|Psalm 42/43: Put Your Hope in God
November 1, 1998
An elderly man was sobbing uncontrollably on a park bench. A sympathetic lady just happened to walk by and stopped to talk with him. "Whatís the matter?" she said, opening her purse. "Donít you have any money?"
"Oh, no. Itís not that!" he sobbed. "I cashed in my 401K last week, and I have $17 million hidden under my mattress." Needless to say, the compassionate woman closed her purse. The old manís problem wasnít poverty. So she tried another issue. "Donít you have any friends?" she asked.
"Iíve got dozens of friends," he cried. "They come by to see me all the time. Theyíre some of the most wonderful people in the world!" Increasingly bewildered in her effort to be of comfort to the old man Ė who was, by the way, still crying his eyes out Ė the woman had a flash of insight. "Itís your family isnít it? Youíve lost your wife and youíre all alone," she suggested.
"Itís not that either," he bawled. "I was an old bachelor until just a few years ago, when I married a beautiful woman who is much younger than me. She is a wonderful companion, and we enjoy every minute we have together."
In utter exasperation, the lady asked, "Well, old man, just what is your problem then?"
He looked her straight in the eye and wailed, "I canít remember where I live!"
If youíll excuse my simplistic reduction of the message of the three-verse poem that somehow got divided into Psalms 42 and 43, thatís the essence of the lesson I bring you today. When we focus too much on the circumstances of a given period in our lives Ė or even of human life in general Ė we can become sad and discouraged. When we tolerate a negative spirit and live to our doubts, we can get downcast and troubled. But if we take the focus off ourselves and put it on God and home, things that otherwise would be unbearable can be survived.
"Why Are You Downcast, O My Soul?"
Depression is both a mysterious disease and a spiritual challenge. Some forms of depression are clearly genetic. There are people who suffer debilitating anguish of heart but whose lifestyle and habits seem to offer no clue to its origin. They arenít despondent souls in agony because of guilt. They arenít weighed down with poverty or bad marriages or addictive behaviors. They suffer from a debilitating illness that frequently can be helped with specific medications available to modern medicine.
If your physician suspects you are one of those people and suggests a consultation with a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, by all means follow through on his suggestion. If the tests indicate that you are one of those fortunate people who can be helped by Prozac, fill the prescription and thank the Lord! But a far commoner phenomenon than chemical imbalance in the human brain is the feeling of being overwhelmed with difficult life circumstances that have put you in the pit of discouragement, depression, or despair.
For someone struggling with this more common variety of depression, carefully supervised medication might well be very helpful to bringing things back into balance. For the long term, however, some of the underlying factors of a faulty belief system, overstressed lifestyle, or unhealthy relationships will have to be addressed. Remembering who you are, whose you are, and where your home is are invaluable pieces for solving the puzzle!
Psalm 42 begins Book Two of the Psalter Ė the so-called "Elohistic Psalter" in which God is addressed by the Hebrew name Elohim rather than Yahweh. We know that Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 were originally a single poem because of their observable literary structure. There are three balanced stanzas of four verses, with each verse followed by the refrain:
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 (42:5, 11; 43:5).
Whoever wrote this prayer remembered better days when he worshipped at Jerusalem Ė "leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng" (42:4b). For whatever reason Ė geography, exile, sickness Ė those days were only memories for him now. Added to his personal sadness about being cut off from the good old days was the taunting he had to endure from some source. "Where is your God?" they jeered (42:3b, 10b). Whether they meant it as cruelty or asked their question out of an ill-formed theology that said good people donít suffer painful fates, the question has the same effect. It added to a suffererís wounds. At one point, the writer cried out to God and asked, "Why have you forgotten me?" (42:9).
Some of you have had your moments in that same state of mind, havenít you? Some of you have had not just your "moments" there but days, weeks, months, and years. The physical handicap or childhood scar is permanent. The cancer therapy is ongoing. The attempt to keep a drowning marriage afloat has been anything but a recent or brief thing for you. Sometimes you have been able to smile through your tears. At other times, though, there have only been tears Ė without anything resembling a smile being possible for you.
So you know the lament of this text. You have alternately cried out to God or berated yourself with words very similar to those of this psalm: Why are you so downcast, O my soul? God, have you forgotten me? What have I done to deserve this? Will I ever be happy again? Shouldnít my faith be enough to get me through this? Am I not saved? Is there any point to my prayers?
Can Joy Be Willed?
Despite the slogans of our time like "Donít Worry, Be Happy" or "Hakuna Matata," there is a lot of pessimism embedded in our culture. Negative news stories such as disasters on the other side of the world and murders in our city get headline coverage, but kindness and decency just donít generate much copy. Now that the nuclear threat is deemed less imminent and school children arenít being taught "duck and cover," it is the environmental holocaust that kids are being told will do us in. We canít even teach history in our schools without having to wade through texts that teach kids that America is founded on sexist, puritanical, Eurocentric, racist, and otherwise unworthy notions.
If a visitor from another culture (or planet!) were to drop in on us, he would discover that our most popular daytime entertainment is the world of Jerry Springer. And he would discover that "The Smashing Pumpkins" have sold millions of copies of songs that embrace despair. For example, the song Zero says: "Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness, and cleanliness is godliness, and god is empty just like me; intoxicated with the madness, Iím in love with my sadness."
Pessimism, ingratitude, and negative readings of our world combine to poison the spirit of an entire culture. It is impossible to isolate oneself completely from it. But must we capitulate to it? Must we embrace despair?
On the other hand, can joy be willed into existence? There are some verses in the Bible that appear to command it. For example, Deuteronomy 28:47 says that the Lord punished Israel because they "did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly." In the New Testament, Paul writes things like these to believers: "Be joyful in hope . . ." (Rom. 12:12) and "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" (Phil. 4:4).
A major part of our problem in this matter is that Ė like the psalmist in the first two stanzas of his poem Ė we think of happiness as a passive, involuntary experience. Given certain circumstances, we will "feel" something that can be recognized instinctively as joy or happiness. But happiness must not be tied directly to oneís circumstances. How could anyone with cancer be happy? How could anyone with an annual salary of $200,000 be sad? I can supply names as answers to both questions. You probably can too.
Whoever wrote this psalm eventually turned to something more comforting than memories of better days now gone and more substantial than his personal psychological state. In the third stanza, he finally reaches out to God and puts his trust in him for deliverance. He will still admit to a sense of feeling "rejected" and will acknowledge that his enemies still "oppress" him over his situation. It isnít his circumstances that have changed in the final verse of his prayer but his willingness to trust God with the confusing details of his life.
Vindicate me, O God,
and plead my cause against an ungodly nation;
rescue me from deceitful and wicked men.
You are God my stronghold.
Why have you rejected me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?
Send forth your light and your 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.
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 (43:1-5).
Do you understand now why I began this sermon with the story of a man who had forgotten where his home was? "Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with Godís people and members of Godís household" (Eph. 2:19). "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20). Donít you think it would make a difference in our handling of this world if we remembered that we have a heavenly citizenship?
If we allow the disorienting events of life to take over our thoughts and attitudes, they can undermine both our mental and spiritual health. They can take us down into a dark, hopeless pit of despair. Some of us need to lighten up by turning outward from ourselves to God, by putting our anxieties on him, by adopting some positive life strategies in place of the negative ones that have crowded in on us.
Here are three of those "positive life strategies" that would help any of us willing to adopt them:
First, look beyond your circumstances to your Savior, your secure place in his love, and the home he has gone to prepare for you. Choosing to focus on lifeís negative events means you are living by sight, not by faith. And thatís the opposite of either Godís intention or your best interests.
What do you think Paul meant by this comment: "We live by faith, not by sight"? (2 Cor. 5:7). If it means anything, it means that Godís line of sight is higher and clearer than ours. He is sovereign over all the universe, and he is always in control of ultimate outcomes. So why doesnít he use his sovereign power to give his children constant protection from temptation, harm, and pain? Because it would be the worst possible thing for him to do! Human vulnerability is what keeps us humble, reminds us of our need for God, and moves us to show compassion to one another. If my life or yours was a story of unbroken success, good health, and easy relationships, neither of us would seek God or give the time of day to the other.
Second, learn from your setbacks and failures along the way. The reason many people have trouble learning a foreign language is that they donít want to be embarrassed by making mistakes. But thatís how you learned to speak your own language. Itís the only way to learn to speak anyone elseís language. My theory is that in order to speak the language of heaven (i.e., praise, celebration, victory), we human beings Ė to whom heavenly language is definitely "foreign" Ė have to stumble around and make mistakes in spiritual matters. Itís simply a given to how a new language is learned.
Thomas Edison reportedly performed 50,000 experiments before he developed a successful storage battery. After one of his failures, he would come home to the dinner table and tell his family, "I had a good result today. Now I know one more way it canít be done." The real issue in our spiritual lives is not whether we shall fail but how we fail. To learn from a faulty approach or to receive forgiveness after stepping outside Godís will is ultimately a forward step in the total process of knowing God.
Third, pray for God to give you the gift of his joy. Do you ever pray for guidance? For forgiveness? What about healing? Of course you do! But do you ever pray for the joy of the Lord to come into your life? Do you ever pray for God to give you such gifts as peace, self-control, or patience? They are listed Ė along with joy Ė as part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. So surely it would be appropriate to pray for joy to be real in your spiritual life.
Yes, it is perfectly appropriate for you to pray for God to remove whatever you perceive to be the immediate obstacle to your peace and joy. Pray for the cancer to be healed. Pray for the relationship to be restored and put right. The writer of this psalm prayed to get back to Jerusalem and to the Temple. But he eventually realized that it was more important for him to break out of his anguish and sense of loss in order to focus on God than to have his immediate problem resolved.
So pray for God to send his joy into your life. But donít "box him in" or limit your own expectations by equating an answer to that prayer with relief from your struggle. You may need the struggle more than relief from it. You may need the humility and dependence on God that can come only from perpetual exertion more than you need the temptation to forget him in easier circumstances.
Harry Jenkins was a Navy pilot shot down over North Vietnam in 1965. He parachuted safely to earth, was immediately captured, and put into solitary confinement. He spent the next 50 months there Ė denied the most basic provisions the Geneva Convention says prisoners of war are to receive. He was tortured repeatedly for refusing to cooperate with the Viet Cong.
On the day Captain Jenkins was finally let out of solitary confinement after more than four years, he walked out of his cell, spent a few moments looking into the bare concrete cell next to his, and said to the prisoner, "Nice little place youíve got there." His optimism and sense of humor hadnít been destroyed by his terrible treatment. Several other POWs said his positive spirit kept them alive.
Then, during the final few months of their captivity, the prisoners were allowed to be together in the evening. To help pass the time constructively, Harry came up with the idea of "movie night." He and others would recall a movie they had seen years before and tell the story from memory Ė no film, no projector, no images. Harry reportedly took some two-hour films and made them into five-hour epic productions with voices, antics, and imagination that carried the story far beyond anyone elseís recollection of the original.
After seven years in captivity, the war ended and Harry came home. The people who knew him before, during, and after his ordeal say he has remained the same person. There is no bitterness in Harry Jenkins.1
I hope the author of this psalm about a "downcast" and "disturbed" soul survived his ordeal as well. And I pray that you and I will be open to the grace God willingly gives those who live beyond the memory of better times now gone or difficult circumstances to him. He will send forth his light and truth to guide us to his strong tower of security.
If you ever see me crying on a park bench, remind me where I live. Iíve tried to do as much for you today.
1 Richard Capen Jr, Finishing Strong: Living the Values That Take You the Distance (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1996), pp. 109-111.
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