Depression and Psalm 42
Originally posted on March 6, 2018 by Dave Mishler. Dave is a Missional Community leader at Kaleo Church and oversees all of the Saturday Night Worship Service.
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1-2)
As of late, the cloud of depression is weighing heavily upon my soul. It isn’t anything new to me. Since high school (perhaps earlier) I have struggled with bouts of depression, often ebbing and flowing with the joy of my experiences. Largely, though, I would say I was a depressed individual with a pessimistic bent to life which lent its hand to cynicism. In 2017, as I began to study God’s word more deeply, I was brought up outside of myself to see the greater plan and majesty of the God who created everything and continues to work in his creation, evidenced most clearly in the incarnation of the Son. I was perhaps naïve to think that the storm clouds of depression, and the many lies from the Evil One that accompany it, might never return.
After experiencing what seemed to be this paradigm-shift, the storm clouds came back with vengeance, not a day past January 1st. They started small, with a few incoming clouds that did not provide enough data to forecast the menacing storm to come. The clouds began innocent enough. Small and white at first, reflecting the brilliant rays of the sun, growing and becoming ever so slightly darker, until they were a black mass that blotted out the sun.
Many can relate to this experience. Many have lived in this cloud of darkness for years, sometimes decades and have lost the hope that the storm will ever clear, even just enough to get a brief glimpse of the sun’s brilliance. The thought of ever seeing the light again seems like a dream experienced a long, long time ago. Its vividness grows ever hazier, and the question of its reality fades with time. Before you know it, you are trapped in the eye of the storm, alone, with what seems like no escape.
Personally, I have never been diagnosed with clinical depression. I believe there are subtle differences between what I have experienced and those that have chronic, long-lasting, diagnosable depression that requires professional and medicinal help. I am not discounting that reality, it just has not been my experience. However, I also believe that the foundational aspect of depression is directly linked to a person’s perception of God.
The Nearness of God in Depression
Over the past couple of days, I have been reading through Psalm 42. The first two verses, quoted above, tell of the Psalmist’s desire for the living God. As you read on, you begin to understand the Psalmist’s central problem as he asks his own soul why it is downcast (42: 5, 11; 43:5). The Psalmist also understands that God, being God, cannot be far off. He says:
“By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (42:8).
The very next verse, however, says:
“I say to God, my rock: Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning…? (42:9).
The Psalmist’s soul is downcast. The Psalmist knows that his soul needs God. The Psalmist feels that God has forgotten him and left him in his mourning.
To be honest with you, when I read the first two verses of this Psalm, I scoffed. It was not because I did not think I needed God, but rather because I did not think God would follow-through and meet my soul’s need. I doubted him, and scoffed, thinking, “Yeah right. That will never happen. God has left me.” As a Christian, and this being my initial reaction to the Scripture, I had to ask myself, why? Why did I believe this about God? Why was I so cynical? What has God done that has given me reason to think that he will not follow through?
This is the storm. Scoffing at the Scripture and doubting the promises of God. In depression, it is easy to see all the problems around you externally. It gives you something to blame, and if you can place blame on something outside of yourself, then your reaction is justified. But isn’t this how the storm clouds start? The small, white clouds look innocent enough, and may even provide some shelter from the sun’s heat and temporal protection from its rays. However, within the shade of these clouds, the sun’s light is dimmed.
In the same way, depression tends to grow from placing too much emphasis on unmet desires. These desires may not be in themselves wrong. Just like the clouds provide shade and relief, these desires, if met even partially, may provide benefits. For example, one of my desires is marriage and a huge family. Being 32 and getting older by the day, the reality of that desire being met seems like a long shot. Marriage brings a lot of good things, and from what I have seen and been told, its fare share of difficulties. My desire for marriage is a good thing. Marriage between man and wife is objectively good. This holds true for having kids, a steady job, a home, a healthy church, productive ministry, believing family members, reliable transportation, good health, friends, community, social-justice, etc. These are all good desires. However, it is precisely when the need for that desire to be met supersedes our need for God, that the sky grows every-increasingly dark.
When we make the meeting of our unmet desires for good things the condition by which we determine goodness in our lives, we find ourselves living in the shadow of what is no longer a small, innocent cloud, but in the thick, dark tempest of that desire. In its shadow, the sun’s rays no longer shine. Our sight is gone as the darkness of the storm clouds veil the light that is necessary to see, shifting our focus to only what can be seen: ourselves and our desires. Effectively, then, our desire takes the place of God as master. We no longer understand and see God as our good Father who gives to his children precisely what they need (Mt 6:25-34; Lk 11:11-13; 2 Cor 9:8; 1 Pet 5:7). Rather, just like Adam and Eve in the garden, we see him as the God who withholds (Gen 3:1-7).
Hope in God
So, what then can we do? Hope in God (Ps 42: 5b, 11b; 43:5b). I acknowledge that simply telling someone who is struggling with the depression to simply Hope in God, may not be helpful in their eyes. I ask then, why? Why would hoping in God not be helpful? Is it because hoping in God doesn’t take your feeling of loneliness away? Is it because it doesn’t give you that long-awaited spouse? Is it because just hoping in God doesn’t meet that desire in the way you think it should be met? You’re right. This doesn’t help if our hoping in God is simply means to get what we want. But God has something worth far more to give you than the desire you so desperately believe is your greatest need. Himself.
Throughout this Psalm, the writer never leaves this truth behind. God has given himself to his people and for the Psalmist, this has been realized in numerous ways (Ps 42:4; 5c; 8). The Psalmist does not want his soul to be downcast. He does not want to feel forgotten or continue in his mourning. His routine diet of tears cannot be enjoyable (Ps 42:3). His thoughts and feelings seek to betray the truth (Ps 42:7, 9-10).
However, instead of growing indignant and believing lies about God, he preaches to his soul. While not denying the reality of his feelings and hardships, he simultaneously refuses to deny the simple truth that God is good and does not withhold from his children. He simply believes that this will pass, and he will again praise God. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not ever in this lifetime. But again, his hope is not in this life, but in the one to come where he will appear before the living God and be with him forever (Ps 42:2).
Friends, he has made clear to us that we are much more valuable than a few sparrows. The God that created all of time, who has always been and always will be, has created you and entered into time for you. He suffered terribly, in like manner, yet worse than you so that he would be able to help you (Heb 2:17-18). Under the shadow of his wings shines forth a light that darkness cannot overcome (Jn 1:5). This light shines brilliantly through his atoning death on the cross and is sealed through the victory of his resurrection. By this light we see that our greatest desire is met: we are reconciled to God, and in being reconciled, we can now hope in him!