Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
looking for my God.
Those who hate me without reason
outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
those who seek to destroy me.
I am forced to restore
what I did not steal
– Ps 69 –
My eyes have failed before, looking for my God.
No one told me, growing up, that there would be whole swaths of time when I did not “feel close” to God, and that those swaths of time would not happen because I had sinned, or because I was doing terrible things, or because I was using my time poorly.
No one told me that there would be days that could turn into weeks that sometimes drifted into years, when the “voice of God” would not be audible, that heaven’s door would feel shut and locked in my face, that there would be long empty stretches of highway without radio and with broken air conditioning.
When the Desiring God article blew through Twitter last week with the clickbait headline “Doubt is slander against the Almighty. Jesus died to save you from doubt, not to make space for it,” the internet shivered and then blew up, because there was never any lack of people telling us when we were kids that doubt was a true sin against God.
No one gave us the Psalms.
And we desperately need the Psalms.
I need the Psalms because there are days when things go wrong, and when you whisper a prayer to God, you don’t hear an answer. And the malignant Joel Osteen in your head says authoritatively, you are not hearing God because you do not have enough belief.
If you were reading those great theology books, maybe you would hear God.
If you were going to church every week, maybe you would hear God.
If you were memorizing more Scripture, maybe you would hear God.
And not only that, but maybe the suffering or struggling or loneliness or batteredness of your life right now would be more bearable, or become less.
If you were better, in some way, in a lot of ways, you would not feel distant from God, and you would be sailing your ship right over these waves.
But in the Psalms, the Psalmist speaks plainly.
I have come into the deep waters – the floods engulf me.
In the Psalms, we have the kinds of prayers that are said in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. They’re the dark night of the soul prayers. They are mid-January prayers, prayers you think in church when everyone around you is raising their hands in worship and all you feel is alone and distant. They are long cold walk prayers. They are prayers for days when you are binging shows you don’t even like on Netflix, those days when you feel gross, and full of self-loathing and like your whole life is a broken promise to yourself.
Or at least – they should be those prayers.
Usually, those are the times when we are least likely to pray.
I think those are the times that we don’t pray because our prayer would be “what the hell, God. What is this even.” We don’t pray because we feel abandoned by the world, and by whatever we think God is, and by our own “best self” that we haven’t experienced for a long, long time.
No one gave us words for prayers like that.
I honestly don’t even think of talking to God when things feel that way. What would I say? I am not even expecting help at this point, so praying for help doesn’t even make sense. Like those phone conversations with family when you suffer from depression – they ask how are you, and there is only heaviness and weight and dullness, and you say good because, well, who has words for that?
The Psalms are the way my soul would weep, if she knew how to do it.
But the blessing of the Psalms is that we don’t need to know “how to do it.” The Psalms can give us words when we are wordless.
The Psalms are words dug out of grief and abandonment. They are words for grief without shame. They are words for abandonment without guilt. They are words to speak as liturgy, because we don’t have the creativity or energy to write our own.
I have curled up in bed before, and whispered with the Psalmist, “the waters have come up to my neck.” I have said it to what felt like empty darkness. I have said it in my car on perfect summer days that seemed to be shutting me out because I was too unhappy to participate in them. I have said it right before preaching a sermon that I wasn’t sure that I believed. I have said it after breakups, after hookups, after the end of friendships or during relational trauma that I didn’t understand. I have run to the beat of those words when I didn’t have anything else but the solid rhythm of feet on pavement and the pattern of an old, old prayer.
The waters have come up to my neck.
My eyes have failed, looking for my God.
I get to say this, and call it praying.
I get to say this, without guilt.
I am worn out calling for help – my throat is parched.
The greatest gift the Psalms is language for a running conversation with God, when you feel bad, or alone, or anxious, or terrible. Without the Psalms, there is silence, and silence is paralyzing.
The gift of words to pray, or permission to say things that I was not taught were prayers, can feel like a life raft thrown into an icy ocean. You still feel like you’re drowning, and the heaviness of hopelessness is still weighing you down, but suddenly there is something to cling on to. There are still choppy waves hitting your face and getting in your lungs, but your hands are suddenly holding on to something, and the ability to cling – white knuckled, muscles clenched – to anything, even while you still half-choking and barely kicked – that act of clinging is everything.
It is everything in a moment when you have nothing.
The words don’t stop the storm, but there is a different way of being inside the trauma when you have language, and when you do not.
The church tradition that I grew up in did not give me that language. In dark days, I flounded, silently, never even dreaming that there were words.
The Psalms of lament are one chapter after another of desperate prayers, helpless prayers, prayers of panic or anxiety or depression or the noises of a corner animal. They are words that we did not know we could say.
Say them. Cling to them. Grab them as tightly as you can, hang on to them, because I can’t say that they fix things or make the storm go away but clinging to those words, speaking words instead of going under in silence, is the gift of a life preserver thrown into a ravenous ocean.
The waters have come up to my neck.
My eyes fail, looking for my God.
These are faithful prayers, from the people of God. Amen.