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PSALM 88 COMMENTARY  by Cindy Holtrop

Prayer: God of light, shine your Word of truth, light, and love in our darkness. Help us to see Jesus and to come to him. Amen.

Who is your closest friend? Who would you tell first if you discovered you were pregnant? If you had a car accident? If your life was falling apart? Who could you call at 2 a.m. in case of an emergency? Who is your closest friend?

Psalm 88 ends with this haunting line: Darkness is my closest friend. Imagine being alone in your car on a rural road on a dark cloudy night. No radio. No cell phone. Only the darkness. Its cold impersonal cloak envelops you and threatens to smother you.

Psalm 88 is a lament; the poet’s deeply honest and open complaint before God about his situation in life and above all—God’s absence. All the other psalms of lament begin with complaint and wind their way to praise. But this psalm begins with the darkness of complaint and ends with resignation and a heavy sigh: “Darkness is my closest friend.

This psalm is for realists and not optimists. If you are uncomfortable with anger, pain, complaining to God, and taking the sugar coating off your faith, you will not likely mark this psalm in your Bible. But if you have experienced some of the harsh realities in life, if you have ever felt abandoned by God and by friends, you will understand the pain of this psalm. You will understand the real tension between heartache and hope, between pain and piety, between futility and faith.

Through the lens of Psalm 88, this morning we will grow in our understanding of what it means to struggle with mental health, what it means to walk alongside those who have a brain disease, or mental illness, and what it means to wrestle with God in these situations. We can’t accomplish that in great depth, but perhaps we can build awareness, affirm faith in the midst of suffering, and give permission to speak about mental illness without shameful whispering and the pain of silence. Let me say first, that a psychiatric illness is not always disabling. It may be something like dealing with arthritis or diabetes. Sometimes it may be temporarily disabling, and for some it may profoundly impact their daily life.

First, let’s think about mental health on a continuum. Just as some people are more physically healthy than others, some people are blessed with mental health—perhaps all their lives. But just as a young athlete can be struck with leukemia, a young person or an adult could suddenly develop schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, depression, or any of a number of psychiatric illnesses. Perhaps a crisis happens, and suddenly a person experiences long-term grief and depression.

Psalm 88 could be sung by many people who struggle with mental illness because so often they feel desperately alone. People who are depressed especially understand the complaint of this psalm. They feel abandoned by God and by friends. They feel different than other people. They’re misunderstood by others. They may feel near death itself. The poet of Psalm 88 groans, “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;” (vs. 8).

Mental illness is not out there. People with mental illness sit in our congregations. Today if there are 15 people in your row, three people may have some form of psychiatric illness in their lifetime. The person may be a child with low-grade depression, a teenager with suicidal thoughts, or anorexia nervosa, an adult with agoraphobia or dementia.

Some of you know one or more of these issues intimately because you live with it yourself, or because you know someone who does. Any physical or mental illness or disability can be isolating. If you struggle with mental health, perhaps you don’t have the energy to be around people. You feel different. What will people think of me if they knew about my illness? You fear the stigma and the whispers of shame.

Friends in Christ, let’s not keep the suffering of mental illness in the closet. Let’s welcome and walk with people and families as a community of faith.

Throughout my life, I have experienced bouts of depression. I have said, “Darkness is my closest friend.” The most recent depression lasted for three years and took one year for me to recover. I felt abandoned by God, isolated, without hope, and without a sense of the future. I wondered if I would ever get well. I wondered if I would ever preach again. I slowly did recover and I am deeply grateful. But the reality is that because of my brain chemistry, I may experience times of depression in the future.

Psalm 88 is for anyone who’s experienced the darkness of depression or other isolating events. But it is not the final answer.

Remember being alone in the dark in the car? You think you’re all alone. The dome light comes on and you’re aware of a presence. Christ is sitting beside you. Though you may not see him or feel him in the darkness, Christ is present with you. Jesus in his humanity understands. He was abandoned. He was rejected. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is our closest friend when we are in the darkness.   

You can carry your experience of the darkness, the craziness, the fragility of mental health, and of life, to Jesus.

At times, when the sun shone through the darkness, what comforted me and gave me strength was grabbing hold of this one certain thing: there is someone who understands the darkness; there is someone who is present in the darkness.

That is the truth. But here is the tension. Even though Jesus is our closest friend, the one who knows and understands, there are times when I don’t believe or understand, or feel any of that. I want to affirm the reality of that perception and those feelings. Sometimes God does seem and feel absent. My family, friends, and my faith family and I prayed for three years that my depression would lift. But God seemed silent. I often cried out, “Lord, how long? Lord, please heal me!”

Kathryn Greene McCreight, an Episcopal priest and a professor at Yale, writes about her wrestling with God and bipolar disorder in her book: Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. She speaks of this as the hiddenness of God. Sunsets, mountains and newborn babies reveal something of the love and grandeur of God. But our suffering sometimes hides the face of God, and we don’t feel him or experience him with us. But even the hiddenness of God reveals something about him. Though I cannot see him or feel him, my faith tells me that God is still present. And sometimes, the faith of others needs to carry those experiencing the darkness.

As a hospital chaplain where I see a great deal of pain and tragedy, people often ask, “Why is God doing this to me? Is God trying to punish me? What is God trying to tell me?” A pastor once told me, “When people ask me about the why of suffering, I will not and cannot try to explain it.” The psalmists often struggled with similar questions and accusations. While suffering continues to remain a mystery, as New Testament believers, we read these Old Testament passages with Easter eyes: Jesus drank the cup of wrath empty on the cross and declared “It is finished!” And so God may disciple the believer in suffering, but he does not punish us.

(Continued on the next page see Psalm 88 - Commentary Part 2)