Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. -Psalm 42:5,11
For as long as I can remember, I have battled with cycles of depression to varying degrees. I recently just came through two of the worst and longest-lasting episodes in quite a while. Two of the lowest points in my life during these cycles were the day my first book, a book on Hope, was published and my master’s degree graduation day. What should have been two of the most joyful days of my life were instead two of the most depressing days of life.
Those moments make some sense as they are marked by a kind of completion and transition. But many times, depression has its own logic that does not make ordinary logical sense. For example, I am in one of the most productive, fruitful, and overall enjoyable phases of my life. I lead a thriving and growing mission organization serving thousands worldwide and reaching millions with the Good News of Jesus. I have four awesome kids in a great stage of their lives. I have a wonderful wife who balances me out. I am authoring books, live in the beautiful state of Colorado, and life is good! And yet, I often find beneath it all a lingering sadness even when it is not directly tied to any one thing or circumstance. Depression just is what it is, comes when it comes, and lasts as long as it lasts.
I am sharing this because recently, I had three conversations about depression with three different people in one week. One was with another leader I respect in the throes of a cycle himself. Another was with a family member going through depression. And the third was another family member who does not battle depression but expressing concern and wanting to know how they can help.
So, I wanted to take a moment to blog just a few thoughts about depression, especially some things we may not typically think about. I hope it is meaningful, whether you are depressed or know someone battling depression. The reality is COVID has exposed the need for greater emphasis on mental health, and depression is something a large portion of people in the world and throughout history struggle with. It is time we paid more attention to what is going on inside us and aware of what may be going on inside of others.
I titled this article “Depression: A Gift and a Curse.” I think everyone would naturally agree with depression being a curse, but how can I say it is also a gift? Speaking personally, which I know is not valid for everyone, I refer to myself as a “functioning depressive.” What this means is that typically I do not get crippled by depression. Yes, there are times and seasons where I have shut down or just want to stay in bed all day and do nothing, but often, I find that depression forces me to focus on things in ways I otherwise would not. For example, I have become more aware of my need to take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I find that some of my best writing or messages come from seasons of personal struggle. I also become more aware of the struggles of others and find identification and the ability to relate at a deeper level. I also find myself seeking God more and leaning in more deeply to my walk with him, recognizing my need for him in my human weakness. It also pushes me to refuse to settle for shallow or simple answers to some of life’s biggest questions and struggles. For these reasons, I find depression to be a gift.
And I am not alone. Throughout history, some of the greatest prophets, pastors, poets, saints, musicians, artists, creatives, comedians, teachers, authors, and others have been people who battled intensely with depression. Think of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 after calling down fire from heaven. There he stood on the mountain top toe to toe with the false prophets of Baal with boldness and courage. And yet, right after this, Elijah runs in fear for his life, collapses under a tree, begins to feel sorry for himself, and wishes he were dead. Think of so many of the Psalms. What about Jeremiah, the prophet who wrote a book in the bible called Lamentations? Mother Teresa spoke of the dark night of her soul, a phrase borrowed from Saint John of the Cross long before her. Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher, is well-known for his bouts of severe depression. The list goes on and on. Some of the most creative, talented, gifted, compassionate, and godly people were plagued by depression. Yet, they brought forth some of their most remarkable achievements amid their depression.
But depression is also a curse. It has its destructive side. It can lead down some dark, even deadly paths. It can destroy people’s health, self-esteem, confidence, and relationships. It robs of joy. It sits over you like a wet and cold blanket in a dreary and dark winter. It produces despair and inner anguish. Others who do not struggle with it have a hard time understanding it or being around those who are in it. It creates confusion, frustration, anger, and self-loathing. For these reasons and more, it is a curse.
For those struggling with depression or not quite sure how to understand those battling depression, here is something else I have been seeing more clearly. Depression operates with its own logic and in its own cycles. In other words, you cannot always tie it to specific events or circumstances. There is often not a simple solution or answer. And it comes and goes in cycles. During my last cycle, I saw this for the first time in Scripture. I was preparing for a message from Psalm 42 on depression when I realized the same refrain is repeated several times in that chapter and the next. That refrain is where the Psalmist is asking himself why he is so downcast. He seems puzzled as to why he cannot seem to shake his despair. So, he tells himself to do two things: “put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5,11, 43:5). Some people think you should just be able to “get over it.” But that is not how depression works. You can do things to help navigate and manage depression. But you cannot just “get over it.” Sometimes you need to keep going through the same reminders multiple times, just as depression comes in various waves.
I also do not believe there is usually just one solution to depression. Often it requires a holistic approach. When Elijah had enough and wanted to die, it says an angel of the Lord came to him and told him to “get up and eat” (1 Kings 19:5-6). Elijah did these two things and then went back to sleep. So, the angel of the Lord came back to him a second time and repeated the same process all over again (1 Kings 19:7-8). Then, he moved on to a location where God would tend to him spiritually, emotionally, and relationally (1 Kings 19:8-18). But notice the holistic approach used with Elijah and the repetition of certain things until Elijah came through this bout of depression. Elijah needed physical rest, food, spiritual and emotional care, and time. Depression is a process. It can’t be reduced to a quick fix. And while God may deliver some from depression, I don’t believe God always delivers people from depression. I do believe however he can bring us through it and care for us in it.
Much more could be written, but I am saving some of that for my second book being edited now. It is a follow-up to my first book, but perhaps a bit more nuanced and coming at Hope differently. It is a journey through the book of Ecclesiastes, a book of the bible I often turn to when I am depressed. It is due out in the fall of 2021, so stay tuned for some excerpts and updates! The working title is: Everything is Meaningless: Finding Purpose in a World of Despair. Stay tuned.