Fighting for Faith: Depression and Despair
Before your Community Group:
Read Psalm 42 out loud. Try to summarize the psalm in a sentence or two and list out 7-10 observations you have (look for repeating words, images, etc).
Read through the psalm again and list out every one of the “when”, “where” and “why” questions the psalmist asks. Can you see a general theme here?
What do you think Psalm 42:7 is trying to describe?
The psalmist tells us that his tears and his enemies have asked him “where is your God?” How does he answer that attack? Look at Psalm 42:5, 8 and 11 to answer this question.
Read Romans 5:2-5 and 2 Corinthian 1:3-7. Where do you think God is and what is he doing in the midst of times of despair and depression?
These community group study guides are not designed to provide an exhaustive approach to the various emotions we will be studying, but to help us interact at a basic level with these core emotions we experience as we follow Jesus in faith.
Psalm 42 opens with what could be a familiar image for many of us… “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” We think of a nice green meadow and a gentle river where a fawn dips their head down to drink from the water. This would make for a very pretty painting or maybe even an inspirational Christian poster. However, the image is much more violent than that. This deer is more likely close to death, exhausted, dehydrated and panting for life (see Jeremiah 14:1-6 for a similar picture). In desperation the deer thirsts for the stream because it needs life. The sons of Korah, who wrote Psalm 42, know the feeling; such was the state of their soul before God just like our soul many times during our life. This Psalm interacts with feelings we could label as “depression and despair”.
You’ve probably heard various metaphors for what it is like to walk through this kind of time. Images like “a maze”, “fog” or “in the depths of the ocean” all describe the feelings of despair and depression. These pictures communicate not being able to see the end and a feeling of being lost. During times of despair and depression you will often feel a heaviness or darkness. Many people report losing appetite, desiring to remain in bed, isolating themselves from others and lacking general motivation for daily tasks of life. We naturally desire to know the cause and we want to try and fix it. Sometimes there can be a direct cause like real sin, unbelief, attacks from enemies, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, physical illness, not caring for our bodies properly, chemical imbalances in our brain, spiritual attack, persistently clinging to hopelessness… the list goes on. And yet, many times we can experience despair and depression and not be able to point to a specific source or cause. The human body is designed by God, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), yet our emotions can be untethered and under the curse of sin. This means that you may walk through seasons of despair and depression and not really know why.
Psalm 42 is an excellent guide for us during these times of darkness. As we read through the psalm we see that there were circumstances causing this depressive battle. The psalmist describes how his physical body, specifically his tears, is telling him “where is your God?” (42:3) In verse 9 and 10 we learn of enemies who are oppressing and taunting him also asking him “where is your God?”. All of these things has made him like a deer panting for streams of water, thirsting for life from God. Psalm 42 is filled with brutal honesty about how depression works. We’re told that it is like being out in the ocean where waves crash against you one after another (42:7). Likewise there is a temptation towards unbelief where he asks why God has forgotten him (42:9). Finally the feeling of his soul being “cast down” is repeated throughout the Psalm (42:5, 11).
What are we to do in times of despair and depression?
Like all the passages we’ve studied, we’re careful not to look for “formulas” or “prescriptions” but notice two things.
First, the psalmist “remembers” two things one negatively and one positively.
In verse 4 he remembers times of joy and praise. At first glance we could think that this should be something adding to his feelings of hope, but it appears that a source of his depression and despair is a sense of loss. At one point in time he was a worship leader and it seems that he has lost that position. Verse 4 begins with “these things I remember as I pour out my soul”. This verse is sandwiched between his statement of “my tears have been my food” and “why are you cast down oh my soul?” In the context this remembering does not seem to be a happy remembering, but one that stirs up feelings of loss. Often depression and despair can be intertwined with grief and loss. This real circumstance is fueling his “downcast” feelings.
Yet in verse 5 he remembers a second thing, he remembers God. He looks to God’s faithful presence in a land of desert (the Jordan) and in the a land of abundance (Hermon, which was a forested mountain range much like our Santa Cruz mountains). The psalmist also reminds himself of God’s faithful presence by day and by night (42:8). This remembering of God is important because God’s faithful presence becomes the foundation for his hope.
Finally, Psalm 42 shows us the powerful tool we have to speak to our souls. In verses 5 and 11 the psalmist asks the question “why are you cast down, O my Soul?” and in both instances we see him not listen to his body, feelings or soul but instead tell his soul what is true. Both times he tells his soul to direct its hope to God. One of the dangers we have in times of despair and depression is to listen to ourselves instead of speak to ourselves. We have a sure and steady hope, a faithful God who is with us day and night (42:8) and a gospel that we can speak to our souls to help us remember God.
During times of despair and depression, you can expect to feel lost and not see an end in sight. Likewise, your own body may be crying out to you “where is your God?” and you will often experience feelings of loss and grief that will stir up these feelings of depression and despair. However, our God is faithful with us to the end and is with us even in the desert places like the Jordan and by day his steadfast love surrounds us and by night his song becomes a prayer for our life. You will not naturally want to seek our community and bring yourself to a place of worship, but our hope is that you will have companions in the darkness in real godly friends and that speaking the gospel to your heart will direct your soul to hope in God.
Questions for discussion:
At your community group: Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
You may have not experienced despair and depression, but you can get an idea of its destructive power by spending time this Psalm. How does Psalm 42 show us the brutal power of despair and depression? Look to the psalm and point to specific imagery there.
Based on the sermon and your time in Psalm 42, how would you define “hope in God?”
How does loss and grief fuel times of depression and despair. How do we see this in Psalm 42?
One of the dangers of despair and depression is to isolate ourselves from the community God has given us. One way we can help one another is to be a companion to people within our church community and not to be someone trying to “fix” others. What are some other practical ways we can walk with people as they experience despair and depression?