In Spring of 2020, I was traveling on a church van packed full with college students going for a hike on the snow-covered mountains of Colorado. Around 2pm we came down the mountain to eat at a burger joint: there, we got the email from Baylor saying that there was a global pandemic, Spring Break was extended, and classes would move online. That was the last day of normality.
Maybe you too remember what you’re doing on that day. A mission trip, a hiking trip, resting with friends? Whatever it was, that memory probably seems far away right now: that was one pandemic ago, and whatever you did on that Spring Break week, it’s likely that you cannot do anymore. Those memories are part of a distant past.
Our text is a song of lament from someone who aches for a time long gone. Psalm 42 is interesting because it can be divided very much like a song: first verse, chorus, second verse, chorus.
(Read Ps. 42)
This psalm was written by someone from the sons of Korah, who were Levites, leaders in the temple worship. So, this text is a poetic record of the feelings of a worship leader, a minister, who cannot be in the temple, which, as you know, was the special place of God’s presence at that time. As we look at this passage, I want us to pay attention to two things: what the psalmist feels and what the psalmist does about his feelings.
What the Psalmist Feels
The first three verses establish how this person is feeling right away. He pictures God as a flowing stream of water, except that he cannot find it. The soul that longs, is left thirsty. And perhaps the worst part is that he is missing something that he used to have.
In verse 2, this expression “behold the face of God” refers go back to the temple, a place that the psalmist used to go, but for some reason he cannot anymore. This is such a sad moment that he cannot help but cry; which is only made worse by people who question his relationship with God. It is no wonder that Psalm 42 has been called the “biblical version of the Dark Night of the Soul,” in reference to the spiritual state of desolation described by John of the Cross.
Have you been there? Have you been in a spiritual dry land where the presence of God is only a fading memory? I know that a lot of people, including myself, experienced something like that in the last year. If you are in that group, the first bit of good news is that you are not alone.
If you feel like God seems far away, or that you don’t even know where God is, that question: “Where is your God?” in verse three, may also be translated as “Where is my God?” In other words, it is very possible that the psalmist was doubting God. The most incredible thing is that the God of the universe, the almighty God, for some reason, let this passage make the cut into Scripture. The reason includes you and me; because as we read this psalm, we are encouraged to pray these words and bring all our sadness, all our doubts to him. These are the psalmist feelings, these may very well be our feelings.
But then what? What can we do about those feelings? Before we dive into the psalmist’s idea, I need to say that this is just one tool that we are encouraged to use: it is not meant to be definitive or comprehensive; it is not meant to substitute any other tools to deal with sadness and depression, including professional help.
What the Psalmist Does About Their Feelings
Amidst all the sadness of the present time, the psalmist remembers a time when things were better, a time when he was in the house of God, and God’s faithfulness was evident. But this is not just any remembering. It is intentional, and the reason comes in verse five.
Hope is the goal of remembering. If that sounds strange to you, let me give you a literary example. How many of you have read or watched Harry Potter? So it’s possible that, like me, many of you are still terrified of dementors, those evil creatures that suck the happiness out of people and can even devour their soul. The author, J.K. Rowling, said that the inspiration for those creatures came during a time of severe depression when she felt like she couldn’t imagine “ever be[ing] cheerful again.”
So, how do you overcome a dementor? In the series, you have to focus on your happiest memory and then say some magic words that will cast away those monsters. We try to do that all the time in real life. For example, how many times in the last year have you seen pictures of people traveling or gathering with crowds and a caption that said something like “from when we could still gather,” or “can’t wait to do this kind of thing again.” In a time of isolation and lockdown we remembered community and freedom.
But remembering is not something we do naturally, it is also something that the people of God are commanded to do. All throughout the Old Testament we see the Lord saying “remember” how you were a slave in Egypt and I saved you; remember how you were hungry in the desert and I sent manna. In other words, remember my faithfulness.
That is what the psalmist is doing and what we are invited to do: Remember God’s faithfulness in the past so that we may endure seasons of dryness in the present. If this is a season of dryness for you, verse four is an invitation to remember how you went with the multitude of kids at a youth camp where you first felt called to ministry; or how you fell in love with Scripture as you read it every morning in your college dorm. It is an invitation to remember the times when you really felt God’s presence.
But then you ask me, “What if I am not feeling down? What if I am gladly singing songs of thanksgiving?” Praise the Lord, and hold these moments near your heart, take note of God’s faithfulness and never forget it. Because seasons change and challenges will come, but you will want to remember that God’s faithfulness is ever present.
What happens when we remember? How does this hope thing work? I am afraid that this is where our fantastic metaphor breaks. Unlike in Harry Potter, remembering does not work like a charm to drive away all sadness immediately. Real life looks a lot more like the past year, when we have been hanging on to those exciting memories for months and months before we had any hope of a vaccine.
In Psalm 42, the second part is not much different from the first. Verses six through ten show that the psalmist is praying for God’s love, but continues to feel forgotten and crushed by God; continues to ask “Where is my God?” At the end, we see the chorus repeated: The psalmist is still fighting with himself and commanding his soul to find hope in the Lord. That word hope can also be translated as “wait,” wait in the Lord, oh my soul.
So, friends, when you come upon a season of dryness, when you feel thirsty for God’s presence but cannot feel him anywhere, bring your pain, your doubts, and your frustrations to him in prayer. Remember his faithfulness in the past and his promise to never forsake us, and let that give you hope to wait in the Lord for the future, because you shall again praise him.