Comfort and Hope in Distress 

 

In times of real emotional distress it can be so hard to know where to turn for help. We need something to anchor us and give us a sense of assurance and yet because of the inner chaos that emotional distress brings, it can feel that we cannot settle long enough for anything to really help.

During a time of acute anxiety and depression in my own life I found great comfort and support in reading the Psalms. I wanted to feel that God knew me and understood how I felt, even though I was really struggling to feel his presence in my life. The Psalms seemed to consistently resonate with my pain without judgement or a coded prompt that I should be trying harder.

Throughout my struggle, it was Psalm 42 that became a regular refuge to me. I hoped to share some of my favourite parts of this psalm with you, so that should you be going through a tough time in your life, it might also be a great comfort to you. (It may help to read the whole of Psalm 42 through before you continue with this article)

 

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?

 

Painfully, it is at times of emotional distress that God can seem to be the furthest away. I have never been clear as to why this is, although I am assured by my clinical colleagues that changes to your brain chemistry when dealing with issues like anxiety or depression can ‘switch off’ feelings of faith. The fact that the Psalmist felt this frustration can help us know that we are not alone and that ‘lack of connection’ feeling, is not a material reality but just a change in our feelings.
 

My tears have been my food day and night.


Sleep is so often disturbed when we are distressed. At one point when I was unwell I was having multiple panic attacks throughout the night. I became terrified of going to sleep and I remember lying in my bed, tears running down my face, staring at the ceiling and just longing for the dawn.

If you find the night time hard, it can help to know that you aren’t alone and that there are countless others longing for the dawn with you, just like the Psalmist.

 

People say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”


When you are distressed, well-meaning friends can sometimes say the least helpful things. Sometimes Christian friends can respond with; “Where is your God? I will tell you where, he is right here and he is going to use this difficulty for his glory!” They may make simple assumptions like, “You just need to choose joy over sadness,” or “You should rebuke fear and choose faith!”

The Psalmist found his struggle compounded by what people said to him, as did Job. My encouragement is to try and see the sentiment behind their words rather than taking offence too early. At the same time, know that it is OK to decline people’s assistance and challenge people's assumptions if you need to.

 

These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.


When you are struggling with emotional distress be suspicious about where your mind goes. Typically it will do two things, firstly it will focus on all of your mistakes and weaknesses and secondly it will remind you of all the wonderful times you have had in your life. At the same time it will suggest that you will never have any good times again!

Somehow whilst the lows feel lower, the past highs seem brighter and even more wonderful. I was sure that I would never again feel the sort of joy that the Psalmist is recalling, I just couldn’t imagine being back in that place. And yet despite my pessimism, six month later I reconnected with joy.

 

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.


The breaking point in this Psalm comes with the ability to objectify ones experience. The Psalmist changes gear when we speaks to the sorrowful place within him like a friend. I like his compassionate and thoughtful tone as it contrasts to the accusations of ‘the people’.

When we are distressed we typically find it envelops us completely, but when we can bring some objectivity and talk to ourselves kindly we often find a change in our experience. This isn’t some kind of false optimism from the Psalmist, it is about him speaking God’s hope and compassion over himself.

 

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.


Anger and disappointment are central parts of emotional distress, failing to verbalise our difficult emotions can leave them stewing toxically within us for longer than necessary. I love the way the Psalmist describes his experience back to God, regardless of whose ‘fault’ any of this is. He doesn’t try to make his words religious, he just describes his powerful experience, the desolation of it all, and his vulnerability in the face of the ‘waves and breakers.’

Try telling God exactly how you feel about him right now, without religious language or timidity.

 

By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.


When I was unwell I would walk to a fountain in the park near our flat. I can still remember looking at it one day, having read this verse, and seeing the jets of water flowing out of the statues hand. The water represented God’s love for me and I looked on at the huge flow thinking, “Maybe God does still love me but I am just struggling to feel the flow of it.”

I started to act like the Psalmist, assuming the love of God was with me and trying to do anything I could to get into the ‘flow’. Initially I had to push through my inclination to withdraw and blame God, but gradually my prayer life returned. (Even though my pain was initially like the elephant in the room!)

 

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?


Emotional distress comes in waves, and is often worse at certain times of the day or night. Another thing I love about this Psalm is that it doesn’t suggest that things are better all of the time: The Psalmist seems to go backwards as well as forwards.

If you feel the same, don’t work too much, recovery is often a dance, you take a few steps forward and a few backwards. What is important isn’t these daily steps but the overall flow of recovery. Notice here that the Psalmist seems to be very distressed again, yet notice that he is also having a conversation with God; something that was not happening earlier in the psalm.

 

My bones suffer mortal agony.


Unless you have been there, you would never know how physically painful emotional distress is. From feelings of nausea and dread, to aches, pains, shivers, sickness, loss of appetite, sleeplessness and exhaustion. You are not imagining it. Emotional distress actually hurts.
 

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.


There is no sense of triumphalism at the end of Psalm 42, but there the quite resolve, “I will yet prise him.” In recovery from emotional distress, ‘getting away from it’ is always counter-productive: Escapism never allows us to grow up or find peace, we just end up on a perpetual road trip through life trying to avoid the rain. Which, as you will know, is impossible!

My recovery began long before my painful emotions and sensations left. Recovery began when I reconnected with hope. I have a small picture of ‘hope’ written in the sand on a beach. I look at it every day, reminded that hope is written on my heart but that the waves and breakers and never far away and that in all this the Lord directs his love over me.

With prayers for the journey.

Will Van Der Hart, 20/02/2017