Brad Bigney: Thanks Dale. I always enjoy time with you and ACBC.
Dale Johnson: We enjoy having you around, being on our team, and speaking the truth in love to us any time you get a chance to minister the Word. You recently preached a sermon series through some really difficult passages, some of the darkest passages in the Bible. As a pastor, you sometimes want to tend toward preaching a sermon series that would be encouraging to your people, but you were drawn to preach through a sermon series on some of the darker passages. Some people would argue that Psalm 88 is one of the darkest passages of the Bible. Why would you as a pastor choose to go in that direction to use this to teach to your people?
Brad Bigney: I hope some of it is that as I’m maturing and aging in my own walk with the Lord, I’m becoming more comfortable with all of the Bible. When I was younger, I grew up in the church. I would skim through the Book of Job and skim through these dark Psalms and in the back of my mind I thought, “I’m not sure what all this is about, but I’m not comfortable with it because it’s not all tied up with a bow. All the lines are not drawn cleanly, so I don’t know what to do with it.”
By nature, we tend to think everything needs to be systematic and have clean answers. How do we fix this problem? It doesn’t seem like anything’s getting fixed in those chapters. When you counsel and you sit with people at close range, you learn aspects of your flock that they’re not going to say at the front doors as they shake your hand. “Hey great sermon pastor, but I want you to know I’m having awful thoughts about God.” But in counseling, if you sit and listen well and love well, they’ll open up. I began to realize I’ve got good people, not immature or godless, but mature Christians who have some of the very thoughts that these chapters articulate. Instead of running from them, I’ve found myself over the last decade pointing people to chapters that I used to avoid.
One example of this is when a woman in our church grabbed me right after the third service in the past couple weeks. She’s so dear and she always sat right in the third row with her husband. He died suddenly, no prior notice. They were just working in the yard, he wasn’t old, and she walked around the corner to greet a neighbor. When she came back he was stretched out on the ground. She thought he was just kidding—he was a real jokester. But she went over and she couldn’t wake him. He was blue. He was dead. To her credit, she’s been in church every Sunday since the funeral, but she grabbed me a few weeks ago and I could tell she was almost ashamed. She whispered, “Brad, I want you to know I’m having terrible thoughts about God. I’m angry and I know I shouldn’t think this way.” I said, “I love you dearly. I’m so proud of you. Did you know there’s a place in the Scriptures for you? I’m going to email you some chapters.” I assigned her some chapters of lamentation and said, “Let these give voice to your feelings. You’re not alone. You’re not the first to have felt this.” She later responded with gratitude.
Sometimes believers need to be given permission that it’s okay to feel this way. We don’t want them to stay there forever, but I think it’s an oversell when we think, “If you really know Jesus and you know Romans 8:28, ‘All things work together for good.'” What she did not need me to do was lean in and say, “You know all things work together for good.” She knows that. What she needs to know is, “What am I supposed to do with these feelings?”
I believe what we learned from the Psalms of lamentation is that we have permission to voice our complaint to God in prayer. That’s not the same as complaining out loud about God to other people. That’s a sin. These are prayers, dark prayers, but they’re prayers.
Dale Johnson: You’re distinguishing very helpfully the difference between how we often want to respond in some dark issues or issues of suffering; we want to complain, often complaining to others. But what you’re describing there is helpful because you’re saying that we still feel broken and despairing, even as she describes. She’s having dark thoughts about God, even what she knows to be untrue thoughts about God, but she’s feeling those. You’re teaching her how to complain to God or take those cares to God. As a pastor and as a counselor, you’ve mentioned you would get her and others like her to read some of those Psalms of lamentation. What are some of the other things that you might do and ways that you might use a passage like Psalm 88.
Brad Bigney: Anyone who’s aware of suffering today surely is starting to notice the uptake of the number of suffering people it seems that we have in America, and we’re not accustomed to this. We’re accustomed to the fact that we have top medical help. If I describe to you my problem, there is some way to remove this. There’s a label and something they can do. More and more, I have people in our church that live with chronic undiagnosed pain. I know that for some of these people it’s in their head, but I’m not willing to put all these people in that camp. There are some people that live with something that is limiting what they can do. It’s painful and it’s a prolonged chronic illness.
One thing I love about the Psalms is that you don’t ever truly know what their specific problem is. I think that’s good. Therefore, we can apply it to anything. All we know in Psalm 88:15 is that he says, “I have been afflicted from my youth.” Whatever this is has been going on a long time. We can often suffer well when it’s a sprint and we grab hold of our verses and we lean in, but we expect it to end fairly soon.
When it doesn’t, I’ve seen that even for the mature Christian, their theology can start to show some fraying around the edges when it doesn’t end quickly. These chapters are for when it doesn’t end quickly and when the suffering makes no sense. That’s what the Book of Job is largely about. You can hear the Psalmist in Psalm 73, “Surely God is good to Israel. But as for me…” He knows the party line. He’s been taught what is right and he truly has believed that, but he’s being honest enough to say, “But right now I want to be honest. It looks like the unbelievers and evil people have it better.” It’s this honesty when you hit those places in life where you say, “This doesn’t make sense theologically.”
Dale Johnson: We see David consistently bearing himself before the Lord to say, “Lord, have you forgotten me? Is your steadfast love gone? Has it ceased?” These are questions that are consistent throughout the Psalms and these are real feelings that we often experience in the environment that we live in, the cursed world that we are a part of. There are some passages where, as you’ve mentioned, it’s almost fearful to step into as a pastor and you’re afraid. You think, “How am I going to explain this to my people?” Why do you think these types of Psalms, these laments that we feel, make people so uncomfortable? Why is it that these Psalms get ignored or neglected in our thinking?
Brad Bigney: I think it’s human nature. From birth, we tend to think that everything can be a formula. We don’t drift towards grace, we drift towards law. We don’t drift towards a Savior, we drift towards systems. I find that human beings are given to systems. Show me a set of boxes that I should check and I’ll do it. I think it’s driven by the sin nature that we have for self-autonomy. I want to know that I can do life on my own.
When we look at a chapter like that, you say, “I don’t know what’s going on there, but I don’t ever want to be like that person.” We step back, assuming, “I don’t know what that is, but that’s when you don’t understand the system. You don’t know the boxes to check. You don’t have the right formula.” But if you live long enough, you start to realize, “Ah, I don’t know.” That’s why I love to point out to my counselees that this is not an immature believer. In Psalm 88 and other passages, it’s titled, “The Sons of Korah.” These were mature believers that already had some greatest hits. The sons of Korah had already written Psalm 84: “A day in your courts is better than a thousand outside.” It’s not that they don’t know the Lord, they do. Yet, you could have a season that gives you thoughts this dark.
Sometimes we’re too quick to assume there’s no value in expressing emotions that are confusing and we think it would be better to help the person not to say that. Sometimes one of the best things you could do for a fellow suffering Christian is to give them a safe place to voice what they’re really feeling. I’m not saying we should help them stay stuck there, but sometimes we’re too quick with verses to think, “Just stuff that.” Stuffing that doesn’t help. The Bible doesn’t just give us solutions to the problem. Many times it gives us a voice that expresses the emotions we feel with that problem.
That’s what some of these chapters are: a voice, not so much an answer. That’s why you dislike it so much when you’re younger. “I don’t see a good answer.” In fact, so much of that is not right. The Psalmist says twice in Psalm 88, “Your wrath has swept over me.” We know that’s not right. God’s wrath is never poured out on a child, but that’s what he feels. He thinks he’s been abandoned because his feelings are of abandonment. I’m not saying to make those chapters your life chapters. You don’t want them to stay there, but to stop there on their way to a better place can be really helpful and can actually help them get to a better place sooner. If you tell them to skip that, remember it’s in the Bible for a reason.
Dale Johnson: It’s in the Bible for a reason because that’s our human experience. You made a really good point that even mature believers struggle with feelings like this because of our experiences. The Bible makes it clear that very mature people of God struggle with these deep, dark thoughts. The distinction that we see in the Bible is that you either turn from God toward bitterness, questioning his goodness, or like these Psalms encourage us to do, bring those requests and cares to the Lord in lamentation, in concern, in deep and raw confession before the Lord. That’s the posture and that’s really important that we teach our people, “When you feel like this, the feeling itself is not sinful. Don’t allow it to turn you away from God, run to him.” Brad, I appreciate this very encouraging time for us to wrestle with the idea that sometimes we do feel as the Psalmist describes. We feel abandoned by God because of our circumstances. The beauty of the Scriptures is that it gives expression of that feeling right back to God. Thank you for acknowledging that and thank you for discussing it with us.
Brad Bigney: It’s a joy. The longer I live, the more I love the Bible—all of it.