Hope in the Midst of Sadness: Learning from David in Psalm 13
Have you ever felt like God was distant and yet not? In such a way that you know he is not actually far but you don’t sense his presence or you barely sense it at all? You see his presence in the lives of people around you, and long for the joy they experience. Have you ever experienced sorrow or depression that did not seem to go away? Has that sorrow or depression led you to anxiety about your faith? Have you wondered with David as this Psalm expresses, how long? How long will I feel this way?
Anxiety and depression affects some 40 million American adults today. Nearly one in ten teenagers struggle with it. Those numbers have risen significantly in the midst of quarantine. Two decades ago it was relatively rare to have someone in a youth group struggling with depression or anxiety. Yet it’s common today to have many in any group of teens.
For the Christian, experiencing anxiety or depression can carry with it shame. We know the truth of the gospel and are not supposed to feel this way. Yet sometimes we do. Anxiety or depression may or may not be in response to sin. If it is, a boatload of shame leads to even more depression/anxiety. It becomes a vicious cycle, and one that is extremely difficult to break out of. The enemy strikes hard, telling the Christian that they are not worthy of God’s love and that their Christian brothers and sisters won’t accept them because of it. We then hide it or perhaps even avoid Christians altogether. The question again becomes, “how long?”
Psalm 13 was written by David, whose struggles are clear in scripture. David had a more challenging life than many of us. He had a humble beginning, was chosen by God to be king, and as king faced a very jealous predecessor. David had clearly identified enemies and made major mistakes in his life. In that context, he expressed a vast range of emotions in writing the Psalms. Unlike other emotionally challenging Psalms, this one cannot be pinpointed to a specific event in David’s life.
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
The first two verses show us David’s struggles. His emotional state has been going on for a while. That he asks four times, “how long,” tells us that this is not a new emotional state. When sorrow or sadness hits, we don’t immediately question how long we will feel this way.
David is expressing a feeling of abandonment, questioning if God has forgotten him. The question of God hiding his face goes deeper than merely being forgotten. The expression in the Old Testament that indicates God’s blessing on a person is to say that God’s face would shine on them. David is not seeing God’s blessing as he had experienced many times before. We experience this in our lives as well.
The third time David asks, “how long,” he reveals a conflicted mind and a heart filled with sorrow. Sadness and depression go hand in hand with mental anguish. We question and wrestle with issues that we wouldn’t otherwise struggle with. The emotional funk can take over our thinking process and it all spirals downward. We are not thinking clearly enough to count the blessings in our lives and lean on the truth of the gospel.
Let me try to illustrate this from personal experience, for those who maybe have not been there. Several years ago, I began struggling to keep up with my work due to excessive tiredness. That made me depressed. I felt like a failure. Then I was diagnosed with narcolepsy. My brain prefers sleep to being awake. Consequently, I have excessive daytime sleepiness. I tried various medicines and eventually found one that helped (a bit). In the midst of that, my little brother died unexpectedly of heart failure. So sorrow was added to the mix. Months later, my medication landed me in the hospital with an irregular heartbeat called A-Fib. No longer could I take the one medication that helped me stay awake.
Now the struggle in my mind went like this… First, I thought I was a failure because I could not keep up with my work. Then, the chatter in my head said I was a depressed narcoleptic with A-Fib. I saw myself as a total mess and certainly not worthy of any blessing; but I should have viewed myself as a child of God, a redeemed forgiven son.
David is feeling abandoned by God, no longer experiencing God’s blessing, not sensing God’s presence. His thoughts are driven by his sadness. Then he asks one more “how long” question. How long will my enemy triumph over me? David had enemies. Saul hated him. Others fought against him. But he may have been meaning the same enemy that we all have. As Martin Loyd-Jones puts it, “The devil is the adversary of our souls.” He takes advantage of our struggles and our emotional state and seeks to destroy us. For a person wrestling as David was at this time, it’s no exaggeration to feel that the enemy is triumphing over us.
How does David get out of this mess? We know he does, because the Psalm ends on a much more positive note. David turns to God in prayer. We know that God listens to our prayers. Yet when we are struggling like David, and we don’t sense his presence, we are not inclined to speak to him. To feel abandoned requires that there is someone out there who could have abandoned us. Struggling is an indication that God is still working in us.
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
David makes three requests. Look on me; answer; and give light. Feeling that God has turned away, his first request is for God to look at him. Fearing that God is no longer speaking to him, he asks God to answer. Believing his enemy will triumph, his third request is for God to give light to his eyes. This is to say, “restore me and preserve me.” David wants to be fully alive again. He is tired of the battle in his mind and the darkness that seems to surround him. He does not want to sleep in death in either a literal sense or a spiritual sense.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
These final verses suggest God is answering David’s prayer. While all is not immediately well David, having prayed what he did with honestly and vulnerability, is now able to express his trust in God. He has remembered God’s unfailing love and his heart rejoices over his salvation. His final expression is both future tense and past tense. He anticipates a day when this sorrow and struggle will be behind him, when he can sing freely. He notes that God has been good to him and in doing so is recalling the truth and even anticipating the goodness of God in releasing him from this sadness. David’s heart has been renewed. God has put a little light back into his eyes.
David knew God’s presence in his life and had experienced great blessings. Only because of that was he aware enough to think that God had abandoned him. Jesus on the cross cried out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God, who knows no sin, turned his face away from Jesus as he hung on the cross and took on ours. We can know that Jesus experienced levels of sorrow beyond anything we may face in this life. The salvation that David trusts is fulfilled in the work of Christ on the cross.
Yet David rejoices in it, not fully understanding how God saves. We have a bigger picture and plenty of reason to rejoice in the salvation that only comes from God through Christ. God has shown his unfailing love throughout history and we actually have a bigger history to draw from than David, because we have both old and new testaments. Yet we can only get to the point of praise that David reaches if we turn to God in prayer, cry out, and then dwell on the goodness of God. This will not immediately change our circumstances. But as we acknowledge the light of Christ in our lives again, perhaps even slowly over a period of time we can trust, rejoice, and sing praise. We can, as David seems to do, sing praise for God’s goodness anticipating the day when our present darkness will be removed.
A few practical thoughts to help us apply this Psalm in our lives:
If David, a man after God’s own heart, can wrestle with sorrow and sadness, anxiety and feelings of abandonment, why should we think for a minute that we would be exempt from that possibility? We all have seasons of life where we need support. The Christian should walk through hardship with other brothers and sisters in Christ. I have friends who I meet up with periodically for extended prayer times that fill my soul in ways that I cannot begin to describe. Sadly, too often Christians don’t open up for fear of rejection. We need one another! We need to pray together and share what is really going on in our lives.
When depressed, our minds are not clear and our vision is limited. Be cautious about what we do when we are in this state. Avoid making big life decisions in the midst of darkness because our perceptions are skewed.
Depression can stem from a wide variety of conditions. Life events, job situations, a chemical imbalance in our brains, deep seeded sin, or just relational struggles. We need to be careful how we treat people who face depression, because they often have not brought it upon themselves. Some of us are genetically predisposed to depression. This is a result of the fall, and all of us have our imperfections. You probably notice yours in the mirror like I do.
If we suffer from depression or anxiety, it is wise to get help. Some Christians are reluctant to take medicine, but when we are in a state of suffering, meds can bring clarity to our minds so that we can focus on God in the right way. They can help alleviate the wrestling of our thoughts and turn those negative thoughts to positive so that we can work through the issues that cause the depression. They can also prevent us from going into a tailspin and finding our lives out of control.
Finally, in the midst of sadness, the Psalms are a great source of comfort and remind us well of the goodness of God. We are repeatedly reminded that the Lord is good and his love endures forever. We know that because of the cross, and because of God’s faithfulness, we can sing God’s praises. When we cannot, at a particular moment, we know that we will again one day because God is good and his love endures forever.