A Reality Check for Fairytale Christians

  • Nathan Schneider
Rocking chair in an attic

I have a confession to make. I rarely listen to Christian radio. It’s not just that I’m a news station kind of guy. I really can’t stand most of the music on Christian radio. On those rare occasions when I’m in the car and the news isn’t interesting, and there’s not much to listen to, I’ll flip through the stations and eventually come across one of the local Christian music stations. And invariably, the major theme that runs through at least 90% of popular Christian music is that the Christian life is filled with a lot of difficulties, but when we’re down and we’re feeling out, we can turn to Jesus and eventually we’ll feel better again. The music tends to sound the same—really, all Christian music tends to have the same kind of “feel” to it. And the music is always positive, it’s always encouraging—it’s…well, you get the idea.

But I tell you, when your heart is truly down—when your life is devastated—that kind of music doesn’t satisfy, because it’s not the music of the heart. If you were to sing the song on your heart, it wouldn’t always sound like that. Sometimes, we just need to sing something in a minor key for change—because that’s the only thing that can express the weight on our heart. And the sad reality is that the church really doesn’t have songs in a minor key.

In that respect, I’d say that pop Christian music has done the church a horrible disservice. It’s given us music for the person coming out of pain and suffering. But what about the person in the middle of the pain—in the darkness of life’s miseries? We don’t have any songs for them.

Yet in the vacuum of contemporary church music, the Lord has given us a priceless gem. He knew exactly what the human heart needs at times of great distress, when the heart is weighed down with pain. And, not surprising, it has very little in common with the music of our day. And that gem is Psalm 88.

Psalm 88 has been called “the darkest psalm in the psalter.” And for this, it tempts the NT Christian to disregard it as the expression of a well-meaning but seemingly faithless OT saint who simply needs to move into the light of the NT gospel. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We know little to nothing about this man who wrote this psalm. But even more than that, numerous commentators have noted the extremely vague details regarding what’s actually going on in the psalmist’s life that would spark such a desperate plea. He doesn’t mention any explicit enemies who are persecuting him, as is often the case in these kinds of psalms. Some have suggested that he might have been suffering from an illness, although even in that, the language remains so elusive that in the end, there’s only one thing that can be said about what was going on—we’re not sure. How’s that for certainty!

But you know what—I think that’s exactly the point. Because the psalm is written in such a way that it invites us in to the experiences of a man who could just as much be going through exactly what we are. And in so doing, his desperate prayer becomes our own prayer—a prayer that our heart longs to make, and he’s done it for us.

A Prayer for Resolution

The deepest desire of anyone going through pain is the desire for ultimate resolution. We want to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We want to know that there’s a way out. And that’s where Psalm 88 comes in, because God gives us a reality check in this psalm that we really need to hear. In fact, I’d submit that one of the most powerful and sobering aspects of this psalm is that there is no resolution given…

“But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.” (Psalm 88:13-18)

What the psalmist most desires is what ultimately never comes. We never hear a resolution to the problem. We anticipate it—we expect, like with other psalms, for him to break out into praise when the Lord finally answers his prayer and rescues him from his misery. But that never comes.

Instead, he recounts one last time the extent of his pain. His prayers aren’t answered. The Lord seems to have rejected him. His afflictions have seemed to have gone on since he was a boy (verse 15). And from there, these descriptions seem to accumulate and accumulate. He’s overcome by terrors, by the burning ager of God. He feels crushed under God’s wrath. His friends have abandoned him! This is obviously a man who’s not coming out of things. He’s stuck in the middle of it all!

And the whole psalm ends, “My acquaintances are in darkness.” Talk about the opposite of a Hollywood ending. This isn’t right! Life isn’t supposed to go this way! At least that’s what we want to believe. That’s what we’ve been taught to believe.

But one of the biggest values of this psalm is that it reminds us that resolution doesn’t always come to all our problems—that there is such a thing as tragedy. And there might be afflictions and struggles that you will carry with you your whole life. Sometimes the prayers of the saints, in their darkest hours, end when they breath their final breath.

One commentator writes,

“It is true, he is aware, and firmly clings to this thought with trembling hands, that it is the God of his salvation to whom he cries (v. 1a); but that vestige of his former religious experience and former yearning hope vanishes in the darkness of the present dreadful reality of his suffering and of his mortal terror which threatens to engulf him, forsaken as he is, like one who, lonely and unheard, sinks in the frightening expanse of the ocean.” (Weiser, The Psalms, 587)

Here’s the reality this psalm gives us–the reality you won’t find in Christian radio. Life in this fallen world is not all roses and sunshine. Sometimes there’s pain, and desperation and heartache. To think any different is to live in a dreamworld.

But here’s the grace of God in all this—Psalm 88 is for you. It’s YOUR prayer. And God has put it in the Bible for you! As Marvin Tate put it:

Whoever devises from Scripture a philosophy in which everything turns out right has to begin by tearing out this page of the volume. Psalm 88 may be “an embarrassment to conventional faith,” but it is an embarrassment which we should keep. Whenever we pass through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ we may find that it prepares the way for divine comfort. (Tate).

In other words, we need this psalm. The Bible would be incomplete without it—not just because it’s inspired, but because without it, we would be missing a vital witness that speaks to all of life. As Tate goes on to write,

Long trails of suffering and loss traverse the landscape of human existence, even for the devoted people of God. There are cold, wintery nights of the soul, when bleakness fills every horizon, and darkness seems nearly complete.

That is the reality of the world we live in. We live in a broken world—a world filled with sin, and pain, and death. And whether or not we ever personally enter into the kind of affliction we find here in this psalm, we know that others have and do.

The psalm ends with a stark and sober statement—“My acquaintances are in darkness.” And when you’re in the midst of intense affliction, darkness is about the best term to describe it.

But I’m reminded of another psalm which speaks of darkness—and its words offer a ray of hope even to the one who thinks God’s not listening:

“Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You.” (Psalm 139:12)

As we pray to God in our desperation—when we pray with expectation that God can take away our pain—when we hope against hope that resolution will come in the midst of the darkness—we pray to a God who can see in the darkness. He does know your pain. He does hear your prayers.

And he sent his very own Son into this world of darkness to make things right.  To take what is broken and put it back together. “The Light shines in the darkness,” John says, “and the darkness did not overpower it” (John 1:5).

But God isn’t interested in temporal fixes. Jesus isn’t a cosmic bandaid that will eventually fall off to reveal the scarred reminder of old wounds. He offers a permanent resolve to the brokenness of the present world. The hope he brings is a permanent hope. It’s not the hope that things will get better, only to go bad again when the next problem comes. The hope he offers is a world where things never get worse, where the curse has been lifted, the war has been won, and death and suffering are defeated:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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.”

That’s the hope of the Christian, and it’s no fairytale world. It’s the world as it should be. It’s the world that is coming. But it’s not this present world.

Let’s not be fairytale Christians. Let’s not try to find hope in the present broken world. I guarantee you, it will ultimately lead to disappointment. It’s only when we look to Christ…to the world to come…that we can look our present griefs directly in the eyes with the firm resolve that…whether or not temporal relief comes, I’m waiting with hopeful expectation for the permanent fix.

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.” (John 16:33)