I remember the moment all too well. It was the winter of 2007, and my mother-in-law had come to take our daughter, Ella (then not yet 3 years old), away for a visit to her place. The look in Ella’s eyes broke my heart. On her face I saw sadness and incomprehension, the look of a little child finding herself in the middle of a difficult situation that she could hardly begin to understand. She didn’t want to go. She was upset. She cried. Once she and my wife’s mother left, all I could do was cry too.
You might well be thinking, “Maybe you shouldn’t have sent her to her Nannie’s!” Of course, that wasn’t why Ella was upset. She loves her grandmother and loves visiting her. You see, the reason for sending her to her grandmother’s was because at the time my wife was experiencing a serious bout of clinical depression. It had gotten so bad that taking care of our little girl while I was working was proving to be very nearly impossible. It was a hard reality to face, but over the course of that winter Ella spent a lot of time with her grandparents. Looking back, I am thankful that we had their help as an option.
Those months are not the only time before or since that Alisha, my wife, has struggled with a serious period of depression. Truth be told, it’s an ongoing reality for us. Right at the moment, thankfully, she’s doing quite well. Some of the time, it’s at a low ebb. Then there are those times when it boils over. As a form of mental illness, it never completely disappears. In that respect, it’s not like a cold; it’s more like an allergy.
Some studies indicate that 1 in 10 people suffer from depression. Others suggest the percentage is much higher. 30% of women struggle from it. Men aren’t too far behind. And depression is on the rise among children, including preschoolers. The point is that each of us will struggle with depression, will know someone who does, or both. The point is that either you struggle with depression or you know someone who does. In any case, you’re not alone.
Though certainly not to the same degree as my wife has had, I also have struggled with depression over the years. So I know this experience from the inside and out. Over the years, I have come to see depression as, more than anything else, a thief. Why? Because depression steals your joy. It takes away your ability to live as you once did. It robs your energy and motivation for the simplest of tasks. Your ability to think clearly fades into a muddle. Depression replaces sunshine and blue skies with grey clouds and rain.
One of the most frustrating things about going through depression is that people tend to respond to those who go through it with platitudes: “Just pull your socks up.” “You’ll snap out of it.” “All you need to do is to get out.” Worse, people will say stuff like, “I was feeling down the other day too.” Obviously, good intentions aside, they don’t get it. Too often, those of us who wrestle with depression find ourselves around people who don’t understand how utterly overwhelming it can be.
Part of the reason, I think, is because it’s not like a physical sickness. You’re not coughing. You don’t have a temperature. Your body, while not immune to depression, doesn’t show the obvious signs of someone who isn’t well. That said, there are physical symptoms of depression. You might begin gaining weight or losing it. Chances are you have issues with sleep. Either you can’t get out of bed or insomnia robs you of rest. Still, you could have a perfectly normal conversation with someone at a party and they might never know the sort of dark hole you feel trapped in.
Lest people think people in the church who place their trust in God are somehow immune to depression, there are biblical figures who are thought by some to have suffered from depression. Job, for example. Elijah is also one. Following a praiseworthy triumph, Elijah finds himself on the run from enemies. Finding himself alone in the wilderness, he prays, “It is enough; O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4). King Saul is possibly another. He found himself tormented by an evil spirit, and it’s possible that this caused symptoms of depression. Only David’s skillful playing on the lyre brought him relief (1 Samuel 16:23).
Unfortunately, sometimes it’s in the church that people with depression are met with the most suspicion and the least acceptance and support. “God wouldn’t let us go through depression,” they say. “You just need to have more faith,” we’re told. All this does is add guilt to the already significant pain. Even when believers who are going through this aren’t accused of faithlessness, they often face a simple lack of understanding. Unless they can find someone else who is familiar with and sympathetic about their particular trial, they are most likely suffering in silence.
Psalm 130—one of the psalms of ascent—begins in the following way: “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.” This and other passages in the Psalms give expression to the dark side of the human emotional experience, lending credence to the fact that having faith in the God of Israel and Jesus Christ doesn’t exempt anyone from the pain of depression. Often people experiencing depression feel as though they have been abandoned by God. He seems silent, distant, absent. Whereas once they had sweet fellowship with their Creator, now they find worship, prayer, and going to church to be occasions void of intimacy and meaning.
It’s at such times that those of us who wrestle with such dark nights of the soul need to cling to the familiar truths of the gospel, that he who loved us in Christ loves us still, that his promise—that he will never leave us nor forsake us—is true, whatever our present experience may tell us. As hard as it is, we go by faith, not by feelings.
Not only that, but we can come before God when in the midst of depression. Sometimes even our tears are prayers. I once wrote these words about our experience of depression for an previous blog of mine: “There have been a number of moments, especially when her depression was at its worst, when all I could do was hold her and plead with God to make her better. And I have pleaded. I have begged. I am not proud when it comes to knocking on heaven’s door on behalf of my family—my wife or my little girl. Our tears and cries have formed supplications that have stretched the distance between heaven and earth.” Or, to put it another way, “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.”
For those of you out there who have experienced or who are going through depression, you are not alone. Despite how isolated you can feel, there are others who are in the same place. Others know the pain you feel. And for those of you who wonder if anyone sitting beside you or behind you in the pews (or chairs) on Sunday morning has any inkling about what you’re going through, be sure that God knows. He hears your cries. And he cares. He loves you. And he wants to shine his light into your darkness. Jesus is the light, the light that no darkness, no matter how deep and painful, can ever overcome.