Dark doubt - Psalm 42

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 29th June 2008.

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Ever since Vicky and I returned from Canada I’m been thinking about some of the advantage and disadvantages of being British. I’m sure it has been the experience of being in a different part of the world for two weeks that has set my mind racing but here are some of my pros and cons of being born and bred on this small island.

Advantage number 1: Learning to drive a manual car.

Advantage number 2: Being able to walk on pavements.

Advantage number 3: Being able to drive on roads that don’t just fall apart.

Big disadvantage: British emotional reserve.

We don’t admit how we really feel. We put up this pretence that everything is somehow fine.

British emotional reserve.

Why is this a big problem? It’s not true to reality. Sometimes we feel amazing and sometimes we feel low. Expectation from our culture is that we are fine.

However, the big danger is that not only is this the culture we breath in the world but also the culture we breath in our church family.  Rather than church being a place where we can be real about how we feel. When we share the highs and talk about the lows, we can unfortunately bring our British emotional reserve into our church life and therefore keep everyone at a safe emotional distance. We project an image where everything is fine.

Some Christians think everything should be fine all the time but that’s not our experience and thankfully it’s not the expectation set out in the Bible.

That’s why sections of the Bible like Psalms 42 and 43 are such good news. They remind us that being fine is not always how you will feel and helps us work through difficult times when they do occur.

Christians are no immune from difficulty. Everyone suffers. But where Christians are to be distinctive is in how they react to difficulties.

So let me show you the life of someone who is far from fine.

Let’s have a look at Psalms 42 and 43. Should be read together. No title at the beginning of Psalm 43. Many manuscipts they are taken as one. Look at the common words in 42:5,11 and 43:5.

It tells one story and should we read through as one. We meet a man who is not feeling on top of the world.

Verses 1-2. He is like an animal in a drought. Perhaps day by day it got worse. He longs for the life only the living God can give. He has a right view of God. He views him as the giver of spiritual richness. But there is a dryness in his soul.

Also tears in his eyes. Look at verse 3. Doesn’t seem to be eating but he is crying. No water for his soul but lots off water streaming from his eyes. This is day and night.

This is a man. Not odd for a man to cry. It’s also not trendy for men to cry. We are human beings so there should be an expectation that we shall sometimes cry.

Feels spiritually dry. He also feels downcast. He is very honest with himself in verse 5. Downcast.

All is not well. Down, dry, not eating, crying.

Why is he like this?

•    He is separated from God’s people and from God’s temple.

Look what he says 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.”

Look at what he hopes for in Psalm 43:3-4. “Send forth your light and truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.” 

For some reason, and we are never told why, this temple singer (one of the sons of Korah) finds himself a long way from the place he wants to be. He can remember the old days when he used to gather together with God’s people and take part in corporate worship and it was amazing. What a positive impact this had on his emotional state. He was a different man.

What made the difference? Before he was with the people of God and he was in God’s special place, where he was constantly reminded of God’s goodness to him and the people of God.

•    He is suffering in God’s world

Look at what he says in verse 7, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.”

Not only is he alone, far from home, but the circumstances of life are overwhelming him.

Picture is very evocative. Wave after wave comes towards him and perhaps just as his head is above the water another one comes his way and he is plunged beneath the surface yet again.

Life is tough for this believer. Separated and suffering but even worse because…

•    He is surrounded by God’s enemies

There are hints of this all the way through the Psalms.

Verse 3, “…men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’”

Verses 9-10, “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?’”

43:1, “Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men.”

Not hard to imagine his circumstances. He finds himself surrounded by unbelievers. No doubt he has already mentioned the God he believes in. Told stories of his power and goodness and love. But look at him now? He is in tears all the way through the day.

He is overwhelmed by circumstances and at this stage the unbelievers start their mocking, “So where is this God you talk so confidently about? He seems to be very absent from your current situation.”

Not hard to relate to his circumstances. For much of our existence we are not surrounded by God’s people but by God’s enemies (more so when illness strikes) and easy to be overwhelmed by life’s circumstances. On those occasions it is not unusual to feel spiritually dry or low.

Perhaps you know someone in this situation. Des.

What does he do?

We may miss the obvious. He writes a song.

It was helpful for him but it’s also been preserved for us to use when we feel spiritually depressed and low.

I want to encourage us to use it. Open our bibles and work our way through Psalms 42 and 43. Let me show you how this will help us.

Imagine the scene. It’s 2am in the morning. You’re awake and the tears are coming down your face yet again. The bills keep on increasing, gas and electricity are up again, the kids never listen, your husband is busy at work but his future is never certain, the car has packed in and your mother is having those pains again. Spiritually you feel a bit flat.

What should you do? Put on some music? Turn on the TV? Pour a glass of wine? No, reach for your Bible and open up Psalms 42 and 43 and read them aloud.

Read verses 1-3.

What an important first step! Think about what have you done.

You have admitted to yourself what you really feel like. You have not said to yourself, “I’m perfectly fine.” You have stopped doing the ridiculous thing of bottling up the emotions and hoping they will stay well below the surface and not have any effect.

You have also reminded yourself that you are not weird to feel like this. Others have felt exactly like you.

You have not resigned yourself that this is normal. Your have changed your expectations. You have said that you don’t want to feel spiritually dry.

You want to be connected to the true and living God. 

Then you read on and if you do the Psalm will encourage you to do something else which will be helpful.

Read verse 4.

He remembers how things used to be. Things were not always like this.

Good for us to do. Name the good times that have gone before. Do not be overwhelmed by the negativity of the moment. We remind ourselves that it wasn’t always like this and so it won’t always be like this in the future – no matter what our current emotions may tell us.

Then we come to verse 5. What does he do? He speaks to 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 Saviour and my God.”

One of the great dangers of depression is self-pity. It is all too easy to become preoccupied with our misery. One route out is to be a little hard on yourself. Stop allowing your feelings to to dictate to you and start dictating to yourself.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts the point very well, “The main trouble in this whole matter of depression is that we allow ourself to talk to us, instead of talking to ourself. Take the thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning, you haven’t originated them but they start
 talking to you and they bring back the problems of yesterday. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Yourself is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment was this: instead of allowing himself to talk to him, he starts talking to himself, ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him, so he stands up and says, Soul, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.”

Speak to ourself. What do we say? We speak the words of Scripture. We allow the truth of God’s word to confront our emotional feelings.

Cognitive behaviour therapy.

The problems don’t instantly go away. What is the reality? He says, verse 6, that his “soul is downcast within me.”

What does he do? He decides not simply to remember past experiences of God but decides to remember the God who gave him these experiences.

“Therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon – from Mount Mizar.”

What does he remember about God?

First, that God is always in control. In verse 7 he talks about your waterfalls and your waves and breakers that have swept over him.

Vital to recognise this. God is not the author of sin but he uses the circumstances of life for the good of his children.

In verse 8 he affirms that God directs his love. It is out of love that God allows us to go through situations of darkness.

We must affirm these truths in times of trouble.

Yet even though he knows this is true he can still be brutally honest with God. Look at what he says to God in verse 9.

How can he say verse 9 after verse 8? Has God forgotten him? No. Why does he say it? Because that’s how it feels.

But in the light of the character of God he has just affirms he speaks again to his soul. There is progress by now. The same words are used but we can perhaps detect a more convicted tone of voice.

More progress by the time we get to Psalm 43. He speaks to God. This time not so much to complain about God’s absence but to ask for his deliverance.

Read 43:1-4.

He may not feel like praying but he chooses to pray and is now able to after working through everything we read about in Psalm 42.

One thing I want to highlight.

He wants vindication in front of his enemies. How would this happen for him? When God restores him to God’s people at God’s place.

His situation is different from ours. The coming of Jesus has made such a difference to how we can meet with God’s people and enjoy his special presence.

Before Jesus. Become a Jew. Go to Jerusalem.

Now. There are communities of faith scattered around the world. It is our privilege to be able to gather together with God’s people so regularly.

Is this something we look forward to? Is this an experience we believe is vital for our soul?

This Psalmist would say don’t just work things out on your own he would say what a privilege people you are. Make use of your opportunities.

Make a commitment to come every week unless there are exceptional circumstances. Why would you not want to? Nothing should interfere with this.
Member of a homegroup. Every time. Even when you feel tired you say “This is vital for my soul. I must go.”

As I end let me ask a more risky question.

If we need to be forced or pressurised to come along to meet with God’s people then what’s the problem?

The Psalmist would have been here in a flash as often as he could. Miss it if not here. This should be our experience.

Why don’t we always feel like this?

Sometimes it seems as if people need to be forced against their will to come along to church. Or they might come along unless anything else is on offer.

On Facebook if you get invited to an event you can respond by saying, Definitely attending, not attending, maybe attending.

Why do many church goers have the ‘Maybe Attending’ attitude?

Let me suggest a few reasons.

•    It may be that we are doing something wrong when we meet together.

o    Songs, prayers too formal, liturgy, preaching.
o    We want feedback and we do long to do things better for the glory of God and for the good of his church, which may not actually be the best for you as an individual.
o    Nothing will please us all the time but let’s recognise again what is going on. Something exciting is always going on. Together we are connecting with another realm. We are singing to the true and living God. We are bringing our prayers to him. We are hearing him speak to us.
o    Let’s repent of our cynicism and enjoy our meetings.
o    Not just us and God but us as the people of God together.
•    Why rush off after church?
•    Why not start chatting to people and finding out who they are?

•    It may be that we are doing something wrong when we don’t meet together.

o    It may be that we have no relationships outside the church meeting.
o    We need not simply to tinker with what we do on a Sunday but make sure we are building relationships outside of church.
o    How? We need to be in and out of people’s homes.
o    Not the culture in Hull to invite strangers into your home.
o    Not dinner party of people.
o    But…
•    We are not strangers. We are the family of God.
•    We are not talking about dinner parties but food and a chat about spiritual things. Pasta.
o    Vicky and I have resolved to do this regularly.
o    Sunday lunchtimes. Why not have planned and random invitations?
o    Not Sundays for everyone.
o    I want to ask not simply when was the last time you did this but when will be the next time. Start with homegroup or other group leaders.
o    If we do our experience of church will be vastly improved.

Let’s pray.

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