Keeping Faith in the Midst of Depression
I stand with the rest of the congregation for a familiar hymn. My heart is sad and parched. Mouthing the words takes a Herculean effort. I feel out of place in the midst of so many people with smiles on their faces and praise on their lips. I can’t remember the last time I felt buoyant in spirit or put my heart into worship. Guilt badgers me, for I’m aware that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
I’m trying to muster enough resolve to keep a lunch appointment with a student and to teach an afternoon class at the university. I hope the student won’t show. The idea of listening to and feigning interest in another person creates pressure that I resent. There’s a high humidity in my heart that smothers motivation and saps energy for the daily routine.
I sit in my recliner, clutching a second handful of tear-soaked tissues. In stark contrast to the afternoon sun, my spirit is pitch-black. “Where are You when I need You?” I cry aloud to God as despair envelops me. “Don’t You care enough to help?”
The pain won’t ease up.
These vignettes from the past year depict my ongoing struggle with depression. I’m either too numb to feel anything, or the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme and I collapse in a torrent of tears. The voice of despair insists that the darkness is inevitable, that the pain will never subside. The voice of faith offers a rebuttal, pointing me to God and asserting that hope will have the last word. Hope can triumph over despondency.
I believe that the gospel is hopeful, that God is good, that any form of adversity can serve a redemptive purpose. I identify with the psalmist who — within a single verse — acknowledged despondency and told himself to focus on God as an object of trust: “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 42:5).
I can’t claim victory over the nemesis of depression. Yet I can share how I contend with it and avoid yielding to hopelessness. I can tell you what I’m learning about keeping faith when the feeling is gone.
Godly and Depressed
A myth persists among some Christians that if a person is right with the Lord, despondency won’t descend on him. A member of my church, aware of my depression, inquired about my devotional life. I assured her that days in which I’ve had unremitting emotional pain began with Bible study, fervent prayer, and confession of known sins. She walked away, apparently unconvinced.
I’ve learned that there is no direct correlation between the onset of depression and the quality of my relationship with the Lord. I’m not suggesting that time alone with God and His Word isn’t crucial in the fight against despondency. I am saying that neglect of spiritual disciplines isn’t a satisfactory explanation for the onset of my emotional lows. I can be in the vise grip of depression when I’m in close fellowship with the Lord, and I can be lighthearted when I’m not so close to Him.
More than once, King David experienced life-sapping melancholy that was apparently not the result of sin or disobedience. According to Psalm 13:1–2, David felt sorrow in his heart and thought that God had abandoned him. On a different occasion, David asked the Lord to be responsive to his tears and expressed a desire to smile again (Psalm 39:12–13). The same man whom the Scriptures call a “man after God’s own heart,” who encouraged others to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” experienced bouts of discouragement that we would likely call depression today.
Medical experts agree that recurring depression, especially when it cannot be linked to a personal setback or external event, has a biological basis. That’s why medical intervention may be needed. Since 1990, I’ve been under a physician’s care. Through early 2002, prescription medications boosted my mental health and kept the depression in check.
Since then, however, the effectiveness of medicines has waned, and I’ve been depressed more often than not. I’m discovering that even depression that has a physical cause must be fought with spiritual weapons, as well as with medications.
My first weapon in the battle against despondency remains the promises in God’s Word. I’ve discovered that memorizing selected verses keeps me from giving up and yielding to the despair. God’s promises fuel the faith that’s needed to counter my feelings of hopelessness.
In Future Grace, John Piper emphasizes, “Wherever despondency comes from, Satan paints it with a lie. The lie says, ‘You will never be happy again. You will never be strong again. You will never have vigor and determination again. Your life will never again be purposeful. There is no morning after this night. No joy after weeping. All is gathering gloom, darker and darker.’”
When I’m bombarded with Satan’s lies, I buttress my faith with verses such as Psalm 30:5, that combat Satan’s lies: “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Another buoyant promise that keeps me from drowning in discouragement is Nahum 1:7: “The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.”
One effect of depression on my work is my inability to sense God’s presence as I prepare for and teach classes. That’s when I choose to lock my mental lens on Isaiah 41:10 which says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
I tell myself that God’s Word, which promises His presence, is far more reliable than my fickle feelings. The outcome is that I work with renewed confidence and vigor.
In addition to clinging to God’s promises, I desperately need the love and support of my friends and family. During one particularly rough week, my wife and closest friends thought I might be suicidal. A friend took me to breakfast and assured me of his love.
Another showed up at my house the same day. “I’m sitting by your side for the next couple of hours,” he announced. “I didn’t come with advice, but I’m here in case you want to talk or pray. Even if you just read the paper or watch TV, I’m not leaving your side.”
Their actions affirmed and encouraged me. I was on the receiving end of two of the Apostle Paul’s relational commands to believers:
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
“Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
I thank God for the two friends who pulled alongside me that day and gave me a jump start. No one can help me bear the burden of depression, however, unless I’m willing to be transparent and admit my need. On my most downhearted days, I call close friends and ask them to pray with me over the phone. Once I drove to a friend’s house and knocked on the door. When his wife answered, I pleaded through tears, “Can I borrow David for a while?”
Anyone who is depressed needs the safe harbor of a friend or a small group where he can drop anchor and receive emotional support. The help of a Christian counselor may also be needed.
A Softened Heart
Though emotional pain is not the direct result of sin on my part, depression pays dividends in my war against sin. It softens my heart and makes me open to the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. When I’m victimized by a flagging spirit, I’m in a more dependent state. I pray more — and when I’m in the presence of God more often, the Holy Spirit takes advantage of my brokenness to beam a light on areas of impurity. He can expose sin more readily because there’s less pride hindering the process.
For several weeks, I supplemented my prayers with meditation on Psalm 139:23–24. Along with pleas for help with melancholy, I started asking the Lord to search my heart. Before long, the tears I shed were a result of conviction, spawned by sensitivity to sin instead of depression. I became increasingly conscious of a tendency to stretch the truth, of lustful thoughts that I’d rationalized as being inevitable for men, and of attitudes that kept me from greater intimacy with people close to me. Repentance wouldn’t have occurred if my heart had not first been crushed by depression.
Pointing to God
Depression not only softens my heart, but I’ve discovered that it provides an opportunity for God to receive more glory through my life and ministry. We may think a person best glorifies God through devoted service or a demonstration of uncompromising character. No doubt we honor Him in those ways. But I’m convinced that God gets more glory when we’re needy, when we’re in a situation requiring His intervention.
The idea that God gets more glory through our weakness than through our strength is couched in Psalm 50:15: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
Realizing that my need provides an opportunity for God to be magnified motivates me to pray when I’m depressed. I believe He will hear my plea because my situation offers an occasion for Him to act. It’s the Giver, not the recipient, who gets the glory. I feel confident that God will use me in ministry despite my despondency, since it gives Him a chance to do what only He can do.
Charles Spurgeon is a prime example of a person who honored God despite debilitating weakness. His first bout with depression occurred when he was 24. “My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep like a child, yet I knew not what I wept for,” reported the eloquent British preacher. The melancholy returned repeatedly throughout his life. Despite bouts with despondency, Spurgeon made a huge impact on his generation as a preacher and an author. He understood that human need magnifies the sufficiency of God. Spurgeon wrote, “We shall bring our Lord most glory if we get from Him much grace.”
Spurgeon’s remark resonates with me, because I’m a man who is receiving much grace from God. If my life glorifies Him as a result, then even my depression serves a redemptive purpose.
Though bouts of depression persist, I see the light in the promises of Scripture, in the faces of supportive friends, in the purifying work of God’s Spirit, and in the realization that my plight provides a prime opportunity for God to receive glory. Thanks to these means of sustenance and perspective, Micah 7:8 rings true in my life: “Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light.”
Click here to read a poem and listen to an audio: What I’ve Seen in the Dark from Dr. Powell.
Reprinted from Discipleship Journal, July/August 2004. Used with permission.
Dr. Terry Powell
Author and Professor
Terry is Faculty Emeritus and now adjunct professor in Church Ministries at Columbia International University. Married 50 years, he has two sons, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson. Terry writes about faith and depression at Penetrating the Darkness. His latest book, Oh God, I’m Dying! How God Redeems Pain for Our Good and for His Glory tells of God's sustaining grace in the life of co-author, Dr. Mark Smith, who is an effective Christian university president despite suffering daily pain from a near-fatal accident.