This is a sermon I preached last year from Psalm 88, the saddest song in the Bible.

Pray Your Tears (Psalm 88)
August 16, 2015

This is the sermon I think many of you have been waiting to hear. I say that because Psalm 88 is the dark, dingy, scary, unfinished basement of the Psalms. It’s the saddest song in the Bible, maybe in all the world. The psalmist is sad and begging for help. And God is silent. It’s the only Psalm that doesn’t end on a positive note.

And if you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have lived in Psalm 88.

The problem in this text is not merely sadness. The sadness is accentuated because God is quiet. So we are going to address both sadness and God’s silence today. And here’s what we’ll see: Sadness and God’s silence in sadness are gifts from God to drive us to God.

So I pray this sermon brings comfort because I think we do ourselves a disservice when we suppose that our sermons and songs should only be upbeat and happy and chipper. The reality is that in the room right now, there is sadness for all sorts of reasons. Lost loved ones, cancer, struggling marriages, divorce, wayward children, unemployment, financial struggles, being bullied at school, infertility, abuse from parents, etc. Some of us are sad because we have made sinful choices.

And the sadness deepens when God is quiet.

I’m not saying that our worship times together should only be sullen and droopy and morose. What I am saying is that we must learn to acknowledge our tears and pray them. Then we’re in a position to find a firm hope and joy in Jesus. And it’s this joy in Jesus in the midst of sorrow that should characterize us and will be light to a dark world.

So we are going to start by talking about the God of Sadness and Silence and then God’s design for sadness and his silence. We’ll close with 4 ways to pray this Psalm.

The God of Sadness and Silence
The psalmist is sad. It’s unclear why, but it’s deep and dark and feels like he’s on the precipice of hell. He feels like God has abandoned him. Listen to what he says in vv. 6-8 and 15-18a.

[6] You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
[7] Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
[8] You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape…

…[15] Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
[16] Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
[17] They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
[18] You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me…

The psalmist feels like his destiny is the destiny of the wicked. He will go to Sheol—the grave, and more, Abbadon—the place of destruction.

But what’s more is that God is silent in the midst of all this. Verse 14: “O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” Verse 18b, “my companions have become darkness.”

It’s one thing to be sad but it’s another to be sad and feel alone.

Now this is not unique to Ps. 88. This happens over and over again throughout the Psalms and outside the Psalms. Think of Job. In Job 2 he says to his wife, “Shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil?” Then the author inserts this comment, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Then for 36 chapters, God is silent.

And like Job, the psalmist knows God is his salvation. That’s how he started his prayer (v. 1). It’s the only positive line in the prayer. So, his emotions of sadness and loneliness and despair do not correspond with reality. We know that God is good and we know that God hasn’t abandoned us. But it feels like he has. And sometimes he brings things upon us that are absolutely horrific. The situations are overwhelming. And he seems to delay when I cry to him. Why?

Have you ever been there? Have you ever had the guts to pray like this? C.S. Lewis felt this way. He was deeply acquainted with a Psalm 88-type experience. Listen to him:

[W]here is God? [You] go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no LIGHTS in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?…Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there is no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’

We are confronted with a harsh reality: God may not want our best life now. He may, for a time—a long time—bring sadness into our lives and be silent in the midst of it. And in this moment we must ask: what kind of God do I believe in?

Now you might say, “I don’t like that kind of God. I don’t want the God Lewis describes.” But what does this expose about your heart? Do you want to be in control? Do you want to be your own god? Sadness and God’s silence are gifts because they force us to calibrate ourselves to how God has revealed himself so that we are not duped into believing in a God of our own making. We are not in control. In verse 7 the psalmist describes his pain exactly like that.

Listen to Quaker theologian Richard Foster: “For me the greatest value in my lack of control was the intimate and ultimate awareness that I could not manage God. God refused to jump when I said, ‘Jump!’ Neither by theological acumen nor by religious technique could I conquer God. God was, in fact, to conquer me.”

God is not playing games. He’s not like the malicious kid burning ants with a magnifying glass. He’s giving us a gift: we are experientially learning what he is like: sorrow and tears and suffering are part of the deal. Good parents are often silent so their children experience sorrow for a greater good. God is the best parent. It feels like punishment but it’s actually discipline. This is what God is really like.

What Sadness and God’s Silence Are Designed to Do
So what’s the purpose of God brining sadness into our lives and being silent in those times? Sadness and God’s silence are signals that God wants to do something something important. He wants to lovingly conquer us. He wants us to hunger for and hope in him.

It would have been easy for the psalmist to stop praying. But he prays. For 18 verses. Three times he says in different ways, “I cry to you” (vv. 1, 9, 13)

He’s not crying to anyone else. Being on the precipice of hell forces him to go to God. The cliché “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is true. Imagine the the time you were apart from a loved one, perhaps a fiancé or spouse. You hungered for them, didn’t you? Because you couldn’t see them, or perhaps call them, you wanted them all the more.

So sadness and silence are meant to create a longing in us for him. They’re not meant to drive us away. He’s doing something in us that could not be done any other way.

The psalmist is also arguing that God is a God of life, not death. When you read this psalm, the indignant cries about impending death and the grave and the pit and Sheol and Abaddon show that the only thing that will satisfy is resurrection. That’s his ultimate hope.

Listen to verses 10-12,

[10] Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
[11] Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
[12] Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

The Psalmist argues like one who knows God is the God of the living, not the dead, even if he doesn’t feel like it. Sadness and God’s silence are meant to look forward for rescue from death.

All this makes us ask ourselves several key questions: What am I hungering for? What do I hope in? Do I want God or health? God or a good marriage? God or children? God or money? God or a job? God or happiness? Do I want God more than I want to breathe?

Really, what this Psalm shows is that God is not interested in answering our unanswerable questions. And you can almost imagine the silent God looking at the Psalmist, like a tender parent, shaking his head, saying, “Just wait, honey. You’ll understand soon.” This psalm leaves us longing for God alone to be our help. In our darkest moments, answers won’t do. We want someone to embrace us.

When you think about your most tear-stained moments in life, you were probably most likely to trust someone ready to embrace and console you if they’ve been there—if they know what you are going through. I think we need that from God, too. And here’s what’s amazing: we should hunger for God and hope in God more than the psalmist because we know God has firsthand experience. What we come to find out is that God not only takes you through the wringer, but goes through the wringer himself…with you and for you. The psalmist never knew that about God.

God may not always give us answers. But he gives us himself, which is better than answers. In Jesus, God joins us in our tears. In Jesus, God overcomes death. Jesus was called the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. He experienced sadness to the extreme because he was a perfect man who lived in an imperfect world. Think about how sad that would be. He wept often. He was grieved often.

Then at the end of his life, his soul was full of troubles. He faced an unanswered prayer in the garden when he sweated blood. And on the cross, the Father really left Jesus. The Father’s wrath really swept over Jesus and destroyed him. What the psalmist felt—what you and I feel at times—Jesus actually endured. Jesus cried out, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”

Silence.

The Father really didn’t answer Jesus. Jesus is really the one singing this Psalm. He’s really the only one who can.

Yet we know that God eventually answered Jesus. but it took death and 3 days. Then he rose again. He was not abandoned to Sheol. He did not suffer corruption. He overcame the darkness. And when you are united to him by faith, you will share in his resurrection, too. God is not the God of the dead, but the living. Nothing—no One—else in the world can promise you this but Jesus.

Perhaps you are saying, “It’s nice to know that Jesus went through that. But how does it help?” Here’s how it helps. He’s saying to you in those moments, “I have been there. I’ve been to hell and back. When you feel God is silent, he’s not. My Father—your Father—is preparing you for resurrection.” And if that is your only hope, that is okay. There is nothing wrong with you. Sadness is normal. Even long-term sadness is normal. And it is a gift because it’s not just drawing you to God, it’s making you like Jesus. You share in his sufferings and his glory with him.

Let me tell you how our story ends: there will be a day when we share in Jesus’ resurrection and on that day, he will wipe every tear from our eyes. Carly and I like to tell our kids, “The sad things will come untrue.” And they will.

The Apostle Paul said we are “always sorrowful, yet rejoicing.” I wish there was another way to resurrection light than the dark depths of Psalm 88. But I don’t think there is. There wasn’t for Jesus. The hope is resurrection but Jesus says, “Deny yourself, carry you cross and follow me.” He’s calling us into the depths of sorrow. Only to experience a weight of glory far beyond all comparison.

How can we use this Psalm in prayer?
Now, what’s the place of Psalm 88 in our prayers? How do you actually use this Psalm? Here are four ways to use it whether God seems silent now or not.

  1. Use it to jump-start your prayers when God slams the door in your face.
    Remember that the psalmist keeps praying. Use this psalm as a template to describe your pain to God. And recall that God’s silence is what you feel, not what’s real. Jesus’ cross and his resurrection remind us of that.
  2. Use it to weep with those who weep.
    Both letters of Ephesians and Colossians tell believers to “speak in psalms…to one another.” Singing a psalm like this forces us to empathize with those who are sad and suffering. The truth is that if we aren’t suffering, we often look down on people who are. Knowing and singing and telling the psalms to others helps us empathize and identify with others.
  3. Use it to prepare yourself for suffering
    Suffering will come and you need to be ready for it. You need a vocabulary of faith that will help you know how to pray in that time. That great contemporary philosopher, Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games trilogy said, ”Sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.” Psalm 88 can equip you for the day of sadness. In general, read psalms regularly so that you will know what to say no matter the emotion you feel.
  4. Use it to foster a vulnerable, supportive Christian community.
    If you are sad, to those outside the faith you will be a case to be solved. You will be labeled. But in front of Christ and his people, you are an image bearer who lives by grace. The only place where you are free to feel and pray sadness is in the church. Here we live as sorrowful yet rejoicing, believing that in the midst of sadness we have joy in Jesus and resurrection light will someday come.
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