One of the consequences of the lockdowns associated with the spread of Covid-19 has been the alarming rise of emotional distress. Lacking community and the opportunity to work, many have experienced depression. And being isolated from family and friends they have had nowhere to turn.
Depression is not something new, nor should it be lightly dismissed. Some people experience it more than others. Furthermore, it is not something that only people who have no religious faith experience. Great ones of the Bible, such as Elijah, King David, Jeremiah, and Paul the Apostle, all experienced it.
A cry from the heart. Psalms 42 & 43 which open Book II of the Psalms, reveal lessons we can learn from the experiences described in them. Far from home, in exile in the north, the psalm-writer asks three times: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me? (42:5, 11; 43:5).
In the opening line of Psalm 42 the poet reveals his desire: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? He longs for God’s presence. There are times when we too echo his feeling – times when prayer is difficult and talk of joy and peace is meaningless.
But notice what underlies these occasions – feelings, emotions, depression. Because we are psychosomatic beings, a disturbance in our body chemistry which may be caused by external physical factors, can affect our emotional balance as well as our spiritual awareness.
We can see what the writer is doing: he is telling us that it’s important we view our feelings and experiences through the lens of the wisdom of our faith. If we have a migraine we don’t shout, ‘Alleluia’. And so, if we’re suffering depression, we’re not going to feel close to God. But that shouldn’t prevent us from asking questions. Indeed, we should understand that there’s all the difference between feeling forsaken by God and being forsaken by him.
Now, that said, depression can be a result of spiritual factors. If, for example, we are burdened with guilt about something we’ve done, we may feel God is remote. There may also be times when we experience a spiritual attack from opposing forces. However, in most instances what might be called spiritual depression is in fact a natural depression impacting a spiritually minded person. This seems to be what the writer is experiencing.
And so he records his experiences. He speaks of his spiritual isolation: My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” (42:3) The verbal barbs went home. It’s easy to trust God in the comfort and security of God’s people. But now he was alone, without emotional support or personal encouragement. Situations like this can depress us for we are social creatures.
Furthermore, he reveals his physical isolation: These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
A high point of the writer’s life had been religious festivals. He is homesick as he remembers them. Anyone who has moved to a new city or a new country knows how real this can be. It’s enough to make anyone depressed.
But again, his experience was not necessarily spiritual depression. Yes, he felt isolated from God, but that didn’t mean there was an underlying spiritual cause. His issue wasn’t sin or lack of faith. It was the consequence of his situation.
His depression so disturbed him that he burst into uncontrollable tears: My tears have been my food day and night,.. (42:3) Three times he also tells us that he was downcast. He felt flat. He felt no spark of enthusiasm or energy. Depressed people often feel tired.
He also says three times that he is disturbed: ‘Why are you so disturbed within me, o my soul?’ We sense his anxious sighs and groans. And in verse 7 he tells us that he feels overwhelmed: Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your waterfalls (or, cataracts); all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
Socially and physically alone, the writer was emotionally distraught. He was flat emotionally, anxious, and overwhelmed. Which led to something else: spiritual rejection. In verse 9 he says: I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” Torn with a sense of loss, he is like someone grieving the loss of a loved one. He feels spiritually bereft, devastated, and heartbroken.
But this writer is a believer. The dominant person in his life is God. We recall his opening line: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. The poet feels spiritually depressed, not because he was spiritually negligent but because of his situation as one of God’s people. ‘I believe’ he is saying, ‘Why should I feel like I do? Why am I so inwardly disturbed? What’s happened to me? What’s happened to my faith?’
We may think this man is spiritually weak but there’s no hint of this in the psalm. In fact, the way he wrestles with his depression testifies to the reality of his faith and to his perseverance.
Psalms 42 and 43 are most important for they provide lessons for us when we are in the depths of despair. What was the writer’s response? We’ll consider this next Wednesday.
A prayer. Almighty God, we commend to your fatherly goodness all who are in any way afflicted or distressed, especially those who are known to us. May it please you to comfort and relieve them according to their needs, giving them patience in their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. All this we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© John G. Mason