We are facing a difficult subject. When we talk about the issue of suicide and self-harm, we’re talking about the depths of despair of the lives of people. Sometimes I think we have this confusion about this level or type of despair. Oftentimes we act as though the Bible doesn’t speak to that level of despair. We need to revisit what the Scripture actually says about the dark moments of the soul—the dark nights of the soul.
There’s a reason that the Bible speaks in so many terms of comfort. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, he saves those who are crushed in spirit.” When we’re crushed in many ways, one of the chief among those is the way the Bible describes our last enemy: Death. Death, the basic word just means separation and brokenness, deterioration. First Corinthians 15:26 says that, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Already Jesus has conquered death, but we still live in this body of death.
One of the things that concerns me when we talk about this issue of suicide is the great deception in suicide. Often, I think we fear to talk about some of the deception because what’s really happening is a person is convinced by deception to look at the enemy as the solution. We have to be cautious and careful when we think about death in those terms—as if we are looking forward to man’s great enemy because of sin as a point of relief.
But it doesn’t keep us from going there in our humanity. It doesn’t keep our hearts from desiring at times to be rid of this life. Second Corinthians 4:11-12 says, “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” As Christians, we often don’t think about death being at work in us. We don’t think about God using the valley of the shadow of death in ways intentionally to strip us from the very things that are killing us.
Death is at work in us to demonstrate the weakness, the frailty of our humanity, the jars of clay in which we are made, the dust which God breathed life into. Death is at work.
We live in a culture that proclaims something about this reality of despair, claiming to know how and why a person struggles with this depression of soul. The Bible actually gives a myriad of reasons. To be honest, I wrestled greatly with this message, asking, “God, how do you want me to approach this?” Suicide in many ways is like a prism—it has a thousand different sides. There are a million angles in every single person’s situation that they’re feeling, that they’re expressing emotionally and behaviorally.
The reason that I wrestled with this is not because the issue of suicide in and of itself is so complex. The reason that I wrestled so greatly is because the Bible has so much to say about the complexity of suicide, about the complexity of our human hearts and our human nature in a world that’s cursed. It’s normative that we experience that level of despair. There were at least five things that I could see in the Scriptures that that give us a breakdown of how and why we experience this level of despair. It’s amazing when you start to look at the breadth of Scripture all of the people that God reveals in His Word who struggled with this issue of wanting life to end.
The “How” and “Why” Behind Suicide
One reason that we see for why people in Scripture desired death is that they were faint in heart. This is a typical word that would be used in the Scriptures to describe the downcast of soul, even to the depths of despair. One reason is rebellious sin against God. This would be people like Asaph in Psalm 73, David, people like Jonah, Solomon, or Saul—who the Bible describes as being vexed and even tormented in his soul.
A second reason might be we undergo affliction from without—think about people like Job. Listen to the way Job describes, “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.” Naomi, you know her story. She comes back with no husband and no children and no heir to keep her line going. She is bitter.
A third reason we could say is because of the wickedness that we witness. In that wickedness that we witness, we see our hearts pour out in compassion. Think of people like Jeremiah, as he’s seeing all the people around him and he’s prophesying for the sake of the Lord, he begins to write this book of Lamentation. When you read it you can tell he is on the verge of desperation. He’s seeing the world the way God is seeing the world, and that brokenness is bringing him into desperation and being downcast. We could put Elijah into a category like this. Although it was coupled after his triumph on Mount Carmel, he believed a lie. He began to believe a lie, but he sees the wickedness of his people and he’s lamenting to the point where he asked God to take his life.
We see a fourth reason in Scripture. It’s described very distinctly in the Scripture that the wicked faint in soul. Isaiah 57:20-21 says this, “But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.'”
The fifth we could describe as bodily weakness. We see this in someone like Hannah. She’s pouring herself out before the Lord because her womb has been closed. She’s crying out before the Lord and aren’t we tempted in so many ways to be like Eli? Before we get near and close, we give counsel. And he gives foolish counsel saying that she is a drunken lady and she should take her problems elsewhere. That should be a warning to us as counselors in the situation like Job and Hannah. We live in a world too great with mystery, not to speak before we know. Understand before we give counsel from the Lord, because these types of vexations of the soul have a myriad of different expressions and a myriad of different causes even from the Scripture. Maybe we would conclude in bodily weakness by describing our Lord Jesus. He was described in the Scriptures as a man of sorrows. Where you can see in His wrestling in the wilderness—He’s at the end of His physical strength. Or maybe in the garden we peer in to see the depth and the level of agony and strain and strife.
The Example of Psalm 73
I want to turn our attention—in one of these categories because we could only choose one—to Psalm 73. In this Psalm, we see a distinct expression of a man of God who wrote many Psalms. Asaph wrote many Psalms, and what we see in this passage is he is fainting in soul. He is fainting in heart. This is the way the Psalm begins, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.”
Now this is actually the conclusion of Asaph in this Psalm. He’s coming to the conclusion of his experience, which you learn about in the process of the Psalm. This is what he’s been taught theologically certainly, but his experience is expressing a different narrative. He’s understanding something different. It’s being challenged, this truth that God is good.
As we read on we begin to see Asaph experienced, in similar fashion to you and I, what in other places of Scripture is called a valley of shadows.
We live in a hopeless society. We live in a society that expresses hopelessness all around us because happiness in so many ways is the byproduct of hope. True and legitimate happiness we see is missing in our society. Why? Because they have no legitimate hope. Hope to them is defined as something that can get them through tomorrow, something they can lean on as an anchor for the moment.
When that hope is missing, you begin to see the shadows overtake and the soul grow weak and weary. Asaph is experiencing this here. Listen to the words of Asaph, as he describes in confession his struggle.
Psalm 73:2-15 says,
“But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.
Therefore his people turn back to them,
and find no fault in them.
And they say, ‘How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?’
Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning.
If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’
I would have betrayed the generation of your children.”
Asaph is looking around. And in similar fashion to the way Solomon describes this in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon is looking around trying to make sense of the world with his natural vision under the sun. With this natural vision, he’s asking the question, “How is it that God can be good to Israel when the wicked prosper?” It’s not that he’s not seeing things that are untrue. He seeing revealed with his naked eyes that the wicked, it seems to him, are prospering. But he’s not quite fitting all the pieces of the puzzle together. He’s not seeing the entirety of the story. That’s not unlike our world today.
When we experience the valley of the shadow of death, the myriad ways in which we experience the foreshadowing of death to come, the decay of our bodies, the vexations of the soul, the turmoil that happens in society and relationships, and even within the wrestling of our own heart.
The shadows come in many forms and shades, don’t they? They come in bodily sicknesses. They come in different forms of suffering. They come with bad phone calls, when the doctor says, “I’m sorry to say, but the tests don’t look very good.” They come in forms of disobedient children. They come in forms of that conversation you never wanted to have about adultery, or the loss of a job, or maybe you were abused. Maybe you’ve been off to war and seen the height of human wickedness and depravity. You see the shades of death come in many shapes and sizes. We experience them all.
We can’t deny the fact that in this life, we walk through those experiences. The difference is the way in which we see and understand those experiences. We begin to question the goodness of God when we look around us through these experiences and say, “God, how is it possible that those people are doing so well, and they don’t even know you?” We begin to ask similar questions to Asaph. “Is God really good?” “God, how is it possible that what I know of your character seems to be untrue in this moment?” And we begin to turn inward. We begin to question God’s goodness, and oftentimes we respond inappropriately to God.
God doesn’t do good to you because you are good. God does good to you because He is good. What starts to happen is now we begin to take a step back and and view the situation quite differently. This is exactly what Asaph does.
Psalm 73:16 says,
“But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task.”
In some versions this word wearisome actually means hopeless task. Asaph is trying to look at the scenario and he asks, “God, how can this make sense? What I’ve been taught my whole life is that you’re a good God. And all I see around is I’m the one who’s suffering and I’ve tried to give myself to you in full. How is it possible that they’re doing better in life than me? They don’t seem to be scathed by the difficulties of the world, but me—how is it?” He finds himself to be weary and hopeless to even consider and think about the issue.
Now, if we were to think about our current scenario, it’s a wearisome task when we look all around us and the leading cause of death among adolescents is suicide. When among adults, the 10th leading cause of death is suicide. There’s a reality that’s brewing around us where people are seeing the despair of life and they’re responding in utter hopelessness. They’ve considered the world around them, and they’re trying to understand the world, and to them it is a wearisome and hopeless task.
I want to demonstrate for you what I call the superficiality of the preventions of our society.
We’ve painted this picture of the despair and brokenness of the world that’s absolutely destroying what we search for and seek after for remedy. The way we interpret and understand a problem or an issue in life begins to narrow the focus for how we seek remedy for this problem. What’s happened in our world, is we’ve begun to describe these points of human problem not as being normal to human existence in a cursed and broken world. We’ve begun to redefine all of these problems to say, “It can’t be us. It can’t be me. This can’t be normal.”
We begin to describe these types of vexations of the soul in natural terms, as if these are biological problems primarily. Using the term biogenic, the expression that this was caused by something primarily biological. Or maybe we use the term psychogenic—we have this category of humanity in our understanding that these are simply psychological problems. You have to divide man in an unnecessary way, an unbiblical way, to describe man as having psychological issues and not being holistic.
We begin to describe and say, “Well, the reason that you have that problem, the reason that your vexed in soul, is simply a psychological problem.” Or maybe we describe it as sociogenic or environmental. We begin to look at all those causes and we begin to look at remedy just simply for those specific issues. Not all the well-meaning mental health progress in the world can provide hope over death or the shadows of death that shade our experiences.
The stigma, which has so often been claimed that the church has a stigma for these types of mental disorders and mental struggles, the stigma’s actually created by the culture. Because all of us know it’s true to experience that we have dark nights. We have difficulties because we can express in our experiences that this is not the way it was intended to be. Everything is broken. And what does the world try to do? Because they can’t explain it, they begin to describe that these things must be an abnormality. These things have to be an abnormality.
We begin to attack those symptoms for the purpose of repair. That begins to create a stigma of those who experience these things as if there’s something wrong with them. They’re different than the rest of us. They experience this darkness of the soul that all of us better developed human beings don’t struggle with. The reality is what’s normal in the broken world that you and I live in is vexation of the soul.
When we peer into the world and we begin to understand it is truly a wearisome task, because at the end of it we have to admit the weakness that we express. We have to admit the frailty of our humanity when we experience the darkness of the soul and the difficulties of the world.
Psalm 73:16-17 says,
“But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end.”
Do you see what happened? Asaph had a change in focus. As he enters into the sanctuary of God, now he begins to see their life from God’s perspective. He’s not fooled by what’s unfolding that he can see with his natural eyes. He’s not being deceived with this reality that says, “Why are the wicked prospering? God, this challenges your goodness.” Now he begins to see from the perspective of God and listen to the way, through the lens of God, he sees the people. This starts to change his perception, starts to change his response, this starts to encourage the truth that God is actually good.
“Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes,
O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.”
This is typically our response. We look at the world and we hear all the things that they say, and we often become deceived into thinking that when we experience darkness, when we experience the depth of the vexations of our soul that something must be wrong. It’s an expression that something’s wrong. We’re pointing outward to describe where those problems exist, as opposed to pointing inward. The narrative of the Scripture describes that there is frailty in our human brokenness.
We have to correct our understanding of darkness and our dark experiences. We have to correct our understanding of suicidal thinking and this extreme darkness in the world. Can I tell you that darkness is normal? Vexation of the soul is normal. We will walk through difficulty in life. We all know that our souls cry out, that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Our experiences are really like pains of labor and they increase consistently. They’re not the labor itself, but they’re bringing about the culmination of our greatest enemy.
The place that I think we have to begin as we come into the sanctuary of God and we tie ourselves back to the Word of God, is we have to cease thinking in categories and definitions and terminologies that the world creates, by seeing the brokenness of people with their natural eyes.
We have to come back, refocus the lens from the Scripture and begin to use the terms that the Bible uses to express this vexation that we experience on a daily basis. Go and do some word studies on these words from the Scripture that describe what we’ve been experiencing in life, where people are seeing their life is hopeless. This is not foreign to the Bible. It’s not foreign to Scripture. Stop believing what the secularist says that, “We need this category because the Bible never speaks about this.” The Bible gives expression to what we experience in life.
Faint-hearted, despair, downcast, vanity, purposelessness, hopeless, and growing weary. That’s probably not an exhaustive list, but it’s a list that begins to describe what we experience on a daily basis and what was very prevalent as God wrote His Scripture as a comfort to His people.
Psalm 73:23 starts, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you.” This is Asaph’s confession now that he sees with clarity before the Lord. He goes into the sanctuary and his eyes are open. He now sees differently. He sees in terms of the way Paul talks about in Colossians 3—he’s thinking on things above, not on things below. His eyesight begins to shift in focus and he confesses,
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”
This is a statement of theology, but it’s also a statement of worship.
It’s a statement of distinction that what we need and what we must have is God and God alone. This is something that he not only knows intellectually, but now he knows experientially. Through his life and the vexations that he’s experiencing, he knows there’s no one left. The valley of the shadows forces us to experience the end of our self, the end of our ability, it exposes our frailty until we come to the conclusion that we can’t trust in ourselves any longer. We can’t trust in the things around us any longer. We have to trust in God and God alone.
It begins to change the affections of his heart. “Nothing I desire on earth, but you.” Matthew Henry says it like this in commentary on this passage, “It is here supposed that God alone is the felicity and chief good of man. He and he only, that made the soul, can make it happy; there is none in heaven, none in earth that can pretend to do it besides.”
We have some faulty ideas about how we are intended to wrestle with darkness. We have a myriad of faulty ideas. I want to address some of those myths. Instead of us relinquishing our own ability and trusting and demonstrating and confessing that we have no one else to turn to our Lord in heaven, we find ourselves often turning to superficial remedies instead. We begin to believe deceptive narratives about how to deal with our soul struggles.
The Church as the Place of Care
One of the things that I hear all the time in an academic setting is people asking questions about biblical counseling, saying, “Surely, the church is not the place for this type of soul care. You should leave that kind of stuff to the professionals.” I would tell you that’s faulty thinking. The reason it’s faulty thinking is we can begin with the prime question that Jesus asked, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but he loses his own soul?” It’s intended that the church would be the community—the institution—of care as we minister the beauty of this Word. And what’s the purpose for which we minister? To the brokenness of the souls so that they can now be restored by the beauty who is Christ and being conformed to His image, longing and awaiting the time which is to come where He will make us new.
The church really is the place for this type of soul care. We’ve begun to believe what the world has said—that those aren’t soulish problems. Those are problems that are in a totally different category. So no matter how much we love in the church, we don’t know what to do with people who are categorized in that way. We might want to help, but because we see it in a different category we cast them aside and we increase the stigma.
We have to begin to understand that the church is the place through the power of the Spirit and His Word that we begin to explain and express that this type of response in life to its brokenness is normal. We begin to weep with those who weep.
Do Our Experiences Define Us?
Another faulty idea that we often lean to is we begin to subject ourselves to the mercy of our experiences. We begin to act as though those experiences that we’ve had in our life that have been devastating to us are determinative. I’m not minimizing that devastation, but in that devastation we see them as determinative to describe and identify the people that we are. Your past experiences do not define who you are. They don’t make you who you are. They are experiences and it’s devastating, absolutely, but you are not at the mercy of your dark experiences. We are at the mercy of God.
The Mental Health System
Another faulty idea is that the mental health system is our only hope. We begin to look to the mental health system to create something that only Jesus says He can restore in the hearts of people. I want to be very sensitive here, but there’s a narrative that’s propagated when we abdicate to the way the world describes and defines the brokenness of humanity. When we abdicate, what begins to happen is now we prop up medicine as a superficial remedy. We begin to look to medicine for our hope.
What happens when the drug reports come back in their research and say less than 30 percent experience favorable outcomes? What if you’re in that 70 percent and you take this medicine and it actually increases the vexation and suicidal ideation? Now what do we do? What happens is we’re sending you further into the abyss of despair. This is a faulty way of thinking when we begin to respond to the world in this way and give ourself over to their narrative.
I’m not describing this is an either/or. What I’m saying is we have to look at medicine not as the hope of the world. It’s a facade. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but Lazarus is still dead today. Medicine can help us in a lot of different ways, but medicine’s not your Savior. Medicine’s not your only hope. There will come a day when we stand before God and your only hope—my only hope—is Jesus.
We believe very clearly from Scripture that Jesus repairs not just simply soul. We believe because of the power of the resurrection, He restores us both body and soul.
When We Find Our Hope in Comfort
We also believe the idea that our hope depends on our ability to exclude all darkness and dark experiences from our life. We put ourselves at the mercy of our dark experiences to the degree now if we can’t sanitize our life, then we’re hopeless for living a happy life and a joyous life. That’s a faulty idea. The idea that Jesus describes, even in the High Priestly Prayer, is he doesn’t ask for the Lord to take the disciples out of the world. He asked for God to strengthen them with His Word to sanctify them as they walk through the troublesome nature of the world. Jesus promised in this world you will have trouble.
Spiritual Maturity and Despair
There’s one final myth that I want to highlight, because I think this is the one that we in biblical counseling are attacked over probably the most. This is the myth that only the spiritually immature struggle with these problems. Only the spiritually immature struggle with these problems—that’s false. Based on the Scripture and the authority of the Bible, that is a false statement. It will be a great advantage to any Christian to remember that seasons of darkness, even deep darkness, are normal in this life. George Swinnock, the great Puritan, said “The highest and holiest man’s heart will not hold out forever.” Godliness is not based upon the depth of one’s feelings of despair, but upon where we run and how we wait patiently and in what we hope for our deliverance when our hearts faint.
Our godliness is not dependent upon our feelings. Our godliness is dependent upon our hope in those moments of despair. Think of Elijah who never experienced death, but he came to a point where he asked God, “Just kill me.” He had just descended from Mount Carmel where he saw God send fire from heaven and the man ordained by God who would never die is calling out for God to kill him. Spurgeon remarks on this passage, “It was a remarkable thing that the man who was never to die, for whom God had ordained an infinitely better lot, the man who should be carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, and be translated, that he should not see death, should thus pray, ‘Let me die; I am no better than my fathers.'”
What do we do with Job? If we want to say, “Well that’s only spiritually immature people who struggle with the depths of despair,” what do you do with Job? What do you do with Job in Job 3 where he curses the day that he was ever born?
What do you do with David—a man after God’s own heart—in the experiences of the shadows of death of this life, when he’s crying out in a broken and contrite spirit? What do you do with Solomon, whom the Bible describes as the wisest man to live? In Ecclesiastes 11:8, he says, “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.” He concludes by saying that we are to fear God.
What do you do with Jesus, when Jesus says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Have you ever thought about the statement that Jesus makes, “take heart”? Why does he tell us to take heart? Because you’re going to have a lot of opportunities where it seems that your heart is fleeting within.
Spurgeon again says this, “A godly man is free from the sting, but not from the stroke, from the curse, but not from the cross of death.”
Back to Psalm 73, verse 25 says, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” Do you see the beauty of what’s happening? Through our difficulty, through the darkness, through the affliction, through the suffering, through the struggle that we have, God in His kindness, God in His goodness allows these types of things in our lives so that we don’t trust in the things that are temporal in this world. We begin experientially to describe now that God is good. There is nothing that I can trust myself to but you, God.
In verse 26 Asaph says, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” The fact that we struggle is a constant reminder that we’re not God. We don’t have strength on our own, we can never find meaning and purpose apart from God. You see the kindness of the Lord that when our hearts drift in the direction of loving and cherishing the things of this world and affliction comes, it makes our soul weary and we begin to faint with the difficulty that happens in the world. It’s a reminder that you’re not God, that you don’t have a strength that’s just on your own and you need something other than yourself.
Only a few chapters away in Psalm 77, Asaph again is speaking. I want you to hear the language that he uses here so that you can see the commonality among even strong biblical characters—that they struggle continually with these types of issues. Psalm 77:1-2 says,
“I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.”
Listen to the questions that he asks in verses 7-9,
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
You see it’s interesting when we read the narratives of Scripture, we have this tendency to think that all the vexation they faced—it was almost as if they were distant from humanity. As if in their life when something happened, emotions weren’t involved because they were not real humans like you and I are. But the reality is they lived life minute-by-minute, day-by-day, and when struggles happened in life they were not void of emotions, difficulty, and struggle.
You hear what Asaph is calling out. The way it feels to him in that moment is that God is distant. “God have you left me? Where are your promises?” These are the questions that he’s asking. Have you ever asked those questions. Have you ever found yourself in the darkness of the world and you wonder, “God, where are you? God, are you are you good? Do you really have steadfast love toward me?” He’s asking those questions because the two things that in humanity we hope in are failing him—our flesh and the strength of our heart.
When we think about man—body and soul—we see the weakness expressed. By Asaph’s experience, He’s letting us in on a secret, that as time goes on (as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4), “your body is wasting away.”
You’re dying. You can eat kale every day of your life and you’re still going to die. All of us are dying, and with those experiences that we see little-by-little, day-by-day, we die a little. Through the difficult experiences, we die some more. There will come a day—unless Jesus returns—that we will see sin will come to fruition in our life and we will die. Our flesh will fail. Our heart will fail.
In those moments, what are you going to do? How are you going to respond? When you see with your naked eye, you begin to see as Solomon describes in Ecclesiastes that no matter what I put my hand to, I pursue good things, I don’t find fulfillment in those. They’re vanity. They’re meaningless. They’re purposeless.
You see how the world is coming to that conclusion. Why do we see an increase in suicidal ideation? Why do we see an increase in suicide attempts? One of the reasons is because we’ve created a cultural narrative that says, “We demand happiness and in this world, we should not have trouble.” When we have trouble we’re not certain how to respond, because we have nothing within our strength to overcome the failing of our flesh. We have nothing within our power to overcome the failings of our heart. The fading of the flesh is intended to lead to a flourishing of faith, but the flesh fades most in the valley of the shadows of death.
That’s why God permits you to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because in it what begins to happen is the flourishing of faith. The world around us is not running to faith to answer the fading of the flesh or the fading of the heart. They’re running to all sorts of temporal remedies, and at the end of the their conclusion they find they’re not good enough. There is no real hope at the end of those things. They conclude as Solomon did: “This is vanity. It’s meaningless. It’s nothingness.”
It’s interesting that those who find themselves to be in deep despair, there’s actually some clarity with which they’re seeing. I had a personal conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada about a year ago, and one of the things that strikes me about her is she sees more clearly than many of us. Now part of the reason is because she’s no under no illusion that she has strength in her own body. She sees with much more clarity than you and I do about that. We have the tendency to want to trust in ourselves—in our body, our health, and so on.
I would say something very similar to those who experience darkness. They’ve come to the end of themselves to such a degree that they acknowledge in the same way as Asaph, “my heart and my flesh are failing and I have no hope.” Does the church have an answer for that? Does God give an answer for that? Yes, the fading of our flesh is intended to lead to the flourishing of faith, not a pursuit of all kinds of earthly remedies.
Asaph concludes, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” You want to keep from drifting into that world of hopelessness? God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Swinnock again says, “Earthly portions are like roses, in that the fuller they blossom, the sooner they shed.” When we trust in earthly portions, we’re furthering a downward spiral into the depths of despair because what we find at the end of those earthly portions are hopelessness and vanity.
You’re not being poured out walking through the valley of the shadow of death for the purpose that you be filled with temporarily satisfying portions. We are to be emptied that we be filled with Christ as our portion.
The whole point that we see here is this is affirming the truth that has been true since the beginning of time that God is good. And Asaph demonstrates with his life that even in his frailty, the character of God has not changed.
Psalm 18:1-6 says this,
“I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies.
The cords of death encompassed me;
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.”
Part of the reason that we walk through these different valleys is not to minimize the fact that we experience this desperation—that desperation is real, that emotional vexation is real, you wanting to isolate yourself is a real feeling—but the intention is that you would experience the character, the kindness, and the goodness of God. God reveals Himself as a rock, as a strength, as a fortress, and as a deliverer.
I can remember one of the scariest times in my own life as a father. We had just moved to Texas. We bought this house, we had only been in a few months when our twins were born. We brought them home the day that there was a tornado storm. I’m from Florida—hurricanes you can run from. Tornados, not so much. We were in a tornado storm, and that night within 8 miles around our house four tornadoes touched down. We were in the bathroom all 8 of us for over three hours. I can remember in that moment feeling helpless and hopeless, because I knew if one of those tornadoes were to touch down on this house, we were in trouble.
I don’t know that I felt more helpless and hopeless as a father with my children then that night. I kept running outside and seeing the torrents of the wind wondering, “Is it coming here?” and feeling hopeless. That spring I went and bought a storm shelter. We put it in the ground, and what was interesting is in the future when that siren went off, when my phone went off telling me that there was tornadic activity, there was now a peace because I had experienced what it felt like to be empty and hopeless, and now we had a shelter to run to. I knew my house might not be there, but we would be okay in the shelter.
That valley that you’re walking through is intended to cause your faith to flourish, not in you and not in temporal things, but that you would experience the unchanging character of almighty God—that He is a rock, He is the strength, and He is a fortress. Psalm 119:71 says, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” God’s not changing His character, but man only knows Him most truly when we experience the need to know Him.
The Church’s Responsibility
The church has an extreme responsibility, because we’ve abdicated and said, “You need to go to a different institution in order to get care in the darkness of life.” We’ve abdicated our responsibility, but if Jesus is our head and we are called to mimic Christ in the way we live, we’re called to care for people the way that Christ cared for people.
If we start from the beginning where Jesus came in flesh to dwell among us—Jesus didn’t remain in sanitation away from the mess. Jesus came to the mess. Church, we need to take the form of Jesus to leave the 99 and to go after the one. Jesus was a friend of sinners.
I have two little girls—four-years-old, twins. When they get their hands dirty, immediately they pause in life. Nothing else can move forward. They’ve got to go wash their hands before they can go on. One is worse than the other, and anytime they’re dirty they’ve got to get sanitary before life can go on.
The church responds in immaturity like my 4-year-olds do when they experience something that seems out of the norm, something that seems dirty and abnormal, experiencing darkness. The church prefers sanitation more than ministry. I think it’s unfortunate that the church strives to be sanitary more than we strive to be ministers.
The church has stood by in abdication to the mental health system. We in the church are intended to be the hands and the feet of Jesus, demonstrating to the broken and despairing—those walking through dark and seemingly unending shadows—that Jesus will never leave and never forsake. You remember Psalm 34? “He is near to the brokenhearted and he saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
How do we go about doing that? People around you will experience that their heart is failing and their flesh is failing. As you minister to individuals you need to learn to teach them to cry out to God. You need to teach them how to pray in their despair.
There are several ways that you see this in Scripture. Ask God to look and see our disgrace. Beg God to see. Ask God to remember our affliction. Ask Him to work for His name’s sake. Ask God to remember His steadfast love and kindness. Ask God for justice upon the wicked and the oppressor. Ask the Lord to restore your souls (Lamentations 5:21).
“My conscience condemns me and makes me miserable.” What if you learn to ask God, “Have mercy on me, I trust in you.” What if we learned to simply say to God, “You are my only hope.”
We need to learn to help to keep them from idleness as well. What happens consistently is they move to idleness and isolation, which contributes to suicidal despair. We need to keep them from idleness. We need to help them remember that God is faithful in our frailty and never forget that our security and hope rests upon the finished work of Christ, not their performance. When they consistently trust in their performance, guilt and shame mount more and more—sending them further into the abyss of despair.
We need to teach them to cultivate thankfulness. Richard Baxter says in describing what he calls the cure of melancholy, “Resolve to spend most of your time in thanksgiving and praising God. If you cannot do it with the joy that you should, yet do it as you can. … Say not that you are unfit for thanks and praises unless you have a praising heart and were the children of God; for every man, good and bad, is bound to praise God, and to be thankful for all that he hath received, and to do it as well as he can, rather than leave it undone.”
My final counsel is to just be with them. Jesus demonstrated this type of ministry. It took looking into the whites of people’s eyes, rubbing shoulders with them. Church, if you are too busy that when you see someone who is destitute and in despair, isolating themselves, if you are too busy to go and be with them, you’re too busy.
Your busyness that we count often as ministry is sinful before the Lord, because we’re allowing the one to recede from us. Go after them. We all need friends to tend to the garden of our soul. You need this. I need this. This is the beauty of the church, using and wielding the power of the Word of God.
Revelation 21 tells us that Jesus is going to wipe away every tear from our eyes. You understand the implication behind that? If Jesus is going to wipe away every tear from our eye, what must the journey be like here? Stop believing the deception of the world that we can walk through this world without trouble. The reason that’s a beautiful truth is because the journey home is long and difficult.
Revelations 21:3-5 says, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.'”
Listen to James when he tells us that we can consider it joy when we encounter various trials, because the testing of our faith produces patience. Patience in what? Patience in that hope—that the thing that we feel like it’s destroying us, the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus has conquered death and there is coming a day when death will be no more. Fix your hope and fix your eyes on Jesus, the restorer of both body and soul, the one who has been raised from the dead to overcome our greatest enemy—the enemy of death.