December 18, 2014

Sorrow, Depression, and the Holidays

by Eric Davis

depressionDepression and discouragement are not respecters of the holidays. For many reasons, the normal sorrow of life can reach a highpoint this time of year for some.

It may be a reminder that we are without a loved one. It may be financial stress, or loss, in a time where the pressure is to purchase. It might be emotional pressure of getting together with broken family. We just may not have a clue why we are discouraged, which can be discouraging itself. We can, even unintentionally, place big demands on this time of year to deliver and fulfill us in impossible ways, apart from God.

And Christmas time or not, many of us experience the normal, heavy weight of discouragement and depression as a regular thing; dejection, confusion, frustration, sadness, hopelessness, anxiousness, anger, darkness, despair.

But God has answers and real hope from his word for the battle.

Here are 11 truths for strength in sorrow:

  1. Especially during depression, our souls are thirsty for God.

Places like Psalm 42 picture this well: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps 42:1-2).

The idea here is of a parched soul that feels like the cracked, barren mud, having gone months without a drop of rain.

thirstyEvery soul is born with a deep thirst. The psalmist wisely knows that the only thing that can quench his soul is not a thing. Perhaps he’s tried quenching his soul-thirst with things of the world. Perhaps like the unwise deer which attempts to quench his thirst by licking mud, we have looked to spiritual and moral mud to deal with our soul-thirst. It doesn’t work.

The psalmist knows something in his depression: feelings are no guide for the urgency to drink from God. In fact, the severity of soul-drought can be discerned by the fact that we may not feel like going to God. It’s at those times that we often need him most.

The thirst my soul feels is a God-thirst, not a gold or glitter-thirst. For that reason, we have to be careful about making big life decisions in our sorrow. We may be seeking to distract the thirst. We need to go to God.

  1. God does not promise happy feelings for his people this side of heaven.

Right expectations position us well for stability, even in the instability.

Even if the Bible ended after Genesis 3, humanity would be sufficiently furnished to expect the realistic scarcity of happy feelings. Phrases like, “pain” (v. 16), “cursed” and “toil” (v. 17), “thorns and thistles” (v. 18), “sweat” (v. 19), and last but not least, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (v. 19); they set the stage. Happy feelings will be scarce.

  1. It is normal for everyone, even strong believers, to feel depressed and discouraged.

Often the writers of Scripture pull back the layers to expose their deep sorrow.

“O my God, my soul is in despair within me” (Ps 42:6).

“I am weary with my sighing; every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears” (Ps 6:6).

Regarding unregenerate Jews, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I am telling the truth in Christ…that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart” (Rom 9:1-2).

These are men who have walked with God; men of strong faith.

It’s possible for strong, sincere faith and depression to be bound up in one person. Saving faith and deep discouragement are sometimes found in the same soul. Ed Welch writes, “It is a myth that faith is always smiling. The truth is that faith often feels like the very ordinary process of dragging one foot in front of the other because we are conscious of God.” (Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, 31).

curseIt’s not abnormal to feel depressed at times. A bout with depression is less a clinical thing, and more a normal thing. That is not to say that everyone experiences the same level of depression, but everyone experiences some level of it.

For the most part, depression is somewhat normal because we all live somewhere between Genesis 2 and Revelation 20. Since we are all fallen human beings living in fallen bodies on a fallen earth, then the presence of sorrow means that things are probably pretty normal. It just means that you’re alive.

And a bout with depression does not automatically mean you are sinning. Charles Spurgeon, having experienced many bouts with depression, wrote, “No sin is necessarily connected with sorrow of heart, for Jesus Christ our Lord once said, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.’ There was no sin in him, and consequently none in his deep depression.” (Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, 32).

Sorrow is going to be normal in a place that is not heaven, around people who are not heavenly (like us).

  1. There is not usually a pixie-dust answer to depression.

If such a thing as the, “Just trust God,” formula worked, then we would have far fewer cases of depression and people like Paul and David and the sons of Korah would have not likely written what they did. But there is not usually a quick-fix, one-size-fits-all answer. That necessitates a compassion and patience towards those around us battling through this darkness.

noFurther, the experience of deep sorrow itself is often perplexing. We might ask ourselves, like the psalmist, “Why are you in despair, O my soul?” (Ps 42:5). And that perplexity can become a catalyst to greater pain.

In our day, we are conditioned to have immediate answers. We are entitled to know and to get to the bottom of things. But in deep discouragement, it can seem like there is no answer and no bottom. Spurgeon commented along these lines, “I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for” (21).

  1. Preaching biblical truth to ourselves helps stabilize the soul.

The psalmist takes action by preaching to himself: “Hope in God, for I shall yet praise him” (Ps 42:11). He’s fighting his own thoughts by exhorting himself with truth. He’s refusing to allow himself to become a captive audience to his own feelings.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, commented on Psalm 42 in his book, Spiritual Depression: It’s Causes and Cure: “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?…So he stands up and says, ‘Self, listen for a moment, and I will speak to you’” (in Steve Lawson, Psalms 1-75, 228).

And it’s not mere positive talk, but the power of God’s presence through his word.

Scripture is a stabilizer amidst instability.

“If I should say, ‘My foot has slipped,’ Your lovingkindness, O Lord, will hold me up. When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, Your consolations delight my soul” (Ps 94:18-19).

“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (Isa 26:3).

“Those who love Your law have great peace, and nothing causes them to stumble” (Ps 119:165).

  1. Corporate worship with God’s people is essential to our stability and joy.

The psalmist says something fascinating: “These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival” (Ps 42:4).

BCF congregation 4-07His pain is heightened because corporate worship has become a thing of the past.

And this further evidences his strong faith. He is not thinking, for example, “If I could only be walking on the boardwalk along a warm Israeli beach with some Galilean figs, then all would be better.” His longings go to a higher place for strength. His knows that what’s really going to help does not pertain to physical comfort, but spiritual, and particularly, corporate worship.

He knows that the corporate gathering, on earth, done God’s way, is intended to be heaven’s weekly preview. It’s the thing we do on earth that will be most like what we do in heaven.

And there is no soul-substitute for it. No activity we do sufficiently substitutes for corporate worship any more than a vitamin does for dinner.

ChristianAndHopefulAt one point in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and Hopeful take a shortcut and lose their way. Night arrives, rain falls, they seek shelter, and in the morning, they wake up to an ogre named, “Giant Despair.” He then tosses them into a dungeon inside of “Doubting Castle.” They have no food or light. Giant Despair beats them with a stick and then offers them multiple means by which they might commit suicide. But by using the key of promise they escape. And Bunyan points out that they were in there from Wednesday until about Sunday morning.

Corporate worship can serve as God’s gift to open the otherwise locked door on our dungeon of discouragement.

  1. Discouragement can be God’s means of shaping greater soul stability and holiness.

It’s often the perplexity and the longevity of discouragement in which stable saints and fortified faith is forged. How so?

Discouragement can strengthen us because we are learning that no earthly thing can really satisfy, fulfill, and stabilize the soul.

Sorrow subsequently drives us to God. God is our Shepherd. He always has our good in mind. He is driving us towards good, green pastures, which is himself. And if it feels like we’re being nudged a bit, perhaps we are. It might be what we need.

Discouragement can be good because it forces us to prayer. Prayer is a safe place to be because it’s taking refuge in God and not poor substitutes.

Discouragement can be used by God for our good because it can drive us to the word of God and biblical truth.

Deep sorrow can also produce endurance. We are forced to fight the good fight, taking up all the aforementioned means. And the fight itself is a sign that God is strengthening us. The consequence is a measure of endurance, which stabilizes the soul.

  1. More valuable than having happy feelings is having God.

We can, and do, lose so many things in life. Much of life consists of spectating and experiencing loss. But the good news is that the most valuable thing in life is neither a thing or lose-able.

“I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Even amidst a famine of fun feelings, we still have God. And the reality of having God in the darkness is not that we feel that we have a hold of him, but that he really has a hold of us.

“I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29).

  1. Though we may not know the why, we know Who.

So often we cannot give a detailed explanation behind sorrow. In those times, many writers of Scripture take an exemplary, yet almost counter-intuitive approach. They affirm the sovereignty of God.

“Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls; all Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me” (Ps 42:7).

“Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth?” (Lam 3:37-38)

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).

This all showcases a critically stabilizing truth in sorrow: the sovereignty of God is not detrimental, but essential to strength in sorrow. Things are not chaotically careening by some impersonal force towards evil, but being sovereignly orchestrated by a good and perfect God towards heaven.

  10.  Things are often not going to end on a high note until heaven.

We like happy endings. But, for example, many of the psalms do not end on a high note. This illustrates something helpful in times of sorrow: for those in Christ, the happy ending is not at the end of a psalm or a work day or a week or a year. The happy ending is heaven.

It’s been said: “God promises a safe landing but not a calm passage.”

  11.  Sorrow serves as a clearly-marked door.

Well-lit exit signs and clearly-marked doors are essential in large buildings. They point the way to safety during those times when the lights are out, cannot be found, or when the electricity is off.

Take itSorrow can serve as a well-lit exit sign and clearly-marked door when it seems that the light of the soul is out. It says, “Ok, all is not right. Go this way. Take this door.” What door?

“So Jesus said to them again, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep…if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture…I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’” (John 10:7, 9-10).

Depression can be God’s kindness pointing to the door, Jesus Christ. He is the answer. He is life and abundant life. Depression and its wretched associates drain life. But Christ is life giving because he is Life.

“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15).

Though depression is often normal, painful, and perplexing, our God and Savior is with us, leading and sustaining us by faith, not sight, and will not abandon us despite contrary feelings.

Recommended resources for depression: “If I Am A Christian, Why Am I Depressed?” by Robert Somerville and “Depression: A Stubborn Darkness,” by Ed Welch. This post taken from a sermon on Psalm 42

Eric Davis

Posts Twitter

Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • elainebitt

    Thanks for writing this Eric! And for the books recommendations.

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Elaine. Hope you find it helpful.

  • Bryan Martin

    Thanks Eric for this excellent and very pastoral post which encouraged my soul today.

    • Eric Davis

      Glad you were encouraged, Bryan. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Brad

    Wise counsel, Eric! Thanks!

    I really try to watch what I eat, and I try to exercise often. I also make sure to take my medication, since depression is often associated with certain diseases.

    Recently, I have been ministering to a refugee who is in deep depression. One thing that has been helpful is to invite this person into community. In community, the hurting and lonely find a home and a new family, the family of God!

  • Pingback: The Cripplegate: Sorrow, Depression, and the Holidays | Truth2Freedom's Blog()

  • Kait

    Helpful! <3 Thank you

  • Pingback: Sorrow, Depression, and the Holidays()