If you never had an emo phase, you missed out. You have to face pain and name suffering and see it in yourself. It’s part of growing up. For some it’s a Nirvana stage. I asked some high schoolers recently if the Nirvana stage is still a thing. They told me some kids still wear the T-shirts, but they don’t know the band. If you had a Nirvana stage, you know that they took this incredibly simple music and filled it with expressive angst and tension like no one else. Music can do this—it can face pain and name suffering even in simple forms.

Take a different band. Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” has this killer line that tells you what we look for in these songs. Halfway through, he moans out, “I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me.” As pop culture revisits the 90s, depression and alienation are powerful themes in the songs, shows, and movies around us. If you’re creating but not talking about these themes, you’re faking it.

There’s something truthful to recognize in this. It’s not new—so much of the most powerful art comes out of this place of depression and alienation: Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar. Which part of Dante’s Divine Comedy do we celebrate? The inferno. Hell. Art through the centuries gives words and form to this torture of the soul.

The Psalms give us the songbook of the church, and it is not superficial or lacking. Forty percent of them are songs of lament, equipping us to hurt well, and none go darker than the darkest psalm, Psalm 88.

88 O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
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.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

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;
    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.

There is a reason scholars call Psalm 88 the darkest psalm: it breaks into three sections, and they all end in darkness. That means we get a descent—and there is plenty of “going down”’ imagery—into darkness repeated three times. Whenever our heads might come up, down we go again.

Why three times? Usually, a lament psalm has three sections. There are a lot of these psalms, so we can spot this general pattern. It’s usually protest, plea, praise. There is a turn to hope at the end. But here in Psalm 88, the protest and plea are followed by no praise. Protest: darkness. Plea: darkness. Praise—look back at verse 13. He tries. But God himself is the problem. You cast my soul away. You hide. I suffer your terrors. Your wrath, your assaults. You caused this. Darkness.

The darkness language gives us the sections. The first section, vv. 1-9, ends with my eyes growing dim. Physical darkness. The second section, vv. 10-12, ends with darkness in the land of forgetfulness. Compounded darkness. The third section, vv. 13-18, says in the ESV, “my companions have become darkness.” The original translates a bit more like this: “my companions—darkness!” Overwhelming darkness.

The logic of the Psalm runs like this:

  1. 1-9: You have cut me off. Here I am, isolated, cut off, no hope. A horror to those who see me and forgotten by those who don’t.
  2. 10-12: Why have you done this? It brings you no glory. There is no good in this, no silver lining, no meaning or purpose or goodness, no praise to your name.
  3. 13-18: You have ruined my life, and you are not listening.

Have you asked these questions? Or have you been faced with someone asking these questions, and had no idea what to say? The psalmist asks these questions, and God says nothing.

Except he does. God says, “That’s my boy. Heman the Ezrahite. Put his name on this psalm and put it in the Bible. Let them know forever that I heard his prayer and counted it as precious. Put despair in the songbook of my people, and make sure you credit my dear child who wrote this. Show them how I love them in the middle of the worst of it all.”

God put this in the Bible to give us the language to thump his chest and yell at him. When we need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in us, he gives us Psalm 88 and teaches us the geography of our emotions.

Are we ready to talk to God like this? Have we believed that he would hear this and stay? That when we can’t or won’t polish up your prayers, he honors and treasures them? Then we have to ask ourselves, are we ready to hear these prayers? Is there space in our relationships for people to thump the table and say, “No! I can’t see the light! Don’t tell me that darkness is light, that when God closes a door he opens a window, that everything happens for a reason!” Are we ready to hear these prayers?

If we are just a community, another interest group or club, we couldn’t bear the attack on our ideology. But if we are the body of Christ, a family bound together by the love of the mighty God, who lives and who loves us enough to put this kind of thing in our songbook, who is strong enough to take all our pain—if this is true, we can call broken, evil, dark things what they are, and we can ask without a prepared answer, “Why, God? Why, if you are who you say you are? How could you let this happen? If you are God, what are you doing? Why have you done this?”

We can pretend these questions don’t exist. We can act like knowing God is always encouraging, nothing else. But if we do, we’re not living biblical Christianity. Biblical Christianity has room carved out for rage. This is the Bible of Jacob’s all-night wrestle with God, the Bible of Job, the Bible of Gethsemane, the Bible of exile and grief and weeping. The Bible gives us language and permission to bring these realities face to face with God himself.

So how should we respond? Don’t try to fix it. Sit in it. Often, we would rather fix the problem, so our world is happy again, than sit in it and call it what it is. And as we sit in it, let’s not jump straight to a similar story. I know this temptation: someone shares something hard, and I have a story of my own, about me or someone else, that seems to connect. Hold it. There may come a time, but it is not now. Not in the moment of pain. Or perhaps we want to distract with laughter, or work, or practicalities, or food, or adventures. These are good things, and their time will come. But stay in the grief. Psalm 88 teaches us at least two things for when we are faced with deep, soul-wrenching suffering, death, and pain. First, we don’t have to square off the pain and resolve it immediately, and second, we can’t just put a Band-Aid on it and get on.

So, what can we do? The Psalm teaches us two things. Turn to God and cry out, and cry out as it is.

Don’t neglect to pray. Don’t stick a Bible verse on it neatly and walk away, but instead pray real prayers with people who are in this. Pray for them but pray with them. Pauses are fine. Start out not knowing where you’re going to end. Cry out to the Lord together. Don’t forget to turn to God.

And cry out as it is. Call things what they feel like. Call out the promises of God, and beg that he would keep them. Trust in resurrection hope, and cry out for a foretaste now. Be not ashamed. Cry out.

How could you let this happen?

If you are God, what are you doing?

Why have you done this?

We are living through a genuinely baffling historic moment. A couple of years ago we were talking about Deep Fakes. Now, we’re all hearing about or experiencing ChatGPT and all the other AI that some people have known about for years, and some people are just getting their heads around. The rise of AI has raised huge philosophical questions. Can I tell if the show I watch has been written by a human? Can AI match or even surpass our skill in telling stories? Will it be true? Does it matter?

People have suggested I use Chat GPT to write sermons. Some of the congregation where I serve may wish I had! But we know it matters that I did not. Authorship matters. Not in everything; but in some things. Take the hymn, “Heal Us, Emmanuel.” The text was written by William Cowper in 1779, towards the end of a life marked by chronic, severe depression. He made multiple suicide attempts and struggled with profound guilt over these. He was befriended by John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” and Cowper wrote profoundly beautiful hymns out of his experience of the Lord in his personal darkness. It matters that it was Cowper who wrote the words of “Heal Us, Emmanuel.”

In the face of the things we endure in life, we need a gospel that can stand up in this world at least as well as the songs the world sings to us.

Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is 98 feet high and 26 feet wide, made of reinforced concrete and soapstone. We can’t have a concrete Jesus above us, whom we stand in awe of, but who cannot feel the gut-pain of loss, humiliation, and grief. But it’s no better to have a cardboard cut-out Jesus in the corner, a Jesus we curtsy to but know he’s two-dimensional. A God who is emotionally impoverished and ready to collapse the moment we lean on his shoulder or punch him in the gut is no God.

We need who Jesus truly is—the God who can walk into the darkest corners with us and wait with us, who can give us the words and the songs that recognize the pain in us, diagnose it, teach us what it is, and offer real hope. We need a God who will not be disgusted at us when we can’t give him the answer we think he wants.

Who wrote the Psalms? We have already said that Heman the Ezrahite wrote Psalm 88. But the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. Hear this: what the Spirit wrote, Christ sang, and the Father approves. Inspired by the Spirit of God, Heman wrote this psalm, and God the Father blessed and approved it. You have it in your Bible. But don’t miss the other person of the Trinity.

Pastor James E Adams says this:

The Spirit of Christ was in the psalmists, speaking through them centuries before he came to earth as the long-awaited Messiah. The “I,” the author of the Psalms, is Christ himself. His is the great voice we hear in the Psalms crying out in prayer to God the Father.[1]

The Psalms are the prayers and the songs of Jesus, given to us, as his body, to sing after him. That understanding is why in Hebrews 2 the author quotes a Psalm that Jesus is never on record as having quoted, but the author quotes Psalm 22 as Jesus’ own words.

Why does this matter? Jesus sang the song of the deepest despair. He needed these words. He endured the kind of unbelievable, inexplicable pain that makes a person speak to God this way.

For each of us, some parts of this psalm will remind us of things we have been through. But none of us can claim that we have literally cried out every word of this psalm. Yet for Jesus, every word of this psalm is the true, literal cry of his heart. For him, there is no exaggeration. And not only is there no exaggeration, but he wrote this song and then chose to sing it. He knew exactly what it would take to love us and serve us, and he chose to do it. And then he shared that with us, so what is his could become ours.

As Christ sings this, Christ dignifies you. He calls you up in to the likeness of God in your lost, loosed among the dead, soul full of troubles, helpless self. And the Father says, through the tears of the Son, “That’s my girl! I see your soul! Though companions shun you and you are a horror to them, I AM the God of your salvation! You’re in the right place! Cry out! It’s not over.”

Learn to suffer from Jesus. Sing the songs he gives you. It’s not wrestling if you’re not trying to win. Pound on your Father’s chest and don’t hold back. He is strong enough to stand it, and he has covenanted in the blood of his Son that he will not turn away from you.

Listen to the unsanitized songs of others. Be unshockable as sinners in a fallen world with a mighty God. Honor one another with the truth. It’s not over.

Listen and hear Jesus sing. He didn’t only face the grave but went down into it. He didn’t only glimpse the darkness but went into it and conquered it. He didn’t look at wrath and evil and shrug, but took all the shunning, all the disgrace, all the wrath and weakness and shame, to rise out and buy the words of Psalm 89 for the soul who sings Psalm 88.

One commentator says of Psalm 88 that “the power of its accusation is the power of its hope.” In the depths of the accusation, the fact that it can be made to the God of my salvation teaches us that the rejoicing of another psalm is not impossible and will one day come. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” No matter how dark your today is, it is not the end of your story.

I will close with these lyrics from “Wrestle” by songwriter Delaney Young:

Come and wrestle with me my beloved
To the other side of the night
You’ll see that mercy soon will bind your wounds
And bring you back to life
Bring you back to life…

Child there is a mercy in my wounds
I won’t leave you I refuse
There is healing from these bruises
I have good things for you

[1] James E. Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms, Second Edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2016), 25–26.

[2] Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, ed. Klaus Baltzer, trans. Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 398.

Austin Kettle is the Director of Community Life at McLean Presbyterian Church and a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington DC.

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