Comfort for Oppressed Souls
“As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs after you. You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you.” This song is commonly sung without realizing that it is based on a Psalm describing intense suffering. The intense heat of life causes intense thirst that, if dealt with properly, will yield an increased satisfaction in God, who is the Living Water. The principles of Psalm 42-43 help sufferers by modeling how to articulate anguish of soul along with questions to God. The psalmist reminds himself of truth and every part of his being is addressed.
These two Psalms were probably originally one as indicated by each having the same repeated phrases, “Why are you in despair, O my soul” (42:5; 42:11; 43:5)? In these “chapters” we see the psalmist dealing with rejection by people, disappointment with circumstances, remembering how good things used to be, being mocked, feeling forgotten by God and trying to cope with a body and emotions that are feeling the impact of the pressures. Sounds like life. In the midst of this suffering he models how a godly person deals with suffering. But, there are some surprises along the way. These surprises will dispel some myths about what it means to be a godly person during suffering.
The ultimate hero of these chapters, though, is God. He is the God who is always present in the midst of suffering. He is the God of truth. The God of these Psalms has a sovereign design for suffering (and even plans it, see 42:7). He is full of lovingkindness. The psalmist has a personal and vibrant relationship with Him that could never be compared to false hopes. This God is completely trustworthy. By the way, what are you trusting in or hoping to deliver you during your suffering?
My hope is that you will realize that you need to store up good theology for days of suffering. We need to have a joy in the Lord that can be shaken by no pain in the hard times and competed with by no earthly pleasure in the good times. We would be honest to admit that the depth of our beliefs will be revealed during suffering. Another way to say it would be that your success during suffering will be proportion to the depth of your belief system and you choice to live it out.
What will we do with these truths? Jerry Bridges comes to our rescue by defining for us what it means to trust. In his book, Trusting God, even when life hurts, he says, “Trust is not a passive state of mind but a vigorous act of the soul whereby we choose to lay hold on the promises of God in spite of the adversity that sometimes feels like it will overwhelm us” (page 200). In other words I must tell my soul I believe these things even when my inner person is wrestling with life. By an act of the will I must decide if I truly believe God is who He says He is and does what He says He will do. The writer of these Psalms tells himself he believes and that God will yet be the help of his countenance and that he will again be able to praise God. What you are choosing to believe is crucial during suffering.
The writer also vividly describes how the suffering is impacting him physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually and how he handles it in each area. In the physical realm he is crying and not sleeping well (42:3, 8). Through all this he cries out to God in prayer. I find a key principle here in how to express my suffering to the Lord. He desires for us to pray openly and honestly about how this is impacting us. He even inspires the writer of this Psalm how to do so. He gives words to our suffering. He helps us articulate our suffering. It seems we have a model here of how to express anguish to the Lord.
As we look at the writer’s emotional state it is easy to see he is despairing and overwhelmed. It is shocking to realize this is a godly person talking. You may say though, “I thought godly people do not despair.” Could it be that this belief is a myth? It is more accurate to say the godly person knows what to do with his or her emotions. To say that godly people will not have negative emotions is like saying a godly person is not human. I suggest that you will never be a complete person until you learn how to properly handle emotions.
In his thought life we see him questioning God. Again we may question if this is proper. You may have heard it taught that godly people do not question God, but the writer is clearly doing so (verse 9). May I suggest that this is a model? The godly person knows what to do with his or her questions. Even Spurgeon wrote, “Faith is allowed to enquire of her God the causes of his displeasure, and she is even permitted to expostulate with him and put him in mind of his promises, and ask why apparently they are not fulfilled. If the Lord indeed be our refuge, when we find no refuge, it is time to be raising the question, “why is this?”(Treasury of David, on Psalm 42).
It is appropriate to end by seeing what he does spiritually in the midst of this intense suffering. He “thirsts” after the Lord. If there is true spiritual life we should see the heat of life increasing our thirst (Cf. Romans 5: 1-4 where Paul argues that those who are justified actually excel in the end through suffering). The writer also chooses to believe in the presence of God during the suffering (42:5 and 8). We also see him passionately praying and pouring his heart out to the Lord. And he is choosing to believe and practice the promises of God to sufferers.
I find these Psalms encouraging because they model for me what to do with my suffering. As you spend time in them I am confident you will also receive comfort from God.
— Dr. Ernie Baker has the privilege of serving the Lord at The Master’s College and Seminary in California. He holds the position of Associate Professor of Biblical Counseling and is a ACBC certified counselor. He has been in pastoral ministry for 26 years and is married to RoseMarie.