Psalms by Gary DeLashmutt (1999)

Spiritual Depression

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Gary DeLashmutt

Psalms 42


The Psalmist of Psalm 42 describes spiritual depression, the common causes of it, and how to overcome it. We often experience this depression when undergoing adversity, when we experience apparent spiritual contradictions, when God seems far from us, and when people and Satan mock our faith. We can overcome this by expressing our thoughts and feelings, challenging their validity, remembering why we've trusted God in the past, and affirming His faithfulness.


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We will look at a number of psalms that address different spiritual issues. Today we will study one of many psalms that address the issue of spiritual depression—Ps. 42 (read).

The author is one of the "sons of Korah"--evidently a writing guild of Levitical priests who composed poems and songs to teach the people of Israel how to relate to God. His spiritual vocation requires him to be in Jerusalem, but he finds himself in the far northern region in Mt. Hermon (MAP)—probably in exile with David during the coup of Absalom (see 2 Sam. 15-18).

You can see especially from 42:5,11 that the author is spiritually depressed. His soul is "in despair," and has become "sunk down" within him.

The fact that he writes a poem like this, which so graphically expresses spiritual depression, should provide some relief for you if you believe it is incompatible with spiritual health or integrity (TRIUMPHALISM). The fact that there are dozens of psalms that express varying degrees of spiritual depression also refutes this.

In fact, those who have been effective in leading others to faith often wrestle with spiritual depression (LUTHER). Even Jesus experienced spiritual depression. On the night of his arrest he echoed the very words of this psalm to describe his own experience (see Jn. 12:27; Mk. 14:34). All serious Christians experience spiritual depression to a greater or lesser degree, for reasons we'll examine in a few minutes.

The issue, then, is not that you experience spiritual depression, but how you respond to it. This is why psalms like this one are so helpful—they teach us (maskil) how to respond properly. But before we look his cure, though, let's examine some of the common causes of spiritual depression . . . 

Common Causes

Although the author's specific situation is unique, the root causes of his spiritual depression are the same ones we experience.

Personal adversity

As we saw, the author is geographically dislocated, evidently in exile. This is emotionally painful.

In the same way, spiritual depression usually emerges in the context of some circumstantial adversity (EXAMPLES). But this is not the main cause . . . 

Spiritual confusion

Not only does he experience the normal emotional pain of circumstantial adversity; as a follower of God he also suffers spiritual confusion—the apparent contradiction between his faith and his situation. He has personally entrusted his life to God, and God has called him to lead the nation's worship at the Temple. But he finds himself unable to do this. This creates the spiritual trauma of God's apparent duplicity or impotence or unconcern.

This is what distinguishes spiritual depression from the normal emotional bruises that everyone experiences during personal adversity. To experience spiritual depression, you must have first personally entrusted your life to the God of the Bible—to rely on his guidance to make sense of your life, and to rely on his love to give hope to your life. When you have entrusted yourself to God in this way, and then you see an apparent contradiction between what you believe God is like and what you are actually experiencing, this is a pain far worse than the pain of adversity.

EXAMPLES: "God is loving and sovereign" >> TRAGEDY (RTB); "God will transform my character" >> BESETTING SIN (1974,1975); "God has called me to teach" >> NO POWER; "God has called me to lead this home group" >> ONGOING LACKOF GROWTH & SETBACKS.

These things call into question the most important reality of our lives—that God exists and that he is good and faithful to me. Like the suspicion of your spouse's unfaithfulness, suspicion of God's unfaithfulness strikes at the very root of our lives.

The lack of God's experiential presence

The author's spiritual confusion is exacerbated because the comforting presence of God to which he is accustomed is nowhere to be found. Like a hunted deer that can find no water, he thirsts for God's presence but cannot find it (42:1-2).

The most wonderful thing about being a Christian is experiencing God's loving presence. But God in his wisdom sometimes temporarily removes his experiential support from us. We cry out to God in the midst of our pain, but our prayers seem to die on our lips or bounce off the ceiling. Some Christians have called this the "dark night of the soul."

Martin Luther, who helped so many come to faith in Christ, was himself many times besieged with periods of intense spiritual blackness when God "hid himself."

Jesus experienced this on the cross (" . . . why have you forsaken me?").

I certainly know what it is like to feel overwhelmed for periods of time with a sense of oppression, negativity, and despair.

Memories of previous times of joyous intimacy with God makes his present experience all the more painful (42:4). It only highlights how absent God seems right now, and presses more urgently the question of why he seems to have abandoned me. These memories are cruel because they suggest that unless my spiritual experience isn't great all the time, my faith in God must be a sham or worthless (THINKING ABOUT SPRING 1971 DURING SPRING 1975).

The accusation of others

In the midst of this personal adversity and God's experiential absence, others speak up to confirm the doubts he is already having by saying "Where is your God?" (42:3). This causes intense emotional and spiritual pain, like having his leg shattered (42:10).

It is uncanny how often skeptical friends or family members or "authorities" (or the memory of their objections) verbalize the very doubts with which you are wrestling (DAD IN 1974). In addition to human voices, Christians will experience the accusation of Satan and his demons, as they whisper or shout that your faith in God is foolish and futile.

SUMMARY: The result is a terribly painful sense of spiritual vertigo and depression that can last for hours, days, even weeks. Do you have a category for this? How do you respond to it?


John Stott correctly observes, "The cure for spiritual depression is neither to look in at our grief, nor back to the past, nor round at our problems, but away and up to the living God. He is our help and our God, and if trust in him now, we shall soon have cause to praise him again."[1] The psalmist illustrates some practical ways in which we can do this.

Express your thoughts and feelings to God and other believers.

We have this psalm precisely because the author did this. He didn't try to hide or repress his spiritual depression—he expressed it in this beautiful poem.

When you are spiritually depressed, you often feel like no one can relate or understand. You may also feel like such feelings are morally wrong, so you must hide them from others. But ignoring them or repressing them only drives them deeper.

On the other hand, when you admit them to God and his people, you discover that you are not unique or alone—and this in itself is often a great help and comfort (ME WITH DEN THIS WEEK). This is one of the great benefits of being in personal fellowship with other Christians (PROMOTE HOME GROUPS).

But you can't stop here. You also have to challenge the validity of your thoughts and feelings ("my soul").

While the psalmist freely expresses his thoughts and feelings, he also takes issue with their validity and the conclusions to which they are leading him. His refrain (42:5,11) is to remind himself to wait for God rather than yield to his present despair.

This is a crucial step, and one which is especially difficult for people raised in a therapeutic culture that teaches that our feelings are an infallible guide to reality. As Lloyd-Jones says, take yourself in hand and talk back to yourself.[2] Decide not to cave into them or act rashly on them before you consider all the evidence. If you're going to doubt God, be sure to doubt your doubts, too!

NOTE: Sometimes the main problem is that you have misinterpreted what God promises (e.g., HEALTH & WEALTH).

Remember why you have trusted God thus far.

When the psalmist remembered only his previous experience (42:3), he became more depressed. But now he chooses to remember God in a different way that will encourage him (42:6). Although he does not say specifically what he remembered about God, it was undoubtedly the track-record of his past faithfulness.

He may have reflected on the record of God' historical faithfulness to his people (read Ps. 44:1-3, which may have been written at the same time).

Such objective evidence can be a powerful antidote to spiritual depression (THEISM; BIBLICAL INSPIRATION; JESUS' RESURRECTION; SKEPTICS ' CONVERSIONS; BIOGRAPHIES). Is it really true that your faith is irrational? Is there really no more evidence for Christianity than for other world-views? Is it possible that your emotions have distorted your perception of reality? To recall this, you must learn it (FMS)!

He may have reflected on the record of God's personal faithfulness in his own life (read Ps. 40:1-3 as an example).

Such personal evidence is also a powerful antidote to spiritual depression (CHARACTER CHANGE; ANSWERED PRAYERS; PAST DELIVERANCES). When has trusting God ever burned you in the past? What compelling reason is there for viewing this situation as any different?

GUINNESS: It is those who are willing to back to the basis for their faith that are able to go on with God.

Enlist the help of other Christians in both of these areas. They can supply you with and/or remind you of both lines of evidence.

Affirm to God that he remains faithful in your present situation.

Read 42:7. As the author watches the melted snow gushing forth in waves from the mountain cataracts, he sees in this a picture of his own present situation as blow after blow descends upon him. But notice he does not say "these breakers and these waves have rolled over me." He says "your breakers and your waves . . . " This is very important, because he is affirming that the situation is not out of control or evidence of God's lack of concern—but rather that God is sovereignly (even if mysteriously) at work through these sufferings for an eventual outcome that will be good and vindicate his choice to go on trusting God (read 42:8).

This is something the Bible teaches over and over again—the rhythm of trials followed by blessing (Ps. 66:10-12; Lam. 3:21-36), suffering followed by hope (Rom. 5:3-5), "death" followed by "life" (2 Cor. 4:11). Read 1 Pet. 5:10.

Choose to affirm this truth to God, thank him in advance for the good that he will bring out of this, tell him that he remains your only reliable foundation ("my rock"), and then keep doing whatever it means to be faithful to him in your situation. At the proper time, he will lift you up and you will find that your trust in him has been strengthened through the very things that caused your spiritual depression.


Recommend Doubt and Spiritual Depression for further reading.

NEXT: Psalm 22 (an outreach opportunity)


[1] John R. W. Stott, Favorite Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), p. 57.

[2] "I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self . . . Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man's treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. 'Why art thou cast down, O my soul?' he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: 'Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.' Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have had but little experience . . .  We must stand up as this man did and say: 'Why are you cast down? Why are you disquieted within me?' . . . instead of listening placidly to him and allowing him to drag you down and depress you. For that is what he will always do if you allow him to be in control." D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), pp. 20,21.