When Aslan Isn’t Moving
As I look out my window, the ground is brown with hints of green breaking through. Without doubt, spring is arriving. Aslan is most definitely on the move. Highlighting the changing seasons is the fact that, a couple weeks ago, this same view was a sheet of white. And it’s this sheet of white that’s intriguing to me. You see, across the road is a tree farm. The owners apparently operate under the philosophy of only harvesting timber when it is very mature. Or, perhaps they’ve lost ownership? Either way, the view outside the window is graced with a lovely bit of forest that has been growing for most of my life. With all this time to enjoy the view, one quickly discovers a couple facts about observing a forest. Firstly, the grey and brown trunks possess unique beauty. However, they also make it difficult to see very deeply into the woods. Apparently it’s not for nothing that the deer I’ve eagerly searched for have coats matching the trees. After the snow’s blanket descended a couple weeks ago, my Dad remarked on how you could see much deeper into the woods. And that got me thinking: What do we do with those days when it doesn’t seem like Aslan is moving, when the world seems covered in the white, sterile blanket of snow—when life is a continuous discouragement?
One of the places we can turn is the Psalms. This isn’t because they contain sound bite length statements that provide temporary comfort. Rather, the Psalms speak to our lives because they were written by someone in similar life circumstances. Seeing how the authors respond to their situation directs our response. It is for this reason that my good friend and mentor, Kevin Bywater, has explained that the Psalms provide “a vocabulary of faith.”1 That is, they give us the words with which to process our life and apply our faith to it. With this in mind, Psalm 42 provides an excellent case study for our question.
The psalm opens up with the psalmist’s struggle: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival”2 (Psalm 42:1-4). Clearly the psalmist has lived a life of fidelity. His love for and obedience to God are evident, and there is no indication that this pattern has changed. Despite all this, God seems far away and life is discouraging. This appears to be the reason that the psalmist describes his soul as “cast down.”3 As the psalm progresses, there are three aspects to the psalmist’s response that are instructive.
First, the psalmist is honest with himself about the situation. Following the life context in the initial verses, he exclaims: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God”4 (Psalm 42:5-6). Even as the psalmist turns back to God, his assessment of his state is frank—troubled and depressed. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hit the dry points where finding joy in my walk is a struggle, my initial response is to ignore what is happening. You know, the “man up and push through it” approach. The underlying assumption seems to be, “perhaps if I ignore it, it’ll go away.” The psalmist points us in a different direction—the direction of humility. It takes humility to admit that we are hurting and have run into difficulty. However, that is also the point where we find God’s grace.5
It’s at this point that we see the psalmist turn back to God. Specifically, he looks to God’s work in the past. This actually began in verse 5, but the psalmist’s thought process is demonstrated as the psalm continues. “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42:6-8). What we see is the movement, in the psalmist’s mind, between his troubles and God’s past work. Indeed, this movement happens several times over the course of the psalm. The lesson for us here is twofold. First, our discouragements are not in and of themselves wrong and a cause for guilt. Rather, God’s commands deal with our response to stress and discouragement. Second, reviewing God’s past provision reminds us of his love and encourages us to look for his provision in our current circumstances.
Finally, having reflected on God’s prior work, the psalmist takes his current complaint to God: “I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’ ” (Psalm 42:9). This step is a natural progression from the review that the psalmist has already made. The prayer is not made in a vacuum, but in the context of God’s past faithfulness and with the expectation of that faithfulness’ continuation.
At the end of all of this, it is important to note that the emotional struggle prompting this prayer has not been resolved. “As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’ Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:10-11). In this, though, is comfort. Among other things, the fact that the psalmist appears to be going through the process again is a reminder that changing our emotional state is not the end goal. Manufacturing feelings isn’t God’s direction to us—his direction is to trust his provision.
Clearly, this one post does not begin to address all the thoughts and concerns that appear when we are discouraged or depressed. Life is simply too complex to be summed up at any point into three easy steps everyone can follow to perpetual happiness. However, I hope that I have left you with two sets of ideas that will continue to strengthen you. First, that the Psalms provide us with a “vocabulary of faith” and should guide our processing of and response to the varying situations we face. Second, in walking through Psalm 42, I hope that you have gained a fuller perspective from which to approach discouragement and depression.
Continuing to walk faithfully when Aslan appears to have deserted us is difficult. At the same time, it is also perhaps one of the periods where our witness to the power of the Gospel shines most clearly. C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape, in advising a junior demon on the methodology of temptation, put it this way: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”6
What psalms have you turned to in periods of discouragement or depression?
How do they inform our processing and response to this discouragement or depression?
2. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. Psalm 42:5,11.
4. Depending on the version you are using, this final phrase “and my God” could alternately be included as part of verse 5 or verse 6. Additionally, it looks like this phrase is sometimes translated as the beginning of the next sentence in the psalm. While this can adjust some of the finer points of interpretation, on the whole, the psalm still communicates the same message.
5. James 4:6.
6. Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 40.
Photo courtesy of Eric Müller