This morning we’re kicking off a brand-new teaching series. As we go through our lives, our culture tells us to pretend like everything is fine even when it’s not. And if we’re honest, it’s often not. Pretending we’re fine when we’re not, though, is no way to live. Fortunately, the Gospel has something to say about this. The Gospel offers us a way out of it. For the next couple of weeks, we’re going to talk about what this solution is together. Today, though, we’re going to start with a dose of reality. Let’s dive in together.
We’re Not Fine
So, how are you doing this morning? Now, wait just a second before you answer that. First, let me ask a second question by way of survey—and be honest now. For how many of you, by a show of hands, if I caught you on the street and asked how you were doing would respond with some version of, “I’m fine”? Most of us would, right? And if we’re being really honest, it doesn’t matter much what else might be going on in our lives in that moment. Our knee-jerk response to the standard American greeting of “how are you doing” is “I’m fine.”
Okay, but what if you’re not? I mean, what if earlier that day you lost your job and your house was foreclosed on and your kids got arrested on drug charges and your doctor called to tell you your diagnosis was terminal. Well, if you got that level of bad news, maybe you’d say something other than “I’m fine,” but some of us still would fire off that response because it’s automatic. It’s what we’ve been programmed by our culture to say.
Okay, but what if you’re not? Well, that’s not really an option. Not in our culture. In our culture, we have to have it all together. We don’t get to be weak. We don’t get to be struggling. We don’t get to not have our stuff together. At least, that’s what we’re taught. The teaching doesn’t always come in explicit ways, but if you look at the media environment in which we live, it’s only the people who have it all together who get celebrated. They may not have had it all together in the past, but they’re being celebrated for getting it back together. Nobody gets celebrated when their life is a wreck. So we say, “I’m fine.” Because if we’re fine, we get on the celebration list. And we want to be on the celebration list. “I’m fine” acts as a kind of cover. And it works…until it doesn’t.
And can we be honest enough with each other to say that holding down the “I’m fine” covering has gotten a whole lot harder in this season than it was before? I mean, it wasn’t ever particularly easy before, but the anxiety of the COVID era is real, are you with me? Maybe you’re like me and you’re so sick of all of this that you can’t even stand it. I’m tired of having to wear a mask everywhere. I’m tired of having to remember my mask every time I leave the house. At the same time, I’m tired of fearing that this stuff could affect me personally. This past week we eclipsed the grim mark of 100,000 new cases per day. That’s the most we’ve ever had…and we’re supposed to be on the downside of this mess. Think about this: half a million people have been diagnosed with COVID…this week. There’s a reason we’re working to be so careful both in here and with our live adult and student small groups. And we need your help. An outbreak sends us back to online only and it’s only the grace of God and the cautious approach we’re taking that has prevented that so far. Now, personally, thanks be to God it hasn’t yet affected me directly, but it could. Some of you know that a whole lot more personally than you wish you did. It’s still really, really contagious even as it seems to be less and less deadly. I’m not worried about that just for me though. By all accounts, I should be fine if I were to get it. But I’m around people on a regular basis who very well may not be to say nothing of the incredible load that would place on my family to have me out of commission. I suspect the same is true for many of you too. Then there’s the concerns over furloughs and lost jobs and cut hours and medical bills and finding toilet paper and worrying about the state of the country now that the election is over, and the list goes on. Bottom line: We’re not fine. So, what do we do?
This morning, we are kicking off a brand-new teaching series called, I’m Fine. For the next three weeks, I want to pause a minute together and talk about how we’re doing. The fact is: Many of us either have or are struggling in life. Even if you really do feel like you’re fine, the odds are pretty good that there are some folks in your life—maybe even the folks closest to you—who aren’t. We are anxious and depressed. And, just for the sake of clarity, I’m not talking about chemically-caused, clinical depression. That’s another animal entirely. There is a kind of depression that results from our minds being sick the way our bodies get sick and for which the things we’ll be talking about in this series will only be able to be part of the solution. In those cases, the mind needs medicine just like the body needs medicine and there’s nothing shameful about that. It’s reality for way more folks than perhaps you realize. I’m talking in this series about anxiety and depression that are situationally linked. We’ve been carrying a load beyond our capabilities longer than we can manage anymore and our very souls are feeling the pressure in ways that make managing life harder than it should be. By the end of this series, I want to leave you equipped to handle this; to find the hope and help that will truly make a difference in your life and the lives of the people around you.
Before we can get there, though, we need to face reality. Fortunately, there isn’t anywhere better than the Scriptures where we can face reality in all its inglorious splendor. And in the Scriptures, there aren’t many places that deal with reality so well as the psalms. The psalms are wonderful, but they are real. They speak with power and eloquence into the realities of life in ways few other written works ever have. They are beautiful, but sometimes they aren’t very pretty…kind of like life. This morning, I want to take you to Psalm 42. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you, find your way there with me and we’ll look together at what one psalmist had to say when he was facing a season in which he wasn’t fine.
Psalm 42 starts out with a verse familiar enough that if you’ve spent much time around the church you’ve probably heard before. It even forms the text of a song. “As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee.” Have you ever been in one of those seasons where you are thirsty for God to bring some relief to your anxiety and depression, but relief seems slow in coming? Listen to this starting in Psalm 42:1: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you, God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long people say to me, ‘Where is your God?’ I remember this as I pour out my heart: how I walked with many, leading the festive procession to the house of God, with joyful and thankful shouts.”
Are you with him? Let the imagery here fill your thoughts for a minute and try and paint a mental picture of what’s happening here. This is someone who by all cultural accounts should have had it all together, who should have been fine. He wasn’t just pursuing a life of faithfulness to God himself, he was leading others in doing the same. Externally, everything was right. He was great. Except…he wasn’t. His tears were his food day and night. Ever been there? Ever cry yourself to sleep? People who knew about his troubles weren’t giving him any encouragement, only skepticism and derision. Where’s the God who’s supposed to be helping you? Seems like you’re on your own for this one.
What is all this? It’s life, isn’t it? Life comes in seasons. Sometimes we’re riding high and everything really is fine; it’s more than fine. It’s good. And then sometimes we crash into a valley; a deep valley; so deep we can’t even see the sun anymore. Sometimes the people in our lives are helpful, but other times they seem to just pile on with every word that comes out of their mouths. Sometimes we cry out for God and…what? We wait. And wait. And wait.
And in those moments, we will occasionally try to talk ourselves up; to talk our way out of the valley and back to the fertile plains. This psalmist tried that too. Look at v. 5 now: “Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God.” Have you tried something like that too? Come on now! Get up and get going again. There’s no reason you should be down like this? Just trust in Jesus and everything will be fine. I’m fine. Except…he wasn’t. And maybe you weren’t either.
Verse 6: “I am deeply depressed; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” The psalmist mentions these places not necessarily because they are significant in and of themselves, but because they were far from Jerusalem which was the place he was going to be able to encounter the Lord. In other words, even though his thoughts are focused in God’s direction as he struggles through this depression, he still feels far from Him. He feels like he’s being tossed around in the waves of the sea as he desperately clamors to find footing. “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your billows have swept over me.”
Once again, this is something we can understand. You’ve been in that place where you were crying desperately for God, reaching up with everything that was in you, and you just felt far from Him. I’ve been there too. It’s a discouraging place to be. But that’s life. Sometimes in life we’re not fine. Trying to say or pretend we are won’t help anybody, least of all us.
Still, though, the psalmist does understand God’s character. In spite of his struggles, he knows who God is. He knows that there isn’t anywhere else to turn. So he tries yet again to remind himself: “The Lord will send his faithful love by day; his song will be with me in the night—a prayer to the God of my life.” I’m fine!
But he’s just not. Look at what comes next, and doesn’t this just spell out how life so often goes? We lift ourselves up and are feeling better and then… “I will say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” But wasn’t he just reminding himself of God’s faithfulness? Now he’s back to wondering where He is…just like we do in life. It’s a rollercoaster. It’s a rollercoaster sometimes caused by the actions of other people. “Why must I go about in sorrow because of the enemy’s oppression? My adversaries taunt me, as if crushing my bones, while all day long they say to me, ‘Where is your God?’” It’s bad enough when we’ve caused the funk we are in. When someone else is to blame or is simply piling on, we’re just adding insult to injury. Bottom line: we’re not fine.
So, what do we do? Well, right here at the end of the psalm, the psalmist repeats himself. In a culture without tweets and texts and screenshots or graphics or anything like that, one of the ways authors made themselves memorable was with repetition. When you see something repeated, it means the author really wanted you to remember that part. Okay, well, what does the author want us to remember here? Listen to this: “Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God.”
Why repeat this? What’s so special about this? Didn’t we already say that happy self-talk isn’t always going to pull us out of the tailspin? It won’t, but that’s not what he’s doing here. Well, it’s not the only thing he’s doing here. He’s calling himself and resolving to remember the character of God. He’s reminded himself of the good times of the past already. He knows what it feels like to be right with the Father, to have Him right by his side. He knows that God will give such times. And, if He’s done it before, His very consistent character points to the fact that He’ll do it again. The psalmist has also reminded himself of God’s faithful love. It’s a love that will not leave. This is the love that comes only from God; it is unique to Him. It’s a love that persists in spite of everything in us that might try and drive it away. Day and night, our faithful God will not leave us.
In other words, as the psalmist has trudged through this valley, struggling every step of the way, he has been desperately reminding himself of who God is. It’s not easy, and his gaze keeps slipping back down to the chaos unfolding within him and around him, but each time it seems that it will overwhelm him entirely, he looks up and is able to take another step forward. And again, I ask: Have you been there? Are you there now? You say, “I’m fine,” whenever anybody asks you how you’re doing, but you’re not. You’re as far from it as you could possibly be. At least, that’s how it feels.
Can I share something with you this morning: That’s okay. It’s fine if you aren’t fine. It’s okay to be not okay. Jesus loves you anyway. Being fine all the time isn’t how life works. You know it. I know it. This psalmist understood it. Even when it seems like we’re doing everything right, sometimes what’s on the inside doesn’t match the outside. And when those days…or seasons…come—seasons this psalmist knew all too intimately—we can see right here what we need to do. In spite of the pain and the anxiety and the depression and the chaos, we look up. We look up and remember who God is. We remember our heavenly Father who loves us with a perfect love and is absolutely committed to our good, and trust that He hasn’t changed. Because if He hasn’t changed, then we can still face tomorrow. When anxiety comes, focus on the Father.
Now, will that magically solve all our problems? Will that be like waving a wand and making our sorrows flee? No. Think again about the psalmist’s journal here. He kept falling back down into the valley. His gaze kept slipping. His focus kept getting overwhelmed by the immediacy of the hard moment he was in. Focusing on the Father didn’t make all his trouble magically vanish, but it did allow him to take another step forward. When anxiety comes, focus on the Father. It’ll still hurt. Sometimes it’ll keep hurting long past when we want it to stop hurting, but that vision of what is truly real—because although the pain hurts, it won’t last forever—will give you the strength to take the next step toward the kingdom. When anxiety comes, focus on the Father.
That’s how life works. That’s reality while we wait for Christ’s return. It sure would be nice, though, if there were a way to keep the anxiety at bay in the first place. Well, if you’ll come back next week, we’ll talk about that very thing.