David Brainerd was one of the first missionaries to the American Indians. He worked in New York and New Jersey beginning in 1742.
By almost every standard known to modern missionary organisations, he would have been rejected as a missionary candidate. He was frail and sickly, suffering from bouts of tuberculosis. He never finished college, being expelled from Yale for criticizing a professor. And his diary reveals that he suffered regular and deep depression.
Yet he’s widely recognised as the pioneer of modern missionary work in America. Even though his personal ministry lasted less than five years, his journal, edited and published by Jonathan Edwards, has inspired countless missionaries over the years to reach thousands, or even millions, of souls across the globe.
Almost every page tells how he “endured hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” His physical weakness and bouts of depression were made worse by the rigors of his life among the Indians. One diary entry remarks:
My circumstances are such, that I HAVE NO COMFORT ON ANY KIND BUT WHAT I HAVE IN GOD. I live in the most lonesome wilderness; have but one single person to converse with, that can speak English. … I have no fellow Christian to whom I might unbosom myself or lay open my conversation about heavenly things and join in social prayer. I live poorly with regard to the comforts of life. Most of my diet consists of boiled corn, hasty-pudding, etc. I lodge on a bundle of straw, my labor is hard and extremely difficult, and I have little appearance of success, to comfort me.
Other times he was distraught over the blackness of his soul. At least twenty-two times he longed for death as a way of escape from his depression. But he says: “God scarce ever lets these thoughts be attended with terror and melancholy: they are attended frequently with great joy.”
And though he had made good friends among the Indians, he longed for a soul mate, something he never found.
He grew weaker and weaker, and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis, and died in the home of Jonathan Edwards, at the much-too-young age of twenty-nine.
As John Piper wrote, “Brainerd’s life is a vivid, powerful testimony to the truth that God can and does use sick, discouraged, beat-down, lonely, struggling saints, who cry to him day and night, to accomplish amazing things for his glory.”
David Brainerd learned the lesson that God might FEEL distant. But he’s still there and active and working. Our feelings aren’t the same as reality.
1. Searching for God (42:1-5)
If God feels distant… guess who’s moved?
And it’s the same lesson the writer of Psalm 42 and 43 wants us to learn. Have a look at the passage with me. We’re pretty sure they’re really two parts of THE ONE SONG. It’s a song that’s got THREE SECTIONS that are the same length, with three choruses that are repeated.
Have a look at it. Verses 1-4 are the FIRST section. It’s about SEARCHING for God. Then you get the first CHORUS. V5.
5 Why are you DOWNCAST, O my soul?
Why so DISTURBED within me?
Put your HOPE in God,
for I will yet PRAISE him,
my SAVIOR and 6 my GOD.
Then you come to the second section, which is about REMEMBERING God. That’s down to v11, which is the second chorus – exactly the same as v5.
And the CHORUS is the big idea he’s trying to get across to us. You might FEEL like God isn’t there. But he IS. So put your hope in him. Things will change. And you’ll YET PRAISE God.
Then you come to Psalm 43, which is the only one in this whole section without its own heading. Which is MORE evidence that it’s joined to 42. It’s the THIRD section, and it’s about PLEADING with God. And it finishes at v5 which is the THIRD chorus. Again, the same as v5 and v11.
Why are you DOWNCAST, O my soul?
Why so DISTURBED within me?
Put your HOPE in God,
for I will yet PRAISE him,
my SAVIOR and 6 my GOD.
So, it’s a fairly STRUCTURED song. Like a pop song really – three verses and three choruses.
The heading tells us it’s by one of the Sons of Korah. Who were the Jerusalem temple choir. But that’s not what he’s doing as he writes it. It seems like he’s a long way from Jerusalem. And God feels like he’s a million miles away. Look there in v1. He’s SEARCHING FOR GOD.
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
WHEN can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me all day long,
“WHERE is your God?”
He longs to be able to experience God. To know his love and faithfulness. To sense his forgiveness and goodness. But at the moment, his prayers feel like they don’t make it past the ceiling. His Bible seems as boring as a maths textbook. And life’s depressing and empty.
He’s like a parched and dying deer poking around the dusty and dried up river bed, searching for a puddle. Longing for some refreshment.
Is this an experience YOU recognise? Are you in the middle of a drought? Has God seemed much closer, and life much richer, in the past? But now things seem dead and dry and parched? Flat and empty? Is there more in life to be ENDURED than ENJOYED?
Are you THIRSTY for God? Then listen closely, and learn from this guy. About how to SATISFY your thirst.
Or maybe you DON’T recognise this experience. Which could be even WORSE. Perhaps for you/ Life’s OK. Some ups and some downs. But God’s presence doesn’t make a big difference in your life. You don’t even realise you’re thirsty. You’ve tricked yourself into thinking that you don’t NEED the refreshment of God’s Spirit. That you’re quite alright on your own.
Which, at its BEST, means your experience is just a grey, sad, little half-life. Only paddling in the puddles, while the wonderful deep and blue and powerful ocean of the life you were designed for/ is only metres away.
But at it’s WORST, a lack of thirst for God is DEADLY. Because perhaps you’re not thirsty for God because you’ve never EXPERIENCED him.
PHYSICAL thirst is designed to save your life. Your body tells you when you need water. As long as you listen to your thirst, you LIVE. But if you didn’t feel thirsty, you’d get hotter and hotter, more and more dehydrated, your organs would begin to shut down, you’d become disoriented, and eventually you’d DIE.
And living without the refreshment of God is just as deadly as dehydration.
If you’re thirsting for God, then PRAY that you’d be SATISFIED. If you’re NOT thirsting for God, then pray that you’d BEGIN to thirst – that God would give you a desire to find him, and know him better, and experience him truly. Because that’s the life you were made for.
Thirsting for God is this guy’s problem. He’s longing to experience God. But at the moment, his only experience is TEARS 24 hours a day. And the only thing he’s sensing are the taunts of people giving him a hard time ringing in his ears “Where’s your God? He’s supposed to be everywhere. Why’s he disappeared? You reckon you’re a believer – But God’s not doing much for you at the moment, is he?”
Have people ever said something like that to YOU? And if they have, has it CHALLENGED you? When people say “Where is your God?” Have you got AN ANSWER for that? CAN you see him in the different parts of your life? IS he present and able and interested and kind? Where is he in your thoughts, plans, relationships, anxieties, activities, work, play?
Would it frighten you if you COULDN’T answer that sort of challenge?
At least in this FIRST section, it seems like the writer’s inclined to agree with them. GOD’S NOWHERE TO BE FOUND. … At least IN THE PRESENT. And the best he can do is remember the PAST. To remember BETTER DAYS. Days when he was back in the temple. Doing what he loved. When God was EASY to find. V4.
4 These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude,
leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving
among the festive throng.
It seems like such a cruel contrast. Here he is/ crying his heart out, all alone. With God hiding his face. But all he can think about is the good old days. When he was surrounded by friends, when there was celebration and joy and thanksgiving. And God was right there in the middle.
He’s SPIRITUALLY isolated – God’s seems to have disappeared. In fact, this whole first section, apart from the first verse, is about the writer talking to HIMSELF. He can’t even PRAY.
Secondly, he’s PHYSICALLY isolated – he’s a long way from Jerusalem. He’s homesick for familiar people and places.
And, third, he’s SOCIALLY isolated. His only companionship are ENEMIES. And they’re only interested in ridiculing him.
That’s his situation. And so we come to the FIRST chorus. V5.
5 Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and 6 my God.
He’s giving himself a stern talking-to. Instead of letting HIS SOUL tell HIM how to feel, and how to deal with his situation. He stands up and says, “Soul, listen for a minute, I’m going to speak to YOU.” He’s not going to let the voices of doubt and self-pity speak to HIM. It’s going to be the other way around.
He’s being LOGICAL. WHY are you downcast? Let’s look at it rationally. What are the REASONS you’re feeling the way you do? Are the FEELINGS out of proportion – out of step – with the circumstances?
And he’s being PATIENT. “Put your HOPE in God”. Put the ball in HIS court. Leave it with him. WAIT for him.
And he’s REALISTIC. “For I will YET praise him. My Saviour and my God”. He’s not fooling himself into thinking he’s ready to praise God NOW. To mouth words he doesn’t MEAN. He’s not going to do it from insincerity and hypocrisy. But he is waiting on God to bring about the change that’s needed. To change his situation. And to change HIM. So his praise can be real and heart-felt.
He’s not there yet. But he’s getting there.
2. Remembering God.
And so we move onto the second section. I’ve summarised it “REMEMBERING God”. And it’s here that the writer starts to approach God. He actually starts talking to him. He’s hardly even ADDRESSED God up until now – that’s how DISTANT God seems.
He might seem like he’s a long way from the temple. But he’ll give it a go anyway. Look at v6.
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I WILL REMEMBER YOU
(EVEN) from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon–from Mount Mizar.
Miles from the temple, but he’ll do his best to remember God.
And the first thing he wants to say to God is how OVERWHELMED he feels with how God’s treating him. In the first section, he’s talked about THIRSTING for God – like he’s in a DROUGHT. But here, it’s the opposite. His situation’s like a thundering waterfall smashing down on top of the river rocks. And HE’S THE ROCKS. Look at v7.
7 Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.
That’s how he feels. He’s getting HAMMERED. But even so, he’s STILL able to declare what he KNOWS to be true. The very next verse.
8 By day the LORD directs his love,
at night his song is with me–
a prayer to THE GOD OF MY LIFE.
And that’s what he continues with. A prayer to the God who’s the centre of his life. It’s GOAL. Its SOURCE. Its FOCUS. The God who’s the reason for his existence. To YAHWEH. To the PERSONAL, promise-making and promise-KEEPING God.
And his prayer begins with WHY. Why have you forgotten me? Why am I mourning? Why the taunts of enemies? Why the agony?
Which flows smoothly into the chorus again. v11. Why are you downcast O my soul? Why so disturbed? But THIS time, we can sing it with a bit more confidence. A bit more HOPE. “Put YOUR HOPE IN GOD, for I WILL yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.
3. Pleading With God (43)
Which brings us to the third section. Psalm 43. Where the writer moves to PLEADING with God. It’s only NOW he feels he can actually ASK something of God. He’s moved beyond talking ABOUT God. He’s moved beyond REMEMBERING and then QUESTIONING God. He now feels confident enough to PLEAD with God. V1. “Vindicate me. Rescue me. Stand up for me.”
He can’t get his head around it. V2. On the ONE hand God is his stronghold. His ROCK. And yet, he seems to have REJECTED him. What use is a ROCK if you can’t LEAN against it? What good is a STRONGHOLD if it doesn’t offer any PROTECTION?
And so he prays for God to intrude into the situation. And fix things up. V3.
3 Send forth your light and your truth,
let them guide me;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.
Be true to your character. Guide with light and truth. Lead me back to where I can meet with you. Out of the wilderness. Back to where you dwell.
And, while in v4 of Psalm 42 he looked BACK to the good times in the temple. He now has the confidence in God to LOOK FORWARD to MORE good times in the temple. V4 of 43.
4 Then will I go to the altar of God,
to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.
He’s not there YET. But he CAN’T WAIT. His God is his JOY. His DELIGHT. The one he was MADE for.
And so, we come to the chorus again. But here, it’s got a different feel AGAIN. Much more confident and positive. And the emphasis is more on the ANSWER than the question. The question is almost SCOFFING of his soul.
5 WHY are you downcast, O my soul?
WHY so disturbed within me?
PUT YOUR HOPE IN GOD,
FOR I WILL YET PRAISE HIM,
MY SAVIOR AND MY GOD.
If God feels distant
And so the song finishes. And the writer’s moved a long way from start to finish. And just like last week. It’s not that the situation’s changed. But the believer’s changed.
That was THIS GUY. But what about US? We’re WORLDS APART from this guy’s experience. So what can we learn from him?
1. Develop a thirst
First, develop a thirst. Thus guy had an expectation of a rich and vivid experience of God. And he was MISSING it. It seems to me that Western Christianity is so COMFORTABLE. So EASY. That our faith and experience of God tends to be SHALLOW AND SUPERFICIAL. We settle for SIPS of God, rather than drinking our fill. WE make do with a TASTE, rather than a long, rich, guzzle. Let’s LEARN from this guy and THIRST after God.
2. SATISFY your thirst
Second SATISFY your thirst.
A crucial point to remember is that WE’RE CHRISTIAN AND HE WASN’T. Which means we’ve actually got a huge head-start. Same God, but he was looking through a tiny frosted window at the glorious sunrise of who God is. But we get to see and experience him in his wonderful huge richness.
You see, the water of God’s presence that this guy was longing for was THE HOLY SPIRIT. God’s personal presence with every Christian.
Since Jesus came, our thirst for God is satisfied IN THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. And everyday, individual, and real experience of God for EVERY believer. God living WITH us. So we can experience him in a way this OT believer couldn’t.
It’s the sort of difference Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.13. A new taste sensation.
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The Bible gives us a number of ways we can foster our experience of God’s Spirit. Satisfy our thirst. Let me just mention three.
First, work at godliness. As you grow in holiness and Christlikeness, you keep in step with the Spirit – like a dance partner. Gal 5.24-25 puts it like this
24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us KEEP IN STEP WITH THE SPIRIT.
Don’t get out of time with God’s Spirit. Make sure your doing the same dance.
The other passage I’ll mention is Eph 6. 17-18. Which mentions TWO things.
17 Take the helmet of salvation and THE SWORD OF THE SPIRIT, WHICH IS THE WORD OF GOD. 18 And PRAY IN THE SPIRIT ON ALL OCCASIONS WITH ALL KINDS OF PRAYERS AND REQUESTS. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
The Bible is how God’s Spirit does his thing in the lives of believers. It’s ACTIVE and SHARP and LIVING. Knowing the Bible is knowing GOD. Dwelling in God’s word is experiencing God himself.
And then PRAY in the Spirit. In the DOMAIN of God’s Spirit. With his HELP and DIRECTION. In his PRESENCE.
Godliness, reading the Bible, prayer. There’s no rocket science there. Work at SATISFYING your thirst. At meeting with his people. At prayer. At Bible-reading. At reading books. At listening to music or talks on tapes. That our thirst would grow. And that our satisfaction with God would grow too.
3. Remember the cross
Let me finish with one final lesson. If God feels distant… REMEMBER THE CROSS. We experience God and see him most clearly in the death of Jesus. In God’s incredible gift of his Son on our behalf.
There’s a very moving incident on Pieter de Vrie’s novel, The Blood Of The Lamb. The main character has a daughter and at the crisis point in the story, on her 12th birthday, she dies of leukaemia. The father finds himself, devastated by the news, standing outside a church, still holding the birthday cake he’s been taking to the hospital to try and inject some happiness into this special day in his daughter’s life. As he looks up at the crucifix on the church wall, he suddenly explodes with rage and hurls the cake at the face of Christ.
You might be a bit SHOCKED by that. And think it’s the wrong thing to do. And perhaps it is. But, in a sense, isn’t that what Christ’s death was FOR? The cross is the symbol of the passionate anger that God has against all the sin and wickedness and futility of the world. It’s the symbol of how God VENTED his anger. Safely, and healingly, released it. Punished his son in our place. To heal his world. To restore it. To put an end to the sort of pain that caused the father to hurl the cake.
And so, when we’re angry with God. Asking WHEN and WHERE and WHY. Then remember the answer our loving Father’s ALREADY GIVEN US. An answer that reminds us that he experienced the depths of every pain we could go through. And worse.
His answer is a once-for-all declaration of his love. When God seems distant. And we wonder whether he’s there. Remember the cross. Listen to the logic in Romans 8:31. And I’ll close with these words.
If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 (Here’s the proof) HE WHO DID NOT SPARE HIS OWN SON, BUT GAVE HIM UP FOR US ALL-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? …35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? …38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.