How do we retain courage and hope in difficult situations? Whether we are facing personal challenges or feeling overwhelmed by the scale of pain impacting countless millions around the world, it can sometimes be difficult to keep the faith in the face of suffering.
How should we respond, as Christians, when the problems around us seem insurmountable? This is a valid question. Over the past few years, I’ve found Psalm 42 an incredible encouragement to me when I’m feeling overwhelmed or discouraged.
One thing I love about Psalm 42 is that we don’t know the direct context of the Psalm. In that sense, it seems like a timeless cry for help to God for all people facing desperate situations. The authors (the sons of Korah) give two metaphors for what they were facing – both involving extremes of water. The first is the lack of water, the image being a hunted deer that is dying of thirst and desperate for a sip of refreshing water in order to survive (see vs. 1-2). The second is an over-supply of water, as the authors see their troubles as a torrential waterfall, Niagara-esque, which is overwhelming them (vs. 7).
Can you relate?
In this place of deep desperation, the authors cry out to God. Even though they are in deep trouble, they retain their trust in God whose resources of love and support are deeper still. I love the honesty and desperation of these metaphors. But I also see this Psalm as providing practical help for those of us who are feeling in despair about our circumstances. I will summarise some guidance that this psalm gives us when we are feeling discouraged.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask God hard questions
The psalmists go to God with their audacious questions. They effectively ask God, “Have you abandoned us?” (see vs. 2,3,9,10). As Christians, we can’t bury our heads in the sand and survive on cliché’s and platitudes to explain away our problems and the deep troubles we see in the world around us. Peter Scazzero learned:
“I couldn’t build God’s kingdom with lies and pretence. I found out the things I ignored eventually erupted into much bigger problems later. We have to ask the painful, difficult questions we prefer to ignore” (Emotionally Healthy Leadership, p. 41).
We shouldn’t hide our deepest doubts and fears from God. The very act of naming them to Him is a major step towards finding the faith to face them. I learned this lesson when I went through my own grief process. John Mark Comer helpfully summarises it this way:
“God is not shocked by your emotions. No matter how messed up your soul may be, God is right there with you, listening” (My Name is Hope, p.24).
We may not always get the answers we want – just ask Job! Sometimes we may feel we don’t get any answers (that’s a subject for another day). But God’s shoulders are broad enough and He invites us to unburden ourselves to Him, even if we sometimes wonder if we’re being irreverent or offensive.
2. Remember God’s Faithfulness
The second encouragement the psalmists give us is to remember God’s faithfulness in the past (vs. 4 & 6). They are not advocating living in the past. Rather, actively engaging memories of when God has come through for us in the past can enable us to find courage and strength to face today and the uncertain future. This seems particularly important for those of us who live in South Africa at the moment. Even though the challenges are real and borne of entrenched poverty and inequality, this country is still a miracle nation! God has miraculously intervened in the past and we can trust Him that He is still at work.
The problem is that we all seem to suffer from memory loss. This is the perennial human problem… from Adam and Eve to the Israelites wandering the desert, and the disciples who fled when Jesus was arrested (even though he’d told them it would happen). Remembering God’s promises and provisions requires effort and discipline. I think it’s one reason that Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper. When we take communion we are reminded that He has secured the ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death through His own death and resurrection. So when all around us seems to be falling apart, that’s a great place to start our journey of remembering!
3. Speak to your soul.
I love the refrain of Psalm 42 found in verses 5 and 11.
“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.“
Tough times can negatively impact our souls. Our sense of well-being gets out of sync and can impact our perspective and disturb our faith. But we can take action. Yes, sometimes we need to seek professional, medical help in order to find healing. But God has also given us two amazing gifts that can help restore our souls. The first is His Word. We can speak truth from the Scriptures to our souls. I have personally felt the healing power of reading Scripture through times of crisis, even when I was struggling to believe the words I was reading. The second is worship. In spite of everything, the psalmists still praised God. This can be our one constant in trying times. God is worthy of praise and we need to believe, with David that:
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord. (Psalm 27:13-14).
In this beautifully honest psalm, we discover three actions we can take when we find ourselves in deep trouble: bring our questions and concerns to God; remember his faithfulness in the past to find confidence for the future, and speak to our soul words of hope so that we can continue to praise God.
This post is a summary of a talk I gave. The full message is available by clicking here.