dealing with Spiritual Drought

Psalms 42-43

Jason Procopio

Like every summer since we’ve begun holding services, we’re going to spend this summer in the Psalms. Many Christians, when they sit down for their regular time reading the Bible, often begin or end with a Psalm—either as a prayerful way to begin their reading, or as a meditative way to put a cap on what they’ve read. This is in many ways what we do every summer: our summers in the Psalms are a pause—a break which allows us to head into the new school year with our heads planted firmly atop our hearts, as well as to stop and reflect in prayer over the past year. The book of Psalms is actually a five-volume songbook, so every year we’re preaching through a selection from a different volume. Last year we did book one (Ps. 1-41), this year we’re doing book two (Ps. 42-72). So I’d like to begin today with the first two psalms in book two, Psalms 42 and 43. The reason we’re doing two psalms is because although they can be taken separately, they very clearly go together, as we’ll see. 

Loanne and I had been married less than a year when we moved to France. Our marriage certificate took a long time to be approved by the French government, so I came into the country as a tourist, which meant I was allowed to stay for three months, after which I had to leave the country for three months. I went back to Florida, and because Loanne already had a job, she had to stay. Those three months were brutal. Nothing had changed about our relationship; we were still married; we still loved each other. We knew this. But knowing that didn’t change how it felt. This was before Facebook, before Skype—we did have emails, and we could call each other, but it wasn’t the same. For three months, I walked around in a state of perpetual longing; and nothing could fill that longing except being back home with her. 

This is the state our psalmist describes here. You can see it in the opening lines of the song: 1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? Out of curiosity I tried to find some habits of deer when they drink—and I was delighted to find that the metaphor is actually a very good one. Deer drink several times a day, and they usually make their beds near a source of water. So this idea of a deer “panting for flowing streams” is not something that usually happens: they drink long before they actually feel thirsty. The only way a deer would get to that state of panting after water would be if he went to his usual watering hole and found it completely dried up. So he goes around looking, and all the ground is dried up too—there are no puddles, there are no other streams. A deer which pants for flowing streams is a deer which is dying of thirst in a place where there is no water. 

The state he’s describing is something you could call spiritual drought. It’s that feeling when you come to your Bible to read and pray, and it just feels dead. You know God is there, at least intellectually; you know he’s still your Father and he still loves you; nothing fundamental has changed about your relationship; but you can’t feel him. 

There are times when you read the Bible, and it’s as if you can almost hear God audibly speaking these words to you, they’re so alive with power. You’re reading quietly, and his presence with you is so palpable, it’s almost like you hear him breathing next to you. And then the next morning, although absolutely nothing has changed in your routine, although you have done nothing to drive a wedge between you, the same words you read do nothing—you might as well be reading numbers out of the phone book. There’s no life, no vitality: you feel dry; and even though you know it’s not true, it feels as if this time, God’s no longer there with you.

That’s the psalmist’s predicament, the one he meditates in these contemplative songs, and it’s a state that we will all find ourselves in at some point or another. It can be terrifying if we’re going through it for the first time, and even if we’ve been through it a million times most Christians are not terribly good at dealing with it. So we need these psalms. In them, the psalmist gives us five things to do, to learn how to deal with these periods of spiritual depression.

1) Come back to the community.

The psalmist doesn’t do this here, because he can’t—and that is the problem. When the psalmist speaks in his despair, the first thing he mentions is the fact that he is no longer able to worship with his people.

V. 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 with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival. For the people of Israel, the temple was in Jerusalem, in the south; he is now in the north (v. 6): My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. He doesn’t tell us why he is there, so far away from the temple, because that’s not the point. The point is that he’s there; he isn’t where he should be. He isn’t with his family.

This is telling, because all throughout the Bible we see two aspects of the Christian life laid out for us: we have our individual, private relationships with God; and we have the people’s corporate relationship with their God. We have private prayer, and we have corporate worship. We have private Bible study, and we have corporate study in preaching. And we need both. The Bible consistently says, over and over again, that the Christian life can not be lived in isolation from other Christians.

In Hebrews 3.12-14, the author writes, Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. That is, Christian community is one of the means which God has given us to persevere in our faith until the end, to not be hardened by sin, to grow in faithfulness and joy in God. We need the exhortation of our brothers and sisters, and we are at least partly responsible for helping our brothers and sisters live for Christ faithfully.

This is so far removed from our culture, which sells individuality and personal autonomy as one of the hallmarks of what it means to be enlightened and responsible and adult. But this is not the way the Bible says human beings were created to operate; when it speaks of what is best for us as human beings, it always talks about Christians, living in community with other Christians. We are not created to be autonomous, at least not absolutely; we are members of a body, and we were created to function as a body.

So one of the first things we must do when we go through times like these is to hold tight to our brothers and sisters; rather than isolating ourselves from them, we must draw in closer to them.

2) Complain to God…

This sounds surprising, but one of the things we see here is that the psalmist (as is the case of many of the psalms) has absolutely no problem telling God how bad things are going. And besides the fact that he is not with the community of believers, he attributes two other causes to his distress. The first is that he is experiencing oppression.

A few weeks ago we looked at the psalm which directly follows these two, Psalm 44, in which the oppression the psalmist was experiencing was that of warfare: the country was devastated, the people had been given over to the enemy. That’s not what’s happening here. He does speak about enemies, about unjust men, but in this case these enemies are not fighting him: they’re taunting him. V. 3: My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”  And v. 10: 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?” They see his misery, they see his sadness, and they take that as proof to sustain their mockeries—“You say God is good: so where is he? If he were really good, would you really be this miserable?” 

The second thing which is causing him distress is simply life itself. And that fact is made all the harder because he knows God is sovereign over his life. V. 7: Deep calls to deep at the roar of YOUR waterfalls; all YOUR breakers and YOUR waves have gone over me. When I was a teenager I went to the Bahamas on a cruise with my high school. One day we went to the beach. There was a girl in our group named Rachel who was tiny—she was by far the shortest person on the trip, and skinny as a rail. And at one point she was swimming near the shore, just at the point where the waves were breaking, and a huge wave came and hit her in the back. It was like she’d been hit by a truck. She fell over, and just kept getting pummeled—again and again, she’d just barely catch her footing and get knocked over again. By the time we got to her and pulled her out of the water, about a minute had gone by, and that one minute left her completely exhausted for the rest of the day. 

Again, the psalmist doesn’t say what that’s referring to, but one thing he is sure of (and this echoes what we saw a few weeks ago): he knows that his God is sovereign over his suffering. Wave after wave has crashed over him, and all that time, his enemies’ taunting echoes in his mind: “Where is your God? Where is your God? Where is your God?” Few things cause us to doubt more deeply than unanswered questions as to why God allows the things he allows.

So you can see how one problem compounds the other. The psalmist is suffering, and he’s disillusioned and doubting because of that suffering, and the whole world which surrounds him mocks what he’s always believed, suggesting that his pain is proof that God isn’t there. And since he is separated from his community, he has no one to come to him and counter that, to remind him that no, no matter how things seem, God hasn’t left you, and he hasn’t forsaken you. 

But what is wonderful, and encouraging to us, is that he doesn’t try to pretend that he isn’t really feeling this pain, that he isn’t really disillusioned, that he isn’t really lonely. 

He tells God what he’s feeling. He tells God that he’s thirsty for him; he tells God that he’s hurting; he tells God that his soul is cast down within him. He asks him honest questions—v. 3: When shall I come and appear before God? When will I be able to get back to the place where I can hear your voice and feel your presence? When is this going to end?

V. 9: I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” 43.2: For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why is this happening?

It is vitally important to see the psalmist do this, because if you’ve ever been in one of these periods of spiritual dryness you know that the first spiritual discipline you let go of when you feel that way is prayer. You stop praying because, at best, it doesn’t feel like it will matter, and at worst, it’s actually painful. That’s the state he’s in: he’s dying of thirst. It feels as if God is absent; he has no sense that God is there, or that he is listening; so worship doesn’t do anything for him anymore, prayer doesn’t do anything for him anymore…

What do we do when this happens to us? When worship does nothing for us, we usually retreat; when prayer does nothing for us, we usually stop praying. But the psalmist’s example here is striking for us: He talks. He says something to God. He opens his mouth. So the takeaway here is this: when worship does nothing for you, worship even more. When prayer does nothing for you, pray even more. If nothing else, tell God how little you’re feeling; tell God how much you miss him; tell God how dry your soul feels. As Tim Keller put it, “Talk to the absent God about his absence.” When we are experiencing spiritual drought, we are invited to tell God all about it, in all of its ugliness and weakness and despair. But we are also invited to not stop there. We complain to God…and then we ask him for help.

3) …then ask him for help.

It’s really important to see that just because the psalmist is dying of thirst, he doesn’t assume that it’s a lost cause to ask God to bring him out of it. Despite God’s seeming absence, he prays that God would manifest himself, that he would protect him and rescue him.

43.1: Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me! He’s surrounded by enemies who are taunting him, asking him, “Where is your God?” So he prays that God would prove them wrong. That he would vindicate his child, that he would defend his cause.

43.3: Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! This is the plea for help of a lost child: “Father, I’m lost! It’s dark and I don’t know how to get out of this! Come find me! Shine a light on the path and lead me back home!” 

It may feel strange to us to ask God for help when we feel like he’s not even there. If everything you can see on the horizon tells you that nothing will change if you go in one direction, you will naturally look in a different direction. If you have a supplier that never picks up his phone, you don’t keep on calling that supplier; you find a new one. That’s sort of what it feels like to ask God for help when we feel he’s not there. But despite everything he feels, the psalmist knows better. He knows he’s living in a strange state of in-betweens: he knows that the world he sees around him is not the only world that’s there. In the world he can see, he’s lost; but he knows that just because he can’t see God or feel God or hear his voice, that doesn’t mean he’s not there. And he knows that this God is the only one who can actually help—he is his only rock; he is his only salvation. So he asks him for help. He calls to this God who feels absent and asks him to lead him, to bring him back to God’s dwelling, the place where he could feel his presence again.

4) Preach to yourself.

This is probably the most significant revelation of this psalm. 42.5: 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.

We’ve all had these moments in our lives when what we feel tells us one thing, and what we know tells us another. If you drive, you’ve felt it often: you’re driving the speed limit, you’re obeying all the traffic laws, and yet when you look in your rearview mirror and see a police car behind you, you suddenly get nervous, as if you’ve been doing something wrong and you’ve been found out. 

The psalmist here is feeling something that he knows is not really true. He is experiencing thirst for something he knows he has. So he reminds himself that what he is feeling, subjectively, is not what is real, objectively. He asks himself a rhetorical question: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? In other words, “You know better than this! You shouldn’t be cast down!” And then he preaches to himself, reminding himself of what is actually true: Hope in God! for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

In what is probably to most famous of all the numerous sermons on this text, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says this: “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, ‘Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.’”

We speak to our own souls—we look to the Scriptures and we preach those Scriptures back to ourselves. When say, “O my soul, Christ died! He died, and is now at the right hand of God, interceding for you, so nothing can separate you from him! Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus your Lord” (Romans 8.34, 38-39, paraphrased).

And just as important as what he says is how he says it—he doesn’t just say these things once, but persists in proclaiming these truths to himself.

This refrain he first says in 42.5 comes again in 42.11, and then again in 43.5. It’s the final refrain of each of this song’s stanzas. And there is a crescendo that happens in the psalm itself as he works towards each successive repetition. In the first stanza (v. 1-5), he is dying of thirst; he misses God; he is in agony when he remembers what it used to be like to be with God’s children in God’s presence.

The second stanza (v. 6-11) is similar, but in the middle of it is one positive and forceful assertion, in v. 8: By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. Rather than just telling God how he feels and asking him for help, he remembers that God actually is loving.

And when he arrives at Psalm 43, his prayer is still hurting, still longing, but far more confident: 3 Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! 4 Then I WILL go to the altar of God, to God MY EXCEEDING JOY, and I WILL praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.

So every time he comes to his repeated refrain, he is able to say it with more confidence: 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. The more he reminds himself of where his hope lies, the more he realizes that it really is true. This is not autohypnosis. It is progressive realization. As the psalmist prays, as he keeps returning to the truth of his refrain, his eyes are drifting progressively upward. And the more he reminds himself of what is true, the more his focus lifts from his own subjective circumstances to what he knows to be true, the more he feels the weight of his own self-encouragement. 

5) Remember Jesus.

As we close, there’s one more thing we need to do when we feel this way, one thing that the psalmist doesn’t do. And he can’t, because he’s living in a time before Jesus came to earth, before he died on the cross, before he was raised. We are living on the other side of the incarnation. So as we go through times like this, as we read psalms like this, we must remember Jesus. 

Look again at these Psalms, and realize this stunning fact: Jesus himself, the very Son of God, lived these experiences far more potently and painfully than we ever have.

Jesus was separated from his community—the crowds that worshiped him on Sunday called for his crucifixion on Friday; and upon his arrest, even his disciples, those men who were closest to him, abandoned him.

Jesus was mocked by his enemies—there are many examples of this, but the most telling is surely that when Christ was on the cross, the chief priests mocked him, saying, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27.43—can we not hear the echo of the psalmist’s enemies taunting him, “Where is your God?”).

Jesus felt separation from his Father—on the cross he cried out, echoing this and other psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27.46). 

When we feel like God is absent; when we feel abandoned and lost; when we come to the Word and feel absolutely nothing; we can know that Jesus tread this ground long before us, except for him it wasn’t just a feeling—he really did suffer separation from God and from his family; he really was mocked for who he was. We need to see this, and be encouraged that he knows what it’s like, he knows that it’s hard—he understands it far better than we ourselves do.

And while we are encouraged by the knowledge that we aren’t alone in this, we must also be encouraged by the finality of Christ’s suffering. Because finally, as the psalmist prayed, Jesus was vindicated before his enemies. His resurrection proved that his sacrifice for our sins was accepted by God; he defeated death, sin and hell; he ascended into heaven, God’s holy hill; and he has taken his rightful place as Lord, our exceeding joy.

Brothers and sisters, draw close to the community of believers. Complain to God as honestly as you can…then ask him for help as earnestly as you can. Preach to yourself the truth of the gospel—remind your soul of where your hope lies. And remember Jesus, who walked this road before us and came out of it victorious. We pray this kind of dryness never comes on us again; but if it ever does, we know what to pray: 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