Being Downcast, Well
"why are you downcast oh 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 don't live in a culture that does grief or despair very well. We could sometimes be accused of treating normal grief and sorrow in the same way we do our health, addressing our generally poor diet with quick detoxes and short term fixes that don't get to the bottom of the real issues. The truth is, that although life is beautiful beyond reason, a large part of that beauty is the fleeting nature of the people and things we love. People hurt us, we get sick, we lose those close to us, we get caught up in crisis situations by both our own doing and that of others and sometimes all of the above simultaneously.
These things will happen, but how we respond to them and how we understand who God is amidst them will radically transform our experiences.
The writer of this Psalm knew all about grief. The opening lines tell the story of a desert bound sojourner desperate for spiritual oasis. He long's for heavenly hydration like his life depends on it but the only water he gets are the salted tears of continual despair. He remembers a time in his life when God was much closer, the grass was far greener and where joy abounded as he led others into festivals with song and dance.
But just as we become convinced that the psalmist is giving up, he robs hopelessness of its victory by speaking back to his own soul. If his soul was the source of his despairing he was not about to allow himself to become its slave. Instead, he calls it up into the hope of God, telling it that his circumstances aren't his salvation, God is. Though it may sound quant and even easy in my experience it's one of the hardest things to do in times of spiritual and emotional trial.
Though it's difficult however, we need to remind ourselves that we're not subject to every hopeless thought arising within. The Psalms are full of individuals calling out the monologue of their souls. They argue against their own feelings, beating them into submission of hope in the moments when it must have been the hardest to do. They dive deep into despairing poetry before God then lay it out to him as his problem to solve. They're not shy in making God their sole hope over circumstance and they're not quiet in letting him know they want that salvation now.
How much more empowered are we in Christ who cleared the way for deeper intimacy with God through his life, death and resurrection! The eternal Word is now alive in us, what a powerful Word to speak over ourselves today and what an assurance that he hears and feels our pain as we do.
Speaking to our own soul is not about denying our suffering or minimizing it's reality. It's about telling it which voice to believe in and which reality to live out of. Acknowledging our turmoil is the first step, making it bow before the Father of hope is the next.
"By day the lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the god of my life."
Reading this Psalm you could be forgiven for thinking the writer blames God for his circumstances, he certainly believes that God could deliver him at any moment. If God was his delivery and he was crying out to him day and night then what on earth was God doing while the tears flowed into dawn?
The Psalmists answer? Loving his child.
In all of the writers grief and despair, his depression and anxiety, he refused to doubt the loving kindness of God. Whatever God was doing and whenever his salvation was coming, he knew that his Father was commanding his love upon him like the rushing and roaring of the waterfall. The desperation of his situation didn't cause him to doubt God's goodness, it served instead to sharpen his understanding of it.
The oldest book in the bible is the book of Job and it's a book about suffering. Not only that but it's a book about the extreme suffering of a faithful and godly man who despite his righteous life never gains a reason for his bizarre and extensive loss. God's answer to him at the end of all his prayer and longing is something along the lines of "I am God." If the Hebrew law of first mentions is anything to go by it would be safe to say that from day one God wanted us to know something; suffering will come, understanding may not, but God is God and he is ever loving. Even when we don't understand.
So, if we want to live a wholistic Christian spirituality that doesn't associate suffering with distance from God we could benefit from taking the psalmists lead. No matter how hard it gets don't forget that God is not far, he is intimately close. He will deliver you because he loves you and his love toward you is unchanging.
It's ok to be downcast, there's nothing unspiritual about that. It's how we allow ourselves to sit with God in that moment that will either give life or death to our difficulty. So don't hide your grief from him, don't forget the good things he has been and done for you already, and don't allow your soul to dictate to you the condition of your hope.