A few years ago I remember talking to Gavin McGilvray while he served in the Marine Corps in southern California. The challenges of the service did not bother him; that was why he enlisted. Future deployment overseas during a war was not on his mind either. Instead, our conversation centered on how far removed he was from the church and being able to worship with his brethren. In fact, some youth had taken it upon themselves to call during worship so he could listen and participate. This became a major motivation that led quickly to live-streaming Bible Class and worship. But during that conversation, certain wording Gavin chose stood out to me. He said, “I’m starving here!” The Marine Corps kept him supplied with regular meals, but they could not supply spiritual nourishment. And this reminded me a great deal of Psalm 42 where the sons of Korah began, saying, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, 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?” (Psa. 42:1-2).
The psalmist’s lament depicts a feeling of living and serving in a spiritually desolate area where a relationship with God is undervalued. Rather than having others’ encouragement, the people offer discouragement and doubt (Psa. 42:3), draining the soul rather than nourishing it. Surely many a missionary, isolated and perhaps lonely in an area where Christians are few and encouragement minimal can identify with such a sentiment! It remains a difficult challenge to this day. But what is one to do? The psalmist recalls a time when he enjoyed the beauty of fellowship with a multitude, when worship was a joy and praise abundant, when the people gathered to do God’s will (Psa. 42:4). Such reflection could be difficult, but the results are powerful. This memory is important in finding assurance that the work is worthwhile and that there is indeed always hope in God (Psa. 42:5). So even while away from large numbers of the faithful and separated by a vast distance from others of like precious faith, we may be far away from others, but we can still be close to God (Psa. 42:6-7). This realization—the power of faith, the power of God’s love, and the power of prayer—helps overcome the sadness and the loneliness because we can bring our concerns and cares before the throne of the Almighty (Psa. 42:8-9). This does not change the circumstances we face—not at all. The godless will still challenge us, our enemies will still mock us (Psa. 42:10). However, this should never be a reason for alarm, nor become a reason to give up. There is still hope, because God is still my God, and He has given us no reason to doubt Him (Psa. 42:11).
Every Christian may one day face some circumstance where he feels cut off—stranded even—in the midst of nowhere spiritually. You might find yourself away from family, away from your home congregation, away from practically everyone, whether due to a decision of your own or one of your employer. You might be a missionary or a marine. It does not matter. But at some point you will feel a great ache deep inside, a thirst for God. It is a hard thing. But if you use it as the psalm describes, you can be stronger—rather than weaker—for it.