If you are depressed, I am not going to chastise you. I will not tell you that it’s your fault, that you’re not grateful enough, you’re not content enough, you’re not focusing on Jesus enough, or you’re not doing something enough. I pray now, as I do whenever I’m talking with people who struggle with depression, that I would draw from a kind, compassionate spirit, and not just give a glorified “stop it” message. I used to believe that “hard truths make soft hearts” was as much as one needed to know when both giving and receiving counsel. A lot of writing on the internet falls under that rubric, in part (I believe) because it’s easy to be coarse and blunt with people you can’t see and with whom you don’t have personal, relational investments. Because of the abundance of this kind of advice, we can do a lot of spiritual wounding to each other. Certainly there is such a thing as truth, and it can cut, but the aim of counsel, especially to the wounded, is to be like the gentle hand of a compassionate surgeon, not a marauding Viking with a battle axe.
Thirty plus years of depression does not a know-it-all make. I do believe, however, there has been some wisdom imparted to me from the Lord in this area. Look, there’s no way that I know all the possible causes and effects of depression (I don’t believe anyone does—or even can—in this fallen world), and I would put the number of ways of being depressed into the “xn” category. I have, however, had some experience with sins that cause depression, sins that flow from depression, and depression that just comes from the fact that this is a fallen and broken world. I’m going to spend time on each of these categories.
Depression As One of the Consequences of the Fall
My first depressive episode, which I described in the previous post on this topic, is an example of depression that comes from the fact that I live in a broken world. On one side of my family there is a history of depression and other mental and emotional illnesses. Add to that the culture shock and identity crises that occurred when I came to America and “boom!” Even now, I want to cry for that nine year old me, lost in a big country, knowing only “yes,” “please,” “no,” and “thank you,” and experiencing seismic cultural shifts. Those familiar with depression use the word “darkness” a lot and for good reason. When things are dark, you can not see your way. You may flail your arms around to feel for anything solid to keep you from falling. I was free falling on the inside and I knew not what to grab on to for security.
Circumstances and people come into our lives in the infinite wisdom and providential plans of God, and our loving Father in his mercy sends suffering, sometimes in the form of depression, our way. Sometimes we understand, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our faith is unshakeable, sometimes we wonder if we are even saved. (Here’s a hint: If you’re wondering, that’s a good sign.) Darkness comes and it will not lift and you can’t even see your own hand in front of your face and you wonder each night how you lived through another day. And yet, we are not left to ourselves, even though that’s what it feels like.
It is in these times that we cry out “How long O Lord, how long? I remember Psalm 40 echoing from the back of my brain somewhere. Out of the darkness comes the beautiful words:
“I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock”
One of the most uplifting statements I read in When the Darkness Will Not Lift, while in the midst of hopelessness and desperation, was John Piper saying: “It will be of great advantage to the struggling Christian to remember that seasons of darkness are normal in the Christian life” (emphasis added). I can’t tell you how releasing that was, the fact that Piper spoke of it in terms of seasons and that it was “normal” brought me such hope. Later in that chapter he speaks about faith rising and falling and that although sometimes our faith sinks out of our own sight, it does not sink out of God’s sight. This was very reassuring to me, I realized that even though my faith was teeny tiny at that time, God could still see it, more than that, HE planted it and HE would grow it. Along these lines I highly recommend the little story D.A. Carson tells about Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith. Please take the few minutes to watch this and let what he says sink in deep into your heart. (The link will start you at the story, just watch 2 minutes to get my point. However, If you have the time and the inclination that entire Q&A session with Fred Zaspel and Don Carson is rich food for the soul.) I want to add that despair is very convincing and relentless, I say this from years of experience with it. But it wasn’t until I read this from Piper that the light turned on:
“It follows from this that we should all fortify ourselves against the dark hours of depression by cultivating a deep distrust of the certainties of despair. Despair is relentless in the certainties of its pessimism. But we have seen again and again, from our own experience and others’, that absolute statements of hopelessness that we make in the dark are notoriously unreliable. OUR DARK CERTAINTIES ARE NOT SURETIES. While we have the light, let us cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair.”
What I have tried (albeit not always successfully, but more so than not) is to remind myself that I cannot trust the despairing and dark thoughts when they start coming. I have followed Piper’s advice to “cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair.” And I use one of the biggest tools that Lloyd-Jones taught in Spiritual Depression, talking to myself instead of listening to myself. So I take myself in hand and say things like: “Luma, your sadness and despairing feelings are telling you XYZ but you know as soon as those feelings are gone you will see that these things are not true.” Or I tell myself a statement my husband picked up from Martin Luther and taught to me: “You can’t stop the birds from landing on your head but you can stop them from nesting there.” And on and on I talk to myself instead of listening to myself.
I really don’t have the time or the space here to do a full play-by-play of those two books I mentioned above but suffice it to say that I HIGHLY recommend them. It looks like Desiring God (O how I pray the Lord uses that ministry mightily for his glory) has Piper’s book When the Darkness Will Not Lift available in PDF form as a FREE DOWNLOAD.
Sins That Cause Depression
The idea of sin leading to depression should not be surprising for the Christian. We know from our Bibles the devastation that sin causes within us and within our world. By the Lord’s grace we have been given so many examples within redemptive history of sins that lead to heartache, disaster and/or depression. So it should not surprise us. Now, even though here I am saying that there may be sins that can cause depression, I am not saying that everyone who is depressed is that way because they committed some particular sin.
There are many flavors to depression. I want to say a few things about one of the issues that caused my depression (there have been many other causes also) over the years and how the Lord through the Holy Spirit has given me some victory in this area. In When the Darkness Will Not Lift John Piper says the following:
”Our world has shrunk down to mere prudential concerns about ourselves and our families. Ethics has diminished from global concerns of justice and mercy and missions down to little lists of bad things to avoid…. Unconsciously we have become very self-absorbed and oblivious and uncaring toward the pain and suffering in the world that is far worse than our own…. part of the truth may be that their depression is feeding on the ingrown quality of their lives.” John Piper, When the Darkness Will Not Lift
I can attest to this, along with self-absorption, self-pity has been a sword that has slain me again and again. I used to be very given to these two sins, that is until I started confessing them over and over again and begging God for some kind of victory in this area. Please do NOT hear me say that I don’t feel sorry for myself anymore or that I don’t get self-absorbed; of course I still do. But I’m just not given over to them. The Holy Spirit, by repeatedly turning my face to Christ and away from myself, has given tremendous grace in the heat of many battles.
Sins That Flow From Depression
There is yet another heartbreak in depression. Sometimes our depression can lead us directly to temptation to sin. In these cases the original depression could be due to any cause, but the depression then leads us toward sin in different ways. Whether it’s explosive anger, abandonment, alcohol abuse, drug use, sexual licentiousness or any other sin you can think of that people driven by depression and desperation end up succumbing to. This becomes a vicious cycle with added guilt and despair, which leads into a downward spiral. It is here, in the depths where layers of darkness and sin are so enmeshed, where some people finally look up to the Cross. None of these sins—none of them—are beyond Christ’s saving powers, and whether it is ourselves or someone else we find in that state, we should never think them beyond redemption.
Loving Those in the Darkness
Toward the end of When the Darkness Will Not Lift Piper encourages friends and family of a depressed person to reach out with gospel love, the kind that suffers long:
“For most people who are passing through the dark night of the soul, the turnaround will come because God brings unwavering lovers of Christ into their lives who do not give up on them.”
He goes on to quote from Richard Baxter who suggests that we even read Scripture to our depressed loved ones if they cannot read it for themselves. I know during some very very dark times I have had to ask my husband to read the Bible to me because I needed my soul to be washed over with God’s living Word. It is imperative in these types of situations that we learn to be Jesus to one another, extending grace and mercy to those living in the darkness and loneliness of depression. I am utterly convinced that what depressed saints need the most are people around them that will be the hands and feet of Jesus to them. One of the things I recommend to those who seek my advice on depression is to find a mentor/friend who is on fire for Jesus, someone whose love for the Lord exudes from everything they say and do. It doesn’t have to be someone who has experience with depression, just someone who is in love with Jesus. This friend will not save you; only God will. However, when you are around someone who is full of love for the Lord, who is willing to walk with you through the valley, willing to read to you if need be, willing to pray and listen, to wash your feet and let you wash theirs—then over time that love and hunger for the Lord will be kindled in your own heart and soul as well.