Living on a mountain can be interesting. Not too long ago a fog seemed to come out of nowhere and descend on the mountain. I could barely see my hand in front of me.
Frederick Buechner is a minister and author, who loves God, but has lived in a fog of sorts for years. The fog rolled in for Buechner, according to his story Telling Secrets,1 when he was a child and his father committed suicide. Another pastor, Dr. M. Craig Barnes, recently of National Presbyterian Church in Washington DC, ministers through the fog of questions: of why his father, a pastor, left home one day and never returned.2 A few years ago, John Piper delivered a wonderful series of addresses on Charles Haddon Spurgeon, arguably the greatest preacher since Whitfield. At the heart of this presentation was the mystery of Sprugeon’s frequent descent into the fog.3
There is an emotional fog that can descend on us called depression. I mention the stories of three pastors because I want you to know that such times of depression know no difference between mature Christians, new Christians and/or unbelievers. Sadly, some Christians try to act like it doesn’t exist because it is not necessarily the best advertisement for Christianity. Some Christians, who believe in a myth of a higher life through good works, or perfection in this life, fail to account for what experience – and I think the Bible – says is true: that even Christians are subject to the fog of spiritual depression.
Depression, or melancholia, as it used to be called, is a growing reality in America. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was a physician before he was a minister, warns pastors to use differential counseling when dealing with this matter.4 That is, as we counsel, we should differentiate, as best we can, between possible physical and spiritual problems. When in doubt, refer to a medical doctor. But where there are signs of spiritual problems treat it with the Word of God. Lloyd-Jones reminds us that body and soul are linked and play off of the other. I have no interest or training or credentials to go further than that on the physical side, but the Word of God compels me to address the spiritual reality of spiritual depression.
The Psalms speak to the condition of the human soul. Of the 150 sacred songs of David and others, there are several genres to be identified: Psalms of Ascent, Psalms of Praise, Petition, Liturgical Psalms, and Psalms of lament.
The first divine insight is simply this:
The Description of Spiritual Depression (
My pastoral training tells me that there are two kinds of spiritual depression, one pathological and one rational. In pathological spiritual depression, there are inexplicable times of sorrow, grief, where the soul cannot be quieted, restlessness, deep heartache and all for some unknown reason. These are the cases of weeping without understanding.
Martin Lloyd Jones mentions temperament as a possible reason for such cases. Some may simply be given to discouragement more than others may because that is the way God made them. I think of Elijah was used by God to raise his landlady’s child from the dead (
Sometimes even good times can bring this. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, whom we have mentioned earlier, often experienced this after preaching. There is a sort of post-partum depression after victories. We all know this to be true in our own lives. These are inexplicable, but real.
There are also depressions of the believer’s soul caused by real events. These are rational cases:
Isaiah was a man who was heartbroken for his sinful nation. This was a rationale reason, an identifiable reason to be depressed. He had come before the throne of the living God (
Jeremiah was a man who wept for his people for a very good reason: his people were in sin and would face judgment. Lamentations is a divinely revealed case of spiritual depression.
The father of the prodigal son is a Biblical case of a man who had good reason to be depressed. He waited for that son. The older son could go on with life as usual, but love constrained the father. In fact, Jesus then shows us that this is the very heart of God.
The Bible says “there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance . . . ” (
Spiritual depression can also come from tempting of the devil and I would say this is a rationale depression as well. Look at the life of Peter who was tempted by Satan. Jesus said that Satan wanted to sift Peter and he did. We think of Job, who was under intense demonic attack to try and break his love of God.
Paul says that we are in the middle of spiritual battles in
There is also spiritual depression when we come to see our sin for what it is. David in
Now, in the Psalm before us, we are not given the reason for the spiritual depression of the author, only its effect. It is as if God has said: “It doesn’t matter how you have come into this place. I will speak to your condition no matter what brought you here. I will simply reflect what you feel without bringing you to the bar to answer further questions as to why you got here.”
The Holy Spirit reveals here a believer who has:
A Thirsty Soul (
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
The longing for the presence of God comes to this Psalmist. He uses the language of a deer, flanks hot from the chase of a dog, breast heaving and struggling for air to describe his longing for God. This is a man who knows God. But note that this is more. He is longing for the company of God’s people. In
Have you ever been like that? I remember as a prodigal son, I sat in a place in life far removed from the saints of God, from the faith of my childhood, and I longed to come home to God. I once had someone ask me in my pastorate if I was bothered by the sounds of little children in the worship service. I told them that I love to hear the occasional slap on the wrists. I love to see the sight of little boys squirming in the seats and little girls whispering. These are the sights and sounds of life in the congregation of the faithful!
You may be there now. Sin may have taken you far from God. Circumstances may be conspiring to hold you hostage from the fellowship of God’s people. This is a description of spiritual depression.
A Questioning Soul (
“When shall I come and appear before God?” “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
This believer wants to know, in
A Weeping Soul (
He speaks of his “tears [having been his] food day and night.” There are times when we cry like Joseph in Egypt. We feel a long way from home, a long way from where we want to be. Tears are sacraments, revealing the inner places of the heart. Paul says that there are times when we pray with groanings that cannot be put into language.
An Accusing Voice (
Note that we see the voice of accusation, “Where is your God?” in
The Psalmist remembers (
Now, we may be tempted to say, “This is a sorrowful Psalm” but does it not reflect what we all sometimes feel.
What I want you to remember is that our Lord Jesus was the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief (
“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit. Many of the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.” We have a second great insight in
How God Meets us in times of Spiritual Depression (
Now if all this Psalm did was to reflect the condition of even believers, we would be greatly blessed. But this Psalm will stay in the doldrums, but arises like a Phoenix out of the ashes and there is great hope where there is great darkness.
What is the response of this Psalm?
Christian soliloquy (
The Psalmist talks to himself and does what David does in other places, “encourages himself in the Lord” (Now David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.
Christian recognition of the Sovereignty of God in suffering (
“All Your waves and billows have gone over me.” These are also the words of Jonah, in his deep-down Whale belly prayer. All spiritual depression takes place in the lower depths. All spiritual depression is a deep-down-whale-belly place to be. Let’s look at that prayer in
The place of sorrow has been sanctified as this man, like the Psalmist of
This is the faith that sings with hymn writer Margaret Clarkson: “O Father, you are sovereign, the Lord of human pain, transmuting earthly sorrows to gold of heav’nly gain. All evil overruling, as none by Conqu’ror could, your love pursues its purposes – our souls’ eternal good.”
Christian hope in the Sovereignty of God for Good (
“The Lord will command his loving-kindness in the daytime and in the night His song shall be with me – a prayer to the God of my life”
This is reminiscent of what we find in Paul’s words, “All things work together for the good . . . ” and in Joseph’s words, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good . . . “
Now in all of this, we need to see that this is a work of the Holy Spirit. This is not a moralistic sermon, which says, “When you get down, just think happy thoughts.” No. This is the God of all comfort coming to you through His Word applying His Spirit. The Gospel in this passage is that Christ Himself became the Man of Sorrows, but also the New Man, the Resurrected Man. There is a new power at work in the world, anticipated by this Psalmist, but now fully enjoyed by God’s people.
Each week I find myself with people or families going through health problems, heartbreaking situations with children, conflict with spouses, trials from job loss, saints with a pain from the past that is griping them and sucking joy from their world. But the Gospel in the midst of that darkness is always the same, “Christ is risen.” This is why Paul says in
Now note, finally, this insight of the Psalmist:
The Signs of Healing in Spiritual Depression (
Briefly, we may trace the signs of healing which this Psalmist enjoys.
A Renewed Love Affair with “The God of my life” (
I love this. The Psalmist knows spiritual depression, but the God of his life is always there. He knows Him better than those who have not journeyed away from the Temple. Deep has been his pain, but as deep as the sorrow has cut, there, all the more, is the grace that flows. Through it all we “learn to trust in Jesus.” And through it all we come to call Him, “The God of my life.” Oh how I love this.
This man is able to see through the pain to see:
A Renewed Christian Soliloquy (
In his book, When God Interrupts Craig Barnes tells the story of how he was tying to prepare a sermon, settle staff conflict, and basically save the world in one week. He had one more thing to do before going home: he had to lead a Communion Service at a nursing home. As he said, “It was the last thing I wanted to be doing.” He was in the blue funk that sometimes settles over the pastorate. That is when he met Mrs. Lucille Lins. I read from his book:
“Mrs. Lines was almost blind and very hard of hearing. She had gradually become shut off from the world. Her health was slipping away, and now she is confined to a small room, having given up her house years ago. She has outlived her husband and close friends. Very few people in our church still remember her. She has lost almost everything but life itself” (p. 147).
Dr. Barnes wrote that it was a humble scene. He muttered the words, “This is my Body broken for you. This is my blood poured out for you.” They fumbled their way through and he guided her shaking hand to the bread and the cup. Then she spilled the juice on his slacks. He thought to himself, “Just one more thing that isn’t going right!” He patted her on the back, said a prayer and was leaving when he heard her so clearly: “Thank you, God, for being so good to me. Thank you that I am not forgotten. Thank you for always loving me.” Her words were his healing that day.
Her insights are that of this Psalmist. In the darkest moments of life, when we are at the very end of our lives, shaking and maybe even confused, God is there. When we are speechless and deaf to the world, when we may even be spilling our salvation all over ourselves, Christ is just beyond the veil. In Christ, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the love of a Father who will never let you go, God is good and God is there.
Dear friends, I leave you with no twelve-step-guide to avoiding spiritual depression, no three point message to getting rid of spiritual depression because the Bible doesn’t do that. But there is a one-step. It is the step that God took when He left heaven and came to earth. And God’s Word just reflects what we all sometimes experiences, and then guides us to the Gospel of He is there. But if He is not to you, as the Psalmist says, “the God of my life,” then this morning would be the right time, to call Him Lord.
For all who seek to follow Him, sometimes even through the fog of life, we cling to the promises and we may even sing in the night:
What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!
Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our Refuge – Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer;
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee, Thou wilt find a solace there.
Michael Milton is senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, TN.
1. Frederich Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992).
2. See Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life Through Unwanted Change (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996).
3. John Piper, “Charles Spurgeon: Preaching Through Adversity” may be found at http://www.founders.org/FJ23/article1.htm. The article is adapted from a paper delivered at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, January 31, 1995.
4. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids, MI: B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965).
5. Margaret Clarkson, “O Father, You are Sovereign” (Hope Publishing Company, 1982).
6. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts.