Finding God in Spiritual Depression Michael A. Milton May 1, 2004 Job 42; Hebrews 4:15 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. Psalms 42 and Psalms 43 are of that variety and go together. They are Psalms written by exiles from the Temple. The sacred notes tell us that the Sons of Korah wrote it as a Maschil. The “Sons of Korah” could be a sort of ancient Levitical musical ensemble or could literally be descendants of that man who opposed Moses and was swallowed in the earth. Many believe that they are with David in the North, because of the reference to the heights of Herman, perhaps running from the rebellion of Absalom. This word, Mashil, is also obscure in its meaning. It may mean a “contemplation” or it could be from a Hebrew word meaning insights. So, what we have in this sacred text is an insight or contemplation by the Psalmist on a case of spiritual depression. And here we also have divine insights into finding God in such times of our lives. The first divine insight is simply this: The Description of Spiritual Depression (Psalms 1:1-4) 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 (1 Kings 17:17-24), to display the glory of God on Mount Carmel by defeating the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40. But none of these things could stop Elijah from going into the wilderness and in 1 Kings 19:4 praying that he might die! 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 (Isaiah 6), but Isaiah had also heard that he would preach and none could come (Isaiah 6:10). God says in Isaiah 6:13 that a tenth will return. Therefore Isaiah pants after this tenth, his heart yearns for the salvation of his people. 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 . . . ” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). 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 Ephesians 6:12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rules of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” This does not mean that we go looking for a demon behind every mood swing in our lives, but neither should we ignore this truth. There is also spiritual depression when we come to see our sin for what it is. David in Psalms 51 confesses his sins and mentions the bones that God has broken. He speaks of spiritual depression because of his sin. Sin, it may be said, is at the root of it all, though it may not be our sin. But we live in a sinful, fallen world, where we mourn and where our very souls are indented by the pain around us. 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 (Psalms 42:1) “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 Psalms 42:4, he remembers going with the people of God into the house of God. He recalls worship. He longs for fellowship. 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 (Psalms 42:2-9) “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 Psalms 42:2, when he will come before God. He is so far away from the House of the Lord, he doesn’t know if he will ever get back. This is the Holy Spirit’s revelation of the intense internal struggle of this believer. A Weeping Soul (Psalms 42:3) 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 (Psalms 42:3-10) Note that we see the voice of accusation, “Where is your God?” in Psalms 42:3-10 and the Psalmist himself cries out and asks, “Why have you forsaken me?” Some may be here today who feel like that. You say, “I must not be a good example of a Christian, for look at my tears and look at my condition!” This was the case with Job’s friends, who accused him. In Job 18:21, Bildad associates Jobs predicament with an unbeliever: “Surely such are the dwellings of the wicked, and this is the place of him who does not know God.” This sounds like a smug Christian who cannot reconcile faith and suffering, trust in God with a spiritual depression brought on by tragedy. Job replies with all of us, “How long will you torment my soul, and break me in pieces with words?” WE know that Satan is an accuser of the saints, but sometimes even Christians can become unwitting agents of accusation. Remorse (Psalms 42:4) The Psalmist remembers (Psalms 42:4) the old days of worshipping in the Temple, of joy and praise, and of a pilgrim feast. The condition of spiritual depression may, then, be seen in this loitering with memories. These were good memories, but you see even good things can become painful when they are taken from you. I used to speak with a lady who lost a son in a tragic accident. She spoke of good times, but those were painful to her and understandably so, for they are gone. Sometime we weep for memories of times no longer available to us. 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 (Isaiah 53:3) who identifies with us so well in these times: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses . . . (Hebrews 4:15). Think of His desert experience, think of Gethsemane, think of His abandonment by His Father on the Cross. You are not far from God when you are in such a low estate. One of my favorite places to go as a pastor is to Psalms 34:17-18. It speaks to the week-in and week-out situations that I face as a pastor: “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 Psalms 42. How God Meets us in times of Spiritual Depression (Psalms 42:5-8) 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 (Psalms 42:5) 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. 1 Samuel 30:6)). Note the Christian in spiritual depression is still under the power of the Holy Spirit and questions the forces conspiring against him) Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that great problem is listening to our emotions rather than speaking to our emotions. This is Christian soliloquy. This is the Christian singing, “Standing on the Promises of God.” God comes to us as we repeat His promises back to us. This calls, of course, for each of us, while it is day, to saturate our minds and hearts with His truths, that when darkness may come, we shall be well armed for the struggle. Christian recognition of the Sovereignty of God in suffering (Psalms 42:7) “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 Jonah 2. Jonah’s prayer of deliverance included, (1) Affliction in Jonah 2:2-9: “But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving.” The place of sorrow has been sanctified as this man, like the Psalmist of Psalms 42, cries out to His God. And it is true that your place of sorrow, whether explainable or inexplicable, is the place where we must be honest with God about our condition, be trusting in God about His sovereignty, see our Savior walking into the darkness to succor us in our sorrow, and come to praise Him through the very darkness which seeks to snub us out. 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 (Psalms 41:8) “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 1 Corinthians 13:7: “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This is why Job in the darkest night of his soul is able to cry out: “I know that my Redeemer lives!” The ruling motif in the Christian life is resurrection following crucifixion. Now note, finally, this insight of the Psalmist: The Signs of Healing in Spiritual Depression (Psalms 42:8-11) Briefly, we may trace the signs of healing which this Psalmist enjoys. A Renewed Love Affair with “The God of my life” (Psalms 42:8) 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 (Psalms 42:9) Note that Psalms 42:9 is an echo of Psalms 42:5: “I Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, the help (literally the “salvation”) of my countenance and my God.” 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. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.