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Straight Talk About Depression

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By Robert Marsh

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. (Psalm 42:11)

Most of us are familiar with the song, I’ll Be There For You by The Rembrandts, the theme from the television show Friends. But have you ever caught the lyrics to the song? They read, in part:

So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A.
It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear
When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year

Some of us can relate to that first verse a little more than others. We all have bad days, but for some of us those bad days have stretched into bad weeks, months or even years. We find ourselves talking like Eeyore, and saying things like, “whatever can go wrong will go wrong.” We have a pessimistic, browbeaten, downcast view of life. We suddenly find that we can’t sleep, we’ve lost (or gained) weight, some days we just don’t want to get out of bed. If you can relate to what I’m talking about, then you might be depressed.

Some of you bristle when I say that. There’s a part of you that simply does not want to, or is not willing to admit to depression in your life. Many Christians deny that it’s possible for them or any believer. Some even look at depression as a sin. You may even find yourself saying something like, “I’m a Christian, and Christians can’t be depressed.”

You might be surprised. God’s people have a long and distinguished history of going through times of deep depression, and today we’re going to get some straight talk about depression right from the Great Physician Himself!

First and foremost, let’s define depression. Just what is it? Here’s my definition: “Depression is an appropriate, God-given emotion in response to certain stimulus.”

Depression affects millions of people. One report I read said that one out of seven people will seek professional help for depression – and those are just the ones who are willing to admit they need help! Millions more stay home and deny their condition – and are robbed of happiness for weeks, months or even years. It is estimated that depression costs American business four to six BILLION dollars per year in reduced productivity, absenteeism, and related illnesses.

Depression is a specific alteration of a person’s mood in a downward direction. It is often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, overwhelmed by circumstances, withdrawal and isolation. People suffering from depression are often prone to lethargy, extreme tiredness, overeating or sudden weight loss, worry, loss of sex drive, uncontrolled or inappropriate episodes of crying, and withdrawal from social activities, friends and family.

Men are seven to eight times more likely to suffer from depression than women. Men usually suffer from depression due to some social humiliation. They feel like a failure, they view themselves as a loser. They no longer feel like a man in a world of men. Instead of taking care of others, they need to be taken care of. Instead of providing, they feel like then are being provided for. It attacks their pride, it attacks their manhood, and they respond with depression.

Depression is often associated with sadness, but it goes much further. Depression is more intense, it lasts longer and, most telling, it interferes with our ability to function. We all have times of sadness, but depression gets in the way of normal life activities.

Okay, so we know what it is, but how can I claim that it is God-given? That just goes against what so many want us to believe.

I believe that depression is akin to pain – in fact, it is in some ways very similar. Pain is unpleasant and uncomfortable, but it is necessary for life. A person who felt no pain would soon die from the affects of that loss. They would break bones without knowledge, get inflammations like appendicitis and not be aware of it until it burst, causing infection and death. They would never learn to not touch a hot stove, and repeatedly burn themselves and damage themselves. Pain is unpleasant, but necessary – it warns us of bad behavior, and dangerous circumstances.

When we see the indicators of depression, the loss of perspective, when everything looks terrible, diet changes, sleep changes, gloominess, tiredness, isolation – when those indicators appear, we need to look at it like we look at pain. “What is causing this?” “Is this an indicator of something I need to correct?”

There is another reason why I believe depression is a God-given emotion. It appears so consistently in the lives of God’s children. In both the Old and New Testaments we see God’s people dealing with depression. In Numbers chapter 11, Moses cried out to God – tell me if this doesn’t sound like depression to you:

So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have You afflicted Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I beget them, that You should say to me, ’Carry them in your bosom, as a guardian carries a nursing child,’ to the land which You swore to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all these people? For they weep all over me, saying, ’Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me. If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now – if I have found favor in Your sight – and do not let me see my wretchedness!”

You know, somehow that episode from Moses’ life never made it into the script of The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt movies about Moses. They are lines that we want to ignore – but God included them in His account! Moses was depressed – he was so down he wanted to die!

In I Kings 18 & 19 – we read that Elijah had just had his greatest moment of victory – he had called down fire from heaven that consumed an offering, and the alter that the offering had been laid on – great revival swept through the people who had seen this amazing show of God’s power. Elijah was on top of the world! That was in chapter 18, but in chapter 19, immediately after his great victory, Elijah is on the run, somehow convinced that his life is in danger, that he is alone, that God has abandoned him. Verse 4 says Elijah prayed to the Lord that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now Lord, Take my life, for I am worthless!”

You know what? Depression often follows a great victory. CS Lewis said, “The times I find myself most vulnerable to the attacks of depression is after defending Christianity most brilliantly.”

Paul talks about being in despair even to the point of death (2 Corinthians 1:8). And, of course, Jesus faced depression as well. Did you know that? Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but without sin – even with depression.

We focus our attention on the events during that last week of Jesus’ life, culminating in His resurrection on the first Easter morning. But on that Thursday night, the night before He went to the cross, Jesus went to the Garden, and He faced all the onslaught of Satan. He took His disciples with Him, and when He got to the inner part of the garden, he said to his closest friends, Peter, James and John, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death…” Does that not sound like depression to you? Sure it does! That’s almost a textbook definition of depression – “exceeding sorrow of the soul that quite often does lead to death.”

Depression is a normal part of life. How do we, like Jesus, deal with depression, and yet not sin? I want to give you six steps to deal with depression in a healthy way. Jesus gave us a perfect example of the first step in that last statement.

1. Acknowledge the emotion and identify the severity of it.

Jesus told His disciples, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful…” He recognized the condition, He acknowledged it to Himself, His friends, and to the Father. We need to do the same. Denying the emotion will lead to sin – it is believing a lie, it is ignoring God’s wiring of our frame, it is abusing our bodies and minds. When we have recognized the emotion, we need to determine just how severe it is.

We all have some periods of depression – is this one worse than what is usual? Is it mild depression – “the blues,” sadness, melancholy. Is it moderate depression, along with the sadness comes a feeling of helplessness. Trouble making decisions, crying, change in appetite and sleep patterns. If that’s the case, you have moderate depression and you should seek help from your pastor or a Christian counselor.

When depression gets severe, you add to all of the above an inability to function. We stop going to work or school. We sometimes don’t even get out of bed. Thoughts of suicide creep in – in these cases, immediate care is necessary, and further steps must be taken. But recognizing and rating the emotion is the first one.

2. Decide who or what is going to be in control of your life.
God allows depression in our lives to warn us that we need to deal with something. Is there some past trauma that we have not dealt with – loss, anger, abuse, poor decisions of the past, is there sin in my life? We then need to decide if we are going to allow the depression to control our lives, or are we going to allow God to control our lives?

H. Norman Wright describes depression as being like a person in a deep pool of water, holding on to a large, heavy rock. The rock will pull us down. If we refuse to let it go, it will destroy us. It is not the rock that will destroy – it is our decision. We must determine that we will let the depression go, and take the steps necessary to recover.

3. Share the concern with God.
We let go of that rock by giving it to God. Prayer is essential in dealing with depression. Let God know what is going on in your heart and mind. This week has been a tough week. I got an email that some friends of ours found out that their three-month old baby has tested positive for Cystic Fibrosis. The next day, I received an email from a woman I had never met who had experienced a miscarriage and lost her little baby. And in the midst was a heartbreaking story of child abuse of two tiny little babies. In each case, the people felt like they somehow weren’t allowed to be angry or question or cry out to God – that to express their real emotions would be a sin. Folks, that’s simply not the case.

When Jesus was in His depressed state, He went right to God, and cried out, “Please God, deliver Me from this!” Moses and Elijah wanted to die! But you know what God did in those cases – He came and He ministered to them. He provided for them. He loved them, and embraced them. Angels came and ministered to Jesus and strengthened Him. For Elijah, God came and made him a cake, brought him drink, and allowed him to rest. Folks, God wants us to be honest with Him – He wants us to share our deepest hurts, disappointments, needs – even our anger! He loves us – He won’t punish us for our honesty. Take it to Him.

Write down these passages: Psalms 55, 58 and 59. David was not one to hold back His emotions from God. He cries out in Psalm 42:

As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, While they continually say to me, “Where is your God?” When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, With the voice of joy and praise, With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast. Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance.

4. Ask yourself, “What is this depression telling me?”
Depression does not have to be seen as a weakness or something to be avoided, it can be seen as a messenger from God that something needs to be addressed. We can turn depression from a tool of Satan to derail us into a tool of God to get us on track! Depression is a symptom that warns us that we are in deep weeds – it is designed to drive us back to God. Depression is not a punishment from God, it is a natural God-given warning sign to help us avoid depression’s control of our lives.

5. Identify the causes – there is usually more than one cause.

Am I getting enough rest? Am I taking care of myself physically? Do I exercise? Have I started taking some new medication that is causing this? Am I depressed because I have not dealt with some past loss or conflict? Am I telling myself the truth about life, or telling myself lies? Is there sin in my life? If I know what God wants me to do, and I am not doing it – or if I’m doing something that I know I’m not supposed to be doing, then I am going to be prone to depression. Is there something that I need to clean up?

6. Get busy – make the changes.
Once the causes have been identified, we can usually see what needs to be done. Believe it or not, exercise is one of the most effective treatments for depression – and it’s the last thing we want to do when we are feeling down. But getting out and walking, running, playing tennis, any kind of exercise will greatly reduce the affects of depression.

Checking our thoughts is another key. The Bible says we should take every thought captive. What am I thinking? Am I seeing things in a healthy way, or am I seeing everything as the end of the world?

Seeking or granting forgiveness for a past hurt may be necessary. That doesn’t mean we excuse or allow abuse, but we forgive those who have hurt us – we let go of the burden.

If there is sin that is causing the depression, then I need to stop – period! Continuing to live a life that is hypocritical is a huge cause of depression – when I know what I should be doing, but don’t do it – I’m a mess!

Here’s what I would recommend. Get alone someplace and PRAY. Ask God to reveal to you the causes of your depression. Then take a legal pad, and write a LIST of the causes of your depression. Then RANK them – “Rest, diet, medication, anger, pain, grief, negative thoughts, unrealistic expectations, sin – whatever,” rank them in the order that you believe they deserve, then ATTACK the top one. Stay at it, be disciplined, don’t wait until you feel like it – DO IT!

Add to those steps a couple of more: SCRIPTURE – write down verses like Psalm 16:8, 18:28, 27:1 and 46:1 on three by five cards and claim the promises of God. Give your pain to God over and over again. Claim Romans 8:37 “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” Christ died to give us victory, and that victory is yours to be claimed.

Finally, let me encourage you to SEEK HELP. All through the Bible we see that it is not good for us to be alone. We need to get good, Christian counsel and support. Jesus Himself asked His friends to pray for Him – do we think we don’t need to ask for help?

My friends, I am here to tell you good news today: We don’t need to be held captive to depression. We can experience depression the way God created it to be to be used. We must allow it to be the catalyst that drives us deeper into the love of God – finding refreshment for our panting souls.

God’s message is one that The Rembrandt’s stole for their song – God said it first – “I’ll Be There For You.” He’s here for you – when it hasn’t been your day, week, month or even your year – He’s here for you.

©2010 Robert Marsh. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bio:
Bob Marsh is a pastor, church planter, and church planter coach. He and his wife Carol planted and ministered at Gateway Community Church in Mayville, WI for 16 years, before leaving to plant international churches in Germany in December, 2010. They have three grown children and one grandson. More information is available at www.ConvergeDarmstadt.com.