Praying in the valley

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We lament because we believe in God passionately

By David Funk

Psalm 88 is terrible. It is the one psalm that has no ingredient of resolution, no praise, not even a commitment to praise in the future. The poet ends his prayer by stating:

“I have been afflicted and dying from my youth on;

I have suffered your terrors; I am desperate.

Your burning anger has crossed over me;

your terrors have annihilated me.

They swirl around me all day like water;

they have encompassed me completely.

You have removed lover and friend from me;

Darkness is my closest friend.”

The final word in Hebrew is “darkness.” Marty Martin, author of A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, writes that “the Psalm is a scandal to anyone who isolates it from the biblical canon, a pain to anyone who must hear it apart from more lively words. Whoever devises from the Scriptures a philosophy in which everything turns out right has to begin by tearing out this page of the volume.”

What is this psalm doing in our Bibles, we who have a faith characterized by hope, joy and the love of the Lord? Part of the answer must be that sometimes we as God’s faithful people find ourselves in the shoes of this poet.

Life is a God-ward journey, but the road toward him sometimes takes us into valleys. In those valleys we are not able to see our goal. More than that, some of these valleys are so deep that not even a ray of light enters the bottom. This is the valley of Tzel-Maweth, Hebrew for “the shadow of death.” We need this prayer because sometimes we sojourn in the Valley of Tzel-Maweth.

Psalm 88 is the prayer of a person in unrelenting pain. We don’t know the exact situation the psalmist was in, and that is intentional. This psalm is written in such a way that it can be the prayer of any of us who experience insistent pain for any reason. But one of the more common experiences of the Valley of Tzel-Maweth is the pain that mental illness brings.

Mental illness touches almost all of us in some way, whether because it is your own personal experience or because someone you love is walking that valley. Perhaps you know what it is like to visit the psychiatric ward when someone you love is on suicide watch. It is said that 22.1 percent of all adults suffer from a diagnosable psychiatric disorder in any given year.

To be sure, mental illness is a physical event. It has to do with synapses, neurons and chemicals of the brain. But we believe that we are created beings, in inextricable relationship with our Creator. We believe that we are not just souls, but embodied souls. Matter matters. Mental illness is therefore a physical event that has profound spiritual fallout.

The experience of mental illness raises some profound and troubling questions. We wonder, “Is it God who sends this suffering? If so, why?” Theologian Kathryne Greene-McCreight writes of her experience with bipolar disorder and clinical depression in Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. She writes: “Why, with my religious convictions about the love and mercy of God, with my belief in that unconditional and free grace of God poured out in Jesus even in spite of my basest longings and actions, why would I not be filled with joy at every moment, eager to greet the day with the love of the Lord?”

The basic question on which all others return is, “What is the relation of God to my suffering?”

Enter Psalm 88. This prayer is terrible, but it is not ultimately hopeless. It is not a psalm of mute depression. The fact that it is not hopeless consists not in what it does or does not say but rather in how it is said. Hopelessness sounds like resignation. Hopelessness sounds like silence, like non-prayer. This psalm speaks to God, and therein lies all the difference.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “This psalm, like the faith of Israel, is utterly contained in the notion that Yahweh is there and must be addressed.” It is as if on the bottom of the Valley of Tzel-Maweth there is a pit, and it is prayer like this that is the lifeline that keeps us from falling into that pit.

Prayer like this is, therefore, an act of courage and an act of defiance. By it we remember and insist that in all things it is the Lord with whom we have to do. Even in that horrible valley we are on a journey towards God, and that terrible valley cannot be—is not—where that journey ends.

So, why do we have this prayer in our Scriptures, which are otherwise characterized by hope, joy and love? Because this is what faithfulness sounds like in situations of unrelenting pain. We’re in real trouble when we stop praying like this, when we cease our part in this difficult conversation with God. Then there truly is hopelessness and we slip into the pit on the bottom of Tzel-Maweth.

The majority of the prayers that God has given us to pray to him give some expression to brutally honest lament. If this awful kind of prayer is one of God’s provisions for us when we are in the Valley of Tzel-Maweth, then we must have room in our faith for this kind of prayer. But we don’t. Lament has been mostly exiled from our personal and corporate worship, and the loss is great indeed.

Lament is driven by a conviction that God cares and matters and is who he says he is. We lament not because we don’t believe, but because we believe so passionately. Conversely, loss of lament is a sign of unbelief. God has given us Psalm 88 and other laments because this is what faithfulness sounds like when we walk in the valleys. Even here it is the Lord with whom we have to do. Yes, Lord!

David Funk is the senior pastor of Abbeydale Christian Fellowship, an Evangelical Mennonite congregation in Calgary, Alta. This article was first printed in The Messenger, the Evangelical Mennonite Conference publication, and is reprinted with permission. 

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