I am a bit scared to share this one. People judge a lot for this. But I hope it can help someone–maybe you, maybe someone you love–and if so, I want to do what I can.
The truth is, there are days for me when it’s hard to get out of bed, hard to pray, hard to breathe. There are days when just being takes all my energy. It isn’t because I’m lazy, it isn’t because I lack motivation. It isn’t even because I’m unfaithful. I struggle with depression and I have some dark days.
I have days when doing anything at all feels exhausting. Some of those days I’ll sit and read my Bible and pray and the clouds lift and the weight comes off my chest. But others, I’m praying and exercising and eating healthy and doing everything I know how to do and it doesn’t seem to change anything. Or maybe because I’m doing those things it doesn’t get worse, but it’s like I’m fighting to a standstill.
My father was diagnosed bi-polar. Genetically, that means I’m about four times more likely to develop this condition than someone without a close relative who is bipolar. About 10% of children with a bi-polar parent will exhibit symptoms themselves. So that’s fun. I didn’t get to choose; those are my cards. God loves me. I’m His. He’s given me gifts and He uses me for His Kingdom. And I also have to be vigilant about my mental and emotional health, probably more vigilant than many people, and I walk through some tough days.
God might heal me completely someday. Then again, compared with what I saw my dad suffer, God has mercifully spared me already.
Right this second, a number of people are re-evaluating me, trying to make what I’ve just said fit with their picture of me. I may have just lost a bit of standing with certain people. Someone else is saying, “Oh, my gosh, me, too!” It may look different on you than me, but the core is the same.
One of the funnest things about depression is the shame, the feeling that something fundamental is wrong with me and if people knew, they would…well, they would think as lowly of me as I sometimes think of myself. And that would be a bummer. So the predictable response to depression is to isolate, because a)you don’t feel like doing anything, and b)telling other people you’re like this is a huge risk.
That’s not an unfounded fear, either. I’ve certainly encountered people who don’t understand depression and who assume that it’s just self-pity or a lack of faith or laziness. Part of understanding is knowing what these words we use so freely mean. I need to define things so that we’re clear on our terms.
I’m quoting Archibald Hart, who was the Dean of the School of Psychology at Fuller Seminary when I was studying there:
Depression can be seen as a symptom, a disease, or a reaction. As a symptom, depression is part of the body’s warning system, calling attention to something that’s wrong. It alerts us to the fact that there has been a violation of some sort. Something is missing or lost. It can also be a symptom of something physically wrong. Depression accompanies a wide variety of physical disorders, such as influenza, cancer, and certain disturbances of our endocrine system. But depression is also a disease in itself. In its most severe form, the psychotic depressions, it is an illness category all its own. Known as a major depression, it has two forms: unipolar depression (one just gets severely depressed) and bipolar depression (alternating manic and depressed moods). Finally, depression can be a reaction to what is going on in life or more specifically, to significant losses one experiences. This last form is known as reactive depression. It’s the kind most people have to contend with in their daily lives. If we are emotionally healthy, we deal with those losses promptly, and the depression is short-lived. If we’re not, the depression lingers and may even get worse or chronic.
So depression is complex, and we’re really talking about 3 different categories with similar effects:
1)Depression as a symptom of things ranging from flu to cancer;
2)depression as a serious disease, and
3)depression as a reaction.
I think this is partly why people can get so confused and overwhelmed about depression, and why some people don’t understand what others go through. Most of us know what the flu feels like, how your body just seems to drop into low gear. Many of us here have suffered loss or grief, and reactive depression can hit hard and last for a while, and then gradually or suddenly lift again. A smaller number suffer depression as a disease, and this also has a range, from low-level doldrums to a crippling extreme that makes functioning in normal, everyday life impossible.
Jesus experienced depression. He certainly did.
What did Jesus feel in the garden of Gethsemane when he was preparing to face his arrest, torture, and murder?
He left the upper room with his disciples, who were singing a song together. He told them what was about to happen—how he would be betrayed and deserted—and they told him “No, you’re wrong.”
He went out to be alone with God but asked his three closest disciples to watch with him and they fell asleep. He asked them for help—one time in the Gospels where Jesus specifically asks for help—and they failed him.
“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and stay awake with me.” They fell asleep. He found them sleeping and rebuked them, then exhorted them not for him, but for their own sake, ”Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He goes off and prays in utter misery, so that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” He came back…and they were asleep again.
This is a perfect description of reactive depression. Of course it’s not sin; Jesus is suffering loss, he’s in agony, and his body is registering this physically.
Studies show that people who are in the “helping professions” experience reactive depression more often: social workers, community organizers, pastors, missionaries. That makes sense, because it’s a physiological response to loss. It’s one stage of grief. When someone you love and have been helping makes horrible decisions and/or walks away from God, you feel depressed. You may not exhibit the symptoms I described earlier. You may have different coping mechanisms to deal with it. Or you may be internalizing these losses and pushing on, which almost always leads to problems later.
But everyone experiences depression from external events that impact us strongly. When we’re deeply invested in people, we’re going to face pain and sorrow with them, and because of them. Would any parents disagree?
The disease level of depression is often triggered less from external conditions and more from internal mechanisms, from brain chemistry out of balance. But studies show—and believe me, I’ve studied this—that genetic and environmental components also play a part. This is where people who haven’t experienced severe depression can misunderstand what’s happening to those suffering it. I’ve already touched on this, but I’m going to say it more directly:
Depression is not sin, and telling people to “just get over it” is akin to telling people with physical diseases to “get over it.”
Depression can lead to sin; it can make us more vulnerable to sin. But condemning people for being depressed is badly misunderstanding what is happening to them. Telling people that they’re depressed because they lack faith is like telling someone with diabetes or cancer that they are sick because they don’t have enough faith. That’s behaving like Job’s “friends”: “Gosh, you’ve got problems–you must really be an awful sinner!”
I don’t claim to speak for all people suffering depression everywhere—I’m not signing up to be Poster Boy for Depressed Folks—and please forgive me if my description does not helpfully address what you experience. But I am going to give you four truths that I know about depression.
#1: God knows.
Scripture addresses depression. Have you read Psalm 88? What’s different about this Psalm? It doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t end with a rallying cry of hope and a declaration of faith. Most of the Psalms, even the most downer-sounding of them, conclude with God’s faithfulness, God’s judgment on the wicked (those wicked often being the cause of the downer-ness), and a reaffirmation of hope in God.
In God’s wisdom, we also have Psalm 88. There aren’t dozens of Psalms that end with “life sucks,” which I take as a guideline not to wallow in our pain. But there is one, which I take to be a promise that God understands and that our struggles are not unique; we are not alone. Though depression always makes you feel isolated and cut off from humanity, that is not true—you are not alone in feeling this way! The psalmist felt the same way, and this is part of our Scripture. Psalm 88 is a prayer. It’s a cry to God for help in despondency. “O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.”
The writer goes on, “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with your waves.”
It’s easy to blame God when you feel this way. The psalmist totally does: “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cnanot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. “But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;I have borne your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me.You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.”
The writer doesn’t say, “There’s this situation right now that is really getting me down.” “From my youth I have suffered and been close to death.” We don’t know the objective situation of the writer, we don’t know how bad things are, but we know the psalmist feels miserable and describes this as a long-term struggle, “from my youth.”
This may be a lifelong battle with depression, or this may be how, when you’re depressed, everything can seem horrible, including your entire life retroactively. God knows. I think this is validation. Feeling depression, even long term, is just what some people deal with; these are the cards they drew. Or we drew. Depression is hard enough to deal with, without adding self-condemnation on top. It’s crucial to believe that God knows, He understands our situation.
#2 God is with us in our struggle.
Believe me, I am not saying this cheaply. It’s not a cliché for me. Not everyone considers Luke 22:39-46 a crucial passage for their faith. I do. Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane and he is miserable. I don’t love this passage because Jesus is miserable, I love this passage because God used it when I was most depressed to help me believe that He understands me and is with me, even in my darkest times. When our son died, I was furious with God and could no longer see how he loved me. I was refusing to accept Isaac’s death. I felt like if I told God it was okay that it happened, then I would have to accept it and go on. But it wasn’t okay. So I stayed angry and figuratively held my breath, demanding that God change it. He didn’t. He didn’t raise my son from the dead.
But this is what he showed me: Jesus prayed in the Garden, “Lord, if it be your will, take this cup from me.” That’s the most ludicrous prayer in the history of existence. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, The Incarnate Word of God who was Present at Creation, who knows better than God the Son that this is the plan for Redemption—and yet Jesus asks, “Could we change it now? Would that be possible? I will do your will, Father, but maybe we could try a different plan?”
What is that? That is Jesus’ heart. That is the intimacy between Son and Father, that Jesus prayed exactly what He felt, knowing full well that it was impossible, that God would not answer that prayer in the affirmative. For me, more than any other Scripture, this proves to me that God knows my suffering and is with me in my suffering, no matter how ludicrous my thoughts or how impossible my demands. This passage is bedrock for me. Because in depression, in grief, in our struggles down in the depths, we need to know more than anything else that God is with us. He is.
“If I make my bed in hell, you are there.”
#3 Healing means coming into the light.
Pain, injuries, depression, and bitterness, many things fester and grow worse in the dark. God’s healing is always in the Light. Keeping our secrets, whether because of shame or humilation or pride, does not lead us to life. Why does God choose to work that way?
I know many of us have prayed and prayed for healing and help in private, just us and God, and it sure seems reasonable that God would answer those prayers, for so many reasons. But God prefers to work through community. That is as clear as anything in Scripture. God’s Kingdom is communal; our prayer, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a corporate plea. The “me and Jesus” approach, for the most part, is not Biblical. Sorry, I’d often prefer it, too. But God heals us through our brothers and sisters. We seek God in community.
Our Enemy is much more convincing when we face him alone, when we have no one to remind us of the Truth. I never win arguments with Satan. Never. And sometimes I can just step back and let God defend me, but sometimes I’m not able to grasp the Truth that saves me without a human voice to remind me. That’s my weakness, yes, but that’s our condition. We are weak. And we’re inclined to believe lies.
I’m not saying that depression magically goes away when people speak God’s truth to us, but I know that one of the most crucial weapons in the battle against depression is people faithfully speaking what is true about us to confront the negative things we have internalized. You might be shocked by how loud and constant the negative voices in my head are; if you can’t relate, God bless you and I’m happy for you. Or you might sing this exact song with me, note for note. I don’t have an off switch for those voices, but one of the things that helps most is seeking the truth to confront the lies. I can do that by reading Scripture, by praying, and by hearing my brothers and sisters—and my wife—tell me what’s true about me.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” Bonhoeffer, Life Together
I need to make a caveat now. Not everyone can handle hearing what we suffer. Just like some of us suffer from depression and other mental struggles, some of us suffer from lack of compassion or empathy, and some simply have not yet reached the depth and maturity to walk with others through certain kinds of suffering. It takes wisdom and grace to handle hearing about someone else’s struggle, and it takes wisdom and discernment to choose the right person or people with whom to share these things. Sharing pain with someone who can’t handle it can make things worse for everyone. It’s important that we not think, “If I tell someone, I’ll automatically get better.” That belief can set us up for crushing disappointment.
One aspect of this is that some people struggle with depression at a level that will require more than a willing ear. I was a pastor for about 10 years and I’ve been in vocational ministry for coming on twenty. I had one, one, pastoral counseling class when I was in seminary. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve read a lot, I’ve receiving counseling and I’ve offered counseling, but I’m not capable of dealing with every level of depression. I can love people. But I also need to be able to recognize when I am out of my depth. Like I said before, that can be particularly difficult here, where it’s such a risk to let someone else see one’s struggle.
On the other hand, we have to walk carefully, because “This freaks me out” or “I don’t want to deal with your pain” is not the same as “I’m out of my depth.” I believe in both God’s power to heal and God’s use of our minds, education, and understanding. Psychology without the Gospel doesn’t have the heart of the Truth, but sometimes we need the Gospel applied with the tools psychology offers. Pray and ask for God’s leading before you open up.* Pray and ask for God’s leading if someone opens up to you. Keep their confidence, but if you suspect their struggle might be beyond what you can walk through—I don’t say “fix” or “heal,” but journey beside—then seek counsel.
#4 Final Truth: God is bigger.
God’s grace is bigger than however messed up and discouraged you or I might be. This is the bottom line. This is the most important thing I can tell you about depression. This is my choice to believe every day of my life. Depression is not sin, but we can sin in our depression, and it is easier to sin when we are depressed, believe me. But where sin abounds, Grace is Greater. Hear me: God’s Grace is always, ALWAYS, ALWAYS greater. I know it doesn’t feel that way. I am a very feeling-oriented person. But sometimes our feelings are just wrong. It’s not a sin to have wrong feelings, and sometimes those feelings are caused by brain chemistry that is not functioning correctly.
I told you my dad was bi-polar. He had so many untruths that he believed and battled every day. I watched this battle from long before I could understand what was going on, and he wanted to tell me his problems from much younger than I could handle hearing them (choosing your young child for your confidante: bad idea) and he passed on a lot of these characteristics and genetic dispositions to me. Here is my final Bonhoeffer quote:
We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.
I resented and even hated my father for a long time, especially before I became a Christian. Now I understand a lot better, both intellectually and viscerally. My life looks very different than his did, because he lived a Job life and didn’t come to peace with God until the last few of his 68 years. But God’s grace was greater than my dad’s pain, if only Dad could have availed himself of it decades early, and God’s grace is greater than my struggles. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ says that sorrow and depression and death do not have the final word. Even on the days when we feel like we’re hanging on by our fingertips—maybe especially on those days—God’s Grace has the final word, and that Word is Eternal, while this fight is temporary. I’m not one to tie up messy theological or existential struggles in neat little bows (depression and the death of a child defy those easy answers), but God is doing something in us through this struggle, because he never leaves bad things to rot; He is the Redeemer.
“And I know, as my Redeemer lives, that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been destroyed [and all this damnable misery with it], then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
*If you are depressed and have never prayed before, this could be the time to start. If you want to write me, please do.