If I were asked to put my finger on Scripture’s most poignant passage about chronic suffering, near the very top of my list would be Psalm 88.
The psalms have been called “the prayer book of the Bible.” And, indeed, the better we know them, the more we see how they help us talk with God in every circumstance and mood. Psalm 88 is a plea for God to stop hiding his face from the suffering psalmist. It opens with the psalmist crying out continuously to the God of his salvation (verses 1–2) and it ends the same way (verses 13–14).
As with most of what are now known as the psalms of lament, the psalmist doesn’t say exactly what his trouble is, although he does say that he has been afflicted and close to death from his youth and that his affliction has been so deep that he is helpless, having lost all his strength (verses 4, 15).
We who have suffered some crippling disability can easily place ourselves alongside the psalmist and utter the same cries. And those who care for the deeply disabled should have no difficulty turning this psalm into a prayer to be prayed for them.
Psalm 88 is the only psalm that ends without any expression of hope. It expresses only unrelieved suffering. This may make it seem to be a psalm that we would want to steer clear of, especially as its startling claims begin to sink home. Why would we want to be reminded that sometimes God seems to be distant over someone’s entire lifetime? Why would we want to hear that someone can become so sick that everyone shuns him because he has become a horror to them? Does it seem right for the psalmist to claim that God’s wrath lies heavy upon him and that he is suffering God’s terrors?
Yet, as I shall urge in my talk at November’s Desiring God conference on disability, we ought not to steer clear of any part of Scripture, for every part of it ultimately comes from the mouth of God for our instruction and for our good. In fact, Scripture insists that God always ultimately brings good to his people through their suffering, no matter how difficult that suffering may be.
Lessons from Psalm 88
Psalm 88 (and the other psalms of lament) teach us at least two lessons that help us to breathe when we are feeling suffocated by suffering.
First, they teach us that when we have a complaint with God, we are to take it directly to him. The psalmists never complain about God; they always complain to him.
And, secondly, they teach us to be honest. All of the psalmists, exactly like the unknown psalmist who penned Psalm 88, model transparency, expressing their complaints to God as frankly as they can.
Both of these lessons are, so to speak, part of the psalmists’ exhaling, of their crying out, pleading, and complaining to God by breathing out to him what it would be harmful for them to try to withhold from him.
What we learn, when we go on to study all of the other psalms of lament, is that the psalmists always went on to inhale, to deliberately breathe in truths about God’s character, about his promises, about his previous wondrous acts for Israel, and about his record of individualized care for them. Breathing in these truths gave them hope, which is often what we most need when we are dealing with disability.