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Psalm 42 - Spiritual depression


 

 In Psalm 42, we read some startling words; words which you and I would probably not dare offer up in prayer to God. But I, for one, am glad they have been preserved for us for they offer great relief. By that I mean it is a great relief to know we may pour out raw, honest emotion to God without fear of severing our relationship.

When would you have thought it appropriate to say in prayer, “Why have you forgotten me?” It’s with good reason we baulk at such an expression because it fails to take into account the gospel event which assures us God would never leave us: the proof is in what Jesus has done, but despite the problem of chronology, it is nevertheless a desperate plea from a desperate believer which God allows.

We may never know if the person who wrote Psalm 42 was just having a bad run or in fact suffered clinical depression, but that should not affect our ability to mine this poem for precious nuggets.

It offers us several principles to work with: the certainty of suffering, the desire of God to hear our prayers even when they are desperate and how humanity is crying out for a mediator who can plead its case before the Almighty.

Depression statistics

  • One is six Australian men suffers depression. Women are nearly twice as likely to suffer and the first episode for both sexes is usually in teenage years. Many preschoolers are diagnosed with depression today.
  • Men are more likely to commit suicide, but only because they are more successful at it than women.
  • Women are more likely to seek medical advice. Men are more likely to use substances to cope such as alcohol.
  • Younger women are more likely than older women to suffer depression & women in general have more types of depression (e.g. post-natal).
  • Depression causes more workplace absenteeism than any other condition.
  • An estimated 80% of GP patients suffer depression & it is a factor in their treatment.
  • 80% of people who suffer depression are not treated.
  • The rate of depression doubles roughly every 20 years.

CS Lewis was a famous Christian who suffered from depression. Again, it is difficult to tell if depression in those from former eras is the same as the diagnoses given today, but there is every likelihood of it being so. Consider Lewis’s words from his book A Grief Observed.

Meanwhile, where is God? When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him. If you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. (CS Lewis, A Grief Observed)

Lewis was in every sense a Christian and yet he is honest enough to admit that communion with God on those dark days is so difficult, it is though the door has been shut in his face and double bolted.

It takes a lot of guts to be in the public eye as a Church theologian par excellence and to say something like that. Gutsy, yes, but it is only following in the footsteps of the Psalmist who regularly poured his heart out to the Lord.

1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.
5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
6 My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me—  a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
11 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

A common emotion
Spiritual depression, or feeling downcast, is a surprisingly common feeling amongst characters in the Bible. And significantly, the answer to the problem is within reach of us all: calling on the Lord. That doesn’t mean ‘down’ times will immediately disappear, it doesn’t mean they won’t come back or that their stay is short. It means God knows all about them & has not left you in a state of despair. There is hope, but you must actively choose to walk that path.

In Psalm 42, the Psalmist cries out to God with a call which would be familiar to people who are downcast: ‘I am trying to find God, but can’t see him anywhere.’

It’s one thing to walk away from the Lord, but it’s quite another to be a Christian who desperately searches for God in prayer & only feel as though they are trapped in a bubble where words go no higher than the ceiling. They want comfort & can’t find it, they have no sense of fellowship, there is no easing of the pain & seemingly no escape from the worst emotional pain they have ever known. It is like they have fallen into a well.

Praise God the Psalms have been preserved for us in Scripture because they cover the full range of human emotions. They are honest and raw. Not only is the Psalmist dealing with a very physical emotional turmoil, but as a true believer, he is also experiencing spiritual confusion. Let’s go through the passage in detail.

1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.
This is an analogy of spiritual thirst. Just like a deer looking for water, the Psalmist is describing what it feels like to search for close communion with God  but only feeling finding spiritual darkness. Have you ever felt that? You know you’re a believer in Christ, but you don’t feel as though he’s there. Most Christians will not talk this way in public, because it undermines their standing in the Christian community. People staring doubting your salvation when you talk like this, so it becomes a hidden thought, but it is surprisingly common. It is as though you’ve been locked in the cupboard. Your belief in God has not changed, but how you relate feels as though it has been damaged. The Psalmist knew what that was like and God, in his wisdom, has preserved these thoughts for us to read.

2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
He wants “the living God”. He doesn’t want to know about God; he’s not looking for another mp3 on the subject or the latest book; He’s looking for God himself. ‘Where are you Lord?’ is his cry. ‘We were so close once. What happened?’ Partially, this is a struggle the Psalmist has because he lives in the Old Covenant era. Finding God meant something different then because Jesus had not lived, died & risen. So as we read words like this, not only should we be thankful for their preservation, but we should allow the text to point us to Jesus for the answer. “When can I go and meet with God?” The gospel is the answer to the Psalmist’s dilemma. As long as the Christian arrives at that answer, then he/she can read the raw emotion in the Psalms with true empathy without being destabilized by it.

3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
It’s like Job all over again, only this time the people he talks to remind him that the God he’s been talking about all this time is gone. He hasn’t ‘gone’ anywhere, but in those dark times that’s what the experience is like and of course that’s what our skeptical friends conclude. ‘God is not doing you much good now, is he?’

Augustine makes an interesting observation about this verse when he admits that at least the pagan can point to something physical and say that which he worships (in his example it is the a stone or the sun) is at least always visible. But where is the believer’s God on those days when it feels as though you are utterly alone?

For if a Pagan should say this to me, I cannot retort it upon him, saying, Where is yours? inasmuch as he points with his finger to some stone, and says, Lo, there is my God! When I have laughed at the stone, and he who pointed to it has been put to the blush, he raises his eyes from the stone, looks up to heaven, and perhaps says, pointing his finger to the Sun, Behold there my God! Where, I pray, is your God? He has found something to point out to the eyes of the flesh; whereas I, on my part, not that I have not a God to show to him, cannot show him what he has no eyes to see. For he indeed could point out to my bodily eyes his God, the Sun; but what eyes has he to which I might point out the Creator of the Sun?1

The subtle temptation grows louder and louder: perhaps God has forgotten me or abandoned me or doesn’t care or has given up on me or thinks I’m better off dead. Real Christians do get low enough to think that way & we project that mindset onto God as though he must think that way too.

But it’s a lie. God is not like that. It is a common experience for a believer to compare their current flat state with the days of their early Christian life. Remember that spiritual high? That great day of conversion and those early years of walking in the light? Where is the light now? I am in darkness. I say it’s common because even the Psalmist expressed this.

4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.
That was me! I used to sing with joy in the house of the Lord. What happened? Where did it go? (See how the creative ones suffer!) A mental torture: remembering what I was & realizing what I have become. Yet, God sees you far differently. When he looks at you now, he sees the righteousness of Christ. You are in the Son, a co-heir.

Forget what you were, the old is gone, the new is here. God wants you to think about what you are in Christ & what awaits you in heaven. And notice how the Psalmist sees his former life as being under the protection of God. What’s happened? God hasn’t removed himself. His raw emotions have left him feeling exposed & unprotected. He is in a place where even the regular daily activities can create wounds which are slow to heal.

Yet, for the Christian suffering depression, the mental anguish resides in the fact that the good times were the early Christian life, not the secular life you once lived. You used to be a victorious, joyous Christian, but now that feeling has evaporated. It is hard to serve the Kingdom of God when you can’t even get yourself out of bed.

5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
It’s like there are two people in the room. “Why are you like this?” “I don’t know?” Telling yourself to trust in God. We know that in the head, but the feelings of dejection are so strong, they always tip the scales into depression.

6 My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
What we have here is a poetic way of using features of creation to describe the downcast spirit. The Psalmist recalls worshipping God on the mountain tops, just like his singing & dancing days. Let’s remember those great days & how the Lord met my needs. He’s the same God. Let’s get out of the shadow lands & back onto the mountain tops.

7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.

Again, parts of the created order, but this time it’s as though they are ganging up against him. They’re calling each other. It’s a set up, like your own personal thunderstorm which hovers over you all day. He feels as though the world around him is attacking.

Spurgeon described it like this:

Thy severe dealings with me seem to excite all creation to attack me; heaven, and earth, and hell, call to each other, stirring each other up in dreadful conspiracy against my peace. As in a waterspout, the deeps above and below clasp hands, so it seemed to David that heaven and earth united to create a tempest around him. (Spurgeon, Treasury of David)2

8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.
Through it all, even in the darkest moments; the ability to trust in the Lord, to know that God has not changed. He still directs his loving kindness, even at night. That’s important. How many times have you laid there tossing & turning? Don’t the hours go slower at night!

1 “Do not mortals have hard service on earth? Are not their days like those of hired laborers? 2 Like a slave longing for the evening shadows,  or a hired laborer waiting to be paid, 3 so I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me. 4 When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss and turn until dawn. (Job 7:1-4)

God is Lord of the nights and the days. He directs his love in the days & his song can be heard at night. But I’m guessing there are times when you hear absolutely nothing & you feel utterly alone. The Psalmist knew what this was like.

9 I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” 10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
In all this raw emotion & anguish, we learn an important principle: the believer is allowed to enquire of God. It’s OK to ask “Why Lord?”, “How long Lord?”or “What is going on?” We’re also permitted to recall God’s promises never to leave us & to describe how that is exactly what this moment feels like.

Think about it: God knows your inner thoughts anyway, right? Here is a Biblical way of expressing them to him.

Even the enemies of the believer state the obvious in this Psalm: where is your God? Isn’t he supposed to be doing something? Shouldn’t he be showing himself at this point? These are the stark realities of life as a believer in a world of depression. Our experiences threaten to undermine our theology.

So, let me ask you: how strong is your understanding of who God is & how he acts? I can guarantee that it is related to your ability to survive those really dark days. Understanding about God won’t prevent bad days, even several in a row. You will still have nights of tossing & turning, but your knowledge of God will keep your anchor sure & steadfast.

In reality, it is God himself who keeps hold of you. But on those bad days, knowing God in Christ & the fellowship of the Holy Spirit can comfort you because you know the big picture. And so the questions you ask yourself change a little.

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

The days of praise will come back, but let’s be honest enough to admit that there are days where we cannot find the praise channel, even though we have plenty of reason to. After all he’s done, we know we should praise him in good times & bad, but the grief & hopelessness are overwhelming.

The Psalmist knew days like that & God knows you have days like that. Part of the reason these Psalms are here is so you have a way forward. You can safely negotiate those troubled waters without setting off a hand grenade which destroys your spiritual life.

Let me tell you, there have been some mighty Christians who have suffered depression. Spurgeon would probably be the most famous. It nearly ruined his life & his words on the Psalms are especially insightful given how he suffered.

John Piper is also a sufferer & he has written & spoken about Spurgeon’s depression at length. The full audio can be found here.

Martin Luther seems to have suffered, as did John Calvin, John Wesley and Handel.

And then there are the Bible characters who had to live through days of enormous discouragement: Noah, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, Elijah, Paul. Really dark days.

James Dobson once said that his surveys indicate about 80% of church pastors suffer some form of depression. They are more likely to suffer than their congregations. That’s scary! The number one reason pastors quit the ministry is discouragement. And here’s the other thing: if they are not treated, these pastors can do a lot of damage while they are in their positions.

Psalm 42 & 43 seem to have been written by the same person, so it makes sense to read them together.

1 Vindicate me, my God, and plead my cause against an unfaithful nation. Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked.
2 You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?
3 Send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.
4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.
5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 43)

Permission to speak
We must always maintain clear, Biblical thinking. Easier said than done, but that’s what we are asked to do. However, that does not mean we have to treat our feelings with dishonesty. Look at verse 2: “Why have you rejected me?” The Psalmist had not been rejected by God, but that is what it felt like.

Moving forward
Honesty in emotional outbursts we can handle, but we are not content with repeating that as an endless cycle. It must move on to a Biblical resolution, as hard as that sounds. Remember to get to the end of the Psalm where we read, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” Can you be like that? Can you get out of that pit & learn to praise God again even though you have just been to hell & back? And can you do it even if days of discouragement return? Journey with the Psalmist through life’s emotions.

Full range of emotions
We don’t want them turned off, that’s not real life. We want great days & bad days, funny days & sad days. We want to laugh at a kids pantomime & cry at a funeral, don’t we? Those are the raw, but real Christian emotions we carry with us. Let’s live them & glorify God with them as we do.

Be a listening ear
Finally, can you be the sort of Christian who has a sensible but sensitive answer for those who drag themselves to you for help? Or do you just dump a heap of Bible verses on them? We don’t want to use anything as our guide other than the Bible, but the wise believer will know how to use it.

Starting with Psalm 42 would be sensible because it would at least remind the downcast person that they are not alone & that’s what discouragement does: it isolates & kills off fellowship.

If you are lucky enough to have someone with depression come to you, make the most of your time and lift them up. Let them speak, give them permission to be as honest as the Psalmist & point them to the one who is “my glory, and the lifter of my head.” (Psalm 3:3)
 

Footnotes
1. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf108.ii.XLII.html

2. http://www.spurgeon.org/treasury/ps042.htm
 

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