Thirsting for God

It is often the case that we only begin to appreciate what really matters in life when, for some reason, we have lost it. We say, ‘absence make the heart grow fonder’ when we are forced to be away from someone we love deeply. Or, ‘you don’t know what you have until you have lost it’ when we realise how much we have taken something for granted. The same is true in a much deeper sense when it comes to our appreciation of God and what it means to enjoy communion with him.

This comes out in the well-known opening words of Psalm 42 where the psalmist declares, ‘As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’ (42.1-2). The catalyst for his writing these words is born out of deep sense of being deprived of communion with God as he had once known it.

Although many commentators choose to view this psalm as the cry of a depressed person, Calvin sees it as relating specifically to the loss we experience as God’s people when we are deprived of the means of grace in public worship. Calvin is adamant that, notwithstanding its ascription to the Sons of Korah, its author was David and he penned it in one of his several exiles. Although he knew he was not separated from the presence of God in real terms, nevertheless he was deprived of the means by which God makes himself known to his people. Calvin says of them, ‘they are religious exercises which we cannot bear to want [be without] by reason of our infirmity.’

That remark should give us all pause for thought – not least as so many churches have had to make radical adjustments to the way we dispense the means of grace during the current pandemic. Much and all as we are grateful for the technology and software that allows God’s family to meet online; for pastors and their people alike, this arrangement soon begins to feel horribly second best. The memory of what we had when it was freely available not that long ago only serves to fuel a spiritual ache that should give us pause for thought.

If the psalmist found himself reaching for such an intense form of words – a deer desperately panting for streams of water – to capture his inward longing for God, we should reflect on how content we are with the present arrangement. To appreciate what lay behind this striking statement, we need to follow through the way that David traces it to its source.

He speaks of coming to ‘appear before God’ (42.2). Even though he knew he could never escape the presence of God (Ps 139.7), David makes it clear that what he longs for is to meet with God once more in the tabernacle in the company of the wider covenant community of his people.

He remembers going up together with the faithful, singing even before the formal worship had begun, but eagerly anticipating the joy of meeting with God in the unique way that is bound up with the stated times for worship – again, as Calvin coins it, ‘in the face of God.’ Picking up on the expression translated, ‘These things I remember as I pour out my soul’ (42.4), the Reformer offers what he sees as a preferable translation: ‘I rejoiced greatly’ carrying the sense of being ‘melted or dissolved in joy.’

What a benchmark for how we anticipate worship on the Lord’s Day! The very prospect of meeting with our brothers and sisters to glorify our triune God should arouse the deepest joy imaginable. One wonders how many of us have become so accustomed to the ‘new normal’ of remote worship in absentia that our spiritual senses have been dulled and our appetite for God has become jaded.

Perhaps it is because we subliminally detach the means of grace from the God of grace to whom they are meant to draw us. That, in hearing his living word read and proclaimed, singing that word in the psalms and hymns that bear its contours, God is engaging with us and we with him. So too with the sacraments which are intended to as God’s multisensory communion with and commitment to us. Or as we savour the fellowship of brothers and sisters whose deepest bond is the Christ to whom we are bound in salvation, to know that it is the Lord Jesus himself, by his Spirit who animates this special relationship. None of this can be fully replicated by worship from home.

Out of all the many ways Covid has stoked deep dissatisfactions within us, the deepest of them all should be our not being able to meet and worship as we used to. Not because of the act of worship in itself; but because of how God uses these means to impart himself to us. As this situation drags on, we should be encouraged if we find ourselves reaching for the opening lines of this psalm, because then we will know how much we really long for God.

Mark Johnston