The Costs and Blessings of Depression: Spirituality

“Depression disrupts all relationships, including our relationship with God.”*

John Wesley divided the “means of grace” into three categories:

  • The Sacraments – baptism and the Eucharist;
  • Works (acts) of piety – reading, meditating, and studying scriptures, prayer (both public and private), fasting, and regularly attending worship; and
  • Works (acts) of mercy – ministering to the sick and those in prison, feeding the hungry and giving to the needs of others.

The “means of grace,” according to Wesley, were ordained by God as channels of grace from God to us. In my understanding, it means the avenue by which we continue our relationship with God and He with us after we have received the unmerited favor, free-for-all, “not of works lest we should boast” gift of salvation.

Clinical depression interrupts acts of piety. The concentration needed to read, meditate, and study scriptures and devotional helps is often absent. Many people with depression cannot muster the energy necessary to focus on a subject for more than a few minutes. We are using all the energy we have to fight the temptations and ideations of suicide and/or despair. What we do read we may not comprehend and rarely retain. Some of us simply quit and that brings feelings of guilt and personal condemnation – the last thing we need.

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Prayer, at its most basic, is a conversation with God. But, prayer comes with certain assumptions: God loves me; God listens to me; prayer makes a difference. When you are severely depressed it is hard to believe these things. At one time in my journey with severe depression, my “favorite” verse was, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” God appeared distant and uncaring. The heavens seemed like brass and it felt like my prayers traveled no farther than my lips.

I stood outside the tabernacle during the Friday night healing service at our summer camp meeting. Pacing back and forth, I was waiting for the preacher to end and the invitation to begin. In preparation for this hour, I had been fasting and praying for healing for several days. I was in so much pain that I could not even sit in the service. Finally, the invitation was given. Before I knelt at the altar I noticed a lady from our church kneeling nearby. On Sunday morning she gave thanks to God for healing her headache. I felt resentment welling up in my heart. Angrily, I wondered why God would heal her of a headache, that would probably go away anyhow, and He would not heal me of this illness that was destroying my ministry and my life. It was not fair. It was not just. Is it any wonder that I had a hard time praying?

After leaving the ministry and in the midst of intense marital issues, corporate worship was difficult. Many times I chose to stay home. Being around people was difficult for me and being around happy people even more so. As one writer observed, “What do you think are the most awkward words that a depressed person can hear in a church lobby? They are, ‘Hi, how are you?’ How can they respond to that question? They can’t be honest and say, ‘I want to die, thanks, how are you?’”* I felt the same. Hearing, “You’ll get over it,” made me want to scream. Others would say, “Trust God, brother,” and I smiled and said okay while wanting to ask, “Don’t you think I’ve tried?” Still others avoided me all together. Perhaps they did not know what to say; perhaps they had nothing to say.

Stand in the shoes of a depressed person during worship for a moment and sing, “. . . we should never be discouraged . . .” Listen to one trumpet it is “happiness all the time, wonderful peace of mind . . .” and wonder, “What is wrong with me?” The “sunshine in my soul today” is replaced by a ghoulish scene bathed in darkness and despair. Preachers and Bible teachers who confidently proclaim depression is a sin only make the lonely struggle worse.

Acts of mercy? How can you help others when you are so needy? A depressed Christian feels they have lost the joy of their salvation. God seems unreachable. Questions of sin, spiritual weakness, and character flaws haunt every waking hour. There is no energy to minister to others.

This all sounds like a recipe for backsliding or even apostasy. Some may go that route, but for me my depression became a spiritual blessing. I learned to abide in Christ. Jesus said, “Abide in Me, and I in you.” (John 15:4 NKJV) Depression taught me that I could not rely on myself. I had no strength. I had no willpower. Total and radical dependence on Jesus Christ was and is my only salvation. It is neither by my might nor by my power, but in the Holy Spirit of God that I can walk through this dark night of my soul.

I learned humility. The evidence of my personal poverty and worthlessness became very real. It may not be popular to acknowledge that amazing grace saved a “wretch like me,” nor confess that Jesus devoted His “sacred head for such a worm as I,” but to do so is liberating. Brought to my knees by physical pain and severe depression, my ministry and marriage ripped from my hands, my utter helplessness on display for all to see; I could do no other than be humbled. Torn down and in heaps of rubble, I was ready to be restored. To become clay in the Potter’s hand and molded into the image of Christ.

Through multiple experiences in my life, I learned compassion, but none more so than living with clinical depression. Acts of mercy come much more natural to me than before. Bill Clinton may have made popular the saying, “I feel your pain,” but I can truly feel the pain of the mentally ill, the substance abuser, the homeless, the poor, and the sick. I have walked in their shoes and known the despondency of their condition. Although I can no longer be a pastor in position, I am a pastor in practice.

At last, between my third and forth hospitalizations (which were separated by one year and one day) I devoted myself to my relationship with God. I read the Bible and Christian writings vociferously, reading though the OT once, NT twice, Psalms three times, and Proverbs monthly. Devotional literature, a hymnal, and Christian magazines and books were never far from my hand. Every morning I spent two hours with God. When the doors of my church were open, I was there. I went on a “Walk to Emmaus” journey. When I emerged from that year I was spiritually healthier then I had ever been. By the help of God I continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 3:18 NKJV)

“Truly God is good . . .” (Psalm 73:1 NKJV)

 

*”Does Depression Have Spiritual Symptoms” by Dr. Grant Mullen at drgrantmullen.com.

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