Friday, October 29, 2010


It is the darkest psalm in the Bible, anguished from start to finish. God is hidden and silent; the singer is terrified, abandoned, engulfed by despair.

Your terrors surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88:14-18

Like being lost at sea in thick fog, these deep-water terrors describe clinical depression - an ordeal of extreme mental suffering and hopelessness.

We might wonder what a poem like this is doing in a book of faith like the Bible.

I think it is a tribute to the honesty of the Hebrew people that they accepted and preserved such uncensored expression of spiritual pain. It reveals a listening community that is willing to hear the anguish of its suffering members and a belief that honest doubt can be a vital part of the journey of faith.

It teaches us that even in our worst moments, when we can find no answer for our suffering we can voice our outbursts of agony to God.

Reading a psalm like this when you’re not in trauma yourself is an invitation to empathy, to stand alongside those who are engulfed in deep crisis, to express solidarity with the depressed, the prisoner, the terminally ill. The very existence of such expressions shows a community that is willing to live with the mystery of suffering.

It is important to say this because darkness and unspeakable horror can also suffocate faith - as it did for Elie Wiesel whose book Night describes the horror of Auschwitz and the evaporating of his childhood faith.

But faith doesn’t have to die when God is silent and suffering continues unabated.

I vividly remember touring in Jerusalem and visiting the site which archaeologists believe was the house of Caiaphas. Some of our group crowded into a small dungeon, quite possibly the prison where Jesus was held between his late-night arrest in Gethsemane and his early morning Sanhedrin trial (Luke 22:63).

We read the whole of Psalm 88 in that dungeon -
You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
I am confined and cannot escape.” (vs.6-8)

It was profoundly moving to imagine Jesus throughout that long night literally feeling engulfed by evil and injustice, abandoned by God and alone in the darkness. It was probably the closest I have come to feeling something of the horror of what he endured.

And that brief experience of empathy with Jesus continues to fuel my adoration and commitment.

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