Life-threatening illness erases our calendar and makes us reassess our priorities. Because it often separates us from friends and, in the age of COVID, even family, it may isolate us from previous support systems. We may feel abandoned or at least neglected. Psalm 38 is a prayer by just such a sick person. His friends avoid him and it seems that his enemies have become more fervent in their attacks. He himself has become quite aware of his spiritual failings; he has sinned against God and confesses that sin. His guilt weighs him down:
“LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down on me. Because of your wrath there is no health in my body; there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin. My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear” (Psalm 38:1-4).
When we are afraid, we may fight or we may flee from the source of our fear. In the case of illness, fighting includes talking with doctors, seeking cures, taking medicines, and prayer. Fleeing may included literally checking oneself out of the hospital to avoid treatment or simply denying that we are sick, attempting to continue normal activities despite pain, weakness, or loss of control over our body’s functions. As Brian King observes in his book Taking It Easy: How to Cope with Bears, Traffic, and the Rest of Life’s Stressors, a third option sometimes occurs in response to stress and fear: We freeze. In the middle of this psalm, the sick person reveals:
“I am like the deaf, who cannot hear, like the mute, who cannot speak; I have become like one who does not hear, whose mouth can offer no reply” (Psalm 38:13-14).
He does not fight. He does not run away. He can do nothing. His guilt and his fear of his sickness have immobilized him:
“My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly. I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. My back is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body. I feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart” (Psalm 38:5-8).
This psalm has been grouped with others as a penitential psalm, for in it the psalmist confesses that he has sinned and voices his repentance. He recognizes God as his source of hope in a terrifying situation where his body betrays him, friends avoid him, and enemies redouble their criticism:
“All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes. My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away. Those who want to kill me set their traps, those who would harm me talk of my ruin; all day long they scheme and lie” (Psalm 38:9-12).
In January 2014, I was hospitalized unexpectedly four hundred miles from home. I wasn’t allowed out of my bed unless a nurse assisted me after I fell shortly after admission. Visitors had to wear gloves, masks, and paper gowns over their clothing to enter my room. My schedule was wrecked; my falling ill had come while on military duty. Friends whom I would have thought would visit did not; some who did visit seemed quite nervous. My wife drove seven hours to be with me, which helped tremendously, especially when I was released, because I still was not strong enough to drive home and would be on intravenous medication constantly for another week. One of my attending doctors told me that I would have died if I had not been taken to the hospital. The prayer of Psalm 38 resonates with me because of that experience.
During this past year, many others have known the fear and isolation of life-threatening illness. Almost all of us have had our lives disrupted as our world scrambled to find answers for a novel coronavirus. Even now, we’re not entirely sure its safe to venture out.
Psalm 38’s prayer reminds us to open our lives before the Lord, to be honest in our prayers about our failings and our fears. James 5:13-17 reflects this psalm’s emphasis on the curative powers of confession and prayer. Sin, guilt, and stress affect our physical health as well as our spiritual and mental health. We need healthy habits and lifestyles, positive interactions with other people and with God, a holistic approach to health. If you are ill, I pray that you will realize that God and others still love you. I pray that you will keep your life open before God and will be honest with him and with yourself. The pray-er of Psalm 38 emphasizes his (and our need) for God’s assistants as he concludes his prayer:
“For I am about to fail, and my pain is ever with me. I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by sin. Many have become my enemies without cause; those who hate me without reason are numerous. Those who repay my good with evil lodge accusations against me, though I seek only to do what is good. Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me, my God. Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Savior” (Psalm 38:17-21).
- Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.