It is probably safe to say that we have all had those seasons—the ones that are crowded with overwhelming emotions that perhaps sway back and forth within days, hours, or even minutes. Whether you live with mental illness, have experienced loss and grief, or are simply human in that bad days find you out of the blue, you know the feeling of a cast-down soul. In vulnerability, I will share that as one who fits all too well into the mental illness category (not that it is simply a category), these psalms echo—pretty precisely, I might add—a common experience as someone who is also a believer and lover of God.
In the first five verses of the 42nd psalm alone, we hear the longing of someone who is devout and struggling. Not devout but struggling. Not devout yet struggling. Devout and struggling. “My soul longs for you, O God” (v. 1) and “My tears have been my food day and night” (v. 3). “Why are you cast down, O my soul” (v. 5) and “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him” (v. 5). These sound like the words of someone who loves God so deeply and is experiencing anguish.
Stepping into the literary and cultural context of these psalms that ultimately function as one psalm, we encounter a psalmist, and individual and likely a community, in a season of Babylonian exile—removed from their homes, comfort, familiarity and surrounded by isolation, exhaustion, and uncertainty. This alone would be enough to launch any person into a state of despair. The intensity of emotion from this psalmist, however, suggests that there is a very personal struggle happening, as well. This personal struggle can be summed up in the refrain that is first heard in 42:5 and again at the end of 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” A game of tug-of-war of sorts characterizes the relationship between the writer and God. On one side is God’s faithful presence and the human’s trust in God and on the other is dry, parched languishing of the soul and feeling as though God is absent.
Here's the rub: this game of tug-of-war doesn’t have a winner and likely never will.
It was in ancient Israel and still is in 2022 common to believe that a good life free from trouble is evidence of a faithful God who offers blessing. Perhaps this is why pictures of the “good life” on social media platforms are often captioned with “#blessed” along with other things. Laying on the beach without a care in the world; drinking a delicious smoothie; adding a cute puppy to the family. Humans have a tendency to connect happiness with God’s blessing. Certainly, relaxation, smoothies, and puppies are blessings because all good things come from God—and who doesn’t love pictures of adorable puppies?! However, the rational counterpoint is that feelings of unhappiness, sadness, and even despair mean that God has somehow revoked God’s blessing. Naturally, an exiled Israel believed God had left them. It could likely have been these people of God who were asking the question of the psalmist, “Where is your God?”
While this way of thinking was and still is, for lack of a better term, natural, it is certainly flawed. I am inclined to believe that the writer of Psalms 42 and 43 knew this. Though in despair and asking honest, raw questions of their God, this writer also recognized that it would be, in fact, this same God who would offer hope, vindication, refuge, and joy. This writer embodies the necessary tension of despair and hope, being in danger and being safe, mourning and rejoicing. Old Testament scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, says this psalm (the combination of 42 and 43) “makes it very clear that both despair and hope inhabit life, and both can lead to maturity.” Both hope and despair can lead to growth.
The Church is now in “Ordinary Time.” Some of the excitement of Easter and Pentecost has waned and we begin now settling into the church pews for a season of, well, ordinariness. But as any regular church goer knows, being a part of the community of Christ is actually quite extraordinary. If you are a pastor or you serve in any way as a spiritual leader, I believe one of the most important things you can teach your flock is the truth that God’s presence and faithfulness are unconditional. When we or the people we serve experience anguish, despair, depression, anxiety, or any host of emotions regardless of their cause be it mental illness, tragedy, or a bad day, it is important that we teach and preach the truth that God has not left us but suffers with us. May it be true for you and your community that people see you—and hopefully join you—and witness a community that surrounds one another with love and support in every season of life.
Being a follower of Jesus is not a cause-and-effect relationship. We can’t earn the love of God by our actions. Nor is the relationship what a prosperity gospel teaches—that having wealth and health and many good things is the direct result of God’s blessing. Our lives are, as the psalmist bears in the words of these psalms, both-and. We can both love God and experience pain. We can both trust God is present and feel as though God is absent. We certainly both long for God and ignore God sometimes.
My pastoral prayer for you and your people this week and from now on is that, like the writer of this psalm, you can begin to lean into the tension that comes with being a follower of Jesus. When your people experience depression, practice the art of presence and, if and when appropriate, help them remember what God has done in the past. When your people experience loss, again practice the art of presence and, when appropriate, eat their tears with them (not literally) and then help them quench their thirst with the Living Water. When your people have a bad day, be present, and, when appropriate, offer reminders of God turning mourning into “exceeding joy” (43:4). Most importantly, practice the art of presence because that is extraordinary. Reveal God’s presence as you teach, preach, sit with, and serve your communities.
 Brueggemann, Walter, and W. H. Bellinger. Essay. In Psalms, 207. Cambridge: University Press, 2014.