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Doubt - due to unruly emotions - Psalm 42

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 27th September 2009.

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We live at a time when feelings have taken on an exaggerated importance in people’s lives. For example, the question that was common place for an earlier generation was, ‘What do you think about this?’ That has largely been replaced with the question, ‘How do you feel about this?’ This has given rise to the ‘hurt culture’. So we are now afraid to make any statement about morality for example or even religion because someone might be hurt by what we say. Notice it is hurt by what we say and not how we say it? Some people might be hurt and deeply offended by the claim that ‘There is no salvation under any other name but the name of Jesus’; but the issue is not whether this claim is hurtful but is it truthful? But it is here where the problem lies. The whole idea that we can know anything at all with certainty has been brought into question. Relativism rules, so what might be ‘true’ for you need not be ‘true’ for me. Truth, like beauty, we are told, is very much in the eye of the beholder. And so in this state of mental confusion, while many people don’t quite know what they think, they certainly do know how they feel. They may feel good or bad, clear or confused, high or low- the feeling is simply there and you can’t argue with it- ‘I feel what I feel, and that is real.’ The result is that ethics for example- matters of right and wrong, collapses into aesthetics- what is attractive or repulsive. Does it feel right to have an abortion or not? Does it feel good to have multiple partners or not? Feelings rule the day. But the problem with feelings unlike truth is that they fluctuate. Thankfully, the world is not round one minute and flat the next, but whether I feel like caring for my terminally sick grandmother by giving her medicine or getting rid of her by giving her poison does vary.

But it is when emotions take on an inflated role within the life of a Christian that doubt can run amok and which, unless checked, can lead to outright unbelief. So there you are praying and to be honest the heavens feel like they are made of brass and your words are just pouring into empty space. What do you do? Give up because it doesn’t feel that you are getting anywhere and the doubt is swimming around in your mind that God doesn’t listen to prayer, or at least he is not listening to yours? Or do you just keep on praying anyway? Just how do you deal with doubt which is the result of unruly emotions? Well, the writer of Psalm 42 gives us some very valuable insights which we would do well to learn. So this evening let’s take a journey with this man in all his high’s and lows to see how he deals with doubt -a journey which consists of four stages.

Stage one: own up, that is acknowledge your emotions and admit how you feel. For the psalmist there is no denying what he feels like inside, he identifies those feelings and articulates using very powerful and evocative imagery. So he feels as if he is parched- v:1-2, ‘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?’
  In July when I was hiking through some of the trails in the Grand Canyon in temperatures of 40 degrees Centigrade, one thing which was crucial was water. We had to drink a gallon of water a day; otherwise, we were told we would die. It was as simple and as brutal as that. Guess what- we drank the water! But imagine how you would feel if that water was not available. You would feel weak, your head would begin to pound, you would feel disorientated, until eventually you were overwhelmed with the feeling of just giving up under the burning heat of the sun. That is how this man feels because for some reason God feels far away and the feeling is killing him inside. What is more it appears he doesn’t feel like eating because he finds himself bursting into tears in a constant state of  crying, ‘My tears have been my food day and night’ v3. This fellow is really low emotionally isn’t he? I remember a few years ago when I had been in hospital with kidney stones and on coming out I just found myself keep bursting into tears for no apparent reason, other than my body was pretty well exhausted. That can put a crimp on your feelings of closeness with God I can tell you. And of course all you need when that is happening is for people to come up to you as they do in verse three saying, ‘Where is your God?’ This could be the non-Christian looking on to taunt; ‘I thought you Christians had faith? Where is it now? What is the point of having a God who lets you down when you need him most?’ But the pain can be increased by Christians who say something similar with an air of superspirituality which simply crushes you, ‘Come on, have some faith. Cheer up. The reason why you feel like you do is because you are not believing enough or that you have some sin in your life which you are not confessing.’  And that sort of comment can plunge you down even further so you feel that you are going under never to resurface-v7, ‘Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.’ In fact he feels as if he is having knives stuck into him which might be the idea behind verse 10, ‘My bones suffer mortal agony’, or literally, ‘There is murder in my bones.’ His emotions have been lacerated. He just feels as if he can’t go on. So can you blame him when he cries out in verse 9, ‘I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning oppressed by my enemy?”’ That is certainly the way it feels to him. ‘Call on God? But it seems he has left the receiver off the hook. Turn to the one who is a rock? But it feels as if I am sinking in quicksand.’  You have got to give it to him, at least the psalmist is honest about his feelings. And you know what? So should we be.

Secondly, it is important to try and identify what it is that is causing us to feel the way we do, that is look around. In the case of our psalmist the main cause of his feeling down and so doubting God is isolation which appears in three forms.

There is spiritual isolation as we saw in verses 1 and 2, he feels to be a long way from God. And there are times in the life of a Christian, no matter how young or old in the faith you may be when this will be your experience. God seems to withdraw his presence like the sun disappearing behind a cloud and all the warmth is suddenly gone. But of course God is still there, as is the sun, the reality hasn’t changed, just the feeling.

Then there is physical isolation as we see in verse 4, ‘ 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.’ But you know, sometimes this kind of isolation can be self-inflicted. Should we be so surprised that God doesn’t feel close and the Christian faith feels like some pathetic crutch if we neglect the means God has given us to keep our faith fresh and alive- like meeting with his people regularly? I don’t think that I have ever met anyone who woke up one morning and decided to give up on Christianity. More often than not it begins with just becoming lazy and letting the relationship drift. The discipline of meeting with God in his Word each day and his people each Sunday is exchanged for other things in a kind of piecemeal way- the lie in, the hobby, the telly, the sport, the girlfriend, the boyfriend, the work. And so a faith which was once fresh and vibrant becomes steadily anaesthetised until it ceases to be a living faith at all. And along the way of course the ditching of the faith is justified by doubts- ‘maybe it is just a crutch after all, a passing fad? The folk at that church aren’t friendly enough or my type.’ That does happen and we need to be aware of it.  But sometimes of course physical isolation may be imposed from without and that, I think, is the situation of the psalmist, after all he doesn’t like what is happening, he wants the situation to be reversed, which is a good sign.

But there is also social isolation which to some extent we see in verse 3 with men saying, ‘Where is your God?’  There is something called ‘cultural dissonance’ which comes about by simply living in a predominantly non-Christian culture, you feel out of whack with what is going on around you. Being in a minority in a social environment which is apathetic at best and downright hostile at worse to Christianity can cause you to feel ‘odd’ and at times leave you wondering whether what you believe is real at all. I must say that this is a feeling I often have when for example I go to London and attend an inspiring Christian conference. There you are with hundreds of folk who believe what you believe, brilliant praise, great Bible teaching a sense of God’s presence and it seems like a foretaste of heaven itself. Then what happens? I walk out of the conference into the middle of the City with thousands of people milling around me who haven’t a clue as to what I have just experienced and that is when it hits me- the doubt, ‘Surely this is the real world, the world of buses and cars, business and shops, not what you have just been doing?’ And for a moment I do feel that tension, as if I have stepped from one world into another and I feel disorientated to be honest. Do you ever feel like that, maybe on a Monday morning after Sunday night? But in a sense it is right, we have stepped from one world to another, because on Monday morning we are back in the shadowlands- but it is this world, the world of God and the Bible which is the real one- it is the other world which is false, in the sense that it is living out the lie that it exists independent of God. And I have to stop and remind myself of that. Which brings us to how we deal with this kind of doubt- doubt resulting from unruly feelings, namely: think through.

 

Just take a look at what the Psalmist says in v5, which is repeated as an ending to the psalm in verse 11, ‘Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God for yet I will praise him, my Saviour and my God.’ Now do you see what he is doing? He is not allowing his emotions to have the last word, but God. He is, if you like preaching, but preaching to himself. In a classic sermon on this psalm the famous Welsh preacher Dr Martin Lloyd Jones writes this: ‘Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment (the writer of Psalm 42) was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says,: “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”  And that is right. Our problem is that we too often think with our feelings rather than with our mind. If God is as real as we feel then for most of the time he is going to be pretty puny if the truth be known. And so we allow our emotions to bully us and drag us down, leading us into self pity which is a miserable state for a Christian to be in. But the remedy here is to take ourselves in hand, to give ourselves a good talking to. But this is not of the ‘pull yourself together and stop being a wimp variety’; it is educating our emotions with the truth of God’s Word. There is a logic to this sermon to the self, ‘Why are you cast down?’ What is the reason for you feeling like this, is it justified, does it fit with the facts? Is it the case that God has abandoned you? What evidence is there, your feelings? But you know how unreliable they are. What of God’s promises? Has he said that ‘he will never leave you nor forsake you?’ Yes, it is recorded there in the Bible in black and white. Then what is so special about you that that promise shouldn’t apply? Is it true that God uses difficult circumstances to shape us and make us go to him in prayer? Yes, again the Bible says so, James 1:2. Then why should this not be one of those times? Is God sovereign over all, the one who does not allow a single sparrow to fall to the ground without his personal and intimate knowledge? Yes, the Psalmist recognises that in verse 8 “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” In verses 5 and 11, he calls God “my salvation and my God.” And even though he says it looks as if God has forgotten him, he never stops believing in the absolute sovereignty of God over all his adversity. So at the end of verse 7, he says, “All your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” Your breakers and your waves have gone over me. In other words, all his crashing and tumultuous and oppressing and discouraging circumstances are the waves of God. The psalmist never loses this grip on the great truths about God. They are the ballast in his little boat of faith that is being tossed around. They keep him from capsizing in the tumult of his emotions.

Now friends, this is where we need to appreciate the relationship between facts, faith and feelings. The Christian puts facts first, that is Gospel truths, revealed facts about who God is, what he is like and what he can and will do. These are convictions about what is true independent of how we feel. Faith, that is believing trust, fixes on these facts, it won’t let them go and will keep reminding itself of them, digging deeper and deeper into God’s Word for more and more. And it is as these facts are mined and they are allowed to sparkle like diamonds that our feelings become educated, our emotions are aroused with great thoughts of God, his majesty, his kindness, his faithfulness, that they then start being brought into line. Think of it like three men walking along a wall. The one in front is called facts, the one behind is called faith and the third one is feelings. So long as faith keeps his eyes firmly fixed upon facts he will keep going and feelings will follow. But, as so often happens when circumstances change for the worse, faith turns around and looks at feeling, then he begins to wobble and is in danger of falling off the wall and hurting himself. Do you see? So as Christians we have to talk to ourselves and say, keep your eyes on the facts.

And so we have the final command, keep on. Let me tell you, psalm 42 is the experience of every Christian. The Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon used to speak of what he called the ‘preacher’s fainting fits’. I have been here now for 15 years and ordained for 26 years. Yet it is pretty well my regular experience that when it comes to getting into the pulpit to preach I feel rotten about it. I feel low, I feel inadequate and sometimes want to run away. I don’t exaggerate; it is not a pleasant feeling at all. Not only do I often feel then that the sermon I have prepared isn’t up to much, but that my preaching isn’t up to much either. A few years ago I learnt from the Christian writer and speaker, John Piper, the little acronym APTAT which he said he applies before he preaches. A-admit your need, you do feel low and inadequate- face up to it. P- pray to God to help you do what you have to do. T- trust that he will, that he will glorify himself, knowing that grace is made perfect through weakness, that there is treasure in these jars of clay, then A- act get on with it and when you have finished, T- thank God  that he enabled you to do it yet again. But even then you can feel flat emotionally, and it is later on Sunday night at home that the preacher’s fainting fits can hit you. But all of this is simply putting into practice the example of the psalmist. And the principle of APTAT can be applied to anything situation.

But maybe, during the week, again the spirits take a dive, sometimes for no obvious reason at all, you just feel that way. Then I have to remind myself that God is still God, his love is still sure regardless of the way I am feeling and I have not to allow myself to wallow in self pity. Perhaps I find a verse of Scripture to fix my thoughts on and get on with it. One thing I have found helpful is to sometimes think of such feelings like the sensation you might have with a pain in your leg. Yes, the pain is there, but so what? You can still walk, get on and walk and put up with the pain, and as experience shows, it doesn’t last for ever. So it is with our emotions spiritually. How does the psalmist put it: ‘Put your hope in God.’?  Reality is not shaped by our feelings, but by God. In this sense we are not to allow our heart to rule our head, but our head rule our heart. Emotions are important, but not that important, not as important as our head which contains deep knowledge of God who is the object of our faith.

But note one other thing he does which shows that his knowledge of God is not merely academic but personal, he sings: Verse 8: “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” This is not a song of jubilant hope. He doesn’t feel jubilant hope. He is seeking jubilant hope. You see Christianity is different from stoicism, or the British stiff upper lip. Christianity does have a heart and has massive room for the affections, but affections which have been trained to be orientated towards God. This is where singing hymns and rich Christian songs are so important for they enable you to shift your focus from self to God, which is why this psalm was written in the first place, to be sung by God’s people and so instruct them. One person who was up and down emotionally was the great German Reformer Martin Luther. This is what one biographer writes about him: ‘No matter how long or severe his depressions might be, and they were to recur throughout his life, he still managed to get through an amazing amount of work. He felt that in some way they were inevita­ble if one were to have a real understanding of things spiritual, for `he does not know what hope is who has never been subject to temptations'. At the same time they were to be avoided if at all possible. But how? As the spiritual pioneer of his age he could never look to others for affirmation nor could he ever find anything in himself on which to ground his hope. His affirmation must come from God but he could not know him directly, so in the final analy­sis he must be rooted in the Scriptures. That is why he gave such a priority to the translation of the Bi­ble; it was so that each could find truth for himself. At other times he in his down-to-earth way said the best way to combat despondency was to go out among the people, laugh, joke and sing, get in­volved, even get angry; do something useful such as harness a horse and spread manure on the fields. Music was especially effective for the Devil is a morose being who flees music.' ‘Why are you downcast O my soul, why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God for I will praise him my Saviour and my God.

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