Sunday, March 2, 2014

Dealing With the Demon of Depression

When God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and multiply you.”  And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise.  Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute.  In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us.  We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews 6:13 - 20 (NRSV)
The National institute of Mental Health has a website[1] dedicated to depression.  Its opening paragraph is:
Everyone occasionally feels blue or sad.  But these feelings are usually short-lived and pass within a couple of days.  When you have depression, it interferes with daily life and causes pain for both you and those who care about you.  Depression is a common but serious illness.
“Common but serious” is an understatement.  From Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s heroin overdose a few weeks ago, depression has gripped most of mankind at one point or another.
Today I’d like for us to play doctor.  By that I mean let’s diagnose the problem and explore solutions for the dreaded thief of joy – depression. 
(We will mostly bypass the results of depression like work loss, damage to relationships, suicide and the like.)
Diagnosing the Problem of Depression
There are a host of clinical symptoms that identify that kind of depression which goes beyond “the blues”.

Physical Characteristics of Depression

Apart from the obvious, sad-looking expression, there is also a loss of expression in a person’s voice.  When King David lost his firstborn son with Bathsheba, those who spent time with David were alarmed at how expressionless the king became.  Prior to his depression David was an accomplished musician and singer.  With an engaging personality on hold, David’s companions feared he was already dead inside.
Appetite also is affected in depressed people.  For some (like me) appetite increases ten-fold when depression strikes.  Some people are prone to eating comfort food!  For others, like Elijah, the appetite disappears.  After his battle with the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel, Elijah was so afraid Jezebel would catch up with him, he couldn’t think of eating.

Emotional Characteristics of Depression

When a person is depressed, feelings, fears and moodiness are all bounced around like a yo-yo on a string.  Some of the more categorized mood swings:
·        Emptiness – a sense of the total meaninglessness of life.  Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of the rock band Nirvana.  He left a suicide note which clearly expressed his depressive state – a cloud of too much success, drugs and lack of passion for anything.  The ancient prophet Jeremiah shared Cobain’s shame, expressing remorse that he’d ever been born.
·        Worthlessness – when you’ve blown it, made a fool of yourself, it seems impossible to redeem life’s luster.  Jesus’ closest friend and co-laborer, Peter, denied Christ three times.  For Peter, weeping bitterly when the rooster crowed at dawn to remind him of his unfaithfulness – well, that simply meant it was all over; Peter’s boast of loyalty was a sham.  I would be surprised to learn that Peter hadn’t considered joining Judas at the end of a rope.
·        Helplessness – In 1987 at the end of a distinguished political career, depression so grabbed Budd Dwyer (a state senator from Pennsylvania) over the inability of the government to bring about substantive change for the good, that he made a statement on a live TV news broadcast and then pulled out a gun and killed himself in hopes the world would wake up….and change.
This is not an exhaustive list, but characterizes depression’s ability to block everything worthwhile about life; you wind up paralyzed and unable to do anything but breathe (and sometimes you wonder about that)!

 The Hidden Cause of Depression

Clinical psychologist Howard Clinebell wrote that often depression is caused by …hostility which the individual turns inward on himself because he is afraid to express it openly toward the original target of anger.
If this is so, and if that is really a major cause of most depression apart from (or in concert with) other factors, then the cause runs toward a judgmental bitter spirit within, and most external factors only pluck the sore nerve. 
For instance, a simple illustration of depression and financial troubles would say that I hate my overspending and the debt I incur.  When I judge my inability to control irresponsible use of money it piles up guilt until I feel worthless, helpless and empty…I feel depressed.  The actions were rightly judged as inappropriate, but I internalized my anger, rather than addressing and correcting the behavior.  (Which, in Biblical terms would be called “repentance”).
So much for “cause”…what about…
Exploring Common Solutions


The most common defense is to deny a condition exists.  But denial only works for short-term relief (especially if your depression is caused by an oncoming train, and you’re sitting on the tracks).
A man wandered in the desert for a month and was finally found.  When asked how he got lost he replied, Well, I’m not really lost…but my house seems to be somewhat misplaced.  Denial!
Denial only serves to make depression worse. In fact, depression symptoms are understood deep within a person as being real – that’s why we consciously sense there’s something not quite right.  Denying or ignoring the symptoms leaves the root cause of depression untreated; like cancer without surgery and chemotherapy, depression will grow!


Displacement is a form of denial, but perhaps even more deadly.  Instead of trying to ignore the symptoms of despair and emptiness, we attribute them, inaccurately, to a lack of something in our life; so we set-out to fill that void.  The void – a real calling of the inner self to deal with our life meaningfully – cannot be filled by displacement.  We run after things (materialism), toys (bigger cars, computers, homes, more exciting activities), and all we wind up with is greater emptiness, self-hatred and more depression.  Denial and Displacement don’t work.

Drugs and Dialogue

Prescription drugs that elevate endorphin levels and help balance hormone production are not evil.  In fact, I can say from personal experience, that when used appropriately and under a physician’s direction, such drugs can help a depressed person deal with depressive conditions and find wholeness in a more healthy manner.
Dialogue is also important – a depressed person must deal with the issues inside – there is urgent need to get those issues outside, where they can be seen clearly and addressed honestly.  The old Southern Baptist evangelist Vance Havner used to say…creepy-crawly things thrive in the darkness; when you open a door and turn on a light, the bugs scatter
How do you turn on the light?  I’m glad you asked.
Defining Biblical Solutions

Treating the “whole” person

While most depression is addressed in clinical settings from a chemical and behavioral viewpoint, Scripture points to a third dimension – spirit.  Scientific methodology rarely considers “sin” as part of the equation; God differs! 
Even when God first came to the fearful Adam and Eve after they sinned, His question, Adam, where are you, was not about location in Eden, it was the condition of his heart.  The first couple knew they’d gone against God’s will and their self-hatred and judgment drove them away from God’s presence in fear. 
To treat depression adequately there must be consideration of the root cause – the heart turned in the wrong direction and afraid to admit it! 
Scripture teaches this very eloquently.  When King David sinned by raping Bathsheba, and the subsequent conspiracy to cover-up his deed with the murder of her husband, Uriah, the inward guilt and shame David experienced, and was reluctant to confess just ate him alive on the inside.  He was morose and petulant towards everyone.  A psychologist would say he was projecting his own guilt and anger (depression genes) on others.
Ultimately the resident Hebrew psychiatrist and prophet, Nathan, orchestrated an intervention; he said:  David, my son – your biggest problem here is David!  This poked David’s hidden sins so much they flooded in an outward confession.  The result was forgiveness from God and a changed king.  See what David wrote about what brought him out of guilt, anger and depression:
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.  While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  Selah  Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.  Selah     Psalms 32:1 - 5 (NRSV)
David was a depressed king before his confession.  Afterward he could joyfully proclaim “blessedness” or being “happy” because of the forgiveness he’d received.
Before his confession, David was drifting in spirit like a paper boat on the high seas during a typhoon; afterward it was like Nathan had handed him an anchor that got him through the storm of depression and guilt.

David’s Anchor

What was the anchor?  It was the promise God had given to David’s ancestor, Abraham.  One night God had called Abram to leave the familiar home of his ancestors and strike out on an adventure with the Almighty.  God promised him there would be a “blessed land” of inheritance for Abram and all his descendants.  The promise is still in the process of being fulfilled, but God was faithful.  Our text calls this anchor “sure and steadfast”. 

Anybody’s Anchor

What is it like to “anchor” the same way David did, and be delivered from depression and guilt and anger the way David was? 
Anchoring is a definite, irretrievable act of faith in God.
When Elizabeth and I first joined a church years ago, the pastor came to visit us and spoke of the dependable family we’d find there – people we could count on in a crunch; got it, check!  He talked about God’s salvation and how our lives needed Christ; got that too, check!  Then the pastor spoke of how our tithe could be given.  He left the “how” to us, but there was no stuttering about the “how much” – 10%.  Russell thought – gulp! 
After praying for a few weeks, and as the day grew closer for us to join, we decided to take an “anchor step”.  We decided to definitely, irretrievably begin to tithe…because we believed God’s Word.  (That’s right – we looked it up after the pastor left).  I’ve never been depressed about giving since.
When we were summoned by God to enter ministry we took some baby steps in that direction, but no calmness came that way.  When we finally decided to anchor our lives in that call, definitely and irretrievably, there came a day when we packed the U-Haul with every stick of furniture – lock, stock and three kids – and headed off without job, housing or promise of the next meal.  And God has been faithful…the anchor still holds.
Nine years ago we left the familiar nest of our former denomination to become Methodists….talk about a definite, irretrievable act of faith in God’s call!  Wow!  Double WOW!  We have been blessed beyond measure.

What is “anchoring” for you? 

Have you ever placed total trust in Him – to the point where you have no other recourse if He doesn’t show up? 
Have you given yourself no “out clause” in your prayers?  Where you’ll go down in flames if He doesn’t hold you up? 
Do you trust Him that way now, as perhaps you used to?
You can – again – or for the first time.  You can do that now.

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