Tuesday, July 12, 2011

After the Party's Over

These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul? (Psalm 42.4-5)


Have you ever reached a place in your faith where an unexpected turn knocks you off your feet? I have. A devastating event sends us reeling—a cruel tragedy, disappointment, or discovery that deflates our grandest illusions. A hidden doubt steps from the shadows to throw us off-balance. Sometimes we’re not sure why we tumble. On Monday, faith lights our way. Tuesday dawns and, for no reason, we’re in a fog that saps our energy and purpose. The God Who was everywhere yesterday seems to have checked out. Prayer loses its lift, falling with a thud from our lips. We reach for the Word, but the Word doesn’t reach us. We resort to the spiritual equivalent of pulling a blanket over our heads, where unspoken misgivings and derisive comments from non-believers preempt what we want to hear—what we need to hear.

Unforeseen lurches into despair can intimidate us many times more than looming challenges that provide no option to trusting God’s grace and guidance. When the rug gets yanked from under us—whether or not we discern what triggers it—inability to break our fall can be debilitating. Plummeting from faith’s heights into doubt’s depths raises questions we’re unable to answer. Where is God? Isn’t God looking and listening? While concerns about God’s love and care churn, self-recrimination enters the mix. What’s wrong with us? Were we crazy to imagine living by faith would be any better than living by sight? Is it crazy to think God has abandoned us? Is the whole thing crazy?

Well, my brother and my sister, though it won't spare us sudden bouts of spiritual depression, we take consolation in realizing no believer is immune to bipolar faith syndrome (BFS). Sooner or later, every believer's high-flying faith bottoms out. We’re hardly the first nor are we hardly the last to be alarmed by this. When we don’t know what to say and it seems God won’t say, we turn to what those who’ve been in our shoes say. They’re not hard to find. Psalm 42, for instance, is a first-rate study of someone totally unnerved and nearly done in by a BFS episode.

The Downcast Soul

For undisclosed reasons, the psalmist has suffered a hard fall. He feels hopelessly lost and needlessly insulted. Presently subsisting on salty tears, he aches for a refreshing taste of God’s presence. “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God,” he writes. “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42.1,3) Isn’t that how it always seems to go? No sooner do we hit rock bottom than the no-help crowd rushes to jump into the pit with us and gloat, “I told you so!” Explaining this is what he's up against—like God doesn’t know—the poet essentially asks, “What am I supposed to say? This is as much about You as me!” (Like God doesn’t know that, either.)

Then, in verses 5-6, we get to the crux of his problem. The poet’s thoroughly unprepared for despondency and derision that inevitably surface after the party’s over, when the soaring ends with an abrupt and rapid descent. He can’t handle where he’s at because he won’t let go of where he was. “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul,” he says, his tone tinged with resentment that what he recalls couldn't last: “How I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” he asks, repeating the downcast soul reference in the next verse and the last (v11).

It’s an oddly revealing question that almost leads us into the same trap that snares the poet’s antagonists. We fight every impulse to fire back, “You can’t be serious! What gave you the idea life’s going to get out of the way of your happiness and peace of mind? You know why you're depressed and disturbed? Because it happens!” Before we launch our tirade, however, the poet disarms us by telling himself, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my Help and my God.” It’s the smartest thing to say—smarter than any presumably reasonable advice we might toss out, like encouraging him to look on the bright side (there isn’t one), remember the good times (that’s why he’s depressed), or hang in until better days arrive (they will, but who knows when). So we’re wise to quiet down and listen as the poet works all of this out.

Hope in God

Hope in God is the only antidote that lifts the downcast soul. Hope in God changes the conversation from “I did” to “I will.” Hope in God lets the last party go and reaches for the next one. Yet we should note activating hope after we bottom out often requires several tries to work. Once the poet settles on hope in God, the bargaining begins. He talks himself up [“By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the life of my God.” (v8)] And before his amazing faith-boost takes effect, he’s down again, asking why God’s forgotten him, why adversaries oppress him and belittle his faith.

The poet’s yo-yo behavior is common when battling BFS. Convincing ourselves to hope in God while coping with dismay is emotionally and intellectually taxing. The psalmist teaches us to keep at it until we’ve worn out our resistance to the only help we know. Psalm 42 ends with a poignant note we’ve heard in our own lives. Before finally giving up on logical conclusions so he can fully place his hope in God, the psalmist can't help asking one more time: Why am I so downcast and disturbed? There’s just no reasonable answer. It is what it is. So what will it be? “Hope in God” is the safest, sanest decision. The poet sighs as he picks himself up and looks ahead. “For I shall again praise Him, my help and my God.”

When faith hoists us to giddy heights where promise fills the sky and confidence swells underfoot, by all means we should relish the experience, celebrate God’s goodness, and invite everyone to join us. But we can’t get so high on faith that we’re unprepared when the party ends. Faith isn’t a party-all-the-time proposition. It’s just not. It’s a life of learning gained from highs and lows, ups and downs. After the party’s over, it’s time to let it go and deal with what’s in front of us so we can reach for what’s ahead. When we’re prepared to do that, hope we need to pull us back up comes more quickly and easily. We say to ourselves—and anyone nervy enough to kick us while we’re down—“We’re done with what we did. Hope in God fixes our focus on what we will do after this trial passes.”

O God of highs and lows, teach us to party responsibly when our faith is up so we’re fully prepared to hope in You when it bottoms out. Amen.

Faith isn’t a party-all-the-time proposition. It’s just not. It’s a life of learning gained from highs and lows, ups and downs.

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