The Spiritual Discipline of Talking to Yourself

When God’s word tells us one thing, and our feelings tell us another, which way do we go?

Anson Kroeker on June 30, 2019
The Spiritual Discipline of Talking to Yourself
June 30, 2019

The Spiritual Discipline of Talking to Yourself

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Passage: Psalm 42-43
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Do you talk to yourself?

Maybe you’re one of those people who catches yourself actually talking out loud to yourself. Or maybe, it’s others who catch you. I’ve sometimes walked up to someone who is talking to themselves, and it’s common for them to get embarrassed and say something like, “I’m allowed to talk to myself as long as I don’t answer back!”

Maybe you don’t think you talk to yourself. But haven’t you ever been working by yourself and you finally got that broken thing fixed, and you say something like “yes!” Or maybe you’ve felt discouraged about something, and you’ve let loose a big old sigh, even though there was no-one around to hear you.

Even if we never do talk out loud, most of us talk to ourselves on the inside. According to psychologists, we’re usually engaged in one form or another of silent reflection orinner monologue. We each are our own personal sports commentator, chattering away to ourselves about everything and anything.

Most of us do a really good job at this internal commentary. Most of us also do a really good job at listening to our own personal commentary. Nobody ever trained us to do this; nobody ever sat us down and said “listen to yourself and trust yourself.” It just comes naturally. We very naturally accept our own conclusions.

And then you throw in the whole matter of our emotions. The way that we feel. We’re constantly feeling all kinds of things about everything. And again, most of the time, we do a pretty good job of accepting, at face value, whatever our emotions are telling us.

If we feel upset, we assume we have good reason to be upset. If we feel like someone doesn’t care about us, we assume that they must not care about us. If we feel unloved, we assume we are unloved. In so many of our relationships, we don’t care if someone is telling us the truth, we just care about how they make us feel. We have this high priority and high level of trust in our own feelings.

Now here’s where we’re going with all of this: we’ve been working though this series on the Psalms, and we’ve seen, many times, how the Psalms deal with our emotions, including sorrow and sadness and even depression. One-third of the Psalms are Psalms of lament, and these lament Psalms encourage us to talk to God, honestly, about what’s going on inside our hearts.

And it’s so important that we learn how to do that. But we would be making a huge mistake if we just left it there. It’s not just a matter of feeling terrible, telling it to God, and that’s it.

Because what if our emotions are not reliable? What if they are lying to us? What if our feelings are less important than we think? What if our thinking, our internal commentator, is confused? What if we can’t trust ourselves to tell us the truth?

If that was the case, then in order to properly deal with our emotions, especially experiences like sorrow and depression and fear, we would need a better approach than to just listen to ourselves. We would need a better way forward than just trusting our own thinking and feeling.

And this morning we’re going to find this better way forward laid out for us in Psalms 42 & 43.


Why Two Psalms?

Now just a quick word on why two Psalms this morning. I think many of you probably noticed, as we read these two Psalms out loud together earlier, how well they fit together. Each of the Psalms deals with the identical situation. Psalm 43:5 repeats the exact same set of words that we heard twice in Psalm 42. Psalm 43 has no title that introduces a new author or situation. And not surprisingly, there’s a number of Hebrew manuscripts which list these two together as one Psalm.

Many scholars suggest that these belong together as one unit, a single song with three verses and a chorus that’s repeated three times. And so we’re going to consider them both together this morning.


The Psalmist’s Situation

Let’s start exploring them by considering the situation that the author is facing. From what we can piece together, the Psalmist is a faithful Israelite has been cut off from worshipping God at the temple.

That sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? It sounds like Psalm 84, which Wes preached on a couple of weeks ago.

You’ll remember how important the temple was to Israel. Three times a year they had to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to “appear before the Lord God” (Exodus 23:17). That was their only access to God's presence, their only access to forgiveness, and it was a really big deal when they couldn’t be there.

So Psalm 42 starts off in a similar place to Psalm 84. “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?” (Psalm 42:1–2).

We see that longing for God’s presence in the temple. But there’s a big difference here. In Psalm 84, the Psalmist appeared to have some level of hope or expectation that he could go to the temple to worship. He talks about those who make the pilgrimage and how blessed they are.

But here in Psalms 42 & 43, there’s no hope of that journey. The Psalmist has been cut off from the temple and he can’t get there. It sounds like he’s either a refugee for some reason, or he’s fully in exile, far away from the land. And he’s surrounded by enemies who are hostile to his faith.

We pick up on that in 42:3: “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” Or 42:10: “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?’”

So that’s his situation. He’s cut off from the presence of God in the temple, and he’s surrounded by enemies who are taunting him about that constantly.

Now that alone would be hard. But what makes it worse is that these experiences are things that God promised would never happen to his people if they obeyed Him. And in fact, being removed from the land and being at the mercy of your enemies were curses that God said would fall on those who disobeyed and broke His covenant.

But it sure doesn’t sound like the Psalmist is one of those people who disobeyed God and broke his covenant. He sounds like one who is faithful, one who loves God and longs for Him like a deer for water.

And yet, he’s suffering these covenant curses instead of God’s blessing. And so it looks like he’s been completely abandoned by God. It seems like like God is treating him in a cruel and unusual way.

Look at 42:7: “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” He feels like he’s drowning, and the water he’s drowning in is God’s water. God’s breakers and waves. God is doing this to him.

42:9: “I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me?”

43:2: “For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me?”

That’s what his circumstances seem to suggest: that God has completely forgotten about him.

And how does he feel about this?

He feels sorrow. We already heard about his tears and sleeplessness in verse 3. 42:9 and 43:2 describe his mourning. But one of the most descriptive statements comes in the second half of verse 5 when he says, “My soul is cast down within me.”

A down-cast soul. Lowness. That’s the literal sense of the word depression.

Do you know what a down-cast soul feels like? Have you had the feeling that God has completely forgotten about you? That God is absent? That sense of absolute hopelessness?

Many of you know what that feels like.


Sad About the Right Things

Now before we go any further, I want to quickly highlight that even in this place of lowness and sorrow, the Psalmist is setting an example for us. Because what is he sad about? Just think. He’s probably a refugee or an exile. He’s away from the comforts of his home, his family, his friends.There’s lots he could complain about.

But he is sad because he misses and longs for God.

His enemies bother him, not because they are a threat to his comfort, but because they are taunting him about the absence of God.

In other words, this Psalmist is sad about the right things. He is sad because he loves God more than anything else. There’s a whole sermon right there for us to reflect on.


Talking to Himself

But what we’re going to focus on this morning is what the Psalmist does about his sadness. Because despite what he feels, he actually knows better. He knows that God hasn’t actually abandoned Him. He knows that God promised He would never leave or forsake His people (Deuteronomy 31:6).

And He knows that God specifically promised, for example in Deuteronomy 30, that if His people repented of their sin and turned back to Him, He would bring them back into the land and back into His presence. This exile will not be permanent.

So on the one side he’s got all his circumstances, all the ways that his mind has interpreted those circumstances, and all of his emotions—his feelings of sorrow and hopelessness.

And then on the other side he’s got God’s word, and the specific promises from God about who God is and what God will do.

So what does the Psalmist do? Does he keep listening to himself, to his own internal monologue? Does he trust his feelings? Does he conclude that because God feels absent, God must be absent, and therefore God’s word is mistaken?

No. That’s not what he does. Instead of questioning God’s word, He questions himself. He puts his trust in God despite what his feelings are telling him. And instead of just listening to himself, he begins to talk to himself.

Just listen to these key words from Psalm 42 verse 5. “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.”

Who is he talking to there? He’s not talking to God. He’s not talking to someone else. He’s talking to himself. “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” What’s going on in there, self? Why are you in this spot?

This is not the only time in the Psalms that we see this kind of self-talk. We see it in Psalm 103, for example. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Psalm 103:1). We sang those words earlier this morning. And there’s a handful of other Psalms where we see the same thing.

And this language is showing us something so important. Several decades ago the Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones reflected on this language in this Psalms, specifically in Psalm 42, and he wrote these words:

I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow ourself to talk to us instead of talking to our self… Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself in stead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday., etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing the self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ He asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.’ …The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. 1Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 20-21.

And that is really the main point of the message this morning. Every single one of us must become a preacher. A preacher of truth to ourselves. We must do what this Psalmist does. Instead of just listening to ourselves, we have to tell ourselves the truth.

So what I want us to do, for the next few minutes here, is look a little closer at how the Psalmist talks to himself and what he says, to see what we can learn from this. There’s four main things I want us to notice.


1) He’s Aware of Himself

First, notice that the Psalmist is aware of the state that he’s in. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” He knows that his soul is cast down and in turmoil. He’s aware of what’s going on in his heart and his mind.

I point this out because many of us don’t do this very well. We start feeling sad or hopeless and we instantly just start doing stuff to try and feel better. We open the fridge or turn on the TV or unlock our phones or whatever it is we do to numb the pain.

But the Psalmist has a healthy awareness of himself. He’s studied himself, he’s analyzed himself, and he knows where he’s at.

And I think we can learn from this. There is such a thing as healthy introspection—looking inward.

So that’s the first point. He’s aware of himself.


2) He Questions Himself

The second thing I want us to notice is that he questions himself. He doesn’t let himself off the hook. He doesn’t just say “I feel this way, so there.”

That is the way that so many of us operate! We take our feelings way too seriously. But this is not something that God taught us. The Bible never tells us to do this. Author Rachel Jankovic has put it this way:

We Christians need to stop thinking of our feelings as insights. Our feelings are instead something that we need to manage. When our feelings are acting up, who is to discipline them? We are. Who is to treat them with reverence? No one... Christians should be far more inclined to view our feelings like a bunch of monkeys that we are responsible to keep in cages, train, and disregard completely when they are acting up. 2Rachel Jankovic, You Who? (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2019), 180-181.

And that’s what the Psalmist is doing here. Instead of trusting himself, he questions himself. “Why are you cast down, O my soul? Why are you in turmoil within me?”

These are rhetorical questions. A question that you ask when you already know the answer. Parents, it’s like when you ask your kids, “What were you thinking?” You know the answer: “Nothing.” And that’s why you asked the question. To make that point.

And these questions here are much the same. “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” What’s your problem, soul?  Give me one good reason for why you’re feeling that way? And the implication is that there is no good reason. His soul shouldn’t be cast down.


3) He Speaks the Truth to Himself

Instead, his soul should be uplifted as it trusts in God’s promises. And it’s those promises he reminds himself of as he begins doing the third thing I want us to notice, which is speak the truth to himself. “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:5b-6a).

God promised in His word that the exile will not be permanent. God promised in His word that those who were faithful to Him would be brought back into His presence. And so he tells himself the truth. Don’t be cast down, soul. Hope in God! Believe that God can and will do what He promised.

And then I just love the next part of this statement: “I shall again praise him.” In other words, I’m not praising him right now, but I know that I will. It is dark right now, and I can’t see the sun, but I know it is going to rise. “I shall again praise him.” I don’t feel that, but I know it on the authority of God’s word. This darkness will not have the final word.


4) He Repeats It

So that’s what the Psalmist does. He’s understands himself, he questions himself, and he speaks the truth to himself.

But if that’s all he did, it still wouldn’t be enough. There’s one more thing he still needs to do. And that is: he repeats it. He does these three things again and again.

And this is why it’s important for us to take Psalm 42 and 43 together and see how they fit. Because how many times does this Psalmist repeat these exact same words to himself? Three times.

He says them to himself for the first time in verse 5 and 6. But as we keep reading verse 6, it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference. “My soul is cast down within me.” Preaching to himself hasn’t really helped.

But maybe that’s not quite true. There’s a little inkling of hope in verse 8. “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 42:8). He does have some awareness that God is with Him.

But in verse 9 and 10 he’s right back to the darkness and the sorrow. So in verse 11, he addresses himself again with the exact same words. “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 42:11).

And when Psalm 43 opens, we finally do see a small difference. He’s moved from complaining to praying. “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause” (Psalm 43:1a). That’s a step in the right direction. Then there’s the same thing in verse 3: “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!” (Psalm 43:3).

He’s praying for God to do what He promised to do. And it’s after this prayer that we get the first real whiff of hope in verse 4: “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.” (Psalm 43:4).

This sounds really hopeful. But apparently the struggle continues. Because look at how Psalm 43 ends. “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 43:5).  He sings the chorus one more time.

And there’s such an important lesson for us here as we see how the Psalmist is persistent. He doesn’t give up. His emotions haven’t stopped talking, and so neither does he. He keeps going until he has the last word with himself.

So many times we give up so easily. We read the Bible once or twice, we pray a couple of times, and we don’t feel any different, so we stop. We give in. We let ourselves win the argument.

But if we really believe that God’s word is true, then we will keep preaching it to ourselves regardless of how we feel.


What About Us?

Now let’s think a little bit more about you and I for a few moments. In those times when things seem hopeless, when we feel sorrowful and cast down and in turmoil, our specific circumstances might seem quite different then the Psalmist. We’re not in ancient Israel, separated from the temple.

But on the other hand, maybe things are much the same. Just like him, we might feel abandoned by God. Just like him, it might seem like God has forgotten about it and has stopped keeping His promises to us.

And, just like him, but in a far greater way, we have access to God’s word which is loaded with promises that tell us the way that things really are and the way that things really will be.

And if you’ve ever unsure of where to find these promises, a great starting place is Romans 8. That chapter is just dripping with promises for every believer in Jesus.

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39).

There are times—maybe right now—when these words will not feel true to you.

And when that happens you can foolishly choose to trust your feelings, or you can do what the Psalmist here does. You can question yourself. You can doubt our own emotions. And you can preach the truth to yourself again and again and again.


Jesus

As I end this message, there’s so many things I want to say. I want to encourage you all to be spending regular time in God’s word, meditating and memorizing it, so that you know what God’s promises are so that you can preach them to yourself. That’s so important.

But mainly, I want us to end this morning by thinking about Jesus. Because as we do what Psalm 42 & 43 show us what to do, do you know whose footsteps we’re following in? Not just this Psalmist. No, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

The night Jesus was betrayed, as he went to pray in Gethsemane, He took some of His disciples aside and said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’” (Matthew 26:38).

It’s not so clear in English, but in the original language, when Jesus says “My soul is very sorrowful,” he is quoting from Psalm 42 and 43.

He was looking ahead to the experience of the cross and knew that it was going to feel like His Father had completely turned His back on Him, like they were totally cut off from each other.  And you know what? In a very real sense, that really did happen. Jesus did become a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). He was “smitten by God” (Isaiah 53:4).

But Jesus knew that this experience was not going to be permanent. He knew that there was a resurrection coming. And so “…for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2).

And that is the truth that we need to preach to our hearts again and again. The gospel. The death and the resurrection of Jesus, for us. Jesus was forsaken so that we never would be. And we know that if we suffer with Him, we will also be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17), just like He suffered and was glorified.

We’re going to end here by singing a song that celebrates Jesus, who He is, what He’s done, and all that is true for us as a result. Let this be the truth that we leave here today believing, whether we feel like it or not. And let this be the truth that we preach to ourselves. And preach to ourselves. And preach to ourselves.