The following account is a true story…..
The young woman quietly closed the door as she sequestered herself in the bathroom. The space between the wall and the toilet was tight as she lowered herself to sit, but it appeared to be a good spot to think. She could hear her 2 year- old daughter playing in the hall. That familiar sound temporarily reminded the woman that she at least had her toddler to live for, but still, her thoughts kept coming through a torrent of tears, “I want to die, but I’m afraid if I try and take my life, I’ll fail. How will I do it? Slit my wrists? Overdose on a prescription? I worry so… my husband is out of town…will someone find my daughter to be okay after I die? I don’t know how to live like this any longer. I can’t escape this dark abyss that has swallowed me. My world is gray and hopeless. Someone, please help me. ”
Thankfully, that moment didn’t end in tragedy. The woman willfully composed herself and walked out into the hall, trying desperately to put on a calm face. It was time to get her daughter some lunch which served as a brief distraction. The moment brought a weak smile to her mind as she opened the can of Campbell’s Chicken and Stars soup for the zillionth time and watched her toddler eat. It was her little girl’s favorite food. But sadly, thoughts of suicide replaced the respite, and the darkness had become chronically commonplace recently, outweighing any fleeting joy. As a result, to blunt the depression, the woman eventually became heavily medicated almost to a stupor, and mostly dysfunctional. As a safeguard, she had to be closely watched by her husband and a good friend, in order to monitor her dangerous mood. There seemed to be only a matter of time before tragedy would strike because things looked and felt completely hopeless.
That woman was me.
I share this story hoping that it will speak to someone’s heart. I’m going to write about the topic of depression in at least two parts. It’s a condition that is more common than you might think, and if you struggle with it, you know the internal hell it produces. It’s a subject dearly close to my heart. I wasn’t a believer at the time of my depression, so I lacked the most important relationship in Christ to go forward, but even if you are a believer who struggles with depression, you are not alone, and there is hope and encouragement ahead. God is faithful.
Let me start with a disclaimer. I am well aware that there can be unexplainable or explainable, physiological, chemical changes to the brain that may result in depressive conditions. There are truly instances where our bodies are sick with disease, and/or react to hormonal changes….for example, post-partum depression, thyroid issues, menopause, etc. I don’t, in any way, reduce those conditions to spiritual causes, nor do I minimize them. However, I do know there are times (like mine), where depression is of a completely spiritual nature…maybe even where physiologically-induced depression has spiraled downward into a dark hole. When this type of spiritual darkness rears its ugly head, I believe the sufferer would do well by going deep into the heart. I am hopeful that you will at least consider looking, if you’re struggling with any condition that has resulted in a prolonged period of hopelessness or sadness. Hopelessness is not a physical problem; it is a spiritual problem. (It may be that you’ll need ongoing medication, it may be that you won’t… please don’t get stuck on that point. That’s up to your physician.) Here’s a biblical truth: whenever you’re willing to go deep into your heart and see what God sees, it will never be in vain. He will use this process to grow you, as you begin to see changes that need to take place. Whether you suffer from depression or not, we all benefit from seeing the internal things that keep us from knowing the forgiveness and peace God grants us in Christ.
To clarify, clinical depression is more than grief, but grief can bring on depression. Grief comes as the result of some type of loss, i.e. a loved one, a job, a failed marriage, a pet, an idea or ideal….sorrowful recognition that someone or something has been lost. There are usually stages of grief that an individual goes through, at some point, which produce anger at self or someone else (even God). (I’ll probably address the stages of grief in the future. ) A healthy grief will struggle through the anger, and will eventually end up resolving itself normally. This may take a long while… everyone is on a different timetable and will grieve differently.
Depression is unique, in that the sufferer takes on an all- consuming, negative perspective. Unlike a loss which produces grief, usually the cause of depression isn’t readily identifiable. In fact, more often than not, the individual has no idea as to what precipitated its onset. All they can identify is how they feel….a prolonged sadness, hopelessness, lethargy, loneliness…. everything in life feels “vanilla”. So, how do we approach depression biblically? Is there some way to filter this through the lens of the Word?
The most important thing to remember is that God knows about us, what we often don’t know about ourselves. In Genesis 4:3-6, two brothers, Cain and Abel, brought offerings to God, and Cain’s offering wasn’t looked on with God’s favor, but Abel’s was. As a result, Scripture says, “Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?” (NIV translation) In other translations, we read, “Why are you angry? Why do you have a fallen countenance?” In either translation, it reveals that God connects Cain’s anger-response to a ‘downcast face’ or ‘fallen countenance’. In order to further understand the import of this, let’s look more closely into the relevant connection that God makes to Cain’s mood and emotion. The Hebrew use of the word “countenance” is usually meant to refer to “face or visage”. In this particular passage, it more specifically refers to “the face looking despondent or disappointed”. God wisely recognized Cain’s despondency, and that he had taken on a different demeanor or mood as a result of being angry. Cain’s hopeful expectations of getting a favorable response for his offering to God didn’t get him what he had imagined.
From my personal experience, there isn’t any word in the English language that would describe depression any more accurately, than the word despondent, which results in a downcast face or sadness. Just think of it… no light behind the eyes, slumping shoulders, absent smile. When God asked Cain about his despondency, it was immediately after God had recognized that Cain was angry. Hmmm. God saw a connection between Cain’s fallen countenance and anger. This is an unusual connection for us, but God knows that anger is always produced as a result of unresolved disappointment in not getting one’s way (not having control of an outcome..a blocked goal). Think of this in practical terms. If we came into contact with someone who appeared to be angry, we probably would acknowledge their agitated demeanor by saying something like, “What’s wrong? You appear to be mad.” Or, if we came into contact with someone who had a downcast face, we’d probably say, “What’s wrong? You look sad.” However, we more than likely wouldn’t ask both questions in the same instance, because we don’t immediately connect “sad” with “mad”. It may take a while for one to produce the other. But, God already knew the connection, so He cut to the chase, and confronted Cain’s anger. God knew that Cain was disappointed, and He immediately recognized that Cain’s sad countenance had quickly morphed into anger.
Now, I’ve pointed this connection out at the risk of sounding too simplistic. I know that’s the way it may come across. However, this passage gives us insight to at least think about going more deeply than just resigning oneself to settle for, “I don’t know why I’m depressed. I guess I’m just predisposed to be this way because of genetics. ” There is absolutely no hope with that outlook. Remember, God is over all things.
Anger doesn’t always look like anger. You have to be willing to admit and own those things about your life that have sadly come up short of your ideal… dashed hopes, broken dreams, failed prayer requests, missed opportunities. This is hard. It takes work. It takes time. We have to be willing to admit that, even though we’re people of faith, we struggle with areas of our lives that haven’t panned out, relationships that have been disappointing, injustices and suffering we hadn’t expected.
Just as I had no clue as to why I was suffering depression, you may feel the same way right now. But, please, I encourage you not to dismiss the depression-anger connection. You may feel that this connection totally misses the mark for you. But, having been a biblical counselor for 30 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of people. I’ve seen God tenderly steer people through this process to resolution. God knows our hearts and He always sees deeply. Maybe you’ve tried meditation, counseling, exercise, more praying, behavior modification, environmental changes, willing yourself to do things, boundaries, etc. None of those things are bad. But, be aware that none of those things are the complete answer.
During my 10-year struggle with depression, I regularly saw a psychiatrist. His advice to get me out of my slump of failure was, “You don’t think enough of yourself; you need to be your own best cheerleader. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and prove you can be good at something.” I heeded his advice and enrolled in college (I was 28). I managed to achieve the dean’s list every semester, however, I still struggled with serious bouts of hopelessness. So, I thought, “Okay, that didn’t work…what do I do now? How can I further prove myself to be a success ?” I predictably spent lots of time trying to find things that would help me to feel important…I accepted various leadership positions, took tennis lessons, took snow ski lessons, Bridge lessons, started a business, drove expensive cars, wore fashionable clothes, lived in prestigious neighborhoods, and blah, blah, blah. None of it worked. I always felt like a total nobody, and that my life lacked something. I tried desperately to fill the void, with no lasting success. Little did I know, but God (who I was mad at), had something for me that would change my life forever.
This post has hopefully encouraged you to think more deeply about what disappointments could be lurking in the deep recesses of your heart. It’s imperative to start there as a first step. God already knows, so denial or avoidance will just serve to dig a deeper hole, and create a wider chasm between you and freedom.
Maybe this topic will strike a familiar chord with you, or perhaps you know of someone who struggles with depression. I’ll continue in my next post, Depression: Part II, to describe the kind of help I sought, how I came to freedom, and how hope was finally realized through the work of the cross by the Holy Spirit. As a believer, you have the very same resources I have in order to move forward, and to personally witness the victory of depression defeated.