Psalm 88- A Psalm For the Hopeless


Shepherding Students Through the Psalms: As we care for students in the complex situations they face, we are so aware that we need resources beyond ourselves—the resources of the gospel. Our students struggle with anxiety and addiction. They face troubling situations at school and family conflict at home. They feel stressed out, left out, and weighed down with heavy burdens. In these situations requiring pastoral wisdom and care, the Psalms are resources of great value for us and for our students. In fact, Jesus himself leaned on the Psalms quite frequently, alluding to them in moments of betrayal (Mark 14, Psalm 41) and deep distress (Matt. 27, Psalm 22). The Psalms remind both us and our students that we can be honest about our struggles before God.

About a year ago, I hit a wall spiritually. Actually, I didn’t hit the wall; I smacked face first into it.

I had been in seminary for about a year at this point, studying God’s Word excitedly. I had been in ministry for 4 years, pouring my heart and life into helping students grasp the riches of the gospel. Yet, somewhere along the way, I had gotten off track myself. I had a lot of questions, and my solution was to study harder to try and learn my way out of doubt (Pro tip: do not do this).

“One more podcast on the topic,” I would think to myself as I wrestled through hard, gray areas of Scripture. “Let me just order one more book on this,” I would say as I pulled up the Amazon website on my laptop, thinking that more reading would get rid of a sin pattern that kept rearing its ugly head in my life.

Inevitably, it didn’t work. I was burning out. I gave up.

This period of time that I walked through was dark and scary. I had no desire to read Scripture at all, let alone pray. Talking about spiritual things with my roommates left me feeling depressed, frustrated and anxious, not enriching to my soul as it used to. On top of this, I was still teaching lessons, discipling students and leading Bible studies while inwardly I was dry as a desert. I felt like a fake who would soon be found out.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but God was setting off warning signs in my life, showing me that I had begun to make knowledge my God instead of Jesus. I am thankful for this difficult time now, and have seen tremendous fruit from it. Yet still, the days were long, hard, and riddled with scary thoughts.

When I could open Scripture during this time, I was often led to the Psalms. One thing I love deeply about Psalms is they are not a fru-fru, tidied-up list of poems and documents that always make life look good. In fact, they are so often the opposite. God has sovereignly authored Scripture to contain and encompass a vast array of human experiences; sins, wanderings, cries and groans, questions, doubts, and failures. One of these key passages that has been a blanket to my weary soul is Psalm 88.

Hope for Teenagers and Youth Ministers Alike

The author of Psalm 88 is at the end of his rope. He opens this psalm by telling God that he is “crying out day and night.” He continues to go on throughout the whole psalm and make breathtakingly painful comments such as: “my soul is full of troubles” (verse 3), “Your wrath lies heavy upon me” (verse 7),  “I am helpless” (Psalm 15), “darkness is my closest friend” (verse 18).

This is probably not the psalm you would point to your non-believing students to read for their first impression of the Bible. But maybe it should be, because it depicts the raw realities of life, and a God who is strong, loving, and kind enough to handle them.

This experience of hopelessness is not just something felt by the Psalmist and myself, but by many of our students. Over the years I have walked with students through messy breakups, bad choices made, depression, anxiety, friendships gone awry, painful relationships with their parents, and the never-ending pressure to measure up in all facets of life which inevitably leads to depression and exhaustion. These are the exact circumstances that Psalm 88 is the perfect script for.

As Paul David Tripp put it in his devotional about Psalm 88, “The hope of Psalm 88 is found precisely in the fact that it has no hope in it. It isn’t wrapped with some cute theological bow at the end. Instead, Psalm 88 is hopeful because of its stark honesty and profound darkness. This Psalm confronts us with a blunt reality: being in a covenantal relationship with the Lord does not mean that I will escape the difficulties of life in a fallen world. As difficult as it is to accept, you are still here because this is where your all-wise and all-loving Heavenly Father wants you.”

Our Lord wanted this psalm in Scripture so that we would have sacred and holy words to describe our pain when we cannot come up with words on our own. In this is hope, and hope that our students so desperately need. In a world that tells them to grin and bear it, fake it till you make it, put on a happy face, and veg out until you cannot name your feelings, Scripture sings a far different song. Only in the woven tapestry of joy and sorrow married can we understand the beautiful story of redemption that our God is making.

After all, isn’t this the story of Jesus? We have a God who stooped so low that he took on human flesh and experienced all the depth of emotions that we experience every day as created beings. He actually chose to suffer the worst suffering imaginable, and He chose to do it for His enemies. Yet, Jesus suffering produced the absolute best result in the world: redemption for humanity.

Psalm 88 and the life of Jesus teaches us that joy can only run as deep as the wells of our pain and suffering. A shallow life will produce a shallow joy. In a world that is shallow, your students crave your honesty. In a world of quick fixes and answers, your students crave your ability to sit in pain in a healthy way.

Dear friend, move toward God in your doubts and pain. That is all he asks of you. He doesn’t ask you to fake it; he just asks you to trust him as your loving Father and honestly bring your heart before him.

Your students don’t need a perfectly happy and bubbly leader; they need a real and honest one. One who paints a theology of suffering that they can hold on to as the years go on and they are long past youth group. As you and your students live honestly before God in your pain, you can rest on the truth in Psalm 88:1: God is the God of your salvation. If he has given His Son to suffer for you, He will surely hold your hand through any pain this life brings.

meredith Dixon

Meredith hails from Savannah, GA, and studied Sociology at the University of North Georgia. Her deep desire to know, love and disciple students was sparked while serving middle schoolers at her home church. She served at East Cobb Presbyterian Church for about 5 years and now serves as the Youth Ministry Coordinator at Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church. When not hanging out with students and their families, Meredith loves to peruse book stores, read, listen to music, spend time with friends, hike in fall weather, and find new coffee shops. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary and serves on the PCA NextGen Committee.

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