Pray...Even in the Dark

Darkness is not your only friend. Jesus loves you, and he will be with you.

One of William Shakespeare’s most complicated characters, Hamlet, once made a timeless and disturbing declaration. You have probably heard it. He asked himself: “To be or not to be? That is the question” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1).

Don’t worry, this article won’t turn into a Shakespearean master class. But please appreciate the humanity of Hamlet’s question and the depth of his struggle. These are the very attributes that make Hamlet one of Shakespeare’s most complete characters, and one of the most tragic.

Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark. One day he was traveling back to the kingdom he grew up in. That’s when he heard the awful news. His father, the king, had died. And while Hamlet was supposed to be the next king, his uncle stepped in and took the crown. In plotting his revenge, Hamlet caused the death of various people. The love of his life dies. And then, (not to spoil the end of a 400 year old story), in the final sword fight, Hamlet is stabbed with a poisoned sword. At the end of the play, Hamlet dies.

In the middle of this mess, Hamlet struggles with his own sanity. Depression grips him. Having everything taken away from him, he wonders if life is worth living. He considers ending his own life. And there, in the middle of a graveyard, he holds a skull and says those timeless words: “To be or not to be?”

That is the question, isn't it? Maybe you don’t care for Shakespearean plays, but Hamlet’s inner conflict has a way of holding a mirror to our own struggles with depression. That was the brilliance of a writer like Shakespeare. His characters were almost too real. In the darkness of your own depression, perhaps you also have have asked a form of the question: “To be or not to be?”

The writer of Psalm 88 wrestled with that question, too. The Bible tells us that his name was Heman the Ezrahite, and as far as we know, this is the only psalm he ever wrote. It might be the darkest psalm anyone ever penned.

Out of the darkness of his life he begins by crying out to the Lord, “O Lord, the God who saves me, by day I cry out. At night I cry before you. May my prayer come before you. Turn your ear to my cry” (Ps. 88:1-2).

What a cry it is! Heman admits, “My soul has had its fill of troubles…my life has arrived at the grave” (Ps. 88:3). He is “treated like those who go down to the pit” (Ps 88:4) Then come these darkest of words: “I am turned loose with the dead. I am like the slain who lie in the grave, like the ones you do not remember anymore” (Ps. 88:5).

Heman isn’t saying that someone else put him here or that some bad circumstances are to blame. He says to God, “You have put me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the depths. Your wrath presses against me” (Ps. 88:6-7).

Then Heman pauses.

Sometimes psalms have these moments in them where the word “Selah” comes up. It could mean that it was time to sing the refrain of the psalm, or it might be telling the musicians to play a musical interlude. But here, this “Selah," this “interlude,” seems simply to tell us to pause and think.

So what are we supposed to be thinking about during this pause? Two things. The first is that Heman’s life has become so bitter, so tumultuous, so dark that he would rather die than live. He is, at this point, like Hamlet walking through the cemetery, asking, “To be or not to be?”

The second reason for Heman’s pause is to get you to ask, “Have I ever been there?” Has your job finally pushed you to the point of ending it all? Has your relationship made you walk to the brink and wonder if this life is worth living? Do our country’s conflicts make you think you are out of touch with our world today? Or in the darkness of night, when guilt corners you, when there seems to be no way out, do you wonder if life is worth living?

Now I know that Christians don’t normally talk about the dangers of suicide. Maybe we avoid the topic altogether. But God purposefully brings it up through Heman’s psalm. Sometimes we feel so overwhelmed, so lost, so forsaken, so betrayed that we feel like giving up on life. We feel like the end would be preferable to living.

Pastors and church leaders are not immune to this either. In fact, pastors across America have been taking their lives at an alarming rate since the COVID epidemic began. In their dark moments even they can ask that question: “To be or not to be?”

Jesus had every right to ask that question. Looking down at a world violent with sin, seeing the depravity sin had caused in the world, watching us flounder, he could have asked, “Should I go and be their Savior — or not?” He didn’t have to come at all. By all rights he shouldn’t have. But for Jesus, coming to be your Savior was never a question.

Jesus’ empty tomb declares your salvation!

He came to be your substitute. Jesus came to be the world’s miracle-worker. Jesus came to be the Light that shone even in this sin-darkened world. Jesus came to be the care-giver for souls trapped in the darkness. And when that darkness tried to convince us that life isn’t worth living, Jesus came to be your life.

Jesus walked into the darkness of death and hell on the cross. It wasn’t a mission of suicide. It was a perfect sacrifice.

In his moments of loss, Heman asked in his psalm, “Is your mercy declared in the tomb, [Lord]?” (Ps. 88:11). And in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see that it is. Jesus’ empty tomb declares your salvation!

Heman had a brother called “Ethan the Ezrahite.” And Ethan, as far as we know, only wrote one psalm as well. It comes right after Psalm 88. And while Heman wrote about the dark struggles we fight within our souls, Ethan writes in his psalm, “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever…Your mercy is built to last forever” (Ps. 89:1, 2).

One brother, Heman, writes from the depths of our woes, “By day I cry out. At night I cry before you” (Ps. 88:1). Then his brother, Ethan writes, “How blessed are the people who know the joyful cry. Lord, they walk in the light from your face” (Ps 89:15).

Remember? God the Father made you to be his. Jesus made you to be a fellow child of your heavenly Father. Jesus won you back on the cross to be a citizen of heaven.

So the question will come up again. Maybe you will be struggling with someone in a relationship. Maybe you will lose your job. Sickness without cure may inflict you. Betrayal might send you into darkness. And in those moments you might just be tempted to ask, “To be or not to be?” Should I go on living or should I just end it all right here.

If you do have those thoughts, please, speak with your pastor. Share your struggles with a Christian counselor. And in addition to that, in that darkness, go to your Lord in prayer. Jump back into his Word. Because in his Word, Jesus tells you who you are.

Remember? God the Father made you to be his. Jesus made you to be a fellow child of your heavenly Father. Jesus won you back on the cross to be a citizen of heaven. The Holy Spirit strengthens you every day to be his light in this sin-darkened world. That is who your God has made you to be.

Darkness is not your only friend. Jesus loves you, and he will be with you — right there with you — always. He promises.

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