What To Do When You Hit Bottom?
It was about three years ago, and it was an incredibly hot day. Our life’s possessions were in a huge van, spilling over into a couple of cars and a friend’s truck. We were in the midst of the laborious process of removing them from one parsonage to another that the church had just acquired. At some point in that process I walked into the beautiful sanctuary of that church. It was quiet and peaceful, serene and orderly. I stopped for a moment, remembering something that belonged in the parsonage, stored in the church. I then made my way through a door, and turned right, then down the stairs, and into a little room. There was a basement, underneath. It was crowded and dark, scary and disordered.
Every church, I suppose, has a place of beauty, for public worship, and every church, I suppose, has a place of storage, an out of the way place, usually it is underneath everything else and hard to find; in fact most people don’t even know it’s there.
I thought about that basement as I read the 130th Psalm. "Out of the deep have I called unto you, O Lord"…And just as there are depths in buildings, there are deep places in our lives as well. This psalm really is a cry from the depths, from the bottom of life, from someone whose life is not quiet and peaceful, serene and orderly, but crowded and dark, scary and disordered.
Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Do you know what I mean when I talk about the deep places? The psalmist helps us. One translation has verse one, "Help, Yahweh, the bottom has fallen out of my life". Have you ever hit bottom? When the bottom falls out, when you hit bottom, what do you do? Israel cries out to God. There’s an echo here of the Exodus. Israel, in slavery to the master class, had hit bottom. "The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out".
When you’re a slave, you begin to think you’re a nobody, that you’re expendable. When you’re at the bottom, life is not quiet and peaceful, serene and orderly; life is crowded and dark, scary and disordered. That’s what life is like at the bottom.
Sometimes we hit bottom through no fault of our own. Sometimes we hit bottom, and we’ve done our own share of the work in getting there. Sometimes we hit bottom because we are weary in our well-doing. Sometimes we hit bottom because we have succeeded in making a mess of our lives.
And so we claim this psalm: Out of the deep, I cry to you, O Lord. The Latin name for this psalm has been de profundis, out of the depths, out of the deep. It is a profound model of how we live in relationship with God when we have hit bottom, when we are in the depths.
"If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand?"
When we’ve hit bottom, God is not standing there, sneering at us, saying, "I told you this would happen". God is not detached, at a distance from us, saying "I told you so". When we’ve hit bottom, we discover a wonderful truth, in verse four:
there is forgiveness with you.
Augustine, early in the Confessions, reflects on this psalm in seeking the forgiveness of God. He writes,
Martin Luther, the great reformer of Christianity, argued that the 130th Psalm taught the basic truth of the gospel. He preached a sermon on this psalm, and in it he said, "With God alone is forgiveness. If anyone wants to amount to something before God, he or she must insist on grace, not merit." John Wesley heard Psalm 130 performed as an anthem on May 24th, 1738 in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Later that evening he went to a room on Aldersgate Street, and he experienced the gospel, in which his heart was strangely warmed by the grace of God.
When we hit bottom, there is a firm foundation. There is forgiveness, there is grace. If the Lord should mark iniquities, who could stand? The answer is "no one". We are saved by grace alone!
I have a friend, a pastor who went into a deep depression that lasted a couple of years. He had no idea why he felt so debilitated and overwhelmed. But in his recovery he came to a conclusion. He said, "I had turned a religion of grace into a religion of good works and achievement".
Have you ever thought, deep in your gut, that if you were just a better person God would love you more? If you ‘ve hit bottom, that can be an enslaving thought. But listen to the scripture: If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you… The good news of Psalm 130 is that…There is forgiveness, grace, a way out, a way up. There is forgiveness with you.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Shawshank Redemption. There are two main characters, and they’re both prisoners: an older man, who knows the ropes, and a younger man who has had a very rough time in the Maine prison, but still has a spark of something in him. Late in the story they are sitting together in the yard. They’ve been in prison for a long time. Finally the young man speaks:When I get out of here I’m going to set up a small hotel on the pacific coast of Mexico. They say the pacific coast is larger than you can imagine, and I’m going to get an old boat and make it like new, and take people out charter fishing.
The older gentleman listens and then responds:
Or maybe you’re here because you have done everything you have always told you to do, and it has all been the right thing, and yet there is an emptiness and an exhaustion, and you have hit bottom, and you long for the warmth of God’s grace.
If you’ve hit bottom, you may be at a place where God’s light, God’s spirit is about to break through. The spiritual classics call this the "dark night of the soul". When we hit bottom we discover what is really important in life, maybe even the knowledge that God’s love and mercy are wider and deeper than the vastness of any ocean. Today, if you’ve hit bottom, call out to God. I could say it in a way that draws upon one of my native South Georgia’s greatest gifts to the world, the catfish:
God loves bottom dwellers!
God loves bottom dwellers because bottom dwellers know how to pray this psalm: Out of the deep have I cried unto Thee O Lord!
Maybe your life is more like a basement than a sanctuary. Maybe you wish your life was quiet and peaceful, serene and orderly; but the reality is that your life is crowded and dark, scary and disordered.
The good news is there in the scripture. God says, "I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them" (Exodus 3. 7-8).
Sources: Eugene Peterson, The Message: Psalms; J. Clinton McCann, "Psalms", New Interpreter's Bible; Augustine's Confessions (1.5.6); Luther's Works, 18; Anthony Robinson, Good News in Exile; Ken Carter, "Hope is Living Toward A Vision", Reel Faith, 1.1.