Thirsting for God

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Please turn in the Bibles to Psalm 42, and then listen to this email from a Christian friend about the spiritual effect of repeated unemployment.

"I feel completely let down by God. I don't feel blessed… or that my prayers are being answered. My theology just doesn't match my experience. Other than giving up on my faith I'm left in a position of constant perplexity and spiritual exhaustion… I've been going through a desert for so long, I'm completely dessicated. I still have faith that God can do anything, but the issue is why he is apparently doing nothing."

Well Psalm 42 was written by someone going through that kind of time, for us when we are going through that kind of time. Just look down to verses 1 and 2:

"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?"

So that's a picture of the hot season in the Middle East. No rain. Baked earth. Dry rivers. And this poor deer staggering around looking for water. And the Psalm writer says, 'That's how I feel, spiritually.' He says, 'If a sense that God is real and is being good to you is like a long draught of water, then I haven't had a drink in ages.' As my friend said, "I'm completely dessicated." That's bad enough. But it gets worse when unbelievers who know you're a believer pick up on the mismatch between your faith and your experience. So my friend's email went on like this:

"I also feel my situation is a bad witness. As one of my work colleagues said, 'You believe in the great recruitment consultant in the sky – so why doesn't he get you a job?' Another non-Christian friend asked why anyone would want to be a Christian when it doesn't seem to be doing me any good."

And looking at Psalm 42, verse 3, you can see that this Psalm writer could relate to that, too:

"My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they [the cynical unbelievers around him] say to me all the day long,
"Where is your God?"

And you may not need a cynical unbeliever to ask you that question. You may be asking it yourself: 'Where is God?', when he's allowed whatever it is to happen to you – unemployment, or exam failure, or business failure; a broken relationship or marriage; or unwanted singleness or singleness again through bereavement; broken health – and maybe a terminal illness; miscarriage or childlessness; heartache over children; hurt at the hands of parents, or whatever. Well, Psalm 42 is to help us when, to be honest, God feels absent. And that's my first of two headings:

1. When God Feels Absent

Just look back to verses 1-2 again:

"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 [literally, that says 'come and see the face of God']?"

And to understand that last line, you need to remember this was written by an Old Testament believer. And for him, the place you came to appear before God was the temple. Now on the one hand, the Bible says God is present everywhere. So in Psalm 139, verses 7-10, David prays:

"Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol [the place of the dead], you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me…"

But on the other hand, God said in that Old Testament time that he would be especially present and available at the temple. So that's where Old Testament believers felt closest to God. That's where they came to meet with God – through prayer; and through the sacrifices which reassured them that they could be forgiven and approach God despite their sinfulness. So when this Psalm writer says "When shall I come and appear before God?" (v2), he's saying, 'When will I get to go to the temple again?' And if you look down to verse 6, you'll see why that was an issue for him. He says:

"My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar."

Now that's talking about the mountain area north of Israel, into Syria. And we don't know the exact background here. But it looks like this was written by someone who had been living in God's promised land but was now out of it – maybe captured and taken into exile. So he couldn't get to the temple any more, which is why he says what he says in verse 4:

"These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God [i.e. the temple]
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival."

And if you'd said to him, 'But don't you believe God is everywhere, and that you can pray to him anywhere?' he'd have said, 'Yes – that's what I'm doing here in Psalm 42 – but you New Testament believers really don't understand that for us the temple was the way God had made for us to come and meet with him. So to be miles away from the temple feels to me like being miles away from God.' And that experience of God feeling distant, unreal, absent is something every New Testament believer will experience at times, as well – sometimes lengthy times. Because, go back to that last line of verse 2:

"When shall I come and appear before God?"

This Old Testament believer would have answered, 'When I come to the temple – that's when I get the ultimate meet-up with God.' But a New Testament believer would answer, 'When I die, or when Jesus comes again to wrap up history.' Either way, that's when we'll appear before God for the ultimate meet-up with him – face to face. And that's when all our doubt about whether he's really there and really good will finally end, and when all our perplexity about what he's allowed to happen will finally end. But not before – because just listen to how the apostle Paul contrasts this life now with the life to come. He says in 1 Corinthians 13, verse 12:

"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known."

So what you see by looking in a mirror (like a wingmirror), you see indirectly. And Paul's point is that in this life now, we only know God indirectly by looking into the Bible – not face to face. And that means we know him only very partially. So there are any number of things that happen to us where, if we could see him face to face and read his expression, and ask and hear why he was allowing them, it would change everything. But we can't. And so we inevitably have times of doubt and perplexity when God feels absent. And Paul makes the same contrast in 2 Corinthians 5, verses 6-7. He says:

"We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight."

So he pictures these bodies we live in now as our earthly homes. And he says, 'So long as you're in one of these homes, you're away from the Lord.' In other words, 'You're at a distance from him – because his home is heaven.' And that's where our experience is like the Psalm-writer's. He couldn't get to see the temple right now, which was a major part of why he could plunge into feeling that God was unreal and distant and absent. And likewise, we can't get to see God the Father or the Lord Jesus right now. As Paul puts it, we have to 'live by faith' in his Word and 'not by sight' – not by seeing him and having all the answers. And so inevitably we have times when God feels absent. That may not have happened to you yet as a Christian – at least, not deeply. But it will sometimes – and sometimes at length. So onto my other heading, which is:

2. When God Feels Absent, How Should We Respond To Him?

The Psalms are basically God-given examples of how to respond as a believer to all sorts of things in life. And this one is for the situation where you're wondering, 'Where is God? Why is he allowing this? What is he doing?'

And according to Psalm 42, the first way we should respond is: to pour out our souls to God. Let me read again from verses 1-4:

"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?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
"Where is your God?"
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul…"

That last line is a great description of this Psalm. It's an outpouring of soul – of thoughts and feelings and questions – towards God. And by implication, it's permitting us and encouraging us to do the same.

One of the things I love about our church services is being led in prayer by others, because the prayers are always so thoughtful and shaped by the Bible and carefully worded. And that's one kind of prayer. But it's not the only kind. And we mustn't think we've got to pray like that all the time. Because Psalm 42 encourages us just to pour out our souls to God. And if there's one thing that strikes me from this Psalm writer's example, it's that he's utterly honest with God. Look at verse 2:

"My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God. [As if to say, 'Don't you realise the state I'm in?']"

And then he fires question 1:

"When shall I come and appear before God? [In other words, when are you going to do something to make that happen, and help my faith in you?]"

Then look on to verse 9 for questions 2 and 3:

"I say to God, my rock:
"Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?""

Which is pretty straight-talking, isn't it? He doesn't seem to have sat there thinking, 'Is this the sort of thing I ought to say in prayer? Is it a bit unguarded? Even a bit theologically questionable?' (After all, a moment's reflection tells you that an all-seeing, all-knowing God can't 'forget' you.) He just says what he feels. And notice that his questions are not asked out of unbelief or rebelliousness against God. They're asked by a believer out of bewilderment and perplexity – which is a totally different thing, and God sees it as a totally different thing. So that's the first thing we're encouraged to do here, when God feels absent. We're encouraged to pour out our souls to him – to pray even when part of us is doubting he's there; and to say exactly what we feel.

Then the second way we should respond when God feels absent is: to hope in God. Look down to verse 5:

"Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God."

And the Psalms often teach their main lessons by repetition, which is what we get here. So look down to verse 11:

"Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God."

And Psalms 42 and 43 seem originally to have been one Psalm – so if you look at Psalm 43, verse 5, you get it again:

"Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God."

So three times, he confronts himself, even rebukes himself:

"Why are you cast down, O my soul…?"

The great 20th century preacher Martyn Lloyd Jones wrote a classic book called Spiritual Depression. Chapter 1 of that book is on that repeated verse, and he writes this:

"This man was not content just to commiserate with himself. [Instead] he takes himself in hand. And I suggest the main trouble in this matter of spiritual depression is that we allow our self to talk to us instead of us talking to our self. So, take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you and bringing back all your problems. And you have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself."

And that's right. When you're feeling spiritually depressed, you do also need other Christians – whether pastors or friends – to preach to you the things that your mood is making it hard for you to believe. But you do have to preach to yourself and deal with yourself like this Psalm writer. And positively, what this Psalm-writer tells himself to do is to hope in God – which means (even in the middle of present disappointment): trusting that God will keep his promises and be good to us and bless us in the future. And here's how David puts that attitude into words in Psalm 27, verses 13-14. He says:

"I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living! [So he continues:]
Wait for the LORD; [i.e. wait for him to act in ways where you can see his goodness to you again]
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!"

Now that was written in another situation where it was hard to see how God was being good. But hoping in God means saying (even in the middle of present disappointment), 'I'm going to believe that I will see God being good to me again in the future.' And that may include him helping you to see, looking back, that he has actually been good to you – even though you couldn't see it at the time. And it may include him helping you adjust to a different 'good' than the 'good' you'd originally hoped for or envisaged.

So take for example a single Christian who'd like to be married. The passage of time, plus or minus disappointments in going out, can leave you wondering, 'Where is God in this area of my life?' But Psalm 42 calls on us to hope in God – to trust that he will be good to us in this area. That may be through a relationship finally leading to marriage, or it may be through him gradually helping us to come to terms with singleness, and to see what is good about it (despite its costs), when it's lived with him and used for him. But for New Testament believers, the most important thing to say is that our ultimate hopes lie beyond this life. So for us, hoping in God means saying of every hard thing, 'This will no longer happen in heaven', and of every good thing, 'Heaven will be far, far better than this.'

So when God feels absent, Psalm 42 tells us to pour out our souls to him, to hope in him; and then lastly: to remember him. Look down to verse 6 again:

"My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you"

I looked up for you every reference in the Psalms to remembering God, and they're pretty much all about remembering the exodus, when he saved his people from Egypt, and showed his love for them. And for the New Testament believer, the equivalent is to remember Jesus' death and resurrection. Because as I remember the cross, then however absent God feels right now, I'm taken back in my mind's eye to when he was here in Christ, and to the standing demonstration of his love for me for all time. And as I remember the resurrection, I'm reassured that Jesus does reign above all things – including death – even if I can't understand what he's allowing to happen right now. That doesn't change circumstances, but it does change how we see them. So look on to verse 7:

"Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me."

I said that this Psalm writer may have been in exile in the mountain country of Hermon where the River Jordan rises, and he'd have seen the big waterfalls there. I don't know if you've ever stood under a waterfall. Tess and I swam up a river to a spectacular one on our honeymoon in South Africa. And the guy who'd got there before us said, 'Come on under – it's like a spa', which made it sound like a gentle patter, whereas this thing was coming over a hundred and fifty foot cliff, and felt more like a battering on the head. This Psalm writer is saying that's how he felt – battered by life. And if you're a sea-swimmer or surfer you'll relate to the next bit, where he also says:

"all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me."

If you've ever been tumbled over and over by a really big wave, you'll get that picture. He's saying that he felt overwhelmed by life – and maybe not just hit by one thing, but (like waves) by one thing after another after another. Notice how he puts it in verse 7:

"Deep calls to deep
at the roar of…"

Whose waterfalls? Fate's? Satan's? No,

"Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me."

So, remembering God doesn't magically change the circumstances – it doesn't turn off the waterfall or still the waves. But it does remind him that his circumstances are all under God's sovereignty – that ultimately God stands behind all the waterfalls and the waves of life in the sense that he's allowed them and knows all about them. So, granted, he doesn't have here the comfort of understanding why God was allowing his circumstances, but he does have the comfort of knowing that they're not out of God's control – that nothing has happened to him because God couldn't help it. And then if you look on to verse 8, here's the other thing that remembering God does – which for us involves remembering the cross. It helps you trust that he still loves you despite appearances to the contrary. Because in verse 8 this Psalm writer is able to say:

"By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life."

So the temptation is to try to read God's love for us off our circumstances: to say, 'I know he loves me because… I've got a boy friend', or, 'because… I got these exam results', or, 'because… whatever it is.' But what we should be reading God's love for us off is the cross: saying, 'I know he loves me because… he gave his Son to die for me.' And verse 8 would be a great place for Psalm 42 to end, wouldn't it? Where he seems to have got through to where he can trust in God again, and trust in God's love for him. But his circumstances and feelings come crashing over him again like a waterfall or a wave. And verses 9-10, here we go again:

"I say to God, my rock:
"Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?"
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
"Where is your God?""

And so verse 11, here we also go again:

"Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God."

So should we wish that Psalm 42 had ended at verse 8 on the high note? Are verses 9 to 11 a regrettable anti-climax? No, they're real life. And they reflect the fact that going through times like this Psalm is talking about often means navigating a long process of downs and ups, and more downs and ups, and yet more downs and ups, of faith. I certainly don't think I've ever come out of a spiritual depression just like that – through listening to a sermon, or quoting a verse to myself. It can take days, weeks, months.

And in this case, the downs and ups continue into Psalm 43 – which, as I said, is the other half of this one – and when we come to it in two weeks' time, it'll give us more help on how to respond when God feels absent.

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