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Posted in: Depression, Growth, Overcoming

04.18.23 ( Jeff Vines )

Darkness, My Closest Friend

(Excerpt from the Sermon)

Sermon Series: Anxiety, Depression & Jesus

Why does God put Psalm 88 in the Bible?

Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion? But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend. -Psalm 88

Why does God put Psalm 88 in the Bible? A Psalm where there seems to be no hope. First, to show you that mental illness can last a long time. Second, to show you the grace of God.

Some of the prayer in Psalm 88 is not really a prayer but an interrogation. Look at the sarcasm in verses 10 and 11, “Do You show Your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise You? Is Your love declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Destruction?” In other words, he says, how can I tell the world about all Your wonders if I'm dead? I want to do so much for You, God. I want to spread the joy of Your name. How can I do that? How can I declare Your name if I'm d-e-a-d, dead? Maybe not physically dead, but spiritually and mentally decapitated. 

Then, in verse 15, he says he’s experienced this from his youth. He basically says, God, You've never been with me. All my life I've suffered. You look at it and you may think, that seems disrespectful, doesn't it? He almost seems blasphemous, because this man is interpreting all of his life through his present circumstances. He ends the Psalm by saying, even darkness is a better friend to me than You, God. Because at least darkness never leaves me. Notice the sarcasm.

Psalm 39 also ends this way when the writer says, turn your face away from me so that I can have a little peace before I die. One commentator says this about Psalm 88 and Psalm 39, “The very presence of these prayers in Scripture is a witness to God's understanding. God knows how men speak when they are desperate.” Now think about that, God placed these psalms here. God does not say, there's no way I'm going to let this Psalm make it into Psalms. I don't want people to think they can talk to Me this way. But God doesn't say that. He says, put it in. Because He identifies with those prayers. God is saying, I love this man even though he's not getting it right. I fully understand his depression. Even though he can't see the whole picture, I see his frustration and therefore I'm going to extend My grace and mercy.

God says to those who experience mental illness (and this is not just theory to me, this is real because this is the case in my own life), in the midst of this, that I am your God. Not because you get up every day and put on a happy face. Not because you say and do everything right, not because you never talk back, not because you never lash out or get frustrated with Me. I am your God because I love you and I am a God of grace. We should find that liberating. 

So why did God place this Psalm in the Bible? To show you that mental illness can last a long time. To show you the grace of God during the dark seasons of your days. And to show you that mental illness is where you become a person of righteousness. This is hard to fathom. It's hard to accept. When somebody told me this in the middle of it, I didn't appreciate hearing it. But in retrospect, after the fact, it's true. God put this here to show you that mental illness is where you become a person of greatness. The writer of Psalm 88 should not be saying the things he's saying, but at least he's saying them to God. One day, when I was in the middle of my anxiety, I finally got the courage to leave the house. I had to come to the office because I was preaching again that weekend. Through that season I continued to preach and continued to pray and continued to learn. One day I got to the office and my brain was in that cloud again.

I was in that place, I don't know where you go. It's like Paul, whether you're in the body or out of the body, I don't know. The only difference was I wasn't caught up in the third heaven. I felt like I was caught up in the third hell. This was terrible. I couldn't think. I couldn't process. Do you know what I did? I'm going to make a confession. I got my iPad out and I watched Forrest Gump. I don't know why. I just thought that maybe I needed a good laugh.

The problem with Forrest Gump is that you get some laughs, but you also get some serious dialogue. I came to the scene where Lieutenant Dan, who had lost both his legs in battle, and who hated Forrest because Forrest got the Medal of Honor, and he felt Forrest was an idiot. Here, Lieutenant Dan (coming from a long line of family members who were war heroes) got nothing. He lost both his legs. Forrest carried him out of the jungle and Lieutenant Dan hated him for it. But not only that, he hated himself, and became addicted to sex, drugs, and alcohol. He was destroying his life. But he heard that Forrest Gump had a boat and was shrimping in Alabama. He promised Forrest that if he ever owned his own boat, he would come and be his first mate. Holding true to his word, he comes. He becomes the first mate of Forrest Gump’s shrimping entity. But they're not catching any shrimp. One day a horrible storm comes and all the boats come in except one. The only reason Forrest remained is because Lieutenant Dan was determined to die that day. So he climbs on top of the mast with this storm that had the potential to destroy them, that destroyed every boat that had gone into harbor. Lieutenant Dan has it out with God. In his frustration he says to God, You'll never sink this boat. Is that all You got, God? You son of a gun, is that all You have? You call this a storm? He yells, it's time for a showdown between You and me, God. One-on-one, here I am. Come get me. You'll never sink this boat. He screams and yells at God. Then, in the next scene after the storm subsides, here comes Lieutenant Dan, the atheist, who's been shouting at God all night long. Forrest says, “He never said so, but I think he made his peace with God.”

When I saw that, believe it or not, I remember thinking, I need to get this out, and I let God have it. I'm a pastor, I'm Your servant. I've been serving You since I was 21 years old. I have given everything to You. I went to Africa for You. I went to New Zealand for You and here You are, You've got me in this darkness and You won't answer. The healing that took place that day was probably more than any medicine. At least I was still talking to God. God did not strike me down and smack me, because He's a God of grace and mercy. I began to learn He was doing something. Do you know what it is? What is Satan's accusation against Job? If you read the book of Job, Satan says to God, Job's relationship with You is transactional. Of course, he serves You, because You keep blessing him. Of course, he does the right thing, because You keep giving him more and more stuff. You withhold that stuff, You stop blessing him, You wound him internally and externally and he'll curse You. He'll curse the day he was born and he'll curse You. Give him inner and outer darkness and he will not serve You. That passage spoke to me because I realized that much of my relationship with God at that point in my life was transactional. That I had used people in the past as a means to my end, but now I'm using God. Did I really go to New Zealand and to Africa for God? Or did I go for myself? Had I been serving Him for me or for Him? You have to ask yourself the same question, is Satan right about us, about me, about you?

We all begin with that attitude because we come to God to get something and that's natural. We want to be healed, we want to be saved. Those are good things. But if you never grow out of that emotionally, you become a rollercoaster, because it'll be contingent on what you think God is doing for you at the present time. But God is trying to move us out of egocentrism, where everything's about us, into theocentrism, where everything's about God. Job speaks to God the same way that the writer of Psalm 88 speaks to God. Job 9:22 says, “It is all the same; that's why I say, ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’” Do you hear what he's saying? God, it doesn't do any good to be righteous. You kill us both. He goes on to say, “When a scourge brings sudden death, He mocks the despair of the innocent.” Do you hear what he's saying? An innocent person dies. God, they're in despair. You do nothing about it. He then says, “When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, He blinds its judges. If it is not He, then who is it?” Job is saying, You could've straightened this out. When injustice happens, You could've prevented it. But You don't. Whose fault is it then? It has to be Yours. Job talks to God the exact same way as the author of Psalm 88 talks to God. Yet, here's the key, now in all of this, at the end of the Book of Job, God says, Job has honored Me throughout this entire endeavor. God turns to Job's friends and says, you better ask Job to pray for you. Otherwise, I might smite you. He said this about Job, after all the things that Job said to Him. Why would God say that Job had honored Him? The answer is this: he's talking. You might say he's talking trash. You might even say he's accusatory, but at least he's still talking to God. At least he's still communicating to God. He's angry with God, he's complaining to God, he's accusatory toward God and he's wrong about most of his assumptions. But at least he's still talking to God, because he knows God's there. Even though he does not subjectively feel God. He knows God's objective presence is undeniable. Job never walks away from God. He stays with God until the very end. As a result, Satan is defeated.

If, while you are in your darkness, you continue to listen, if you continue to do good, you continue to go to church, if you continue to feel you're getting nothing out of it, in the middle of this fog and haze and confusion, if you continue to go to church, to read the Word, to surround yourself with friends, if you continue to do these things, what happens is it turns you into greatness. But if you run and run, the disease grows more intense. It is meant to turn you from egocentrism into theocentrism, which inevitably produces endurance, stability, peace, and a centralized joy.

At the end of the Lord of the Rings the Return of the King, the book, not the movie, Sam and his friend Frodo are headed up Mount Doom. As they're headed up, Sam realizes his strength and energy are gone. He's come to the end of himself and he's tempted to crawl up in a little ball and just die. Yet the writer tells us, even as hope died in Sam or seemed to die, it was then turned into a new strength. It reads, “Sam's face grew stern as the will hardened in him and he felt, through all his limbs, a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair or weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.” It is in the darkness that you will throw away the transactional approach to God and begin to know and serve God the way He's meant to be known and served. 

It's almost like, in the darkness, God says, all right, here we are. We're going to find out if you've been serving Me or if you think I'm here to serve You. Right now, you're not getting much out of Me, I know that. You've taken so many things for granted in the past. Will you resign and say: Oh God, I get it. I'm going to serve You and I want You to build in me the man or the woman that You need or want me to become. 

That's hard to hear when you're in the middle of it, because there are many causes, which we're going to talk about later, but there's only one attitude that brings victory. The only way to get this victory that we're looking for is to totally yield the entire illness over to God. To say, God, do in me what You have to do in me. Be gentle. Do in me what You have to do in me to make me into the man or the woman of God that You desire for me to become.

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About the Author
Pastor Jeff Vines is the Lead Pastor of ONE&ALL Church. He spent twenty years on the mission field (Zimbabwe, New Zealand) planting churches and training leaders. Jeff is the author of Dinner with SKEPTICS: Defending God in a World that Makes No Sense (2008, 2011) and Unbroken: 8 Enduring Promises God Will Keep (2012). Jeff and his wife, Robin, have been married over 30 years and enjoy life with their kids Delaney & Sian, their daughter-in-law Jessica and sweet grandchildren Ada, Owen, & Layla.

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