Last week I spoke with a new widow in my congregation. Her husband of over 70 years passed away a month ago and it was her first time back in church. She described what many people experience with grief: she can’t stop crying, she is overwhelmed, she is depressed and lonely, and it took her a tremendous amount of effort just to come to church. I could feel the despair oozing out of her as she talked, and my heart was broken for her. I assured her that grieving like this is normal, and eventually she will learn new ways to live with her loss. I know this to be true, but the words sounded hollow and empty in the face of her suffering. She looked at me with trusting eyes and pulled herself together.
If I could invent a tonic for despair and bottle it up, I would give this woman cases of it. Her pain was etched into her face, her voice, and even the way she moved her hands as she spoke.
Pastoral care involves being with people in some of the worst moments of their lives. We visit in the hospitals, in hospice centers, in prisons, and in homes when someone’s life has just fallen apart, or a great loss has occurred. We sit in our offices as people come and describe the indescribable. When this happens, I think about the scriptures that assure us of Jesus’ promise of his presence, his salvation, his redemption, and the hope that he brings.
But sometimes I think about Job.
Job is a story of despair. Nobody in the Old Testament had it quite as bad as Job. Job lost his home, his hundreds of sheep and cows, his wife, all of his sons and daughters, and even his health. In the midst of all of his undeserved suffering, he prayed this prayer of despair:
Job 3 (Common English Bible)
3 Afterward, Job spoke up and cursed the day he was born.
2 Job said:
3 Perish the day I was born,
the night someone said,
“A boy has been conceived.”
4 That day—let it be darkness;
may God above ignore it,
and light not shine on it.
5 May deepest darkness claim it
and a cloud linger over it;
may all that darkens the day terrify it.
6 May gloom seize that night;
may it not be counted in the days of a year;
may it not appear in the months.
7 May that night be childless;
may no happy singing come in it.
8 May those who curse the day curse it,
those with enough skill to awaken Leviathan.
9 May its evening stars stay dark;
may it wait in vain for light;
may it not see dawn’s gleam,
10 because it didn’t close the doors of my mother’s womb,
didn’t hide trouble from my eyes.
This is despair at a very deep level. To wish you had never been born is an indication of a profound loss of hope and debilitating depression. Have you ever felt that way?
11 Why didn’t I die at birth,
come forth from the womb and die?
12 Why did knees receive me
and breasts let me nurse?
13 For now I would be lying down quietly;
I’d sleep; rest would be mine
14 with kings and earth’s advisors,
who rebuild ruins for themselves,
15 or with princes who have gold,
who fill their houses with silver.
16 Or why wasn’t I like a buried miscarried infant,
like babies who never see light?
17 There the wicked rage no more;
there the weak rest.
18 Prisoners are entirely at ease;
they don’t hear a boss’s voice.
19 Both small and great are there;
a servant is free from his masters.
Job’s despair goes from hopelessness to anguish. He longs for the blackness of death over the light of life:
20 Why is light given to the hard worker,
life to those bitter of soul,
21 those waiting in vain for death,
who search for it more than for treasure,
22 who rejoice excitedly,
who are thrilled when they find a grave?
23 Why is light given to the person whose way is hidden,
whom God has fenced in?
In this next section, we read words that many of us have felt in the darkest moments of our lives. We dreaded something and it came. Our groans become our daily bread, and our roars for rescue pour out like water. In the 26th verse, Job echoes what many people feel in moments of defeat. We have no ease. We have no quiet. We can find no rest.
24 My groans become my bread;
my roars pour out like water.
25 Because I was afraid of something awful,
and it arrived;
what I dreaded came to me.
26 I had no ease, quiet, or rest,
and trembling came.
And so, to the list of everything Job lost, we can add more things. Job lost his peace of mind and his ability to rest. But do you know what Job didn’t lose?
At the end of his story, Job’s life was restored to him because he didn’t lose his faith. This brings us comfort in our misery, knowing that God’s presence is never gone from us in times of trouble. We can expect that in some measure, life will return after a siege. “New normals” replace old normals and God helps us pick ourselves up and get on with things. No, my new widow’s husband won’t ever come back to her. But in due time, she will indeed learn to live with her grief and find comfort in happy memories of their life together.
We do recover.
So, if you find yourself in a season of despair right now, remember Job. Don’t lose your faith, and don’t give up your hope. God is with you.