READ : Psalm 42
When you’re feeling low, people often exhort you to cheer up or urge you to look on the bright side. A more helpful way to deal with discouragement is to listen to and try for yourself the testimony of the 42nd psalmist.
What can you do when you’re feeling low? Most people either try to give you advice or fall back upon sheer exhortation. “Cheer up,” they’ll say, “It‛s not as bad as you think.” But the problem is that the folks who are always telling you to look on the bright side or to smile and forget your troubles rarely explain just how you can do that.
The Bible is different. It doesn’t give simplistic advice for our down times. It doesn’t just urge us not to feel the way we do. Instead, scripture offers the testimony of someone who has undergone the same kind of experience we are having and who has found a way to get through it. Like the man who wrote these words from Psalm 42:
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
(v. 5, NIV)
The Man Behind the Song
You’ve probably noticed that much of the language we use to describe our emotions is figurative. In a literal sense, the heart is only a muscle to pump blood through our bodies. But in a figurative sense our heart is the center of our emotional life. Another way we have of talking about our feelings is to use terms of altitude. When we’re happy, we say that we’re “up,” or that were on a “high.” But depression (to de-press means literally to “push down”) sends us in the opposite direction. When we’re sad, we’re down; we’re “in the dumps.” Life is “the pits.”
That is exactly where the man who wrote the 42nd Psalm found himself. “My soul [we would probably say ‘my heart’] is downcast within me” (v. 6). If we look carefully at this psalm for information about its author, we discover something interesting. We know exactly what he was feeling because he tells us in some detail. But we don’t really know who he was, or any of the particulars of his life. We don’t know when he lived, but we do know where he was living when he wrote these words. It was in “the land of the Jordan,” he says. “My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, from the heights of Hermon – from Mount Mizar”(v. 6).
The “land of the Jordan,” as he describes it here, was northern Israel on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, near the headwaters of the Jordan River. This is beautiful and rugged country, a land of cataracts and plunging streams fed by the snow melt off the mountains of Lebanon, but for the psalmist the place had one major drawback. It was about as far from Jerusalem as one could get within the territory of Israel. So that means that for some reason this man was living in exile, far from home and family and friends. But worst of all, he was cut off from the house of God, from the worship of the Temple, and because of that it seemed to him that he was cut off from God himself too. That’s what really brought his soul down into the dumps.
Four Steps to Take
So here he is. This man is lonely. He’s discouraged and depressed. The only people near him seem to be enemies who mock him, and who ridicule his faith in God. He feels as though God himself has forgotten him. So what does he do? Let’s follow him through four steps that lead the psalmist up out of the depths and back to hope and confidence once more.
The first thing the psalmist does is simply to talk. He describes what he is feeling. Now that may sound obvious, but it’s often the most important therapy there is for depression. This man expresses himself; “I pour out my soul,” he says. He was emotionally uninhibited. He didn’t know anything about modern psychology, I’m sure, but he did know the value of not repressing his feelings, of letting them out, of expressing them. He gives shape and definition to his grief by putting words to it. The psalmist uses two powerful images to paint the picture of his interior landscape: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.”
In Palestine, during the dry season which lasts from May through September, most of the streams dry up completely. And so the psalmist, drawing an image from this season, says, in effect: “I feel dry. I feel like a deer pawing at the sun-baked bottom of an empty river bed, desperately thirsty, thirsty for you, O God.”
The other image comes from his immediate surroundings. All around him roared the thunder of the streams plunging from the heights down into the valley to form the Jordan River far below. And to this man, it all seemed like this was crashing down on his head. “I feel overwhelmed,” he cried. “All your waves and your billows have come over me.” It’s such a simple thing really, but it’s true. When you’re feeling down, start with this: put words to your feelings. Once you have named them, it may be possible to do something about them.
The second step is to remember. In his low time, the psalmist remembered the good times. “These things I remember,” he says, “as I pour out my soul: how I used to go . . . to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving” (v. 4). Memories can hurt but they can also heal. I have often sat with people at times of loss. Sometimes as we talked together and grieved and remembered, someone would recall some of the happy things: an odd little habit, perhaps, or a funny incident out of the past, and suddenly in the midst of tears there would be smiles and healthy, healing laughter. That is so good, so right to do.
When you’re feeling down, it’s also good to remember not just the good times of the past, but the goodness of God. Listen again to the psalmist’s testimony: “My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you” (v. 6). Remembering is important because it points us to a time when things were different. Discouragement seems permanent, but it isn’t.
When you’re mired in a low time, you think it’s forever, but it won’t be. Looking back to a different past, to a time when things were good, when we were happy, reminds us that in the future it can be that way again, and that can lift our spirits. But what is crucially important to remember is God himself. Our experiences and emotions are variable, but God is a constant. Through all the ups and downs of life, the highs and the lows, God never changes. His love is sure and steady, his commitment to us is unshakeable, his promises are firm, and his grace is invincible. Listen to the testimony of another Old Testament saint: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3).
The third step in dealing with discouragement is to pray; this whole psalm is full of prayer. And here is something very important to remember about praying: Prayer is not mood dependent. You don’t have to be in just the right frame of mind in order for your prayers to work. For example, you don’t need to feel close to God in order to pray. In fact, the most important time to pray is when you don’t feel close to God.
In his loneliness, in misery, the psalmist expressed his longing for God to God. “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (v. 2), he asks. With his whole being, he wants to feel God’s presence. This is one depressed person who knows that what he needs most of all in life is not a vacation, not a pay raise, not a change of scenery, not a new relationship in his life; he needs God. He needs a restoration of that intimacy and closeness that he once felt. God is what this man can’t live without. If you have ever known the living God, then the experience of his presence can lift you out of even the worst depths of discouragement, and conversely, a sense of God’s absence leaves you feeling empty and depressed even in the best of times. So the key thing to do is to turn your face toward the Lord and seek him earnestly in prayer.
The final step the psalmist takes is to confess his faith. “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (v. 5). You notice he asks himself a simple question: “Why am I feeling this way?” Maybe there are good reasons, but can any of them stand up against God? “Hope in God,” he tells himself. Wait on him for strength. Look to him for the future. There is a God who is for us, who is our Savior, who says that nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from his love. You see, the psalmist not just trying to pick himself up from the dumps here by sheer exhortation. He is reminding himself of his own – and the church’s – ultimate faith: that our hope is not in ourselves or in our circumstances or in anything else around us. Our hope is in the God who saves. To hope in him means to believe that whatever your present circumstances might be, they’re going to change some day into blessing, and some day you will see God again.
Tragedy or Comedy?
Is your life a tragedy or a comedy? In literature, a drama is classified as either a tragedy or a comedy, not on the basis of how many laughs it contains, but rather on how it ends. In a tragedy, the play ends in disaster, like Hamlet, with the stage covered in dead bodies. But in a comedy even though there may be difficult situations all along the way, the ending is always happy – “All’s well that ends well.” And it’s all determined ahead of time by the author. He decides what the play is because he writes the ending. So if you want to know whether your life is ultimately going to turn out as a tragedy or a comedy, you have to find out how it ends. It isn’t decided by how much grief or happiness you experience along the way. It’s not determined by whether you weep more than you laugh. It all depends on how your life turns out.
So let me tell you something. If you trust in Jesus Christ, if your hope is in him alone, then your life cannot be a tragedy, because God has written you a happy ending, and for you, all will be well. Hope in God!