For believers, the ultimate end-point of everything is certain: an eternity with God in paradise – we end finally with God. But that’s definitely not how we begin (Psalm 51:5; Ecclesiastes 7:8). It’s not even always how we start when confronted with a trial or problem in the day-to-day. If you’re anything like me on encountering an unexpected roadblock, you’re sometimes liable to run around like a headless chicken flapping before remembering you have a heavenly Father you can cry out to!

Instead, our approach should be two-fold: theological and experiential; we remind ourselves of the truth of God and we pray it out. To endure through dark times, we must take our eyes off of ourselves and our problem(s) and fix them instead on Christ Jesus, ‘the author and finisher of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2 NKJV). This should be our first response to everything in life. That may sound easier said than done, but bear with me and I’ll show you that, whilst it may be a struggle at times, it really is that simple.

Begin with He not me

As ever, the Word of God should be our guide. In Deeper Still, a book on biblical meditation, author Linda Allcock says we need to swap out the me for He. To illustrate this, she points to Psalm 104. And indeed, when you look at that Psalm, it’s striking how many lines begin with He or You, taking the focus off yourself onto someone greater than you. This is in direct contrast to modern mindfulness techniques or eastern forms of meditation where the focus remains on you and on finding peace within. Though these may have their place, the aim is usually in emptying your mind rather than filling your mind. Instead, biblical meditation recognises that the problem – at least partially – is inside ourselves and so we need help from outside ourselves. We are daily sinners, daily needing a Saviour. Linda Allcock’s book shows the importance of studying our Bibles to learn about our Redeemer God and His promises, and then to store up these treasures in our minds and hearts for hard times, Mary-style (Luke 2:19).

Psalm 88, quite possibly the darkest chapter in the entirety of the Old Testament, starts with (and repeats twice more):

Lord, you are the God who saves me;
    day and night I cry out to you.

Psalm 88:1

If you read the rest of the Psalm you’ll realise how remarkable that really is. Things don’t end with Heman the Ezrahite floating on a fluffy cloud strumming a harp… far from it. Instead, he finishes his only known piece of writing with the bleak statement that ‘darkness is my only friend’ (Psalm 88:18 CSB).

In my church, we sang Psalm 88 a while back. When I saw it printed on the service sheet, I thought it was some kind of sick joke – who would want to sing such a depressing thing like that? Suffice to say, I had repented of that attitude by the time we finished singing it! Psalm 88 was included in the Psalter for a reason; the book of Psalms covers the whole range of human emotions, so much so that the reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) called it ‘an anatomy of all parts of the soul’. Our French friend goes on:

The Holy Spirit has delineated all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the human mind is often agitated.

And for Heman the Ezrahite now? Well, he may not have his own cloud (not sure we get those…), but now he would certainly be able to say with Paul, ‘this light momentary affliction [was] preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison’ (1 Corinthians 4:17). Sometimes maybe we feel like the Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001), whose only prayer, after being so weakened from torture in prison, was to whisper the name of Jesus. And yet God hears the weakest groan; He will hold us fast.

Experience God in prayer

One of the problems with depression, a debilitating illness, or any big problem really, is that sometimes we can’t see anything else apart from it. This can make us become selfish, and then, of course, we hate ourselves even more for that. And so, sometimes we get locked into a downward spiral of negative-thought patterns. Our prayer-life suffers or is non-existent – if we can pray, our prayers are only for ourselves and shrouded in bitterness. ‘Don’t call me Naomi … call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me’ (Ruth 1:20 NLT). If part of our problem is spiritual – as a result of sin – then we can repeatedly beat ourselves up over it.

If this is us, then we’ve got it round the wrong way. Yes, we must confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. But once we’ve done that, we shouldn’t stop there! ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep’, said Nehemiah to the people, after they had been so convicted by their sin to the point where they were almost consumed with grief (Nehemiah 8:9-12). We don’t hang our heads low and stay there wallowing in self-pity, instead we raise our eyes heavenwards and consider in our hearts the Master-Maker of all the universe, our glorious Redeemer. The main thing we should pray for at all times is for God’s glory, and as we do this – however falteringly – we too ourselves will experience something of God’s glory.

The darkest period of the preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s life (1899-1981) was in the summer of 1949. He was physically and spiritually exhausted and under great Satanic attack to the extent that he was on the verge of giving up, when he saw the word ‘glory’ printed on the page of a book he’d been reading. The next moment he was completely taken up with the glory of God and felt the peace of God’s presence wash over him, such as he’d never known before.

Scottish Covenanter William Guthrie (1620–1665) wrote:

[The] glorious divine manifestation of God unto the soul […] is a thing better felt than spoke of. It is no audible voice, but it is a ray of glory filling the soul with God, as He is life, light, love and liberty, corresponding to that audible voice, “O man, greatly beloved” (Daniel 9:23).

Lloyd-Jones rarely spoke of his own experiences. It’s not out-of-this-world experiences that we ought to seek, but fellowship with God. We ought to:

Seek God, seek to know Him, seek to realise His presence, seek to love Him and give yourself entirely to Him. […]

Everybody wants blessing, of course; yes, but the peculiar mark of the child is that he is interested in the Person, he wants his Father, he wants to know his Father. He is more interested in the Giver than in the gift, in the Blesser than the blessing. He begins to know something of a hunger and thirst for God Himself; as the Psalmist puts it, his soul thirsteth for the living God…

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith’ (volume 2 of Iain Murray’s biography of MLJ)

The preacher Charles Bridges (1794–1869), writing on Psalm 119:17, said:

We may indeed be too bold in our manner of approach to God; but we cannot be too bold in our expectations from Him.

Humbly ask big things. God won’t deny prayers made through the name and blood of Jesus. ‘Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it’, God has said (Psalm 81:10, also see Philippians 4:19). ‘You do not have, because you do not ask’, writes James (James 4:2b). We must have faith in God. He will never fail us.

Receive and rest on Christ

What is faith exactly? According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, it is ‘receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness’ (WCoF 11.2).

The Lord Jesus Christ is light incarnate; He cannot fail to dispel the gloom. ‘Consider him who endured such hostility’ (Hebrews 12:2-3). Christ was beaten, bruised and battered – did that stop Him? He was cruelly crucified naked on a wooden cross – did that cause Him to give up? His body and His soul died – did that mean death had defeated Him? He was encased in a tomb in the rock – could that contain Him?

Christ didn’t die and rise again so that His followers could walk around with miserable expressions on their faces in the gloomy half-light! Trust in Christ, drink Him in, and then you can sing with the Psalmist:

At all times I will bless the LORD;
I’ll praise him with my voice.
Because I glory in the LORD,
let troubled souls rejoice.

Together let us praise the LORD;
exalt his name with me.
I sought the LORD; his answer came:
from fears he set me free.

They look to him and shine with joy;
they are not put to shame.
This suffering man cried to the LORD;
from him deliverance came.

Psalm 34:1-6, Sing Psalms