Gloom and Glory
It’s been just about a year since I go to know her. She was a woman with her own private tragedy, on top of dealing with her dying mother who was my patient. Two decades earlier, in a failed but heroic attempt, her teenage son jumped into a swollen river to rescue a younger boy who’d fallen in. Both boys drowned. Three adult men, experienced firefighter-paramedics, nearly drowned trying to save them. Despite their best efforts, all that could be done was recover the bodies. Had he survived, her son would be in his thirties now, perhaps a parent himself. She confesses that she to this day becomes an emotional wreck twice a year: on his birthday, and on the anniversary of his death. Thanksgiving and Christmas are difficult for her, too.
The upcoming holidays are difficult for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, not all of which are understood. What is known is that in America depression spikes in mid-November every year.
Whether or not you are dealing with depression, a lot of people around you are. Yes, even people called to vocational ministry, men and women trained and experienced to care for others. My wife and I were somewhat rattled a few years ago when more and more missionaries, clergy, and their spouses began to confide to us that they were taking prescription antidepressants.
Not that this is exactly new; Mother Theresa, as was pointed out posthumously, struggled with depression for years. So did “the Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, and evidently King David, too, at least from time to time:
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am pining away; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are dismayed. My soul is greatly dismayed; but You, O LORD – how long? … I am weary with my sighing; every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears. My eye has wasted away with grief …
Save me, O God, for the waters have threatened my life. I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched; my eyes fail while I wait for my God. … Reproach has broken my heart and I am so sick. I looked for sympathy, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none … I am afflicted and in pain …
Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. Because of my loud groaning I am reduced to skin and bones … For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears because of your great wrath, for you have taken me up and thrown me aside. My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass …
Any well-read Christian should be able to tell you about “the dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross phrased it. But John didn’t write of it in the sense of being frightened and helpless in the face of the loss of meaning, the lack of purpose, an overwhelming darkness that blots out joy and saps your strength. Quite the contrary, in fact; bad as it may be, he thought depression was – at the right and proper time, handled correctly – a thing to be embraced. In his book The Ascent of Mount Carmel John wrote that depression places “in reasonable order” the things that you love, ultimately purifying and prioritizing your love for God above all. But the beginning of the process, he admits, is quite painful, “caus[ing] the soul to lose sight of both” God’s love and the loves and joys of this world.
Does that sound strange? Certainly, if one has embraced the “health-and-wealth, name it and claim it” caricature of the gospel so common in certain circles. God, it seems, does not want you to be happy if that happiness comes at the expense of holiness. He created this life for us to enjoy, yes, but not for the gift to distract from the Giver. Depression can be a means by which we are increasingly severed from infatuation with worldliness and more closely in love with God. Recall the warning voiced by another John, the biblical Apostle and half-brother of Christ:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.
Learning to divorce oneself from temporal things – even good things, even against our wishes – actually enhances our spirituality and makes us more satisfied and fulfilled by God. Or at least it has the capability to do so.
This is not to say that depression is good, or fun, or to be sought out, not by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it a criticism of anyone who struggles with it. Depression is not a sin, neither is it punishment for sin. It’s part and parcel of living in a fallen world; what matters is what you do with it.
The Bible tells us to be grateful in all circumstances. That may seem impossible to you, but the fact that God commands it indicates gratitude is a choice, regardless of what’s happened or is happening to you.
It is intriguing to me that social science underscores this idea; focusing on things in your life for which to be thankful increases your happiness, even for months afterward, and encourages positive interpersonal behaviors. Counting your blessings reduces stress and may protect against neuroses, loneliness, and anxiety.
Again, these are choices you must make in order to help yourself and those around you. So I encourage you: choose to be thankful, and be the sort of person who helps others to choose thankfulness, too – even if you don’t feel it.
I don’t always feel like it, either.
Two years ago was one of the hardest times of my life. I was forced to resign from the pastorate of my church due to unscrupulous and immoral manipulations of a handful of members. One of the ways my wife and I handled the situation was to invite some members of the military to join us for Thanksgiving. Our guests – all of whom struggled with PTSD – were men from the Army, Navy, and Marines (and my mom and I accounted for the Air Force). It was a great time of prayer, gratitude, food, fun and laughter, which I will forever cherish.
There are countless tips and tricks from counselors, therapists, or websites to handle depression, particularly around the holidays, but in the end the only antidote is hope, and the only eternal hope is the kind God provides. “I am sure there is no remedy for [depression],” Spurgeon wrote, “like a holy faith in God.”
My prayer for you is that you have this hope. Devastating as they may be, the hardships of this life are, after all, temporary. May you have the hope of heaven within you; may God grant you to see things from an eternal perspective; and may you be richly blessed this Thanksgiving and always.
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Image credit: “The Last Penitent” by Clive Power, Flickr Creative Commons