Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God... Psalm 42:5
When I was a child I was told that talking to yourself is a sign of madness. I’m sure that’s not true, not necessarily anyway. But if it was, then the man who wrote Psalm 42 must have been mad (though you wouldn’t think so from the rest of the psalm).
Twice in the short psalm he breaks off from talking to God, which is what you expect in the psalms, and talks to himself. He asks himself two questions - “Why are you downcast?” and “Why are you so disturbed?” - and then gives himself a little talking to: “Hope in God!”
I recently came across a quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the well-known preacher and Bible-teacher of the late twentieth century. I haven’t got it in front of me, but it was something like: “Many of our problems in the Christian life arise because we spend far too much time listening to ourselves and far too little time talking to ourselves.”
I think he had a point; and I think the psalmist can help us to grasp it.
When we listen to ourselves we easily tend to give in to the mood of the moment. Something has happened that we don’t like, so that little inner voice asserts “It’s not fair! Why should that happen to me?” A hope we have is disappointed, and it’s “Oh, I’m fed up!”
The point is that our inner voice often stresses the negative rather than the positive. It is, putting it bluntly, the voice of the devil, and he is telling one of his lies. (The devil, remember, is called by Jesus “a liar and the father of lies”, John 8:44.)
But when we talk to ourselves it means - assuming we do it right, of course - that we challenge our moods, just like the psalmist. He questions the way he happens to be feeling, refusing to give in to it. And then he wags a finger at himself, preaching himself, if you like, a micro-sermon: “Put your hope in God! God is bigger than your mood. All right, things aren’t going for you as you would like, but that doesn’t alter the fact that God loves you and will work things out for you.” He counters the devil’s lies with God’s truth.
I imagine all of us from time to time have benefitted from a bit of a talking-to. A friend may have told us some home-truths; a preacher may have struck home in the sermon. And what happens? It stirs us up, putting a stop to any hint of self-pity. It gets us to roll our sleeves up and tackle whatever problem there might be, rather than cave in under it.
But of course there isn’t always a friend at hand; and we don’t have sermons on tap. So what are we to do? Well, we have to do for ourselves what they would have done if they had been around. We have to talk to ourselves.
I’m not saying it works like magic, of course. Nothing works like magic! And there are certainly times when our circumstances seem to be so much against us that a negative mood might take quite a bit of shifting. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic to anyone going through really hard times.
But the principle is right: the truth of God’s love and care for us is the ultimate antidote to the devil’s discouragement and the ups and downs of our moods.
I have a friend who, for reasons I won’t go into, has had massively low self-esteem all his life. He only has to walk down to the shops to feel that people - total strangers! - are looking down on him and despising him. He knows perfectly well (he’s been told often enough!) that it’s completely irrational to feel that way. But that’s the way he is.
Or perhaps I should say, the way he used to be. Why? Because slowly but surely he is learning to take a leaf out of the psalmist’s book and talk to himself, reminding himself of God’s truths. He has a little stock of Bible verses he can bring to mind and apply to his own situation. And little by little he is growing both as a Christian and as a person in general.
So how about it? Is there some aspect of your life where a bit of a talking-to, even a loving scolding, might be in order? There is? Well, why not take a look in the mirror to find out who should be doing the job?
Father, I know that when I have problems and difficulties I can’t just wish them away. But help me, please, to learn to take myself in hand and to speak your truth to my own heart. Amen.