Monday 26 February 2018

What to do with a downcast soul?

Seems to me something disturbing happens in discussions of psalms 42-43. 

Often these two psalms are thought to have been just one originally, given the repeated refrain ’Why are you downcast O my soul?’  (42:5, 42:11, 43:5) and other parallel language (e.g. Ps 42:9 and 43:2). That’s not the disturbing thing, mind you, just some context.

What’s disturbing is the way the psalms are regularly used to commend giving yourself a good talking to.  That the answer to a downcast soul is to take yourself in hand and engage in “self-talk.”

Tim Keller, for example, in My Rock and My Refuge reflects on Ps 42-43, saying “Change and hope come as we, in effect, argue with ourselves.”

Or James Montgomery Boice summarises the psalmist’s model to us under three headings. He:

1. takes himself in hand
2. he challenges himself to do what should be done
 3. he reminds himself of a great certainty.

Both of them, I suspect, are influenced by Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ famous Spiritual Depression, which presents Ps 42-43 as the crowning witness to spiritual depression and its cure: 

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’ – what business have you to be disquieted You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself ‘Hope thou in God’ – instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man, ‘I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.

So what’s disturbing about that? Well, the trouble with this approach to Ps42-43 is that it fails to notice what is the most significant speech. It is not, ultimately, what the psalmist says to himself, but what he says to God – that’s where hope lies. That’s where the psalmist’s longings get satisfied.

The desperate need is there at the beginning of psalm 42: the psalmist longs for God, longs to be near him, and is taunted by enemies who tell him God’s nowhere to be seen in all this: ‘Where is your God?’ 42:3, 10. The psalmist is in danger of agreeing, feeling forgotten (42:9) and rejected (43:2). The solution, though, clearly comes in 43:1 and 43:3 when God acts. It is not about the psalmist giving himself a good talking to, it is God sending his “light and faithful care” – “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my joy and my delight.”

So where does hope and change come from in Ps 42-43, it comes through the psalmist talking to God – calling on him to act. 

In the meantime, there is a place for talking to ourselves, of course. Even when we feel forgotten, we are to remember who God is. We are not to judge by appearances. The enemies see him stricken and think God is absent. The psalmist reminds himself that is not true– God is in the trials we face; note 42:7 “your waves and breakers have swept over me.” And he reminds himself of who God is, not least in 42:8 where he speaks of God as YHWH, the God of covenant love and faithfulness.

As Spurgeon says:
As though he were two men, the psalmist talks to himself. His faith reasons with his fears, his hope argues with his sorrows. These present troubles, are they to last forever? The rejoicings of my foes, are they more than empty talk? My absence from the solemn feasts, is that a perpetual exile? Why this deep depression, this faithless fainting, this chicken-hearted melancholy? As someone says, "David chides David out of the dumps; "and herein he is an example for all desponding ones.

But that cannot be the whole story. The danger is that we could end up functionally agreeing with the ones taunting the psalmist. We end up acting as if we are on our own and it’s down to us to talk ourselves out of these situations. 

Relatedly, there is a danger that we end up treating psalm 42-43 as a static model of self-talk, rather than a dynamic story that, in the case of the psalmist, awaits resolution, but in our case has found some resolution. God has sent his light and his faithful care. His Son. We have been brought into his presence. We have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God. 

To be sure, we still await the arrival of the heavenly Jerusalem descending and being with the Lord face to face. And this interim phase includes many hardships that might cause us to be downcast. But these psalms do not teach us to look inward in those moments or seasons but to look upwards and call on God to act. 

On balance, I think I’d rather say that that is “the main art in the matter of spiritual living.”