But I call to you for help, Lord;Psalm 88:13–18
in the morning my prayer meets you.
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face from me?
From my youth,
I have been suffering and near death.
I suffer your horrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath sweeps over me;
your terrors destroy me.
They surround me like water all day long;
they close in on me from every side.
You have distanced loved one and neighbor from me;
darkness is my only friend.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?Psalm 13:1–2
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I store up anxious concerns within me,
agony in my mind every day?
How long will my enemy dominate me?
I remember my grandmother once describing my mother as someone who had “bad nerves.” This was a euphemism for anxiety and depression at a time and in a culture that had little understanding or sympathy for those who struggled with them. When my Mom was a teen, she lived with family in Ontario for a time, with an older sister who had already married and begun her family. From what I recall when hearing the story, this was because of her issues with anxiety–the “bad nerves,” as my Nanna called them.
This, in a profound sense, was emblematic of how things were dealt with by people at the time. Because things like depression were not really discussed openly, I think it was that much more difficult on those who went through such experiences. Not only were they dealing with serious mental health issues, but they couldn’t say anything about it, talk with anyone about it, and didn’t have anyone to help.
This was true of my Mom. My Mom wrestled with her mental health all of her life.
Now, I became especially aware of my Mom’s struggles with mental health once I was living away from home and going to university. As a stabilizing presence in her life, once I was gone I think it was harder for my mother to hold herself together. Of course, I don’t know if it really started to be more difficult for her or if I was simply becoming more sensitive to it.
I have struggled with depression also. I have struggled with anxiety. Both have been a reality in my life for as long as I can recall. I think back to my teen years. Depressed? Definitely. And when I consider most of my adult years, only recently has anxiety not been a significant factor in how I relate to myself, others, and even God. Indeed, in more recent years as I’ve experienced more clarity, growth, and healing, I have a much better perspective on my own life and my Mom’s.
Depression is a horrible, terrifying experience, especially when it really takes a hold of your mind. It’s like an emotional black hole whose gravitational pull drags all of life into it. Your thoughts and feelings become captive to it, unable to see or feel anything positive about anything. Everything has a gray sheen over it. It steals your joy and gratitude. It pits your thoughts against you, interpreting much of your experience negatively.
So, no, it’s not a matter of getting yourself together and pulling your socks up. Trying to tell someone who is clinically depressed or experiencing serious anxiety issues to do this and you might as well suggest that they learn how to fly.
Worse, sometimes other Christians make comments about having more faith or praying more fervently, as if your depression signals a lack of faith, the presence of unrepentant sin, or both. Indeed, such commentary from those on the outside likely only serves to pour the fuel of guilt on an already raging fire. It doesn’t help.
My wife, too, has struggled with depression. Sometimes very, very seriously. She has had seasons of depression that have seemed nearly insurmountable–both to her and to I. The absolute worst was way back in 2007 when she was so depressed our little girl had to stay with her grandparents for days at a time, because Alisha couldn’t look after her and I was a full time pastor. I still remember how hard it was when my mother in law and sister in law came to get our daughter. The look in her eyes was devastating.
Thankfully, at the moment none of us are dealing with any serious–much less debilitating–symptoms of depression or anxiety.
Now here’s the thing: the realities of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are an unfortunate part of what it means to live in a broken world. Having such issues is, generally speaking, not a sign of personal weakness, a lack of faith, or divine punishment for disobedience. I’m not saying there isn’t a spiritual dimension to mental health, but that we need to have a more nuanced theological perspective, one that helps rather than condemns the person who is suffering.
There are people in the Bible who quite likely experienced depression.
Not only did the psalmist wrestle with feelings of anxiety and depression (see above), but so did Job (Job 3:1–26). Check out how he even wished he’d never been born.
May the day I was born perish,Job 3:3–4
and the night that said,
“A boy is conceived.”
If only that day had turned to darkness!
May God above not care about it,
or light shine on it.
Elijah is another example. After having defeated the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, he fled under threat from Jezebel. He too wanted to die (1 Kings 19:1–5).
Ahab told Jezebel everything that Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “May the gods punish me and do so severely if I don’t make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow! Then Elijah became afraid and immediately ran for his life. When he came to Beer-sheba that belonged to Judah, he left his servant there, but he went on a day’s journey into the wilderness. He sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. He said, “I have had enough! Lord, take my life, for I’m no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree.1 Kings 19:1–5
Talk about going from a spiritual high to a spiritual low.
King Saul also seemed to suffer with depression, but perhaps his did stem from disobedience, a lack of faith, and even divine punishment.
Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would pick up his lyre and play, and Saul would then be relieved, feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.
The next day an evil spirit sent from God came powerfully on Saul, and he began to rave inside the palace.1 Samuel 16:23, 18:10
What’s incredibly significant–particularly in the cases of Job and the psalmist–is that they didn’t hide from their emotional turmoil. More, they turned it into passionate cries of prayer in the presence of their Creator and Redeemer. They released their depair, pain, and loneliness unvarnished from the depths of their souls. Theirs are not carefully edited prayers, calculated to manipulate God or fool us with a brave face. Honest and vulnerable, they insist on being heard by God.
All of this leads me to say that we need to own, even if not indulge, our pain. Especially when it takes us down the dark path of emotional and mental distress for prolonged periods.
And churches need to own this reality too. Depression and anxiety are a part of my story. Mental health issues are a part of many people’s stories. We need to learn to let the gospel–and all of the spiritual resources of Scripture, prayer, and fellowship–loose on pain so many are sure they have to hide. Either because they’re afraid of admitting weakness and being vulnerable or because they’ve been sold the unbiblical idea that these things are their fault. Don’t believe it. Don’t let them believe it.
I have shared bits and pieces of my story from the pulpit a number of times. I think it’s important to do. I truly believe we need to be more transparent as believers and as churches. I believe that is one of the crucial ways in which God the Father ministers to us through the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus. Jesus wants us to invite him into our deepest wells of sorrow and discouragement.
Here are some suggestions (in no particular order) based on my experiences with mental health issues:
- Talk to a doctor. There is medication that can actually help alleviate symptoms, if not altogether at least enough for you to function normally.
- Go to a counselor. I mean it. Don’t let the stigma or your hesitations prevent your from doing something that will help you. Whether your depression is situational or otherwise, a good counselor can provide you with helpful tools to deal with it from day and day. Having a neutral listening ear is also invaluable.
- Read your Bible and keep praying. But be honest in your prayers. Express your feelings. Don’t let yourself think that God has abandoned you and is punishing you. If you struggle with picking up your Bible and praying, use the Daily Office, or Book of Common Prayer, which provide you Scripture readings and ancient prayers of the church that can console you when you have no words of your own.
- Ok, this one is hard. Find a friend–a Christian friend–to talk with and pray with. It’s easy to say we’re not alone, but depression is an isolating illness. People suffer in silence. It’s painfully difficult to reach out. The best thing, of course, is already to have close Christian friends who know you’re prone to depression and aren’t thrown by the whole thing. The relational legwork has been done already. That way, if your routines or habits begin to change, like you begin to miss church, they can be on alert.
So, there you go. I am a pastor who has experienced depression and serious anxiety. I have family members who have too. But I am still here. And I know–I know–God is with me. Part of my story, therefore, is not only that I have had to deal with mental health issues, but my God has seen me and my family through them. I wish we never had to deal with them. But if sharing my story allows you to share yours, and therefore gives you the opportunity to know the grace of Jesus in the darkest of places, then I am thankful.