LENT — Free to Despair

1 O LORD, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you.
2 Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry!
3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength,
5 like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.
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;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.
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?
13 But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?
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; my companions have become darkness. (Psalm 88 ESV)

I came across this saying one of the daily offices the other day — Thursday I think. I don’t remember which one, Evening Prayer, maybe. I’ve been using the rubrics and readings for the daily offices from the St. Bede Breviary web site, part of my continued drift toward something resembling orthodox Anglicanism.

In fact, I do wish I had my own small chapel where I could do this with others. Pray the hours, and celebrate the eucharist. Assuming, of course, there are others here in Moses Lake who would do this. And I don’t think there are.


At any rate, this psalm. I like this psalm. I have underlined most of it in yellow in my Bible. It is one of pure, unleavened lament. There is little but sorrow and despair here.

And that says it is okay simply cry out, to lament, to despair. And to do all of those things without tacking on a happy ending or sense of hope.

A few things. In the Hebrew, the first line here is:

A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah [קֹרַח]. To the choirmaster: according to the Mahalath of Leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

The Sons of Korah have a number of psalms attributed to them, and it appears to be related to a verb קָרַח which means “to make bald” though it bears an interesting resemblance to קָרַה which means “to encounter or meet” with an emphasis on misfortune, and also to oppose.

I bring this up because Korah is that guy way back in Numbers 16 who challenges Moses for very democratic reasons — “You have gone too far!” he tells Moses. “For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them! Why then fo you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” — and is swallowed up live, along with his followers, into Sheol, the underworld, the land of the dead.

The Sons of Korah — the bald or, if you like, the unfortunate oppositional ones — know a few things about misfortune.

About being cast out from the presence of God.

There is, among many Christians, a sense that God wants, even demands, that we be happy and upbeat all the time. No despair. No sorrow. No lament. Everything is all resurrection, and no crucifixion. An empty tomb without anyone dead ever laid there in the first place.

Jesus comes into your life and changes it for the better! Always better! Always happy! Always on your way to health and wealth and your best self ever!

Anything else is doubt. Faithless, hollow, doubt.

But this is not true of scripture itself. Yes, we do know the end of the story — the tomb is empty, the dead are risen, there will be a new heaven and a new earth. But to get there … we must first suffer and die.

So it is okay to sit, and lament, and wonder — where is God? Why is God doing this to me?

In fact, if we take the psalms as Martin Luther did, the very prayers of Christ, then we are doing what our Lord did in his very humanity — wonder where God is, and why he is alone, abandoned, and why it seems he bears the wrath so unjustly, and so alone.

It is Christ, wondering, “My God, My God, why you have forsaken me?” A real cry of despair, of uncertainty and unknowing, if the humanity of Jesus means anything at all.

If our humanity means anything.

We are freed to despair. And while many such psalms end with a confession of trust and faith in the saving mercy of God, this one does not. Which means — we can despair like this too. We can faithfully cry out to God “You have abandoned me to destruction, cast my soul away, left me alone and unwanted, like a man alive among the dead.”

Full stop. End of statement. No “… but you are faithful” or “I will trust in the Lord.” just silence. Despair followed by a quiet nothing, an emptiness that seems to stretch to the very beginnings of the universe.

We are free to despair and lament because this is not unbelief. This is not a lack of faith. Or a lack of trust. It is an honest expression in a time of deep sorrow and trouble. I am alone. I am unwanted. I have been wounded and I will never heal or be whole again. I have been abandoned by God. We are free to do this.

Because … to cry out to God in sorrow, or despair, or even in rage, is an act of faith. An act of trust. That God will hear. And remember.

And know.

One thought on “LENT — Free to Despair

  1. Hi Charles.

    Spot on.

    I think Isaiah points to the fact that Jesus was a man of sorrows. If one looks at His journey closely even His I ncarnation was full of episodes of sorrow.



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