainty’ when certain restrictions will be a big part of our lives for the next few years. Our democratic freedoms are under pressure as Western governments try to react to the effects of the Pandemic. This is necessary for a time, but afterwards those freedoms need to re-established.
It is a different season when many vulnerable people will be concerned about mixing in large crowds, about using public facilities that are shared by other people, and about how they can relax in social settings.
It is also a new, enhanced digital age – a season when the digital transformation has speeded up at an extraordinary rate. Many are furloughed – many others are working from home unlikely to ever go back fulltime to the office or their workplace.
We are now in the age of the blended workplace when people will do two days in the office and three at home – this is likely to continue long after Covid is assimilated into our everyday society – Covid is not going away. It is important to remind ourselves that we will learn how to live with it and thrive in spite of it, but mass vaccination may be a part of our lives for the next decade.
We also live in an age of vulnerability. The number of people who now see themselves as vulnerable has dramatically increased. Fear has entered causing anxious thoughts, and a negative outlook on life. Fear has mentally and emotionally exhausted many. The endless stream of news reports about the latest developments, number infected and, sadly, the number losing their lives each day are almost impossible to rationalise and take in.
The pictures from hospitals, Care Homes, of empty streets and stadiums, people everywhere wearing masks, and a general feeling of unease at overwhelming events we are facing are compounding this sense of the unthinkable happening before our very eyes.
Lockdown Blues are a reality…
Psalm 88 is a Pandemic and Lockdown Psalm
It is known as a Lament Psalm – a Lament Psalm verbalises to God the Psalmist’s pain and trouble. Please read it…
So let us break it down and consider the Psalm:
- Verses 1-2 set the scene – the Psalmist is a strong believer: ‘The God of my salvation;’ who is asking God to heed his prayer: ‘may my prayer reach Your presence, listen to my cry.’ This is the only light in a very bleak Psalm – God is his salvation – His name is the Psalmist’s hope.
- Verses 3-6 – the Psalmist is fed up with his depression and troubles – he has had enough; he feels like he is a man without hope and who does not feel that God cares for him. Everyone else has given up on him, ‘4I am counted among those going down to the Pit.’
- Verses 7-8 – he feels God is angry with him – that he has been shut in and isolated from all that is good going on around him; he feels as if God is displeased with him, ‘Your wrath lies heavily on me.’ He is in such a terrible place that even his friends avoid him
- Verses 9-12 – The Psalmist longs to give testimony to God’s healing, restoration and power – to give glory to God for his deliverance – ‘will Your faithful love be declared in the grave?’
He is constantly praying to God spreading out his hands as he prays in tears. This is not the Lament of a person who is losing his faith – it is the desperate cry of a strong believer who has faced a prolonged battle with physical and mental ill health and oppression, but whose trust is completely in the God he cries out to.
It also reveals the imperfect nature of the OT saints understanding of death and the afterlife – it should make us eternally grateful that our trust is in Christ who has conquered death and the grave – ‘to die and go to be with Christ which is far better’ (Philippians 1:23).
- Verse 13 – The Psalmist is structured in how he comes to God – this is not the desperate, wild petitions of one who is living in fear, but the strong, structured prayers of one who knows his God
- Verses 14-18 – It is remarkable that this man has such a faith when he has lived with this depression and pain since his youth. He speaks of God’s horrors, His wrath and His terrors sweeping over him. He is immersed in his depression and pain – just as waters would overflow a drowning man.
His mental and physical state mean that even loved ones are avoiding him, ‘You have distanced loved one and neighbour from me.’ He finishes with the saddest end to any of the Psalms: ‘darkness is my only friend.’
A Psalm to Turn To
Wow! Isn’t this a Psalm that helps us articulate what is happening all around us in this Pandemic. William MacDonald calls Psalm 88 the ‘saddest Psalm.’ It is a Psalm of Lament or Complaint – a Psalm to help people express their depression, worries, pains, fears, uncertainties, vulnerabilities to God. God hears, doesn’t deliver, but it is enough to know that God hears and sees what we are experiencing.
The Psalms are great for helping us to put into words those things that are happening in us, around us and to us. We may be in the midst of the ages of the unthinkable, uncertainty, and vulnerability, but God is still faithful, and Christ is still able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him.
God gives these Psalms as a way to worship honestly while experiencing affliction, physical, mental or spiritual depression or illness, all in the face of oppression. God does not want us to hide our complaints or pain, but to pour them out to Him.
Jon Bloom says beautifully, ‘they give inspired voice to our troubled souls.’
Psalms of Lament are not pity party Psalms – they are Psalms of Trust. They help us express the reality of pain to a Sovereign God while we live in this troubled world. There is only one Psalm like Psalm 88 in the Psalter – but it is there, and perhaps it is there to help us articulate what we are going through in a time such as this.
It also reminds us that there are people around us who, from their youth, walk a dark and painful road – believers are not immune from this; there is comfort that others also walk the same pathway – even if it is a pathway marked with suffering.
Some Practical Advice to Finish With
As NT believers how can we be encouraged to keep on going in these dark days when physical touch is less possible, adversity and darkness seem to be everywhere? Psychotherapist, Julia Rivas presents three ways to help which I want to add a Christian reality to:
- Structure your day because routine is a great way to help us function in a healthy and resilient way – getting dressed, taking time to read or listen to God’s word, exercise and healthy eating at regular times, setting aside time for your devotions are all good.
- Create hope – count our blessings, remember our achievements, keep in contact with family, and place our confidence in Christ. Hope, along with faith and love, are the foundational principles we are called to put on each and every day.
Creating hope also requires us to take time to be thankful and to remain committed to our Christian discipleship pathway.
- Be Kind and good to ourselves – speaking positively to ourselves, refusing to accept the negative narrative that the darkness wants to engulf us in, and still launching out in faith demonstrating the love of God in Christ in how we actively seek for ways to demonstrate God’s love to others.
Father, if there are those walking the darkest road – we pray for Your light, deliverance and salvation. Holy Spirit, thank You for Your inspired word – thank You for Psalm 88. In Jesus’ name. Amen