I love how the psalms gives voice to the full range of our emotions from overwhelming joy to deep sorrow. As a person living with depression, I have been especially drawn to what scholars call “laments”, psalms that are honest about life’s struggles. For example, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.” (Psalm 6:6) and “My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread.” (Psalm 102:4).
The words written millennia ago are true to how I felt in the depths of my depression. I felt as if the psalmist knew me and what I was going through. Because the laments are in the Bible, included among our holy scriptures, we do not have to choose between our faith and the truth of our own feelings. Because the laments are so honest about how painful life can be sometimes, we can also trust them when they say that life doesn’t always have to be that way, that it can be so much better.
Psalm 42 is a lament that from its first line demands our rapt attention, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Or as I first learned it from the Kings James Version, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul for thee, O God. My soul searcheth for God, for the living God.”
It’s not explicit in the psalm, but it’s assumed that the deer is panting because it’s being chased in a hunt. Picture a hunt with dogs baying and hunters crashing through the woods as they close in on a deer that’s running for its life. It’s all loud and chaotic, a swirl of action. In contrast to this chaos, there are the water brooks. The deer longs for this place of safety and refreshment beyond the reach of the baying pack and crashing hunters. In this quiet place, it will find peace. I hope that the image I’ve included with this post will suggest this place of peace to you.
Having set the scene, the psalmist brings us into it by telling us that in our own longing for God, we are like the deer longing for the water brooks. Indeed, in our world where there is so much chaos and the news is so frequently exhausting, it’s easy to identify with the deer’s longing for peace and refreshment. For the psalmist, this is longing for God, and It naturally leads to the question at the end of the third verse of the psalm, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
There is so much packed into this verse. Feeding on tears day and night is the kind of emotional honesty that we learn to expect from laments. The question, “Where is your God?” shows that laments do more than honestly express pain. As Walter Brueggemann has emphasized in his writings, after laments have given full voice to our pain, they bring it to God. They are not cries into the void, but prayers to God. So the psalmist writes, “Hope in God, I shall yet praise him, my help and my God.” (Psalm 42:5) Taking the pain to God, freeing us from our isolation, this is how laments make things better, bring us finally to the peace and calm of the water brooks.
The phrase “hope in God” is repeated at the end of Psalm 42 and again at the end of Psalm 43, which is actually a continuation of Psalm 42. It’s as if the psalmist needed to keep coming back to these words for reassurance. In my own recovery, I’ve found that it also helps me to keep coming back to them, that it’s not just hope, but hope in God that sustains us. When our hope in God begins to flag, we can always borrow some from one of the psalmists to keep us going. Like so much in recovery, maintaining hope is not something that we have to do on our own. The power of the psalms – their blunt honesty and passionate hope, as well as their assurance that we are not alone – is also the power of mental health recovery.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness. He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies and Recovering from Depression: Forty-Nine Helps.