“I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.”
(Psalm 77: 1-2)
I think I like the Psalms so much because they’re very surface-level human. The writer will gush about his appreciation for God, but it’s their pain and frustration, so clearly dotted throughout, that is so very relatable. In Psalm 77:2-4 and 7-9, the writer has a good moan; “I groaned…my spirit grew faint…I was too troubled to speak…will the Lord reject forever?… Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”. And I feel that. Sure, the language is still quite biblical and a lot more coherent than my usual complaining, but it’s vivid and rich and soberingly real (sobering feels like a pretentious word, but I think it’s accurate here- it’s sharp, like eating a lemon).
The writer is still weaving thoughts of hope into the passage however. The questions he asks in vs7-9 are dripping with displeasure and yet heavily self-questioning; “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favour again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”. These are all ironic; unfailing love can’t vanish, God’s promises do not fail, He doesn’t forget anything and he doesn’t withhold His compassion. Even amidst his obvious pain and despair, the writer is acknowledging all the true things that God is.
I feel the frustration of this passage, when my Sunday morning praise is a “worship anyway” kind of worship. When I don’t spare Him a single thought in a day, and so the only thought of Him is one of guilt. And my frustration with these things is not one that bubbles violently over into anger or intense emotion, but rather one of simmering despair and weariness. I just become really fed up, the most useless feeling. Anger, at least, gets you moving.
Even still, it can be hard for the more positive, hopeful words to sink in when you’re feeling down and dejected. I wrote in my journal (that I use so infrequently that this particular entry from over six months ago was easy to find…), “will you ever find God if you’re searching for a God under your description, under your morality? Are you trying to find a God who checks your boxes of what feels right and wrong at your core?” – Isaac, sometime around February 2018 (is this blasphemy?).
I think when I despair, it is so often because God has done things His way, and they just didn’t align with mine.
If I sat back and recognised all the things He has done thus far, like those described from v10 to the end of the chapter, I may realise that God still does have His way of doing things and it still is the right way. That when you had that great week of spending time with God, and then that rubbish week after, that God was present and showed up in both, still running the show.
And hey, our constant inability to recognise what He does is very human. As humans, we suffer from things like depression and anxiety, things that cloud our thoughts, making it harder to acknowledge truths, even when we know them to be right. And that sucks. But it’s not the end.
In the book “Have a little faith”, The Reb, a Jewish rabbi, is telling a story about making a condolence call to a doctor whose brother had died. This doctor, who was an atheist, tells The Reb, through tears, that he envies him. When asked why, he says, “When you lose someone you love, you can curse God… you can demand to know why. But I…can only blame myself.” The Reb then follows this up by saying that “it is far more comforting to think God listened and said no, than to think that nobody’s out there.” I think that we are often presented with overwhelming biblical evidence of God’s goodness. I think that it can often also be very hard to recognise that goodness, not by any fault of our own, which can lead to frustration and despair. And if there’s one small comfort, it might just be this; this great news may not fill us with joy today, but maybe it will tomorrow. Or next week. Because when that time comes, it will still be real and true and just so indicative of a very real God. A God who’s waiting for us to be able to know this fully and working in us through all the times that we are unable to see it.
2 Responses to “Despair and Psalm 77”
Wow, Isaac – (and I even got your name right!) what a beautiful, authentic blog. You clearly have embodied, or incarnated, this psalm. Your reflections are so tender and compassionate – deeply moving. Thank you so much.
Thanks Isaac. What the Reb said really struck me… Cursing God and demanding an answer for the crap that happens is not the definition of hopelessness, but actually gives hope because He is listening and He is bigger. Like a child crying and punching the chest of his father in frustration….