Well, it’s so good to be with you this morning. I’m so encouraged by what’s happening here at Midwestern and I have many friends here, so it’s just great to be with you and I’m excited to speak to you this morning. I do have to admit that I had to dust off my suit to come here. I live in Portland, Oregon and the nicest clothes we wear are from Patagonia. And so we’re also against the man, so we’re all nonconformists. But we just do it together so we’re conforming Nonconformist together, if that makes sense. Well, this morning I want to speak to you out of Psalm 42 and 43. These two Psalms seem to have been originally read together and it’s on a pretty heavy topic. What some in the church have called the dark night of the soul. And there’s just two, two reasons I want to talk to you about this. From Psalm 42 and 43. First, we will all go through times like this. And many of you might be in this time right now. And second, for many of you who are going into ministry, you will minister to those who are going through these times. So I think it’s good for us to think biblically and ethically and well about this. So if you have a Bible, please turn with me to Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 and I’m going to read that and then pray.
Psalm 42, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you, God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long people say to me, “Where is your God?” I remember this as I pour out my heart: how I walked with many, leading the festive procession to the house of God, with joyful and thankful shouts. Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God. I am deeply depressed; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your billows have swept over me. The Lord will send His faithful love by day; his song will be with me in the night— a prayer to the God of my life. I will say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about in sorrow because of the enemy’s oppression?” My adversaries taunt me, as if crushing my bones, while all day long they say to me, “Where is your God?” Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God.
Vindicate me, God, and champion my cause against an unfaithful nation; rescue me from the deceitful and unjust person. For you are the God of my refuge. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about in sorrow because of the enemy’s oppression? Send your light and your truth; let them lead me. Let them bring me to your holy mountain, to your dwelling place. Then I will come to the altar of God, to God, my greatest joy. I will praise you with the lyre, God, my God. Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God.” Let us pray. Oh God, we recognize that without the help of your spirit we are powerless, and so we ask that your spirit would come now. Father, send your light and your truth. Help me to speak what you want me to say from your word. Help me to be a faithful messenger and help the hearers of your word to not only be hearers but doers of your word. And we pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I want you to imagine with me a few scenarios to begin. First, maybe you’re worshiping on Sunday morning. People around you are singing, praising God. Emotion fills their faces, but all you can do is stand there and think, “What’s wrong with me?” You read the words and you try to work up something, but you feel nothing. You feel nothing inside. Or maybe you’re hanging out with people and they’re talking about how the scriptures have quenched their thirst. You hear them say what they’re learning, but when you come to the scriptures, they’re like ash in your mouth. There’s nothing, they don’t speak to you anymore. Or you’ve been trying to pray, but it feels like there’s no one on the other side. There’s no one listening. You feel like your prayers are going up and hitting a brass ceiling and bouncing back to you, and you feel nothing. You feel like you should even feel upset about it, but you don’t know what to do.
Or maybe you’re in ministry or going towards ministry and you really want people to feel close to God and near to him, but you wonder, “Am I up to this task when so regularly I feel distant from God? Is this what I’m called to do?” Well, in many ways, this is the experience of the Psalmist in Psalm 42 and 43, and it goes by a variety of names. Some call it the dark night of the soul. That’s my favorite title. So that’s what I’m using the sorrows of the Christian life. It’s called Spiritual Melancholy or, or Spiritual Depression.
The Psalm is a lament of a temple singer who is exiled in the North and longs to be back in God’s house in Jerusalem. It’s filled with emotion and longing as the author pours out his heart to God, asking him, where are you? Have you forgotten me? And the question becomes, what do we do in this time comes, how should we think and feel during these times? What does God call us to do during these times? So rather than work through this Psalm in the typical way, going verse by verse, I’m just going to look at it through three lenses. The conditions of the dark night of the soul, the cause, and then the cures, the conditions, the cause and the cure. So first, the conditions. What is this? What is the dark night of the soul? How can we describe it? What are the symptoms? First, we see it’s a place of longing. Psalm 42, verses one and two, “As a deer longs,” or some translations say “pants for flowing streams, so I long for you, oh God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I come and appear before God?” The imagery here is clear. He’s a parched and dehydrated individual. A Spiritual Asthmatic. He wants to be with God. And while you might think thirsting shows some desire, thirsting is not a good place to be. In one sense, because he’s not being filled. He longs to drink from the fountain of God, but the thirst stays.
It prolongs. There’s no answer. So it’s time of longing. Second, we see it’s a time of sadness and dejection and depression. In Psalm 42 three he says, “My tears have been my food day and night.” So what is he drinking? His tears. He’s not drinking from the stream of God. He’s drinking from his own depression, from his own longing, from his own sadness. And 42:5 he says, “Why my soul are you so dejected,” or, “downcast? Why are you in such turmoil?” And then in 42:6 he says, I am deeply, deeply depressed, depressed. Rather than water for his throat, he has tears. Rather than comfort, he is downcast. Rather than happiness, there is depression. Third, we see it’s a time of felt abandonment and rejection. People say to him, where is your God? Why won’t he show up for you? In Psalm 43:2 he says, “Why have you rejected me?” God, why have you rejected me? Why must I go about in sorrow? Notice in this Psalm, God never responds. There’s silence on the other side. So what is this dark night of the soul? One pastor in Portland put it this way, and I like how he put it.
“It’s a season where God intentionally takes away, not his presence, but the felt sense of his presence to do a deep work in us.” In this time, our experience of God feels more absence than presence. Let me just read that again. What is the dark night of the soul? It is a season where God intentionally takes away not his presence. No, God is always with you in Christ. But the felt sense of his presence to do a deep work in us. In this time, our experience of God feels more like absence than presence. It’s like in the Pilgrim’s progress. When Christian comes to the slew of despondency and he falls in and the burden’s on his back and pliable, his friend says, “Where are you now? Christian, did you think you would come to this on the way to the celestial city?”
And Christian says, “The evangelist sent me this way. How did I end up here?” He thought he was headed toward the city, but he found that finds himself drowning and that could be a regular experience in our own life. Charles Spurgeon struggled mightily with this. He said, depression was my horror of great darkness where the light of God’s countenance was lost to me. One of the greatest preachers of all time regularly did not feel the light of God’s countenance upon him, and this leads us to a few implications. The fact that we have this in our Psalm, the fact that Charles Spurgeon went through this, the fact- we’re going to get to this- that Jesus went through this, means this will be an experience in your life. This will be part of your lives and to those you minister to. We have, we are, or we will go through times when we ask, “Where are you, God? I want you near to me. My desire is to be near to you, but there’s nothing. I feel nothing. Sometimes, especially in church, we are attempted to think we always need to put on the happy face- to act like everything is okay, but that’s not the reality of the Psalmist.
He’s honest with his emotions. He calls out to God. In the church, sometimes we have this tendency to stigmatize, to shame or discriminate against these types of struggles, but the Psalmist is like, no, this is part of the Christian life. This is what you will go through. So, let’s not be harsh with those who are going through this. Realize their circumstances are not yours and let’s not try to control what could be rather than helping them through what is, and let’s not think a trite saying, or maybe Romans 8:28 thrown on that, is going to fix all their problems. I love Romans 8:28 God works all things according to His will. All things for good for all believers, but that’s not just going to fix this problem. It takes the long haul of care and presence with people. This also reminds us that spiritual blessings don’t always coincide with circumstantial or mental ease. Let me say that again. Spiritual blessings don’t always coincide with circumstantial or mental ease. What I mean by this is if our life is filled with waves, crosses, disappointments, loss, depression, anxiety, this is not a sign you are not God’s child. It is more of a sign that you are God’s child.
Spurgeon said it this way. “Depression of the spirit is no index of declining grace.” Isn’t that a great line? It’s no index of declining grace. What I’m actually going to argue is he’s bringing us through this to grow us. He’s purposefully putting us in the wilderness so that we might rely upon him and him alone.
So, if those are the conditions of the dark night of the soul, what causes this? What is the source? Second, what is, what is the cause? First, it can come on us because of circumstances, because of circumstances. In Psalm 42:6, this Psalmist attributes it partially to being away from the land of the Lord. He says, “I am deeply depressed; therefore, I remember you from the land of Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. In ancient geography, this was a place that was far away from where God dwelt. So the Psalmist laments because of where he is, and we can expand that and apply that to the various circumstances in our lives. The death of a loved one, a broken relationship, the aftereffects of abuse or trauma, lack of vocational fulfillment, lack of relational fulfillment, lack of emotional fulfillment. Many times it’s our circumstances that lead us to this place, but these circumstances also stem- it’s interesting if you look at these verses- from Satanic forces and God himself, both at the same time.
The Psalmist acknowledges, these circumstances can lead us there, but God’s in it and there’s Satanic forces involved. So let me show you that. In Psalm 42 nine through 10 he says, “Why must I go about in sorrow because of the enemy’s oppression?”
We could view that as literal enemies and spiritual enemies. “My adversaries taunt me, as if crushing my bones, while all day long they say to me, “Where is your God?” But it is also God who has brought him here. Psalm 42 seven what does he say? Deep calls to deep in the roar of whose waterfalls? Your waterfalls, all your breakers and waves. This is a famous verse, but what’s happening here? The waves are pounding him to the ground again and again, and they’re God’s waves upon him. They sweep over him and they, they crush him.
So the cause of this can be circumstances, but I would also add the dark night, and this isn’t necessarily in this text, but the dark night of the soul can be because of biological or a constitutional reality. A certain wiring of some people. As I’m sure you noticed in this Psalm, the refrain “why my soul, you so dejected, why are you in such turmoil” occurs three times. Some people are merely built in a way that makes them more sad, more fearful, and more depressed. We live in a broken world and that means that parts of our bodies can be broken. There can be chemical imbalances and or other mental or physical illnesses that plague us our entire life. Some are just more prone to exaggerated fears, which makes it harder to find rest and peace and solace. Sometimes ordinary circumstances strike some with great anxiety, and I think it’s good for us to recognize some people’s situation are not our own. We need to be compassionate with them. What others would consider little things in life feel like giants that strike great fear into others’ hearts. I remember we were in small group once with a girl who said she was very fearful and anxious of crowds, which made it very difficult for her to come to church on Sunday morning. It was literally spiritual warfare to go to church.
That’s not everyone’s experience, but that was her experience and there needs to be compassion there rather than you just need to come to church. And to the close this point I do want to point out what he does not say here. The Psalmist, at least here, does not say this state stems from sin.
He doesn’t say this stems from sin or even that it’s sinful place to be. We know from other Psalms that it can be because of sin, but here the lack of God’s felt presence is not because of sin. Depression, a dark night, is a misfortune, not always a fault. Your brain can be ill and your soul not be ill. Though sin and suffering can be linked, there’s not necessarily a one-to-one correspondence. Contrary to what many think, sadness and longing are not always weaknesses or signs of laziness. Zack Eswine said in his book, Spurgeon sorrows, which is a great book. You should pick it up. He said, in this fallen world, sadness is an act of sanity. You want to know who’s sane? Those who are sad, because they recognize what’s happening. Our tears, the testimony of the sane. Ecclesiastes 7:2, “It is better.” Do we believe this? “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting.” It’s better. Jesus said, what? Blessed, “blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” The Psalmist never implies that this situation is a result of a bad decision on his part, nor a lack of love of God on his part. Rather, it’s simply the reality that he finds himself in.
So again, this is a call for us to have compassion and patience with people as they go through this. So you’ve seen the conditions and the causes. The dark night of the soul is a season where God intentionally takes away not his presence, but the felt sense of his presence to do a deep work in us. And this usually comes from a variety of circumstances, spiritual warfare, and sometimes a certain constitution or wiring. But the Psalmist also gives us hope. He gives us hope and help for the dark night of the soul. Two things I just want to point out here. First, the Psalmist lets the despondency of the dark Knight do its work in a soul. Rather than looking to escape it, he actually presses into it, he presses into it and lets it lead him to God. Tim Keller in his book on pain and suffering notes how different religions and different world views have different ways of coping with pain and suffering. In a moralistic worldview, you try to do good more good so you can get rewarded. So if you just do a little bit more, you’ll get rewarded. In a fatalistic world, you just endure because who knows why it’s happening.
In secularism, suffering is viewed as an intrusion to life, an interruption. This is probably the one we struggle with the most, because it’s subtle. Suffering is just something we just want to get rid of. Intrusion, get out of here. I don’t want that. I don’t want pain. I don’t want tears. I don’t want sadness. Get it out of my life. But in Christianity, people are permitted, they’re even encouraged, to express their griefs with cries and questions. Where are you, God? Can I come before you? The Psalmist doesn’t try to reinterpret pain. Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering, and it is overwhelming in these psalms. It is overwhelming.
However, he allows his circumstances, his constitution, to lead him to a place of helplessness where he cries out to God. In Christian theology, suffering is not meaningless. God brings this into his children’s lives to do a deep work in their soul. He brings us here to refine us. Most of the time when we’re first saved, we live for a while and you can think back to your salvation off what we could call the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle. God fills our hearts with his presence. We find joy in him above everything else. It’s the after the Christian camp glow. We’re all very excited and it’s great, but for most Christians what happens is that this will fade and he will wean us off those feelings so that we won’t follow him because he makes us feel good. And that is a very important step in the Christian life. He teaches us that our feelings and ideas about God are not God. They are his messengers, and many times he’s going to strip those things away from us so that we will rely on who? Him alone. Not our feelings about Him.
It’s like a mother who has to wean her child off breast milk. They’re going to kick and scream because it’s all they know. But the mother says, you must grow up. In Portland, that’s sometimes a little later than I like, but it still happens. So he brings this us into the desert so that we might grow. In the Screwtape letters, Lewis has the senior demon, Screwtape, write to his nephew, Wormwood, concerning this state. Just listen to what he says. He says “Sooner or later, He,” as in God, “withdraws.” He withdraws. “He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs to carry out, from the will alone, duties which have lost all relish. It is during such periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature God wants it to be. Hence, the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please him best.” Do you find yourself here? This is where God wants you right now because he wants to grow you. Call out to him, yes,
But don’t just try to get rid of it. Let the dark night of its soul, of the soul do its work and have its effect. As Israel went into wilderness, as Jesus went into the wilderness, God will also bring us into that wilderness, into the desert, to teach us, to grow us. Second, the Psalmist not only lets the dark night do a work in him, but he speaks truth to himself and gives evidence of rugged relentlessness, a confident hope. Even in the dark night, resilience is shown.
There’s hope. As you notice, the same refrain is repeated in 42:5, 11, and 43:5. What does he say? He says, “Why my soul are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God for I will still praise him, my savior and my God.” In the midst of the dark night, the Psalmist speaks to himself. He scolds himself out of the dumps. Lloyd Jones has the famous line about this. He says, “The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression is that we allow ourself to talk to us instead of talking to ourself.”
Very confusing. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself rather than talking yourself. So when you wake up in the morning, you feel downcast. Who is talking to you? Yourself! And Lloyd Jones and the Psalmist says, talk back. Speak back to yourself. Say self, why are you so dejected? Listen for a moment, I will speak to you. Grab yourself by the scruff of the neck and say, “Wake up, self! Play the Christian. Play the man. Play the woman. I will still praise God.” There is hope beyond the tears. And what is this hope? Did you notice the psalm begins by saying he wishes to come and appear before God. And then notice how Psalm 43 three through four ends, “Send your light and your truth. Let them lead me. Let them bring me to your Holy mountain.”
That’s where I want to be. Let your light in your truth lead me there. This is my desire, “then,” I love this. I love it. “Then I will come.” He has hope. “Then I will come to the alter of God,” to God, my greatest joy, my greatest joy. What is it been up filled with tears and sorrows and sadness. And he says, you’re my joy and I will come before you. Send your light in your truth and bring me there. “I will praise you with the lyre, God, my God.” There is hope, isn’t there? There is hope in the midst of the dark night of the soul. The hope that the gospel presents is that this darkness will one day pass.
That might not be tomorrow, that might not be in five years. That might not be until you reach the new heavens, new earth, but you will praise God and you can have hope. You can have hope. So in conclusion, as one preacher said, “We all live between the ‘I remembers’ and the ‘I shall.’ I remember how I used to praise him and I shall, again, I don’t know when that is going to be, but I seek his face now.” We remember the times when we praise God and in between can be darkness. And while we live in between this time where you remember that Jesus stands beside us. Not only knowing what we go through but sympathizing with us because he went through it. He went through it, didn’t he?
He himself was what? A man of sorrows, Isaiah 53, who bore our griefs and our sorrows. He was acquainted with grief. He himself cried out on the cross. “I thirst, I thirst,” and he cried out on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You think he’s reflecting some on the rest of the Psalms, all of the Psalms, including this here. Christ went through the dark night of the soul. He too felt abandoned and forsaken by God on the cross, but
He pressed into it so that we might have eternal comfort, eternal comfort. We have a savior who came down and not only suffered for us, but can suffer alongside of us. He knows, he knows the state and he can walk with you through it. He’s a present companion to us. So when we plead for God’s presence again, we plead not ourselves, but we plead his mercy, we plead Jesus Christ and his blood. We remember that whether we feel it or not, we are in Christ. Whether you feel it or not, you are in Christ Jesus and the spirit resides within you. And sometimes that presence might feel like distance, but God is doing a deep work in you during that time. We put our hope not in changing circumstances, not in changing dispositions, but in God and in God alone. For in the midst of tears and sadness, we will still praise him. Let’s pray.
Oh God. Again we pray that you would send your light in your truth, and that they would lead and guide us. We ask for those who are struggling with spiritual depression, with the dark night of the soul, that you would continue to be near to them, help them to have hope. Thank you that your word comforts us during dark seasons, and we pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.