For a long time now I have wanted to write on depression, but the Lord had not given me the words. I know from private emails I receive, that many readers struggle in this area. Many also experience prolonged periods of Spiritual dryness; I believe this is distinct from depression, but what I say here may also help those going through that season. I pray these words bring glory to Christ and help to those who are suffering. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
PERSONAL HISTORY WITH DEPRESSION
Looking back, the first time I believe I was seriously, even “clinically” depressed was sometime during my first year in America. I was 9 years old and I was undergoing heavy culture shock and a major identity crisis. It was nothing like our move from Iraq to Greece—that was a change in country but still within the Mediterranean region which had a similar strong near-Eastern feel. My move to America in 1978 was a major life event because at a vulnerable age I was making a shift from Eastern civilization to a Western civilization—quite a bit of fall-out comes from that sort of social and philosophical shift. Beginning at that time, I experienced episodes of deep depression which continued on and off a few times a year until the spring of 2009. Yes, that’s 30 years. Thirty years where several times a year I was clinically depressed—I believe the professionals call it recurrent depressive disorder.
As anyone who suffers from depression will tell you, each and every episode seems horrible at the time. However, some episodes are objectively of greater consequence than others. In 2003, in the middle of my law school education, I went into a depression that was so disabling that I had to leave school, and under the care of a Christian doctor and counselor, I ended up going on prescription medications. A year after that was when I first read Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression, and the Lord worked through it to eventually bring me out of that period to a point where I could be medication free. That experience has kept me aware of the real need for medical and pharmaceutical intervention for depression under some circumstances, though I believe that such measures are overused these days.
Again, between July of 2008 and sometime in late April or early May of 2009, I was heavily depressed, for the entire 9-10 month period. It was one of the worst episodes I can remember. During that time, I re-read Spiritual Depression, and during the late spring I read another two books back-to-back that God must have wanted to use on me mightily, because I have not been seriously depressed since (though I still experienced a post-partum bout with it after my last child in 2011). Those two books are Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God and John Piper’s When the Darkness Will Not Lift. It was at this time that I started to think differently about emotions, behavior, mental health, and spiritual well-being. It took another year and a half or so for these thoughts about spiritual well-being to finally bloom into actual spiritual well-being, so none of this was a lightning quick change.
BIBLICAL DESCRIPTIONS OF EMOTIONAL AND MENTAL STATES OF BEING
What I am about to describe has been helpful for me, but I don’t claim it to be a solution for everyone. I came to see, through the grace of God, that the spectrum of socially acceptable emotions and mental states has become very narrow in our day (despite our professions of “tolerance”), and anything outside of what we deem “appropriate” is branded with a label. In other words, we are given a set of boundaries, and then we are told that these are the states (mental and emotional) which “we” have defined and established as healthy. While we are careful not to call them “wrong,” which would be judgmental, we are quick to call anything outside of these boundaries a “sickness,” “disease,” or “disorder.” The rationale behind this kind of labeling may be an attempt to be gentle and therapeutic, but I think taking on these labels makes it more likely that those affected will remain outsiders, because labels tend to be stable and “sticky,” rather than restorative. To me, this didn’t seem to jive with the Scriptures.
When I looked in God’s Word, I saw that the Lord allowed his people a fuller more robust spectrum of emotional and mental dispositions. It seems to me that if David was alive today he would be labeled “bipolar,” and would be put on drugs. Yet this king, this man after God’s own heart, this sinner, is not afraid to say things like:
“O Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!”—Psalm 3:1
“Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in anguish.
How long, O Lord, how long?”—Psalm 6:2-3
“Arise, O Lord, in your anger;
rise up against the rage of my enemies…
My shield is God Most High.” —Psalm 7:6,10
“I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonders.
I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O most High.”—Psalm 9:1-2
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”—Psalm 10:1
And this is only within the first 10 Psalms. It’s not just David, though. Many of God’s people struggled, really struggled: Abraham was a chronic liar, Elijah prayed that he might die: “I have had enough, Lord, take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4) Hannah was depressed about not having children, and suffered such derision from Peninnah, that she “wept and would not eat.” Elkanah, her husband, sought to understand: “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad?…” (1 Sam. 1:8) I’m sure whole studies can be (and probably have been) done about the range of emotions the Biblical characters have exhibited throughout Scriptures.
These emotional states and their expression are common enough in the Bible that we should really expect that they are part of normal human experience. Moreover, they are not condemned as sin. God deals with his people in and through these emotions; he does not postpone his plans to “heal” them from these “diseases” before going on to use them back in “normal” life. Sadness to the point of doubting God can look like unbelief, and God’s people at times are called to repentance of unbelief, but not every deep sadness is sinful unbelief. Sometimes it is just part of our ongoing conversation with God, and he is working all things together for good.
THE EFFECT OF A BROAD EMOTIONAL AND MENTAL STATES SPECTRUM
Something happened to me when I expanded my range of acceptable emotions, feelings, and reactions, etc. Some of the fear and anxiety over whether I was “sick” with depression (again) vanished and I was able to see Jesus better in the midst of sadness, disappointment, loss, and even elation. Being able to use all types of different words for my emotions (overwhelmed, lost, afraid, downcast, anxious, disquieted, frustrated, angry etc.) has kept me from feeling like I have two choices to my mental and emotional well-being: “depression” or “normal.” I have embraced the liberty to say, “how long, O Lord?” and even “why have you forgotten me?” (Ps. 42:9), recognizing this as part of my conversational wrestling with my Savior, and without labeling myself as a reject or an unbeliever. So I’ve expanded my spectrum and the terminology. I have been able to say without fear or shame to my husband: “I’m angry,” “I’m very sad,” “I’m scared,” “I’m agitated,” “I’m lonely,” and so on and so forth, sometimes digging even deeper into the language of the Psalms. It doesn’t stop me from being sad or discouraged, etc., but labeling emotions, which are manifestly transient, is different from labeling diseases and disorders, which tend to become part of one’s identity. (It is worth noting, though, that in the Bible, even those afflicted and marked with “incurable” diseases and the associated ostracization and public shame could be cured by our God.) So, it has given me the freedom and grace with myself to have those emotions without being those disorders, and slowly, with my husband’s help, to pray and rely on the Lord in a palpably different way.
Disclaimer: I am not a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist. I am not giving a diagnosis. This is what is working for me and the story of grace that Jesus has worked into my life.
UPDATE: I did not mean to imply above that chronic lying is not a sin, in my discussion of Abraham. The issue I was making in that paragraph was that the people in the Bible were real men and women who struggled with a range of emotional and mental states and a range of sins for that matter. In a later post I plan on discussing sins that may lead to depression and sins that may flow from depression, and of course the non-sin depression.
UPDATE: PART TWO IS HERE