I use my time on the cardio exercise machine to read Psalms and Proverbs. It’s a good time to let those eternal, wise, and healing words to penetrate my soul. This morning I found myself reading and re-reading Psalm 38, a Psalm of David, a “Prayer of a suffering Penitent.” I could not move on! I kept re-reading it. The words spoke to me as if they were the cries of my daughter Helia’s soul. If you are reading this blog, most probably you have visited the site for my book: In the Fellowship of His Suffering: A Theological Interpretation of Mental Illness—A Focus on “Schizophrenia.” The incomprehensible suffering of my precious daughter, Helia, and those like her, who experience intense distress and alternate states of mind was what inspired the research for that book. It was as if the words of David were reflecting the sighs and cries of Helia and those of her fellow-travelers who have passed through this perplexing journey in fellowship of suffering with our Lord. This is how the Psalm begins in the New American Standard Version:
A Psalm of David, for a memorial.
38 O Lord, rebuke me not in Your wrath,
And chasten me not in Your burning anger.
2 For Your arrows have sunk deep into me,
And Your hand has pressed down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation;
There is no health in my bones because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities are gone over my head;
As a heavy burden they weigh too much for me.
5 My wounds grow foul and fester
Because of my folly.
6 I am bent over and greatly bowed down;
I go mourning all day long.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
And there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am benumbed and badly crushed;
I groan because of the agitation of my heart.
For those who believe in the sovereign power of God over all elements of life, for those who have walked with Him and enjoyed the grace of His presence and His blessings, for those who are aware of their own sinfulness before a Holy God, and for those who believe in His goodness and His faithfulness: such people, when they are faced with an affliction this deep have nowhere to go but to blame themselves. “What have I done that has made Him so angry? How guilty must I be to be abandoned by God in this dry and torturous wilderness? If even God is not with me then who would care about me?” they ask.
The pain is overwhelming and crushing. There does not seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The soul is thirsty for water of life but it cannot be found. The chains that hold it are too strong and pierce the flesh. The physicians have a hopeless verdict. They say this is a lifetime “disease” and your hope is in your medications. Life is hopeless and dark.
How can somebody endure such a soul-wrenching pain? How can one take the rejection, the stigma, the loss of identity, and have no access to God’s grace? No one believes such sufferers. They are labeled as “crazy,” a nuisance and a burden to society. The power of the Enemy is consuming. “I am too weak to fight and this battle is much greater than my capacity to fight it. Where is my Savior? What happened to all promises of love and peace? Was I not promised that the Lord will fight for me? If He is not with me then in whom can I put my hope and trust? Where did I go wrong? How did I cause this?” they ask.
9 Lord, all my desire is before You;
And my sighing is not hidden from You.
10 My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
And the light of my eyes, even that has gone from me.
11 My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague;
And my kinsmen stand afar off.
Slowly but surely all friends leave. Those who seemingly “loved” the person, don’t know how to bear his or her pain. The person has become too strange for them. The person’s behavior, her thoughts, her words are nonsensical to them. It is easier to avoid her than to allow her mysterious struggles affect their lives.
But can they be blamed if they don’t understand? How can they help if they themselves are lost in the storms of life? Life becomes so lonely so fast! And in weakness, and in vulnerability, the person’s spiritual battle rages on!
12 Those who seek my life lay snares for me;
And those who seek to injure me have threatened destruction,
And they devise treachery all day long.
13 But I, like a deaf man, do not hear;
And I am like a mute man who does not open his mouth.
14 Yes, I am like a man who does not hear,
And in whose mouth are no arguments.
For years, my daughter Helia was like a deaf and mute person. The oppression and persecution on her soul was so intense that no word came out of her mouth. Her voice, her longings, her cries were suffocated inside her. There was no word in her vocabulary that could express the intensity of her pain. What was the point of speaking up anyway? No one would believe her! No one would be patient enough to stay silent and just listen to her groaning! Her lips were closed, her tongue was chained, and her emotions were blocked.
15 For I hope in You, O Lord;
You will answer, O Lord my God.
When one has lost everything, when one is buried in a sea of darkness, he or she calls out of distress to the Lord, and the Lord hears (Jonah 2:2-3). Helia knew deep inside that even in His hiddenness God was a constant presence in her life. Even in her catatonic state, when she was seemingly deaf and mute, she knew she could trust Him. She knew that her only help was in the hands of the Great Physician. She traveled through a “great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water,” but He brought water for her out of the proverbial “rock of flint,” and sustained her against all odds (see Deut.8:15).
16 For I said, “May they not rejoice over me,
Who, when my foot slips, would magnify themselves against me.”
17 For I am ready to fall,
And my sorrow is continually before me.
The forces of darkness that persecuted her soul constantly reminded her of all that was wrong. Their whole purpose was to point out failures, betrayals, shattered dreams, songs lost, and loves faded. They meant evil, but God meant it all for good (Gen.50:20).
18 For I confess my iniquity;
I am full of anxiety because of my sin.
19 But my enemies are vigorous and strong,
And many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 And those who repay evil for good,
They oppose me, because I follow what is good.
21 Do not forsake me, O Lord;
O my God, do not be far from me!
22 Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!
Indeed, this Psalm speaks out of a broken spirit, a burdened soul, a soul overwhelmed by pain, guilt, shame, and loneliness, a soul barraged by persecuting thoughts. It speaks to those who are uniquely called to carry a cross from which most will run away. These are the words of a broken soul, like Helia and like David, that has no other hope but to cling to her God, her Savior.
In spite of his doubts and his circumstances, David knows deep in his heart that the Lord is good and faithful and just, and that there is no salvation but in Him. God is in control and nothing happens without passing through His loving fingers. He may not respond as quickly as David would like, so David appeals to Him and begs for haste and a sense of urgency.
There is a time for everything (Eccl 3:1-8). God knows the best time for pain and the best time for healing. In this Psalm, David calls on God. He appeals to His compassion and mercy, because he knows: “The LORD redeems the soul of His servants; and none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned” (Psalm 34:22).
Probably one of the greatest mysteries of redemptive journey is the necessity of following Christ through the Garden of Gethsemane and along the Via Dolorosa. “We follow Him unto death. But the gospel declares that we also follow Him through the gates of heaven. Because we suffer with Him, we also shall be raised with Him. If we are humiliated with Him, we also shall be exalted with Him.” What a privilege to walk in the fellowship of His suffering!
 R. C. Sproul, “In Christ, Our Suffering Is Not in Vain,”