With Sighs Too Deep for Words

O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.

For my iniquities have gone over my head;
they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.
My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness;
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am utterly spent and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.

O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbors stand far off.
Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek to hurt me speak of ruin,
and meditate treachery all day long.

But I am like the deaf, I do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak.
Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort.
But it is for you, O LORD, that I wait;
it is you, O LORD my God, who will answer.
For I pray, “Only do not let them rejoice over me,
those who boast against me when my foot slips.”

For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.
Those who are my foes without cause are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
Those who render me evil for good
are my adversaries because I follow after good.

Do not forsake me, O LORD;
O my God, do not be far from me;
make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation. – Psalm 38 (NRSV)

Psalm 38 is an individual psalm of lament but has been used in corporate worship for millennia. As with many laments, the psalmist begins by bringing their pain to God. The psalm then moves between lament, hope, and praise. The psalms of lament show up here and there in the lectionary, often during Lent or with the more difficult verses are excluded. It makes me wonder whether there is room for lament in society or the Church. The Psalms would say there is, but we tend to shy away from naming our suffering.

  • Is this because we are embarrassed at our vulnerability?
  • Do we grow weary of the laments of others because we are afraid we might “catch” their suffering?
  • Do we try not to acknowledge lament and suffering because we don’t know what to do?

But here we are in 2020. Yes, there has been beauty and grace, but largely, this is a year of lament. Every day, we could read Psalm 38 as if it were our own words. Pick your suffering: global pandemic, uncontrollable wildfires, unceasing hurricanes, unemployment and financial uncertainty, political division, the violence of racism, or increasing rates of anxiety and depression.

How do we not lament together?

Paul writes boldly in his letter to the Romans that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. This is true. But just because in the spectrum of eternity this moment is but a speck to be forgotten when we are in the full presence of Jesus, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt right now. Of course creation eagerly looks forward to redemption along with us — we are all sharing in the suffering.

Paul’s writes these words not to silence us in shame when we are overwhelmed with our present sufferings or dread of what is yet to come. Paul is trying to remind us of our hope. We groan along with the earth as if in labor pains — seeking to move past this moment to the joy that is to come. But if you’ve ever been in labor or been with someone who is, you know the pain is real and doesn’t feel very momentary.

Sometimes, we have to cry and rage. We need to acknowledge the suffering, sickness, and fear we all feel. The psalms of lament remind us that we are not alone in grief and struggle. In Psalm 38, the psalmist cries out that there is no health in their bones. The Hebrew word here is shalom. Deep down in their bones, they feel no peace. When we are in this place, Paul reminds us that Godself in the Holy Spirit groans within us with, along with us, in the midst of our present sufferings.

When we have no peace.
When we find ourselves face down on the floor.
When our soul hurts.
When we have no words.

The very Spirit — God’s very self — searches and knows our heart; uses the breath of life to breathe sighs too deep for words. Because the will of God is that despite our present sufferings that we would still be able to have shalom, peace in our soul.

The psalmist’s sufferings are not alleviated by the last verse. And we know the truth in this. Our prayers rarely end with resolution. But they should end with hope. Until full redemption comes, Paul tells us that we can wait for hope because it has already saved us. The Lord is already our salvation.

In our present sufferings, may we remember that though we may feel alone, God has not forsaken us and is not far from us — our longing and sighing are known by God. May the hope we do not see, the hope that has already saved us, bring us peace. Make haste to help us, O Lord, our salvation.

O Lord, our wounds grow foul and fester because of our foolishness. We are utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long we go around mourning. For our loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in our flesh. We are utterly spent and crushed; we groan because of the tumult of our hearts. O Lord, all our longing is known to you; our sighing is not hidden from you.
Help us in our weakness. Hear our groans as we wait for our full redemption. Remind us of the hope that saves us. In our weakness, teach us to pray. And when we cannot, may we trust that your Spirit prays on our behalf with sighs too deep for words.
Do not forsake us, O LORD; our God, do not be far from us; make haste to help us, O Lord, our salvation.

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