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How Does Psalm 42 Help Us Overcome Discouragement?

The feeling of spiritual discouragement occurs when we need spiritual life and health. The basic root of our spiritual discouragement is the deep cry for God. We long for an experience of God that will captivate us, encourage us, and revive us.

Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Published Jun 24, 2022
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How Does Psalm 42 Help Us Overcome Discouragement?

During my first year of ministry, a childhood friend asked to meet me for coffee. Although we had grown up together, we were complete opposites. I liked folk music, he liked punk; I was a Christian, and he was an agnostic.

Still, over the years our friendship thrived. During this coffee, in a moment of rare honesty, he described how the struggles of his life all seemed to have a spiritual component.

He was never at peace — he felt spiritually frenetic and restless as if he was searching for something he could never find. If he knew Psalm 42, he might echo its refrain, “Why are you so downcast O my soul, and why so disquieted within me?” (42:5,11).

Of course, my friend is not alone in his feelings. Even the faithful are prone to such spiritual discouragement.

A popular study in 2004 shows that over 25% of active churchgoers feel stalled or dissatisfied in their spiritual lives (Greg L Hawkins and Cally Parkins, 2016 “Move: What 1000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth”).

Their souls feel downcast, their spirits feel disquieted. People long for a deeper connection with God. Since the onset of the pandemic, I am willing to be that such feelings have only become more prominent.

How can we combat this spiritual disquiet? When we feel spiritually discouraged or downcast, what is the answer? Where can we go to address the deep longing of the soul? Tucked in the verses of Psalm 42 is an answer, an answer, which is shockingly simple.

Acknowledging Our Longing Souls

A full and rich spiritual life begins with recognizing the deep longing of our soul. Like the author of Psalm 42, we must acknowledge that “as the deer pants for flowing waters so my soul pants for you” (42:1).

At first, this image may appear quaint and serene. We may picture the deer happily frolicking through a lush meadow, looking for a moment of refreshment before bouncing into the horizon.

In truth, this image is much more visceral and intense. The panting deer is in a state of desperation. It is in a state of deep need, lacking what it needs to survive. In short, the deer pants for that which will save its life.

This is how the psalmist feels before God, crying out, “My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (42:2). As the deer longs for living streams, so, too, the psalmist longs to meet with the God who moves in his life. It is God alone who has the power to sustain and nourish. It is God alone who bestows life.

The basic root of our spiritual discouragement is the deep cry for God. We long for an experience of God that will captivate us, encourage us, and revive us.

Just as we only thirst when we are lacking water, the feeling of spiritual discouragement occurs when we need spiritual life and health.

Of course, we might not know why we feel stalled in our faith or disquieted in our spirits, but unless we articulate this feeling, we will never seek a deeper life with God.

Do you long for more of God in your life? Is there somewhere within you where your need for spiritual satisfaction and delight is more pronounced? Where are you spiritually thirsty?

Joining the Company of Faith

Articulating our spiritual needs is only the first step in finding soul-deep satisfaction. The question we must wrestle with is, where do we go to find a deeper experience of God? How can we combat our downcast souls and the disquiet of our spirits?

For the psalmist, the answer is clear. We overcome our spiritual discouragement through participating in the worshipping community.

The psalmist says, “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” (42:4). The psalmist’s desire to encounter the vivifying embrace of God is leads them to temple worship.

Tucked into Psalms 42 and 43 is a call to join in worship. The Temple is the place where the psalmist is caught up in the presence of God. The psalmist prays, “Send me your light, and your truth, let them guide me. Let them bring me to your holy mountain, to that place where you dwell” (43:3).

This is an obvious reference to the Temple. Jerusalem was situated on a mountain and the Temple was the dwelling place of God.

Thus, in response to spiritual disease, the psalmist longs to “go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight” (43:4). It is the Lord’s presence in the Temple that combats the discouragement of the psalmist's soul.

When we feel discouraged or dissatisfied in our faith, do we long for the church? Do we ever long for courts of the Lord? (Psalm 84:2). Does our discouragement lead us away from our church community, or deeper into it?

Does it shock you to hear that the answer to our longing is found in joining the worshipping community at church? This sounds counterintuitive today. We often think that our spiritual disquiet is a reason to avoid going to church or to leave the church altogether.

Many today speak of faith-deconstruction or a church-less Christianity. Yet Scripture continually highlights the importance of the worshiping community. It is in the company of the faith where we meet God face to face.

Yes, God is everywhere, and we can relate to God anywhere. Even Israel knew this. Israel understood that Yahweh was omnipresent. David asks, “Where can I go from your spirit, where can I flee from your presence” (Psalm 139:7).

Yet this does not take away from the unique manifestation of God’s presence in the Temple or church. It is a simple biblical reality; the local church gathering is a place we can go to if we wish to find God's presence in our lives.

What Does This Mean?

My hunch is that those struggling to find a consistent church involvement also experience a sense of discouragement in their spiritual lives.

My hunch is that, somewhere, there is a feeling that their spiritual life is not as robust as they would like. Perhaps there is a question they haven’t found the answer to, or an itch cannot be scratched. Or, like Psalm 42, perhaps they pant for God like a deer pants for living water.

Not everyone has had a positive effect in the church community. This is a sad reality we must acknowledge. Many step away from the church due to wounding or abuse.

Still, the existence of hurtful churches does not discount the biblical call to join a company of worship. “Let us not stop meeting together,” writes the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 10:25).

Could it really be this simple? Could it be that the answer to our spiritual discouragement is simply to go to church?

The audacious claim of scripture is that we can meet with God. We can have an experience of God’s gracious and life-giving love.

The God who lives, moves, and breathes; the Savior who forgives, upholds, and encourages, can come into our lives. What is more, we don’t need to search for him.

God is not hiding from us. God has set a place for God’s dwelling and invites us all to draw near. So, if you feel downcast or burdened in your soul, or if God’s presence in your life is something you want to explore more of, then going to church just might be the answer.

For further reading:

What Did God Mean ‘Be Strong and Courageous’?

Reflecting on God’s Consistent Love (Psalm 80)

Can the Bible Help Us Overcome Stress?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/PeopleImages


SWN authorThe Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada.  He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.comibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others.  He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca.  He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.

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