Thank you Sharon, for another great post – this time on depression.
Make sure you look out for her powerful book, “Wrestling with my thoughts” (A doctor writes about her own mental health struggles), which will be coming out in January, published by IVP.
Comfy hoodies, pumpkin spice lattes, cosy evenings indoors, rustling leaves, spectacular colours…
For some people, autumn is a favourite season.
But others have a different experience. The darker mornings and earlier sunsets squeeze their dreary days and bring a sense of oppression. Oppression that is only going to get worse in winter.
I have a mental illness, and – once September comes – I can almost predict the day when depression is going to set in again for yet another season.
Maybe you know the symptoms all too well:
· low mood
· persistent sadness
· loss of motivation and concentration
· not being able to enjoy your usual pastimes
· poor sleep
· poor appetite
· feeling numb
· …maybe even thoughts that your life isn’t really worth living.
You might withdraw from friends and stop going to church.
For me, there is a heavy weight in my chest, a lump in my throat, and a slowing of my thoughts.
Sometimes we call out to God or our friends pray for us, and we experience change – a slight brightening of mood or an improvement in sleep, perhaps.
We see this in the Bible.
King David wrote about his depression in the Psalms. In Psalm 13:2, he pleas; “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” He receives comfort from God, writing in verse 5: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.” He may not be free from depression, but he has seen a glimmer of God’s light.
But it’s not always that way.
In Psalm 88:3-4 we read another Psalmist’s colourful description of depression: “I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength.” He cries to God for help, but still the Psalm ends in verse 18 with the saddest of words: “Darkness is my closest friend.”
There is no redemption of the illness, no shaft of light.
Sometimes God allows us to be in darkness. We pray and we wait…and we wait…but we remain stuck in the grip of depression. How can this be?
For me, the most critical event of the Biblical narrative offers hope.
Consider Good Friday. Have you ever been to a ‘Service of Gathering Darkness’ where everyone is given a candle? As the story of Jesus’ torturous last day and ultimate crucifixion unfolds, the candles are snuffed out row by row until everyone sits in darkness.
It is a time to remember that Jesus left the Kingdom of Light and descended into darkest night. He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) And on Black Saturday, the darkness is absolute.
But God has a plan. He was never going to leave Jesus in the dark. With the dawn on Easter Sunday, Jesus rises again, flooding history with marvellous light.
We may be in darkness – maybe deep, deep darkness. But God has always had a plan. For Jesus. For the Psalmist. For me and for you.
The twenty-third Psalm is one of the most quoted in the Bible, but it is one that I cling to in these autumn days when darkness creeps in.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley (or, in some translations, the ‘valley of the shadow of death’), I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (v4)
Whether you are walking through the darkest of valleys, or you feel like you have been torn from God’s presence as Jesus was, there will always be an end point. As Christians, we can hope in a new heaven and a new earth to come where depression is no more and we will live forever in the light of Christ.
But what can you do in the meantime when you are in darkness and spring feels like a long way off?
Here are a few ideas…
· Practise good self-care: Rest, eat regular meals, take a shower, get some exercise.
· Reach out to friends or your church’s pastoral care team. Maybe they can take you for a walk or a coffee, or chat on the phone or a messaging app. Don’t suffer alone.
· Try to keep connected to scripture. You probably won’t be able to read much, but sign up for a ‘verse of the day’ or a short devotional. God’s word is a lamp for our feet when the surroundings are dark (Psalm 119:105)
· Recruit a few prayer warriors. These may be friends or some older Christians whom you trust. I have a WhatsApp group I send prayer requests to, and I know that – even when I can’t pray – a few faithful people will.
· Get professional help. If your depression lasts more than a couple of weeks, it’s a good idea to seek help. There is no shame in acknowledging that you can’t fight on your own. Your GP may be able to link you with a counsellor or prescribe some medication to help alleviate your symptoms. If things are really tough, a referral to a psychiatrist opens up more options for help and support.
· And if you’re in any danger, you can go straight to A & E or call a helpline such as Samaritans: 116 123.
And remember that a day will come when “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 21:4 Your heart will ache no more and that weight on your head will NEVER return.