Once upon a time, there was a traveling preacher on the American frontier. Hungry and tired, he arrived at the home of Christian people to stay the night. Before he went to bed he entered this optimistic note in his journal:
“Arrived at the home of Brother Brown late this evening hungry and tired after a long day in the saddle. Had a bountiful supper of cold pork and beans, warm bread, bacon and eggs, coffee and rich pastry. I go to rest feeling that my witness is clear; the future is bright and I feel called to a great and glorious work in this place. Brother Brown’s family are godly people.”
On the basis of his entry the next morning before he left his room, however, it appears that his bountiful supper had changed his spiritual outlook. This is what he wrote in his journal the very next morning:
“Awakened late this morning after a troubled night. I am very much depressed in soul; the way looks dark; far from being called to work among this people, I am beginning to doubt the safety of my soul. I am afraid that the desires of Brother Brown and his family are set too much on earthly things . . . ”
Even deeply spiritual men and women down thru history have experienced depression. Martin Luther, great Protestant reformer, suffered periods of black gloom. Charles Spurgeon, probably the most effective British preacher of his generation, was immobilized for weeks at a time by depression. Soren Kierkegaard, influential nineteenth century writer, suffered chronic depression. And J.B. Phillips sank into a debilitating depression after the popular success of his paraphrase of the New Testament.
Lovers of Jan Karon and her mythical town of Mitford know that in the latest volume in the series, Father Tim, godly Episcopalian, experiences depression. Father Tim grapples with whether or not to take his prescribed antidepressants.
Elizabeth Sherrill is a Christian writer, one of the editors of Guidepost magazine.
She grew up in a loving family and has a loving family of her own. She is a successful author. She enjoys many material blessings. She has had every reason to be happy. But Elizabeth Sherrill has struggled much of her life with bouts of depression. “A nameless, bottomless sadness,” is what she calls it. “Depression,” she observes in a recent Guidepost article, “can throw its gray pall about us when the sun is brightest.”
David, son of Jesse, poet-king of Israel, and other contributors to the great hymnbook of God’s people, the Psalms, knew depression. Asaph, temple musician, in the psalm read this morning, speaks of his depression:
“When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
At night I stretched out untiring hands
And my soul refused to be comforted.
I remembered you, O God, and I groaned . . .
You kept my eyes from closing:
I was too troubled to speak . . . ”
For some of us, depression, at least so far in our lives, is an unknown mystery that those other, rather weird people experience. There are “sunny Christians,” whose lives seem almost completely free of dark clouds. And these people are wondering why the pastor is preaching such heavy stuff. But I think I am correct in surmising that people who know nothing of any kind of depression are in a minority. And some of them really do get depressed, but just don’t want to think or talk about it. If you really are never depressed, you need to pay attention so you can respond helpfully to your friends who are!
Some people seem more prone to depression than others. Depression occurs twice as often in females than in males. Depression occurs more often in higher socio-economic groups. Depression occurs most often in the fourth and fifth decades of life, but can be experienced just about any time in life.
Depression can be “clinical,” that is usually requiring medical treatment. Or depression can be much less severe, but nonetheless troubling. Depression is the feeling of being “down,” the feeling of being “blue.”
Depression is what we feel when we contemplate our 401K accounts these days.
Depression is what some feel when they return to work or school after vacation.
Depression can be a letdown after a huge “high.”
Depression is what sometimes hits us along with an attack of the flu.
Depression is what we may feel after a big argument with our spouse, a sibling, or another family member.
Depression is part of the grieving process when we’ve lost a love or a loved one.
Depression happens when anger is turned inward, when we’re mad at ourselves.
Depression and deep fatigue often go hand in hand.
Depression usually walks along with feelings of failure.
What is it that breeds depression in you?
Some Christian writers have told us that depression is sin. That means we should feel guilty about being depressed. And that usually makes us more depressed.
We want to rid ourselves of depression as quickly as possible. We’d like the preacher today to offer three quick and easy steps out of depression.
Much of American Christianity is preoccupied with therapy, with offering cures for whatever ails us, including depression. But could it be that, instead of searching for cures for everything that ails us we ought to be listening for God’s voice in all the experiences of life, even in depression? Could it be that depression isn’t all bad? Maybe there are some things we learn, some growth possible ONLY through these low, dark times.
A sixteenth century monk we know as John of the Cross originated the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” He described God’s work in us not through joy and light, but through sorrow and darkness. John of the Cross taught that night and darkness may be the friends, not the enemies of faith. He taught that God may lead us into a night in which our senses, that is, our usual ways of feeling and experiencing life, are emptied. Thus, we have no feeling of God’s presence. John of the Cross described this ‘dark night’ as a time when those persons lose all the pleasure that they once experienced in their devotional life. And there may follow a deep darkness of purifying and waiting. But that darkness ultimately leads to a dawn in which the vision of God is deepened and enriched.
Several Bible characters give evidence of depression. But we don’t get the feeling that God merely tells them to snap out of it. They are not offered quick and easy cures for their depression.
One Biblical survivor of depression is Elijah. Elijah is a prophet of the Lord, a prayer warrior, and an advisor to the king, that is, when the king would listen. Elijah is a godly giant of a man. And Elijah has just experienced the most intense confrontation with evil. Talk about “spiritual warfare!” Elijah faced it.
On Mt Carmel, you remember, this lone man, Elijah, stood for God against the pagan queen of Israel and against 400 priests of the pagan God Baal. Elijah and his God win the contest on Mt. Carmel hands down. But Queen Jezebel is not happy. She’s not pleased that her god has egg on his face. She doesn’t like it that many of her priests have been executed. So Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah in twenty-four hours.
For some reason, Jezebel strikes raw fear into Elijah. Some women, you know, can do that even to the bravest of men! And the same prophet, who stood up to the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, runs in fear from Jezebel. But Elijah doesn’t just run around the corner somewhere and hide. Elijah hikes about one hundred miles. Now, that’s a pretty long hike for anyone and Elijah is no spring chicken.
By the end of his marathon, Elijah is absolutely exhausted. Adrenalin, which had sent his blood sugar up and increased his heart rate, giving Elijah remarkable energy and courage, has run its course. Elijah is now limp and frazzled. And this great prophet of God is very, I mean VERY depressed. Elijah collapses under a tree in the wilderness and prays that he might die. “I’ve had enough, Lord. Take my life . . . ”
Imagine! Here’s a preacher with a death wish, a suicidal prophet.
Later, when Elijah starts talking to God again, he says: “Now Lord, I’ve been very zealous for you. I’ve stuck up for you, Lord. But now, I’m the only one of your faithful servants left, and they’re trying to kill me too.”
Elijah felt like he and he alone was standing for truth. Everyone was against him.
Sound at all familiar?
You see, Elijah could be lifted to the heights of spiritual ecstasy. Elijah could be filled with determination and drive to serve God. But Elijah sometimes didn’t take very good care of himself. And when that happened, Elijah could hit the emotional bottom w/ a huge thud.
Could it be that instead of just being something bad — something for which we should seek a quick cure — depression is actually a signal of something in our lives to which we need to pay attention?
Could it be that when depression spreads its heavy darkness over our lives, we might well ask ourselves:
* Hey! When was the last time I had a complete physical?
* Could my hormones be out of whack?
* Could my blood chemistry be out of order?
* Maybe I need at least a short-term antidepressant.
Please note: I’m not suggested we pop pills whenever we feel down. But a judicious use of medicine may be a way of navigating dark times and making them more manageable. And we can be thankful we live in an age in which such medications are available.
Or when I feel the gray ooze of depression dampening my sense of wellbeing, I might well ask:
* Have I been keeping Sabbath like I should?
* Have I been angry with someone or something for way too long?
* Am I harboring bitterness against someone so that its acid impact is being felt not just by that other person but by me?
* Have I dealt appropriately with failure, maybe with sin in my life?
* Have I turned away from that wrong and have I, by faith, received God’s forgiveness?
Or maybe when the cloud of depression interrupts my usually sunny disposition, I may well ask myself:
* In my walk with God and my service to the Lord, am I depending too much on good feelings?
* Am I serving the Lord mostly out of my human enthusiasm and excitement?
* Do I love Jesus because He makes me feel so good?
* Do I worship in the community of God’s People primarily because of all the good feelings worship brings me?
Evelyn Underhill, early twentieth century author on the spiritual life, wrote to a person much distressed by spiritual dryness. Her diagnosis is that this person is much too inclined to make feeling the test of religion. According to Underhill, to feel devout and fervent, and aware of God’s presence all the time is beyond our control. Yet, we can give ourselves without reserve to God and keep our wills directed toward Him. “Everyone goes through ‘dry’ times,” she writes. “It all lies in how we take them-with patience, or with restlessness.”
Maybe depression is a signal of something to which we should pay attention. And it may be that paying attention to what our depression points will begin to lift the cloud from our emotional life. Wrote Elizabeth Sherrill about one of her bouts with depression:
“A crisis, when it shows us our need for help, can be good news.”
Depression may be for us a signal of something to which we should pay attention.
It was for Elijah. God’s servant was worn out. So God put him to sleep. Then, Elijah ate food, which was also something he needed. Elijah slept some more. And there was more healthy eating when he woke up the second time. It’s amazing what sound sleep and good food can do for some depression.
But the Elijah story continues. God led Elijah to a kind of prayer retreat. In a solitary and holy place, Elijah sought to hear the voice of God. A great and powerful wind swept the mountain where Elijah was on retreat. But the Lord did not speak through the wind. Then there came an earthquake. Surely God speaks through earthquakes! Not this time! After the earthquake a fire blazed over the mountain. But God didn’t speak through the fire. After all of this drama, there came a gentle whisper. And, the story says, “When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
Elijah heard God’s voice as a gentle whisper. God gave His servant a job to do. God showed Elijah the next steps in his ministry. But Elijah had to listen or he might have missed the gentle whisper of God. Sometimes, we’re so into God speaking through the dramatic and the powerful that we miss his gentle whisper. And this gentle voice of God came out of a time of depression.
Could it be that depression is often a signal of something to which we should pay attention? And could it also be that depression can be a means through which God speaks and commissions us to serve Him?
Even in times of feeling low and heavy, we can listen for God’s gentle whisper.
We can say:
* Lord, is there something you want to say to me through this?
* Lord, is there something you want me to be doing?
* Lord, is there a new direction for my life and ministry that you want to communicate to me?
* Or maybe, Lord, what do you want me to learn about you and about life thru this dark night?
* Lord, help me to hear your gentle whisper even through the dark clouds, which I don’t enjoy and which I wish weren’t a part of my life.
Did you notice what God told Elijah along with a new set of directives about how the prophet was to serve? God told Elijah he was not all alone. Elijah had complained: “I’m the only one left who is faithful to you. And now, they’re trying to kill me.” Truth was there were 7000 men and women in Israel who were faithful to God. God’s gentle whisper says: “No, my friend, you aren’t the only one. There are 7000 faithful ones that haven’t bent the knee to Baal.”
One of the important ways in which God’s gentle whisper reaches us is by reminding us of the community of faith. You’re not the only one. You’re not the only one being persecuted for your faith. You’re not even the only one depressed over how bad things are in Israel. I’ve got all these faithful people, Elijah. And you’re one of them.
You’re a part of something big, something that I, God, am doing. Don’t we need to hear that when we’re down in the dumps?
Depression can be a means through which God reminds us of the community of the faithful.
So there’s more to depression than a quick fix.
Maybe it’s a signal to us of something we need to pay attention to.
Maybe it’s God’s way of trying to get our attention so God can speak to us.
“What do you know about depression?” someone asks. Well, generally speaking, I’m at least a moderately optimistic person. The glass, for me is usually half full, not half empty. But I know enough of depression to be aware of how hard it can be to deal with. And I am beginning to know that even through depression God wants to speak. And in God’s gentle whisper there can be spiritual growth. There can be insights for my walk with God.
When I used to preach on depression, it was usually about how to fix it. Survive depression by getting over it fast! But now, I am calling myself and us not just to survive depression by getting over it quickly, but to listen to what God may want to say and do even through the “dark night.”
H. Mark Abbott is Pastor of First Free Methodist Church in Seattle, WA.