A reflection on Psalm 42
Note: This is a long article! However, I’ve written it to help us as a church consider the place of grief and hope in the life of a local church.
Most of you will know that our dear friend and fellow church member recently passed away! He leaves behind a loving wife, kids and grandchildren. However, he also leaves behind countless friends and a church (that’s you and me) grieving his loss.
The question that I want to try and explore in this longform article is how do we handle moments of loss like this?
The following is a reflection on Psalm 42 which I’ve called ‘Seeing Christ Amid the suffering’.
GRIEF IS REAL
“Scripture never looks down on the sufferer, it never mocks his pain, it never turns a deaf ear to his cries, and it never condemns him for his struggle. It presents to the sufferer a God who understands, who cares, who invites us to come to him for help, and who promises one day to end all suffering of any kind once and forever.” – Paul Tripp
Let me start by saying that grief is the right and appropriate response of loving people to the devastating loss of a friend or family. Grief is the right and appropriate response when we face the sudden and shocking news that our friend has passed away. However, for many of us we can feel all fingers and no thumbs, because we don’t necessarily know what grief is and just as importantly how to grieve. That’s why for many of us the natural response is to ask, “what can I do?” – which is another way of saying “how can I fix this because if I fix this then maybe I will be less disoriented and less wounded?”.
Grief is the real and appropriate response to love that has been pulled asunder. In John 11:35, the shortest verse in the New Testament, we read Jesus’ response to the loss of his dear friend Lazarus – Jesus wept. Grief is the right response!
However, as I’ve already started to indicate, some of us don’t know how to grieve. Others of us have been exposed to wonky Christian teaching that leads us to try and put on a Christian version of the Stiff Upper Lip. We think that it is somehow a sign of faith, when really all it is fakery, and attempting to be way more spiritual than Jesus! For others, we get terrified by the shocking and disturbing questions that loss throws up in our hearts and so try to shut the emotions down in an attempt to quieten the questions. For still others, we worry about what might happen to us if we really grieve and so we try to ‘keep it together’.
Friends, let me say it again: grieving is the right and natural response to loss. And amazingly, God has given us a language and a map for the disorienting times of loss and grief: it’s called the Book of Psalms. For thousands of years the Psalms have provided God’s people with the language of and for grief.
The Psalmist, with vivid colours, paints a picture for us of who God is in the midst of the everyday, including the often troubling realities of life (like losing someone we love). And they paint with a brush called hope. Hope because God is present. Hope because God is there. Hope because God is more than able to live and walk with us, in and among the painful questions. Hope because God is not distant. Hope because God is close and will walk with us. Hope because God has a plan that is greater and bigger than this life in general and my sketchy agenda in particular. Hope is the brush that the Psalmists paint with.
Why don’t you take a moment, flick the kettle on, and then slowly read Psalm 42.
Let’s now look together at 6 of these verses and see how they help us to navigate the pain and see Christ amid the suffering.
- LONGING FOR GOD
Verse 1: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.”
Back in the Mission Praise era of church music (the 1980’s), a song based on this verse was written, which really didn’t capture the force of this Psalm. This Psalm is painting a picture of a deer, dehydrated and clinging onto life itself. This deer needs the sustaining life of streams of water. The Psalmist takes hold of this powerful image and says, “God, in this spiritually and emotionally draining time I need you like a deer close to death needs water”.
Grief and loss can sap all your emotional, spiritual and physical vitality – let this Psalm be an encouragement to cry out to and for God and not to withdraw.
“So my soul pants for you, my God.”
- UNINVITED FRIENDS
Verse 3: “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
Secondly, the Psalmist writes with brutal honesty about life in the valley of the shadow of death (see Psalm 23). He writes that tears, which drain rather than sustain, have been his food day and night. Friends, the grief and loss that are experienced when someone close to us dies is all consuming, 24 hours a day. If that’s not difficult enough, the Psalmist shows us that in times of grief and loss, we can also start to experience unsettling voices, many from within our own hearts that are asking disturbing questions, such as: “where is God?” For Christians, these questions can be some of the most difficult to navigate. Wee can feel guilty for thinking about them and then we can feel worried because there are no straightforward and simple answers. Friends, if you are hearing the questioning voices, can I suggest you do what the Psalmist is doing – bring them out into the open, in the presence of God. The Psalmist is not avoiding them, he’s not hiding from them. Yet at the same time, he’s not allowing the questions to tug him away from his devotion to God.
So how should we handle the questions? One suggestion is that you could get a notebook and write the questions down and then underneath them write something like: even in the mystery and the unanswered questions, I trust you Lord that you are good and your steadfast love never ceases.
Verse 4: “These things I remember and I pour out my soul…”
I think this is one of the most difficult verses to read in the whole Psalm. Here, the Psalmist is looking back to days of rejoicing, days of celebration, days when the world made sense! Remembering is a vital part of grieving well. Remembering is a vital part of navigating the disorientating effects of loss. So, what might that look like? I remember sitting with a dear friend of ours who had lost her Dad and I asked her to tell me some of the sweetest memories she had of him. Through many tears, on both of our parts, she started the process of remembering. Did it get rid of the pain? – no, it probably intensified it for a season. But, it also stirred bittersweet joy as well as a vital part of grieving well – thankfulness.
Notice also, this process of remembering is part of the process of “pouring out our soul” to God. through many tears, groans and prayers we remember and it turns into thankfulness and gratitude.
“These things I remember and I pour out my soul…”
- TRAPPED BETWEEN TWO REALITIES
Verse 5: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my saviour and my God.”
This is a verse painting the picture of someone trapped between two realities. Firstly, the reality of being spiritually and emotionally wrecked! The Psalmist acknowledges this reality, yet at the same time there is a leaning in of faith, which speaks into the pain and speaks into the hopelessness – “Soul Put your hope in God”. And notice how the Psalmist doesn’t wait for the circumstances to change. In the midst of being trapped between these two realities he speaks to himself and says, “put your hope in God”. If you feel like your soul is crushed. If you feel that the grief is overwhelming can I encourage you to “put your hope in God”? Don’t put your hope in the circumstances changing – put your hope in the unchanging God we worship. Don’t put your hope in having all the answers lined up and everything figured out – put your hope in God.
“Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my saviour and my God.”
- IN THE ARMS OF A LOVING GOD
Verse 8: “By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.”
This is a vital verse that we must underline, and grab hold of! Just 6 verses earlier, the Psalmist had been telling us that his tears were with him day and night. Now, here in this verse, muddled in with those same tears, we come to see how God’s love can be directed towards us in those very same moments. Love and grief can go side-by-side. Love and grief can occupy the night watches together.
What might it look like for the Lord to direct his love towards those who are grieving right now? Words of scripture that come flooding back into our minds, such as Lam 3:22-23 (remember: this is a book of lament or weeping): “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” It might look like a shoulder to cry on, a card posted through a letter box, a church family praying for you, a hand on a shoulder, a pile of washed and ironed clothes, a friend who you can rant at. God’s love is directed towards us in many and various ways!
But notice also, we don’t just know that God’s love is directed towards us, we also learn how to sing in the midst of the pain. Countless authors have demonstrated this. Just one simple example, from Isaac Watts:
How long wilt Thou conceal Thy face?
My God, how long delay?
When shall I feel those heav’nly rays
That chase my fears away?
How long shall my poor labouring soul
Wrestle and toil in vain?
Thy word can all my foes control
And ease my raging pain.
Songs, forged in the furnace of pain, help orientate us, settle us,quieten us and calm us, and lead us back to the still and quiet waters of God’s refreshing. So friends, let us sing! Let us sing songs that have been forged in the furnace of pain, loss and suffering –because these speak into our current reality!
However, notice how the Psalmist adds something, he states that this song that he is forming in the night watches, in and amongst the pain and tears, is more than a song. It’s a prayer to the God of his life.
This is a gentle warning to us all: don’t allow grief and loss to silence your prayers. In fact, I want to encourage you to allow the pain and tears to form new prayers, within you, prayers that speak about the loss and speak about the pain, but also then speak about this hope that we have which is unbreakable.
- SEEING CHRIST AMID THE SUFFERING
Verse 2: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet [see] God”.
The ultimate answer to this question is that we see God in the face of Christ! John 14:9: “Whoever has seen me [Jesus] has seen the Father”. And in 2 Corinthians 4:4 the Apostle Paul says “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
In the awful days of grief, let’s hear and respond to the longing of this Psalm to see the face of God. But we do that by gazing, in the gospel, upon the face of Jesus! This is an active engagement, a leaning-in engagement, a longing-for engagement, and thirsting-after engagement of the soul: I want to know Jesus more and more and more and more…