Why Are You Cast Down, O My Soul? Back to all sermons

Date: June 14, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Psalms

Category: Psalms

Scripture: Psalm 42

Synopsis: We are all subject to the ups and downs of human emotion. We love the “ups”. But all too often, life knocks us down. The title of this sermon is taken straight from the text of Psalm 42 Why Are You Cast Down, O My Soul? How do we deal with the down times in life? Join us as we search this psalm for clues.

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As human beings, we are all creatures of emotion. I believe our emotions are part of the image of God embedded in us. We live our lives on a rollercoaster of feelings; sadness and joy, fear and confidence, anger and calm, hate and love, loneliness and camaraderie. These emotions are essential to what it means to be human. Emotions are the interactions of our inner self to what is going on around us.

Someone has wisely said, “What the nervous system is to the body, emotions are to the soul.” Just as my nervous system informs the rest of my body when my foot steps on a thorn, so my emotions are the path by which life’s events and circumstances are processed and interpreted by and for my soul. Emotions are how we experience and respond to life.

The Bible is a book that records the history of God’s dealings with the human race, beginning in eternity past and continuing, prophetically, into eternity future. It is a book about events. But it is also a book full of emotions. The Bible describes God’s emotions. It also describes the emotions of the human characters whose stories are told in its pages. Nowhere are emotions more clearly on display than in the Book of Psalms.

There are reasons for this. For one thing, the Psalms are poetry. Poetry is the form of literature most suited to the expression of emotions. The Psalms are also introspective; they are the record of the writer’s inner thoughts and experiences. The Psalms contain great theological truths and ideas and reflections. But they also contain much raw human emotion, as the writers tore open their souls and shared their thoughts and feelings as they wrestled with the stuff of everyday life. Their transparency is so remarkable, that I sometimes find myself almost embarrassed, like I am reading someone else’s mail.

We are going to be studying a selection of Psalms during these summer months. I always find it difficult to know what to preach on during the summer, with people coming and going. It is impossible to sustain the continuity necessary for a typical sermon series. But the Psalms do not depend on continuity. There is no chronology of events, no sequencing of thought, no large pattern. It is a book of poems or songs. Each one stands alone – so it is ideal for summer preaching. I have done series from the Psalms before – I called it “Sipping from the Psalms”. So that’s what we’ll be doing this summer, only we’ll be sipping from different Psalms. There is a whole library to choose from.

I am taking a somewhat different approach this time, however. I have chosen to focus on a range of human emotions. As I said in my introduction, we are creatures of emotions and the Psalms are a book filled with emotions. So what I am intending to do is to take a different emotion each week and study a psalm that expresses and/or wrestles with that particular emotion. We will look at the descriptions of the emotion – it is often reassuring just to know that we are not the only one who feels the way we’re feeling – and see how the psalmist processes the emotion with God. It is my hope that we will learn lessons about ourselves and lessons for dealing with our emotions in healthy ways. But an even greater hope is that we will learn lessons about God and how life’s experiences and our emotional responses to those experiences can become a pathway to a deeper relationship with him and a stronger faith in him.

We are starting today with the psalm we read for the Scripture Reading; Psalm 42. What emotion or emotions are we exploring in this psalm? Right away we run into a problem. I am not sure how to reduce it to a single word. D-words come immediately to mind; depression, discouragement, despair, disappointment. They are all close, but I am not sure any one of them fully captures the essence of this psalm. But we are not writing a psychology textbook and we don’t need a textbook definition. We are talking emotions, and our emotions often defy definitions and categorization. What we have is a number of poetic descriptions of the emotion sprinkled throughout the psalm. Let me highlight them.

The best summary of the emotion of this psalm is found in verse 5:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?

Did you ever feel that way? It is vague and yet such an accurate description at the same time, isn’t it? A soul “cast down”; my soul “in turmoil within me.” We don’t know what caused this feeling. There is no event or circumstance hinted at in the inscription to the psalm. In fact there is some disagreement about the authorship. It is attributed to the “Sons of Korah” who were Levites and worship leaders, but some believe that they were worship leaders in the time of David, and so still attribute the content of the psalm to David. In any case, we cannot clearly attach the psalm to any particular event or circumstance. What we have is an emotional reaction to an event or set of circumstances and that reaction is a soul cast down, a soul in turmoil. The word for “turmoil” is used to describe the growling of dogs or the roaring of a stormy sea. Those are graphic images, are they not? A growling, restless, unhappy soul.

But there are other descriptions of emotion in this psalm. Let’s look at verse 3:

My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”

Here we find that this is not a passing emotion, but a persistent one; “day and night”. And it is strong enough to cause tears. These tears are so persistent, that the compose his regular diet; his daily bread. This is accompanied by a sense of abandonment by God and even public ridicule – people are questioning: Where is your God?

There is another graphic description found in verses 6-7:

My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
7Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.

I am not totally sure of the imagery the writer is using here. The best explanation I found in the commentaries relates the geographical references to a sense of distance from God and his presence. God’s temple (where the Sons of Korah would have served) was on Mount Zion, in Jerusalem. Mount Hermon and Mount Mizar are found in the extreme north of Israel – about as far as you can get from Jerusalem and the tabernacle and still be in Israel. It was typically a place of exile. Whether the writer was physically removed from Jerusalem, or whether this is a description of an inner sense of being far from God’s presence, we can’t be sure. What does resonate with me is the use of water imagery to describe emotions. The rolling of a series of huge waves, one after another. Deep calls to deep; no sooner does one huge wave crash over our heads than another follows. The roaring is like a waterfall, and all the breakers and waves are passing right over top of my head. There is an implied image of drowning; not able to catch one’s breath.

This has been my experience in the emotionally turbulent periods of my life. There is no respite; one wave follows another, follows another. And where is God in all this? Listen to what his emotions are telling him:

I say to God, my rock:
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?”
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?”

There is irony there, is there not? Maybe even some intended sarcasm. “Where are you God? Aren’t you supposed to be my rock? Have you forgotten me?”

The theme of feeling abandoned by God in the midst of our emotional turmoil is a common one. In Psalm 13, the psalmist cries out, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”

In his book, A Grief Observed, the author C.S. Lewis recorded his feelings as he walked through the dark days of his wife’s illness and eventual death. He described his feelings this way: “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing him, if you turn to him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.”

Now, in that selection, Lewis is not writing theology. He is describing his feelings. Have you ever felt that way? I think, if we are honest, most of us would admit that there have been times when we felt like that.

So, what shall we do? When our soul is downcast and growling like a dog within us? When the waves of emotion wash over us so large and so frequent that we cannot even catch our emotional breath? When something deep inside us feels broken, like a shattered bone, or a deep wound, only it’s so deep no surgeon can reach it? When even God himself seems to have abandoned us?

Well, I am not about to insult you by proposing “3 easy steps to spiritual victory”. These are deep waters that defy simple solutions. But I do want to point you to some reactions reflected in this same psalm that will at least identify for us a direction of travel, some clues for us when we find ourselves groping through the darkness.

The first clue is simply this. Acknowledge your feelings and ask your questions. For me, this is always one of the first lessons I take away from these psalms. I grew up in a family of boys. One of our mantras was, “Tough guys don’t cry.” But the reality is that by denying our pain, we make it worse. By pretending it doesn’t hurt, we never find healing. The best place to start is in the presence of God. He is not threatened by our emotions. He knows what we’re feeling already, but there is something intensely therapeutic about simply expressing our feelings to him in clear and unequivocal words.
God is also not threatened by our questions. Did you notice the questions in this psalm? Where? When? Why? Life poses us with lots of questions. Ask them. Ask them to God.

The next point I want to make is not so much a response, but a perspective on our troubles and our times of crisis. To make my point, I want to read the opening words of this psalm.

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?

The crisis the psalmist was facing had produced in him a deep and passionate thirst for God and his presence. By noticing (or feeling) that God was absent, he became desperate to experience that soul connection once again. Can I point out a reality of the spiritual life? We learn spiritual lessons and experience God in times of crisis in ways that we do not when times are good. Now, I am not suggesting that we seek out times of crisis, but maybe I can capture what I am saying this way: Don’t waste your crisis. When you go through the deep waters, recognize that God may be seeking to expose the poverty of your soul and of your lack of appetite for him. He may be calling you to deeper levels of knowing and experiencing him. If we shut down our emotions and try to run away; when we try to dull the pain with artificial pain killers like drugs, alcohol or mindless distractions and entertainment, we risk not only deepening the crisis, but wasting it. When you feel that God is missing, allow that feeling to create in you a deeper longing for his presence.

The third point I take away from this psalm is a simple one: Remember. This is what the psalmist does in verse 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.

He deliberately engaged in spiritual nostalgia. In the hours of darkness, he recalled the bright hours of sunlight. In some ways that may be a painful exercise. But in other ways, it serves to rekindle hope and an appetite for what once was.

I suppose I need to clarify something, because it may sound like I am contradicting something I said in my message last week. In that message, I said that I did not want those of you who are leaving Abu Dhabi to find yourselves engaging in spiritual nostalgia and thinking back to the “good old days” at ECC. What I meant to say is that I do not want you to only sit around thinking about the “good old days” as a kind of mind-set that implies that our best days are behind us, and nothing is ever as good as it used to be – a kind of hopelessness and pessimism about the present and future that anchors us in the past.

Having said that, however, I want to add that there is an appropriate place for spiritual nostalgia as it rekindles spiritual appetite and hope within us. Remember. Think back to your spiritual mountain-top experiences with God and your spiritual victories; recall lessons learned and victories won in other times of crisis. Remember. Recall. Think back. What has been can be again and even more.

Here’s another principle I see in this psalm: Preach to yourself. I am not sure this is the best way to express it. Some might call it “self talk”. But here’s what I see. It is the use of the imperative (command force) verb as the psalmist addresses his own soul. See it in verse 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 6 and my God.

The word “hope” is a command given to his own soul. It means to wait for: to extend a period of time in a place or state, implying a hope of resolution to some situation. Don’t give up. Wait expectantly for God to work and to reveal himself. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like waiting. But that is what God often calls us to do. We need to preach to ourselves; to command ourselves to wait and to wait with hope. That does not mean that we deny our feelings. It does mean that we caution ourselves that our feelings do not represent the ultimate reality. We may feel like God has abandoned us. That is a real feeling. But the spiritual reality is that God never abandons his children. Wait for him. Hope in God.

It is clear that this is the basic principle that the psalmist is attempting to portray and to grasp for his own soul, because he repeats it in verse 11:

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.

Preach to yourself. Remind yourself of the foundational reality of the universe and of your life. As we pointed out before, this psalm is full of questions. When? Where? Why? It is fair and necessary to ask those questions. But the deeper reality is this. These questions ultimately fade away and lose their relevance when we remind ourselves of the answer to the ultimate question: Who? Hope in God. Pray to him. Focus on his character.

Remember the reality of who he is, described in verse 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.

He is the God of my life, and he has commanded his steadfast love to be demonstrated to me. So even in the darkness of the night, I can sing his song, and I can pray.  Say to your soul: Keep on trusting. Keep on hoping. Keep on singing. “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

I want to make one final point from this psalm. Be ready to do it again…and again…and again.

I don’t know about you, but I like to do things once and be done with them. Once for all, done and dusted is my preference. But life isn’t like that, is it? I brush my teeth – and I just have to brush them again after the next meal. I trim my fingernails. Ah, that job is done. But a week or two later, guess what? I have to trim them again. I get the car washed. It feels good to drive away with a clean car, doesn’t it? But what happens? Before I know it, it needs washing again.

It’s the same way in the spiritual realm. I would love to learn my spiritual lessons once for all and be done; to overcome and move on. But the spiritual life doesn’t work that way. There is a Tibetan proverb that comes from high in the Himalayan Mountains that states simply: “Beyond the mountains, there are mountains.” It is that way in our spiritual lives too. Beyond the mountains, there are mountains…and they too must climbed in their turn. And some lessons we will find ourselves learning again and again.

Why do I say that in this case? Well, I’d like to direct your attention to Psalm 43:

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people,
from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!
2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me?
Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
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.
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.

Does anything sound familiar? In fact it is so similar that many scholars have concluded that Psalm 43 is just a continuation of Psalm 42. Some Hebrew manuscripts even include them together and lay them out as one psalm. The final verse is identical in both psalms. But I have a different explanation. Same writer. Different crisis. And he found it necessary to talk himself through it again, and preach to himself the same message; to repeat the same lesson. Beyond the mountains there are mountains. We must climb them too. And sometimes we will find our emotions again plummeting to the depths, and our souls may begin to growl again. It doesn’t mean something has gone wrong. It doesn’t mean you’ve lost your faith. Emotions come and go as we respond to the crises of our lives. They don’t stay in one place. Emotional ups and downs are normal responses to the ups and downs of life. Expect them. Acknowledge them. Process them with God and let God use them to intensify your thirst for him and to add new dimensions of richness to your relationship with him.

QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION

  1. Read Psalm 42 together. Note the phrases and images that describe the writer’s emotions. Which ones do you find best capture your own experience? As you are comfortable, share one of those experiences with the group.
  2. In the message, Pastor Cam pointed out five clues for facing these “down” times in life. Discuss each one: Does it make sense? Is it practical? How do you foresee it being applied in your life (if not now, in future)?
  • Acknowledge your feelings and ask your questions. (What are some of your questions?)
  • Don’t waste your crisis (It created a thirst for God in the psalmist’s soul.)
  • Remember (What would you particularly like to remember?)
  • Preach to yourself (Note verse 5 and 11)
  • Be ready to do it again…and again…and again (Discuss the similarity between Psalm 42 and 43)