Psalm 42: Fixing your eyes on Jesus in the spiritual wasteland
PSALM 42 1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.
5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.
6 My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar. 7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
8 By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” 10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
11 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.
A deer panting for water might sound kind of gentle, like Bambi lapping water at a babbling brook while a lilting melody plays, but Psalm 42 is actually about thirst. The kind when your tongue feels swollen and your muscles cramp, when you get a headache and your lips crack, and you suck on your cheeks to try to get any kind of moisture in your mouth. The kind of thirst where you feel panicked, because you know what you need, if only you could find it.
That’s the way the Psalmist’s soul pants for God. He cries out, “Where can I go to meet with God?”
It’s that feeling of standing in church and seeing people with their arms up in their air and wondering, why don't I feel like that? It’s opening up your Bible but it seems like nonsense. It’s trying to pray, but really, aren’t you just talking to the roof? It’s longing for a solution to feeling spiritually dry, but God just doesn’t show up.
The Psalmist gets this kind of experience - it’s his too - and he is honest about his thirst and discomfort, even as people mock him (v.3,10). He names his experience (“downcast” v.5,6,11). Often we feel ashamed of being spiritually dry. We hide it from others, and keep up appearances, perhaps fearing that this dryness says something bad about us. But this Psalmist pours out his soul: the fear, the loneliness, even a sense of betrayal that God has abandoned you (v.9). If you feel spiritually dry, not only are you in good company with the Psalmist, but it’s OK to admit it.
Actually for the Psalmist, facing the barrenness he currently feels helps him to draw a contrast with former times. He recalls a time of great rejoicing on the way to the house of God (v.4) as he pours out his soul. It’s OK to feel more than one thing at once: the Psalmist holds the memory of distant times of great spiritual vitality together with the pain of his current reality! When we feel dry, it can be easy to question the times when we did feel something – to think that perhaps they weren't real after all. But here I think the Psalmist is helping us to see that times of strong emotion actually are a good thing from God. God uses those to remind us that he is real, that at one time we felt that. We ought not downplay our mountaintop experiences as superficial; they can be what God uses to get us through the dry times! It’s a way of putting your hope in God (v.5,11).
Even if you don’t have vivid memories of better times to fall back on, God’s love is on you, his song is for you (v.8). You don’t have to feel God’s love for it to be a reality. Even if you don’t feel him now, he’s still the one who created you and who acted out of love for you by sending his son. Those things don’t change, no matter how far away God feels.
When you feel like you are in the spiritual wasteland and God is nowhere to be seen, there are disciplines you should engage in which will help you to remember God: pray, read your bible, cry out to Him, meet with his people, remember what he has done. But even when you don’t do these things, God is still for you. When your faith is at an end, Jesus’ keeps going. When you can't do anything, when you have nothing to bring to the table, no way of maintaining your relationship with God, then Jesus, your great high priest, sits at the father's right hand and intercedes for you. This is the grace of God – not that we do anything to maintain our relationship with God but that he does it. It all depends on him. This is the refrain of Psalm 42 in v.5 and v.11: God is Saviour.
The Psalmist doesn't end up with an experience of God. He doesn't even end with praise. After all the things he's done – pouring his heart out to God, putting his hope in God, crying out to him – in the end, what he's left with is the assurance that God will save him. When you feel thirsty, Jesus continues to connect you to God, even when you feel like he's not there. That promise stands.
One day you will be able to praise him again. No guarantees when. But total guarantee that Jesus is there. So continue to remember what God has done. And continue to cry out to him. Because God has done great things for us. And he is Saviour.
Tamie comes from Adelaide and lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). She and her husband blog here