Suffering, Lauren Bowerman writes, is not a mark of failure or weakness. It's not a sign of God's disappointment in you. Suffering—even depression—can be a means of grace.
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Sometimes all we can see is devastating loss when, in reality, God is clearing the path for you to find invaluable treasures.
My dream was crushed and I was in the throes of despair. I wanted to regain my hope in God, but I didn't know how. Then I found the psalms of lament.
The days stretched on like a bad movie that would never end. I wore a cheerful mask as I meandered through my day. I was found myself floundering in the darkness of depression. Sometimes you look at someone and wonder what’s going on behind their eyes. “How are you doing?” friends would ask. “I’m good . . . ” I uttered robotically.
But if you looked close enough behind the mask, you could see I was unraveling. There’s always more happening underneath the mask.
GRASPING FOR WORDS
Some suffering is brought on by our sin and other times suffering happens without invitation. Our hardships are colorful and various. Instead of finding the words to explain our pain, it’s easy to mask our trials with the subtleties of “I’m good," “Things are fine," or if you’re talking to other Christians, “I’m blessed!" We put on the mask of cheer because this is expected of us.
Paul Laurence Dunbar communicates similar sentiments in his poem “We Wear the Mask:”
We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, — This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.
I marvel that out of the labors of suffering, beauty such as this can be birthed. The Psalms remind us that corporate and individual suffering can’t be divorced from the human experience. They so eloquently reveal what’s happening underneath the mask. They do not hold back how bleak life in a Genesis 3 world can become. They show the intensity of our pain and the goodness of our God.
When the Worst Has Come
If you live long enough, there will be a point when your worst fears become reality. Your marriage goes from bad to worse when you find the divorce papers in your mailbox. Your oldest child proclaims, “There is no God!" despite your best efforts to train them in the way they should go. You find yourself struggling, again, with the same sin that has been a snare most of your life.
Perhaps, you receive the paralyzing news of the death of a parent or loved one. You feel the pulse of your own heart as the doctor mumbles, “There isn’t a heartbeat.” You sigh at the long road ahead as your people are marginalized, disenfranchised, or enslaved by fellow humans. The list goes on.
The people of Israel were no strangers to suffering. Yes, God chose them to display his glory to the nations, but this privilege did not exempt them from years of pain. In Psalm 129, the psalmist removes the mask, and we witness the metaphorical and literal scars which reside underneath.
In verses 1 and 2, the psalmist sings twice that, “since my youth they have often attacked me." As a people, their suffering was long and consistent. Throughout their history, they went in and out of enslavement to other nations. From the cries of Egypt (Ex. 3:7-8) to the lion’s den in Babylon (Dan. 6), the Israelites experienced consistent attacks. Across generations, some of their worst fears happened over and over again.
In verse 3 the psalmist paints a beautifully disturbing word picture describing physical pain as they sing how “plowmen plow over [their] back; they made their furrows long”. Plows are sharp tools used to break up the earth to plant seeds. Furrows are the long narrow trenches made in the ground by the plows. The mask is off, and here we find the home of the tears and desperation of the suffering.
ATTACKED BY SIN
Similarly, the final stanza of Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask,” removes the mask as he speaks of this long road of pain:
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To Thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh, the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask.
And this is the case for us. While we may not be enslaved, we still experience attacks. Our attacks may be our sin patterns, spiritual warfare, or an actual enemy who seeks to destroy our reputation by gossip. Enemies are seeking to kill us, bringing many of our fears to reality.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of Psalm 129 is the call for all of Israel to say, “since my youth they have often attacked me." This Psalm speaks of the collective suffering of a group of people. It gives words to the corporate cries of the oppressed.
My ancestors penned many poems and songs like this when they were, and in some ways still are, oppressed by fellow humans. Littered throughout the beautiful words of negro spirituals and poems written by African-American men and women are the collective pronouns of “we," “our” and “us." African-American poet, Melvin B. Tolson, displays similar sentiments as Psalm 129 in regard to the collective nature of suffering in his poem, “Dark Symphony.” He writes:
Oh, how can we forget Our human rights denied? Oh, how can we forget Our manhood crucified? When Justice is profaned And plea with curse is met, When Freedom’s gates are barred, Oh, how can we forget?
Some may not feel this collective “we” in which these poems and some psalms speak, but we can learn from them. We learn of the nature of the church community—we were meant to suffer alongside one another.
As one body (1 Cor. 12:26) we not only worship with one another, but we feel deeply with one another. As Romans 12:15 says, we “Rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep.” We draw near to our brothers and sisters in the faith, and we see what is underneath the mask. We don’t disregard it or explain their suffering away; we weep with them.
Through bearing burdens together, we become a tangible expression of the comfort of Christ to them. To even begin to do this, we must be close enough to our brothers and sisters in Christ to know what is going on in their lives and to see behind the mask.
God’s Righteous Character
In the suffering of his people, Tolson writes, “When Freedom’s gates are barred/ Oh, how can we forget?” As Psalm 129 reminds us, the goal of our suffering is not to forget it, erase it, or ignore it.
Psalm 129, and all the Psalms of Ascents, were written to celebrate seasonal feasts in Jerusalem. The Israelites sang these songs corporately and regularly. They sang about their oppression and the Lord’s deliverance. In singing, they forced themselves to remember. Faith helps us to see that God will work in the future—like he has done in the past—because of his consistently righteous character. As one quote renders it, “What God has done for his people formerly are, in effect, promises too. Faith may conclude that the Lord will work in like manner in the future. If he delivered others who rested in him, he will deliver me if I trust in him now. He is the same yesterday and forever.”
In Psalm 129:2, the Israelites sing that their enemies have not prevailed against them. If we were to read only verse 1-2, we might conclude that the Israelites were the reason their enemies didn’t overcome them. We may assume they delivered themselves from their enemies.
HOLD FAST TO THE PROMISE
As we read on, verse 4 reveals salvation didn’t come from the Israelites own strength and efforts but from the Lord’s righteous character. They could sing “the LORD is righteous” (Ps. 129:4) because they drew on years of history which proved the Lord’s faithfulness to them. He delivered others—and by faith—we can believe he will deliver us as well.
We, too, can hold fast to this same promise. For centuries God has kept his Word to his people. He stayed true to his unchanging and righteous character. The ultimate evidence of his deliverance is through the person and work and Jesus Christ who delivered us from the bondage of sin. And in a myriad of smaller ways, he will do the same for us.
Our deliverance may be different than we expect and slow coming. Perhaps instead of removing us from the struggle, he will mold and shape our character, integrity, and faith in it (Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:3). If we find ourselves in the dark night of the soul—before the face of our Father and in the presence of his people—we can remove the mask. We can mourn and remember the faithfulness of our God. And we can recall, he loves to shine his light into the darkest places.
SharDavia “Shar” Walker lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Paul. She serves on staff with Campus Outreach, an interdenominational college ministry, and enjoys sharing her faith and discipling college women to be Christian leaders. Shar is a writer and a speaker and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Christian Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.