When You're Feeling Low

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 42:1-11

What does it mean to be discouraged? What can we do if we are? Let’s look for answers to these questions from the Bible.

What can you do when you’re feeling low? Is there any helpful way to deal with discouragement? Most people will try to give you advice. “Cheer up,” they’ll say, “It’s not as bad as all that.” Or, as a rather silly song says, “Don’t worry. Be happy.” But the problem is that the people giving this shallow advice don’t understand your situation. And the folks who are always telling you to look on the bright side or to smile and forget your troubles rarely go on to explain just how to do that.

The Bible is different. It doesn’t give simplistic counsel for our down times. It doesn’t just exhort us not to feel the way we so often do. It 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. Listen to what one such person says, the man who wrote Psalm 42:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng. 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.

(vv. 1-5)


Have you ever paid attention to the kind of language we use to describe our emotions? Most of it is figurative. For example, often we’ll relate our emotions to parts of our body that, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with them. The most obvious example of this is our hearts. In a literal sense, the heart is only a muscle to pump the blood through our bodies. But in a figurative sense the heart is the center of our emotional life. We locate most of our feelings there as when we speak of our hearts being touched. We even use words referring to our hearts without realizing it. For instance, the English word courage is derived from the French word for the heart. To be encouraged is to have our hearts strengthened. The opposite of that is to be discouraged, which means to lose heart and so to lose hope.

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 our emotions are “sky high.” But depression (to de-press means literally to “push down”) sends us in the opposite direction. When we’re sad, we say we’re “down,” we’re “in the pits,” we’re “lower than a snake’s belly.”

That is exactly where the man who wrote the 42nd Psalm found himself. “My soul is downcast within me,” he says (v. 6). Another version translates, “How deep I am sunk in misery, groaning in my distress” (v. 5, reb). When we look at this psalm for information about its author, we discover something interesting. We know exactly what he was feeling when he wrote this psalm because he tells us some detail, but we don’t know his name 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, he says, in “the land of the Jordan.” Here’s the latter part of the psalm:

My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon – from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 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. (vv. 6-11)

The “land of the Jordan” was northern Israel on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, near the headwaters of the Jordan River. This was 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 this place had one major drawback. It was about as far from Jerusalem as one could get within the territory of Israel. So that means he was living in exile, far from home and family and friends. Worst of all, he was cut off from the house of God, 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 made him feel so low.


So here’s this man. He’s lonely. He’s discouraged and depressed. He can’t stop crying. He has no friends. The only people near him are enemies who oppress him, who ridicule his faith in God. He feels as though God himself has forgotten him. What does he do? Let’s follow him through four steps that lead him up out of the depths and back to hope and confidence once more.

The first thing the psalmist does is 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. 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: “I feel dry. I feel like a deer pawing at the sun-baked bottom of an empty river bed, desperately thirsty.” 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’ve 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, of the person who died, or a funny incident out of the past, and suddenly in the midst of tears there would be smiles and healthy, healing laughter. That’s good to do. When you’re down, it’s also good to remember not only the good times of the past, but the goodness of God. “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, when God was close, reminds us that in the future it can be that way again.

The third step is to pray. If you look closely, you’ll see this psalm is full of prayer. 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. You don’t need to feel close to God in order to pray. In fact, it’s when you don’t feel close to God that is the most important time to pray. In his loneliness, in his misery, the man 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). With his whole being, he wants to feel God’s presence. This man knows that what he needs most of all is not a vacation, not a pay raise, not a change of scenery, not a new relationship in his life; he needs God. God is what he can’t live without. Here’s a good practical test of your spiritual condition: Can you get along from day to day without God? Many can and do. They don’t miss him a bit. But not those who know him, not those who love him, not believers. People who have once begun a personal relationship with God have come to see that whatever it is on the surface of life that may bring them down, whatever adverse circumstances may discourage them, at the deepest level, what they most need is God. 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 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 challenge himself. “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). 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. 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. When you’re feeling low, you have a choice. You can either go on feeling that way, or you can decide to put your hope once more in the God who saves. To hope means to believe that whatever your present circumstances might be, they’re going to change some day into blessing. That even if you can’t do it now, some day you will praise God again.

Is life a tragedy or a comedy? I learned long ago that in literature those terms have specific definitions. A play 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 main character has a flaw that results in his destruction, so the play ends in disaster, like Hamlet, with the stage covered in dead bodies. But a comedy is a comedy because even though there may be difficult situations all along the way, the ending is always happy – “All’s well that ends well.” It’s all decided by the author. He determines what the play is because he writes the ending. So if you want to know whether your life is a tragedy or a comedy, you have to find out how it ends. It’s not 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. Let me tell you a secret. If you trust in Jesus Christ, if your hope is in him alone, then your life cannot be a tragedy. It’s a comedy, because God has written you a happy ending, and for you all will be well.