For the director of music. A maskil[c] of the Sons of Korah.
1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” 4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.
5 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.
6 My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar. 7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
Depression. It’s been a life-long struggle that comes and goes. In some seasons, the grip is so intense I feel as though I will suffocate. Other times, it’s a dark cloud in a holding pattern over my heart. And sometimes it’s a fog that settles quickly over the surface with no rhyme or reason. Occasionally, there is an easily recognizable cause – a major loss or life change. But there are also the periods of overwhelming sorrow or hopelessness with no justifiable cause. I’m not a counselor or a psychiatrist. I’m just a sensitive girl who loves Jesus and wants to seek Him in my struggle. I feel like God is calling me to be open here (though it’s highly uncomfortable). My hope and prayer is that if you also struggle in this area, you may be encouraged. If, perhaps, you are walking the long road beside a loved-one in the depths of depression, I pray my words may offer some insight. Everyone is different and everyone’s struggle is unique. There are so many factors to consider. I’d just like to share with you a few things the Lord has been teaching me as I continually seek His face.
1. Lean INTO the pain
For most of my adult life, my tactic for dealing with pain has been to numb out and to stuff. I stuff the bad feelings and pretend they aren’t there so they will go away OR avoid the burn of the pain by numbing – checking my Facebook status, scrolling through Pinterest, keeping busy – anything but actually feeling the hard emotions and pain. I have spent many years fearing emotional pain, trying to build walls that would protect me from future wounding.
Trying to control my circumstances to avoid the pain was exhausting and anxiety producing! Brene Brown, a leading sociologist, discusses this in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are:
“The most powerful emotions that we experience have very sharp points, like the tip of a thorn. When they prick us, they cause discomfort and even pain. Just the anticipation or fear of these feelings can trigger intolerable vulnerability in us. We know it’s coming. For many of us, our first response to vulnerability and pain of these sharp points is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away. We do that by numbing and taking the edge off the pain with whatever provides the quickest relief. We can anesthetize with a whole bunch of stuff, including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, staying busy, affairs, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change, and the Internet. Before conducting this research I thought that numbing and taking the edge off was just about addiction, but I don’t believe that anymore. Now I believe that everyone numbs and takes the edge off and that addiction is about engaging in these behaviors compulsively and chronically.”
Thorny emotions that expose my vulnerability? No thanks! I would rather shield my heart and keep it from being broken, thank you very much. Well, at least that’s what I thought until two years ago when, through major life changes, I found myself in a deep pit of depression and realized the unhealth of my stuffing. As Brene Brown also points out,“When we numb the dark, we numb the light. While I was ‘taking the edge off’ of the pain and vulnerability, I was also unintentionally dulling my experiences of good feelings, like joy…. We can’t make a list of all of the ‘bad’ emotions and say ‘I’m going to numb these’ and then make a list of the positive emotions and say ‘I’m going to engage in these!’ You can imagine the vicious cycle this creates: I don’t experience much joy so I have no reservoir to draw from when hard things happen. They feel even more painful, so I numb. I numb so I don’t experience joy. And so on.”
Lately, I have been trying to lean into the pain rather than fearing it. This concept is actually one I learned in childbirth. Wanting to have natural childbirth, but not being able to for various reasons with my first three children, I did a lot of research before child #4 came along. One of concepts I stumbled upon was the fear-tension-pain cycle. The basic premise is that the more fearful you become of the pain during labor, the more your muscles will tense, and the more pain you will actually feel. If you can keep from fearing the pain and relax into it, you will actually feel less pain during contractions. Easier said than done, right? But it worked. Knowing that it would be painful and what to expect during the process, having supportive people holding me through the pain, and having a very long playlist of praise worship on my ipod, I was able to deliver sweet baby girl #4 naturally.
Fearing emotional pain causes me to live in great tension. Knowing to expect pain (“in this world you will have trouble”), having supportive people to coach me through (more on that later), and playing worship music constantly (my new playlist), I can breathe and cry and lean into the pain and not fear it.
Why should we lean into the pain rather than fearing it and numbing it? Perhaps there is healing to be found in the honest feeling of emotional pain? When we exercise, our muscles become stronger, even though there may be some measure of pain. In labor, we birth something new through the pain. It is often through pain that growth occurs. If we avoid emotional pain, we may also be stunting the growth and rebirth that could occur if we didn’t stuff or numb. Relationships can be strengthened and new ways of relating can be formed. Over time, sinful patterns can be replaced with new ways of behaving and thinking. By leaning into the pain, we may learn more about the nature of the pain – its possible causes and possible cures. We can become stronger and better equipped to handle future pain in a healthy manner when we are honest about our emotional pain with ourselves and God.
2. Cry OUT to God in the pain
Our God is omnipresent. There is no dark pit deep enough to separate us from His love. Our God is omniscient. He knows us better than we know ourselves. Every thought, every tear – everything is seen by Him. Over and over again in the Scriptures, we see God’s children crying out to Him. There’s an entire book entitled Lamentations – the passionate expressing of grief or sorrow. The Psalms are filled with heart-wrenching honest outpourings of emotion. We even see our merciful Savior cry out to God in the garden, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38).
I used to think that I couldn’t come to God in my pain. That He would be displeased with my lack of joy, so I got really good at praying from my fake self all the while wondering why God felt so distant. But when I fell into a deep pit, God met me in the pain. When the only thing I could do was cry, God held me. When I didn’t have the strength to keep on the mask, I experienced God’s love in a way I never had before. He loved me in my broken mess. I didn’t have to do more/try harder to fix myself, or do anything but sit and rest in the truth that I am His redeemed child.
When we feel like God is far away or we are drowning in a sea of hopelessness, we can bring those feelings to God. His love is greater than our emotions! There is freedom in being vulnerable and honest before the throne of grace.
When condemnation grips my heart
And Satan tempts me to despair
I hear the voice that scatters fear
The Great I Am the Lord is here
Oh praise the One who fights for me
And shields my soul eternally
Boldly I approach Your throne
Blameless now I’m running home
By Your blood I come
Welcomed as Your own
Into the arms of majesty
In addition, journaling really helps me get the thoughts out of my head. Being a natural introvert, I can process stories and thoughts in my head ad infinitum. Once they are written down, I often gain a new perspective and can refocus on truth. Speaking of truth…
3. Talk to yourself OVER the pain
In Psalm 42, we see the Psalmist in deep despair. He feels as though he is drowning in the waves of his life. He asks himself a series of questions. He repeats truth back to himself. This is really hard for me when I’m depressed. I often become trapped in my own thoughts. I have to fight to turn down my own voice and turn up His voice of truth. The theologian Martin Lloyd Jones in his book Spiritual Depression, writes this about Psalm 42:
“The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problem of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been repressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you’.
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’– what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’– instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.'”
Of course, in the depths of depression, talking truth to yourself over the lies becomes almost impossible and that’s why it is so imperative to have friends to speak truth into your life….
4. Reach out THROUGH the pain
This is perhaps the hardest thing for a depressed person to do, as our sorrows often trap us in loneliness and isolation. We feel that people can’t understand our pain or that they don’t care. We fear their condemnation and more wounding. As C.S Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken’.”
The empathetic support of loved ones is essential for our battle. We need friends who will pray for us even when we don’t have the words to pray for ourselves. We need friends who will lovingly preach truth to us when all we are preaching to ourselves is lies. We need friends who won’t minimize, condemn or try to fix. We need friends who will offer encouragement, gracious words, and perhaps even a shoulder to cry on. We need to know we are not alone!
I’ve taken great comfort in the words of other Christians who have struggled emotionally, specifically Randy Alcorn and Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon is one of my favorite preachers and theologians. Every word he wrote and spoke is so poignant and filled with metaphoric depth. He preached and thousands were saved. His theological works are tomes of rich truth. Yet, this great man of the faith fought his entire life with depression. Spurgeon also offered an important perspective on the purpose of our pain – that reaching out to others through the pain can also mean reaching out to those that need YOUR help. Spurgeon wrote about his experience:
“One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, ‘My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?’ and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself. On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand up right, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, ‘I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.’ By God’s grace I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell you the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants? You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge … You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with desponding minds.” –An All Round Ministry, pp. 221-222
Who needs to hear your story? To whom can you reach out today? There is great freedom to be found in living in the light! Perhaps today you need to lean into the pain, cry out to God in the pain, talk to yourself over the pain, or reach out through the pain. Let’s fight like crazy together to fix our hearts firmly on the hope we have in Christ Jesus!
“Every Christian who struggles with depression struggles to keep their hope clear. There is nothing wrong with the object of their hope – Jesus Christ is not defective in any way whatsoever. But the view from the struggling Christian’s heart of their objective hope could be obscured by disease and pain, the pressures of life, and by Satanic fiery darts shot against them. We all have to fight the same way, by getting our views of Christ and his promises clear every hour of every day. All discouragement and depression is related to the obscuring of our hope, and we need to get those clouds out of the way and fight like crazy to see clearly how precious Christ is.” – John Piper
Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul