Psalm 42: A Psalm for Sad Seasons
After graduating college, I served with the church overseas for about two years. Soon after arriving, I began experiencing piercing back pain and learned surgery was imminent. Being confident God had led me to this work, I convinced my leaders to let me have the surgery done in a neighboring country, allowing me to continue serving once it was over.
The recovery period was only supposed to be about a month, but I continued to suffer deep pain long after that time. It wore on me physically, emotionally and spiritually. Nevertheless, I continued to put on my best face. I was a minister of the gospel after all; how could I display anything but faith and joy? Seven months later, I was informed a second surgery was inescapable and that I would need to return to the States. I was devastated.
While my mind understood, my heart broke. I was leaving behind a place and people I loved. I was walking away from a ministry I was certain God had led me to do. The life I had fought for was being stripped away. If God is good, why didn’t He feel good? If God heals, why wasn’t He healing me?
My tears became more prevailing than my joy, and one night I found myself unable to stop the tears at all. I had been believed that happiness proved my salvation to be real. I saw my anger and sadness as evidence of, at best, a weak faith or, at worst, no faith. The problem with that theology was that it held no space for suffering, the very thing Scripture tells us is the means through which our salvation was won.
It was in the solace of a familiar psalm that my false understanding of joy was finally deconstructed. God used the words of Psalm 42 to redeem my sadness from a sign of weakness to the very thing He used to restore my hope in the gospel.
Psalm 42 has also been a bedrock for me as I have shepherded students through seasons of anxiety, sadness and pain. Although Generation Z is facing depression at ever increasing rates, depression is by no means a new conversation for God’s people. Psalm 42 bears biblical witness to this battle of the soul.
“My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’ … Why are you downcast, O my soul, why are you in turmoil within me?” (Ps. 42:3, 5)
Shepherding Students Through Sadness: Two Responses from Psalm 42
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” (Ps. 42:1)
I knew this verse well growing up – probably the only part of the Psalm I did know – and I always associated it with a joy-filled longing. Yet, if I had just moved past verse one, I would have found the true foundation of the psalmist’s longing. It is a longing not from a place of delight, but desperation. The psalmist looks for nourishment to revive a soul whose only food has been that which cannot satisfy or sustain (Ps. 42:3).
When our students find themselves in the throes of depression or sadness, Psalm 42 gives them a compass for hope and a road map for faith. By shepherding students through Psalm 42, I pray they might never have to reach the place of doubt in depression I did. Instead I hope they will view their sadness as an opportunity to see and know more of their God. To this end, the psalmist gives us two encouragements we can share with our students in sad seasons.
Question the Sadness
When I was struck with the weight of my grief, my first inclination was to question God instead of my feelings. Instead of asking “why do I feel this way,” I asked “why would God do this?” It is such a natural human response that verse 9 even bears witness to the psalmist’s same disposition.
Yet, what is unique is that before the psalmist questions God, he questions His own soul in verse 5, “Why are you downcast, o my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” He repeats this refrain after questioning God.
Our students need to learn to question their sadness because our emotions reveal the story of our souls. Even Jesus Christ, in His flesh, experienced the weight of sadness as He wept over death (John 11:35) and interceded in tears (Heb. 5:7). These tears did not represent weakness in Christ, but revealed the glorious reality that not only is He fully God, but He is fully man at the same time.
Just as the psalmist’s adversaries (Ps. 42:3, 10) wanted to convince him that God had left him, the world will tell our students the same tale. Even in the seemingly small trials, it is valuable for us train our students in a better theology of suffering, one which causes us to always first question that which is battling against our hope in God.
Worship in the Sadness
Too often my prayer over students in their sorrow is for God to take it away – which is a true longing of my heart. However, I also believe Psalm 42 points us to a much sweeter opportunity in the middle of sorrow – worship. Oh, that our students would know that worshiping God is not the end of sorrow, but the means through which we face sorrow. In “Beside Still Waters, Words of Comfort for the Soul” Charles Spurgeon writes, “This worship sweetens sorrow and takes away its sting.”
The psalmist not only questions his sadness, but he preaches to His soul. It is important to note the context of His refrain. When he says, “hope in God” to His own soul, he is not stating a present reality, “my soul is hopeful!” Instead, he is declaring a future promise. In saying, “hope in God. For again I shall praise Him, my hope and my salvation” (Ps. 42:3, 11), he is commanding his soul to remember God. The psalmist is taking what he knows to be true – but does not feel – and declaring that truth over himself. He is consciously choosing to worship in the middle of his pain. This whole psalm is actually written as a song—a song of lament.
As I faced my pain head on, I had no context for suffering with hope. I only ever knew those two things to be at odds with one another. My prayer for my students is that they are able to see lament, like Psalm 42, as the beautiful paradox God offers His people. I pray they would not feel shame or the need to “be alone” during sorrow, but instead, that they would long to worship, that they would recognize worship and truth as the only balm for their hurting souls. I pray they would not have to come to the same crisis of faith as I did, but instead would recognize suffering as a beautiful means of sharing in fellowship with their Savior. May they look to Christ as the one bore our suffering in His flesh on the cross, yet perfectly clung to the promises of God for the hope of restoration.
A note from the editors: Psalms are meant to be experienced, helping us to take the truths of God’s character deep into our souls. Here’s a song based on this psalm for your encouragement: by Matt Boswell and Matt Papa.