Monday, October 20, 2014

Psalm 77 - Steps Out of the Pit

All night long I search for you;
 in the morning I earnestly seek for God.
For only when you come to judge the earth will people learn what is right.
Isaiah 26:9
1I cry out to God; yes, I shout.
Oh, that God would listen to me!
2When I was in deep trouble,
I searched for the Lord.
All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven,
but my soul was not comforted.
3I think of God, and I moan,
overwhelmed with longing for His help.
4You don’t let me sleep.
I am too distressed even to pray!
5I think of the good old days,
long since ended,
6when my nights were filled with joyful songs.
I search my soul and ponder the difference now.
7Has the Lord rejected me forever?
Will He never again be kind to me?
8Is His unfailing love gone forever?
Have His promises permanently failed?
9Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has He slammed the door on His compassion?
10And I said, “This is my fate;
the Most High has turned His hand against me.”
11But then I recall all You have done, O LORD;
I remember Your wonderful deeds of long ago.
12They are constantly in my thoughts.
I cannot stop thinking about Your mighty works.
13O God, Your ways are holy.
Is there any god as mighty as You?
14You are the God of great wonders!
You demonstrate Your awesome power among the nations.
15By Your strong arm, You redeemed Your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
16When the Red Sea saw you, O God,
its waters looked and trembled!
The sea quaked to its very depths.
17The clouds poured down rain;
the thunder rumbled in the sky.
Your arrows of lightning flashed.
18Your thunder roared from the whirlwind;
the lightning lit up the world!
The earth trembled and shook.
19Your road led through the sea,
Your pathway through the mighty waters—
a pathway no one knew was there!
20You led your people along that road like a flock of sheep, 
           with Moses and Aaron as their shepherds.

When one reads the great names and personalities of the Scriptures, it is easy to see that almost all of them knew, at one time or another, great discouragement and deep depression. Job is singled as a man of God, blameless and upright, whose staggering losses and long and painful illness brought him low: "My days . . . come to an end without hope . . . my eye will never again see anything good." (Job 7:6, 7)

Moses is described as the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3) and rises as one of the greatest examples of an ordinary man who, submitted to God, became one of the greatest of all of the Old Testament characters. He was faced with the arduous task of being the leader and general answer man for over a million Hebrew people, as well as the administrator of God's Law - a role to which he was assigned by God, but one made more complicated by the tendency of the Israelites to gripe, doubt God, and attack Moses. There came a time when Moses felt the crushing weight of this assignment and at last he cries out, "How can I bear [the] troubles, burdens, and disputes [of these people] by myself?" (Deut. 1:12)

Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of old, asked for his life to be taken. David, in his efforts to hide sin, made journal entries that speak of the total loss of strength, the ebbing away of all that is worthwhile in life, and groaning all day long (Ps. 32:2ff). Jonah, the first foreign missionary, became deeply despondent when God did not destroy Nineveh. Jeremiah was so profoundly sad that he is known to this day as the weeping prophet and confessed that he wished he'd never been born. Then there's Nehemiah and Ezekiel and Peter and more in the pages of Scripture.

The company of the depressed is a very noble company. And whether you and I will admit it or not, we have been numbered among them. One writer calls depression "the common cold of emotional disorders." (Quoted by Chip Ingram, I Am Always With You, p. 110.) All of our lips have spoken the words of discouragement and depression. All of our hearts have felt it. Every one of us has known, at one time or another, the slap of setback, the grief of loss, or the disheartening effects of stress. To be human is to feel that numbing, exhausting, de-motivating fog of depression.

And then there is a kind of depression that is even more complicated because it's triggers lie within in the form of chemical imbalance, which means one cannot escape the black hole without medical attention. Some know the private battle of a weary sadness that can take on many forms and show itself in many ways.

What adds to the burden of the depressed and despondent is the common and misguided notion that good Christians don't get depressed. Any hint of depression around the church, and clichés start to surface. "You just need to have more faith" or "Remember: rejoice in the Lord always!" Or sometimes it comes off as a pep talk: "Come on, get up and get moving! Stop the pity party and pull yourself together! What will people think of God if they see you like this?"

And of course that simply pushes the depressed deeper into the hole and teaches the discouraged that unless they want to hear the cheap clichés again, they had better fake happiness. I am not going there. Rather Psalm 77 teaches that God is close to us when we are troubled and depressed.

The psalm is an intensely helpful passage when you and I find ourselves in the pit. Here is an outline of a few steps that Asaph provided for us to follow to regain emotional equilibrium when life gets us down.

Send an SOS to God - vv. 1-3, 7-9
"I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and He will hear me. In my day of trouble I sought the Lord. My hands were lifted up all night long; I refused to be comforted. I think of God; I groan; I meditate; my spirit becomes weak."

Feeling quite hopeless. Asaph draws pictures with words that depict desperation. For instance, the word trouble in v. 2 describes a feeling of being confined, of the walls closing in. Asaph felt like he was in a dark tunnel, only there is no light at the end. When he says his soul refuses to be comforted, he means he tried to shake this off by the normal means we all resort to, but it wasn't working. He closes v. 3 saying that when he meditates — when he ponders the situation, trying to think his way through his problems — my spirit becomes weak. His emotions sabotage reason. The escape of sleep eluded him. He stretched out his hand like a drowning man, longing to be saved.

I can identify with Asaph's feelings so I  don't want to miss what his first response. In his battle with depression, he doesn't pretend. He doesn't bury his disillusionment. He doesn't fake happiness. There's no indication that he turned to food or shopping, alcohol or gambling,  or any number of other means people commonly use to cope. Instead, he got honest with God. Really honest! I cry aloud to God, aloud to God. He shouted to God. He yelled his prayer. In v. 3, he describes this further: I think of God; I groan--and the word groan can mean everything from a quiet noise to a raging explosion.

In verses 7-9, Asaph fills in some of the content of his prayers: "Will the Lord reject forever and never again show favor? Has His faithful love ceased forever? Is [His] promise at an end for all generations? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger withheld His compassion?"
Asaph cycled through a wide and uncontrollable range of emotions, but he didn't try to hide that from God. He was real and reverent, honest yet humble. He asked God the hard questions that depression raises. There is no indication that God is put off by that kind of unvarnished truthfulness.

I cannot be ashamed to admit my inner turmoil, thinking that voicing my questions will offend God. He really wants to hear from me straight up. In fact, the Bible promises that " he LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." (Ps. 34:18) Pour out your heart, loud or soft. He's waiting to hear.

Choose to redirect our thoughts — vv. 4-6, 10-12
During one of many sleepless nights, Asaph concludes that God was keeping him awake for a reason: "You have kept me from closing my eyes, he says in v. 4. He lay there in the silence, unable to speak and his mind drifted back to sweeter times. Verse 5 says, I consider the days of old, years long past. At night, I remember my music; I meditate in my heart and my spirit, ponders."

Asaph deliberately focused his thoughts on those past times when God seemed so near and he could push back the darkness with song. Down in v. 10, he talks about how he did this: "Then I said, 'I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High" (ESV) "I'm going to make force my thoughts out of this dungeon back to the years when I saw God doing great things." In v. 11, he writes, I will remember the LORD'S works; yes, I will remember Your ancient wonders. I will reflect on all You have done and meditate on Your actions.

What an important step when I feel locked down by depression! Oh how I need to regain perspective! I know it to be true: when troubles crowd in and just getting up in the morning seems like a chore, where does my mind lean? It leans toward how bad it is now, and it's easy to conclude that the future will probably be too. That's when it's important to call a mental time-out and take a long look in the rearview mirror at God's past blessings.

Chip Ingram even suggests doing what he calls "the napkin exercise." "Whenever you feel yourself starting to go downhill, put a ballpoint pen in your pocket, go to a restaurant, get a soda, and pull out a napkin. Begin to list all the specific blessings that happened that day . . . that week...that month . . . that year. These are facts, not feelings. Write down what God has done for you. List the top ten answers to prayer in your life. List five people who love you. Write down the best things that have happened in your life." (Quoted by Chip Ingram, I Am Always With You, p. 110.)

One may think that this a pointless exercise. Yet this is a biblical prescription that is central to worship and fuels my faith in God for the future. When I mark God's faithfulness in the past, I condition my weary heart with hope for tomorrow. So I send an SOS to God and choose to redirect my thoughts in order to stoke my hope for the future.

Magnify God to diminish problems — v. 13-20
There is something about worship that re-calibrates the soul. But worship is not the natural instinct of the depressed person. When gloom closes in and all that once drove our life fades, I tend to want to pull the blanket over my head and bail out on God and everybody else.
But Asaph willed himself to come to worship. There are deeply helpful benefits to gathering with God's people.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight, in her book Darkness is My Only Companion describes her tortured journey through ten years of extreme depression and bipolar disorder and how gathering with God's church helped her. " . . . it is so important to worship in community — to ask your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you . . . Sometimes you literally cannot make it on your own, and you need to borrow from the faith of those around you. Companionship in the Lord Jesus is powerful." (Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, Brazos Press, 2006, p. 88; submitted by Lee Eclov to PreachingToday.com.)

Asaph concentrates on the benefits that come from God Himself in v. 13ff. First he proclaims God's holiness: "God, Your way is holy (that is, unique, one-of-a-kind, set apart from the ways of men). What god is great like God? Down in v. 16-18, he throws down the gauntlet against the false Canaanite gods of the sea, the thunder and the storm. "The waters saw You, God. The waters saw You; they trembled. Even the depths shook. The clouds poured down water. The storm clouds thundered; Your arrows flashed back and forth. The sound of Your thunder was in the whirlwind; lightning lit up the world. The earth shook and quaked.

This doesn't sound like the downcast Asaph we started with, does it? Worship moved him from a self-imploded funk to a God-enthralled declaration of faith!

Then in v. 14, Asaph extols the miracle-working power of God: "You are the God who works wonders; You revealed Your strength among the peoples. He cites the example of God's deliverance of Israel from the Egyptian army through the Red Sea in v. 19-20: "Your way went through the sea, and Your path through the great waters; but Your footprints were unseen. You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron." God is holy. And God is able. He has no trouble altering the natural order of things if necessary to deliver you.

Finally, Asaph locks in on God's redemption of His people in v. 15: "With power You redeemed Your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph." God cares for me. He knows what's happening in me and to me. He has the supernatural ability to do all that is necessary to fulfill His promises, and He loves me enough to come after me.

Asaph began with a huge problem and a little God; but he kept sending up SOSs to God. He forced himself to rehearse the past blessings of God's faithfulness, where hope for the future is strengthened. And he worshipped. For Asaph, God is big, and his problems aren't. Now it's my turn!