Monday, December 3, 2012

What Does God Say About Depression?

Word association time: what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when the word “depression” is raised? Many people have strong views on what depression is about, but what does God say on the subject? How might we know other than to delve into the Scriptures in determining what God has said, and continues to say?
Firstly, it needs to be said, as we plunge straight into the depths in experiencing the calamitous despair of depression, that serious questioning of our existence is palpable.
Even people who have never experienced depression have had depressed days. Our existence involves us in the emotions—and none of us escape.
Let’s move on now to the Word of God—to times when the important biblical figures approached desperation and experienced despair:
Moses complained bitterly to the Lord, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”
— Numbers 11:15 (NRSV)
For Moses, in that situation and headspace, to be put to death would have been a blessing.
But, are we even supposed to speak to God like this? Are we to judge our own lives? Are we to wish for our own deaths?
We may undo our devotion to God by doubting that life can take us in this direction, where we might meet a destination-of-soul beyond sense.
God wants us to be more realistic than that. When we are not so naïve as to put ourselves beyond wishing it all away, we actually appreciate life a whole lot more. If characters like Moses and Job and Elijah all entertained their deaths—in the starkness of depression—we will too. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Then we may come to a time when our depression has come because of an external threat. Fear has induced our depression. Everyone gets scared. Even a brilliant and brave prophet in Elijah was once in fear for his life:
“But Elijah [having received the death threat from Jezebel] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors’.”
— 1 Kings 19:4 (NRSV)
Added to his fear was a sense of sheer disappointment at having let down God. Elijah was burned out, lonely, and seems to have lost his sense of purpose. But God encouraged Elijah by appearing before him; in “sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:12)
Experiences of God’s Presence are without doubt encouraging and revelatory.
But as we vacillate out of despair, reclaiming our energy for yet another hour, we might move from fatigue back into a place of bitter complaint.
Irritation and Agitation are close cousins within the family of Depression; just like Depression and Grief are long-lost siblings, and with them, Anxiety.
In depression, complaint is never too far away.
The Veracity of Bitter Complaint
We have all had desperately unfair times like these where Job was heard to say:
“I loathe my life;
I will give free utterance to my complaint;
I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.”
— Job 10:1 (NRSV)
It was bad enough that Job had lost his family, all his possessions, and had been afflicted by a painful skin disease. Now what makes matters worse is the antagonism in his ‘friends’.
We can deal with all sorts of challenges when we are afflicted with the support of empathy; of a listening ear; of just plain understanding.
But when we have no support, whilst we are in the presence of circumstances that have betrayed us, how else would we respond but complain, at least initially?
Joshua said, “Ah, Lord God! Why have you brought this people across the Jordan at all, to hand us over to the Amorites so as to destroy us? Would that we had been content to settle beyond the Jordan!”
— Joshua 7:7 (NRSV)
Sometimes we really feel God has led us to a place, a time, or a situation, before then we feel abandoned. It makes no sense to us and we are livid.
We think of Joshua as a book of victory, but God is quick to confirm to us in the reading that through all victories is the resplendence of much indifferent experience. Especially where leading a group of people is concerned, there are bound to be frequent and heartrending disappointments. Life, even in the midst of eventual victory, is a mysteriously convoluted experience where we are all pushed to our limits.
Some of us, having led a group or a process or something, have felt that sense of injustice for having been abandoned; either by God or by the people concerned. And whilst we can feel rejected at the foot of people, we know in our logical minds that God never rejects us. But within bouts of depression we are hardly logical, or our logic is fleeting and seems controlled entirely by external sources.
The basic fact that we find complaint allowable, even brandished, in the Bible tells us that God is not only more than big enough to receive our honest laments, but he expects us to get depressed—importantly, as impetus to faith (see John 16:33, for instance).
We will not offend God in our honesty before him.
When It’s Time for Tears – Times for All
Whether the depression is here today and gone tomorrow, or whether it lasts for a season or on and off for our lifetimes, the shedding of tears, or of anger, is natural. Of course, God understands; even when we are given to being angry with him:
“For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.”
— Psalm 31:10 (NRSV)
In tears we have our irrationality proving us as human. Sometimes our tears are because we have been irrational or we feel irrational. At other times we just have no answer:
“I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.”
— Psalm 69:2 (NRSV)
We can well imagine the flood the psalmist talks about, above, is that torrent of tears taking us into an emotional oblivion, without vision of hope. Tears are for the overwhelmed, and God created us in ways to cry in order that we would have some capacity for the inevitable moments where we feel besieged.
We often feel over our heads in life, and, if we focus too much on the future, fatigue will beset us. But the end of tears comes in the knowledge that God is near; that God, indeed, is our rest; remembering God’s faithfulness:
“Return, O my soul, to your rest,
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
— Psalm 116:7 (NRSV)
The experience of God’s rest is what God is saying in our depression—that there exists a time, ahead, where rest will be found if we keep seeking. We are benefactors of humility-informed wisdom post-depression. We receive God’s invitation to rest with more willingness.
When There’s Reason For Hopefulness Out Of Helplessness
At the end of matters, having traversed the fullness of depression’s journey, there is the indication of hopefulness, however fleeting, in replacing varying senses of helplessness. We may suddenly have the experience of God’s Presence with us, giving us confidence and the ability to endure. Even if times are hard we have access to rest:
The Lord said to Moses, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
— Exodus 33:14 (NRSV)
This is a hope we can hold to beyond our circumstances. No matter our challenges, wherever we are hopeful we can surmount them. Perhaps the greatest blessing out of depression is knowing that we have survived; knowing the effect and impact of resilience to keep trudging.
Sometimes all we need is an encouraging word:
“Anxiety weighs down the human heart,
but a good word cheers it up.”
— Proverbs 12:25 (NRSV)
Anxiety will shake our confidence in hope, but when we feel secure—by many languages of love that are meaningful—we trust God more. The depressed person needs to be encouraged in ways that are meaningful to them.
A ‘Rest’ Superior to All Others
What provides a good extension for our hopefulness is the reality of the Sabbath rest of God. Jesus comforts all those who truly believe in him by the comfort only our Saviour can give.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
— Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV)
I suspect we have all felt spiritual conflict at different times in our lives. If we have, and we have experienced this rest of Jesus’, we have known a sort of comfort that exceeded our expectations. Our circumstances remained as they were, yet we were able to bear them in more palatable ways.
What God says about depression is that it’s normal to life. We live in a mad world. But we live, also, in a world controlled by God. At every point in our depression, God encourages us. And, by faith in Jesus, we enjoy rest beyond our understanding.
© 2012 S. J. Wickham.

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