It’s the pits. The worst, most depressing situation you can imagine. We use it playfully today, exaggerating our circumstance. The saying has lost its luster.
But it was not always so.
Out of the 150 chapters in Psalms, perhaps as many as 65 to 67 of them are laments or what we can call “complaint psalms.” These are songs in which the writer is disoriented because of sin, affliction, sickness, attack, or some other result of the brokenness of the world.
And one of the dominant motifs of these kinds of psalms is “the pit.” No, it’s not a reference to a stinky arm pit. It’s much worse. The poets of the Psalms probably took this image from the passage in Genesis when Joseph’s brothers threw him down a literal pit as they sought to get rid of him. In Psalms, it’s a metaphor describing God’s lack of presence or the feeling that his hesed (steadfast love, lovingkindness, etc.) has failed.
Hide not your face from me,
lest I be like those who go down to the pit. (Ps. 143:7)
I am counted among those who go down to the pit. (Ps. 88:4)
Be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the pit. (Ps. 28:1).
The biblical vision of “the pit” can be a powerful tool for our prayers in the midst of true despair. When your child dies. When your spouse leaves. When you are wrongfully accused. When you are marginalized. When you are mocked for your faith. When you get the news you have cancer.
Truly, the pits. And if we’re honest, most of life in this world is like this.
In the Psalms, it’s interesting that the remedy is almost never a reversal of the dire situation. It may be. But often the situation cannot change. Most often, however, there is a radical gift given by God: a reorientation to the reality that God is actually with us despite appearances. Circumstances remain unchanged. But the psalmists—and we with them––can now say, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire beside you” (Ps. 73:25).
In these moments of reorientation back to God, it’s as if we read about and experience ourselves that God, though he doesn’t always bring us out, actually joins us where we are.
And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Christmas means that God came. He joins us in the pit. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, took on weak, frail, death-bound flesh. He exposed himself to the harsh realities of a broken world.
But Christmas means even more than that. Jesus did not merely come to sit in the pit with us by becoming a human being. He came to enter the ultimate pit for us on the cross. It was there that he—who is himself the Presence of God—actually lost of the presence of God his Father for you and me. Imagine the horror of this eternal, loving relationship being broken! And for what purpose? So that we might eternally live in the smiling, loving presence of God. Jesus’ resurrection from the pit of death is God’s stamp of guarantee it will happen.
When we experience “the pits” and feel that God has abandoned us, we can quickly realize it’s just that—a feeling. Now, the feeling is real. Oh, is it real! It’s raw. It hurts. It requires lament to get through it (not around it). But make no mistake. God is doing something while we’re in that pit. He’s Immanuel, with us, right there. And he’s drawing us to depend on him alone.
God himself is the prize. As Michael Card has written, “You didn’t come to fix things, did you? You came to join me.” He’s better than a fixed situation. He’s taking us to resurrection, to himself.
One last thought. For many, Christmastime is the pits. Our Americanized version of Christmas is laden with artificial smiles and romantic comedy solutions. So any measure of sadness in our lives seems abnormal. Why are you sad? It’s Christmas! You can probably think of your own reasons why this year’s family gathering will feel pit-like.
But let us remember that this is precisely the reason Jesus came. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining” says the Christmas carol. Not clapping and guzzling egg nog. He came because we needed it. He came to join us in the pit, endure it with us and for us, and raise us out. One day, he’ll come back again to lift us out finally and and forever into his loving, face-to-face presence. If your Christmas this year is the pits, what a glorious time to recall and hope in this most precious truth.