There was a time I had the answer to everyone’s depression.
“You’re down in the dumps? Your spirit is so low you wish you were dead? The answer is simple. Just memorize scripture and quote it to yourself.”
The simplest response to that is that it was well-meaning but truly stupid. A dead giveaway that I’d never been depressed.
The day came when I was depressed–by then I had logged more than four decades on Planet Earth and thought I was home free; bad mistake–and found just how ineffective and even insulting my little home remedy could be to those in its death-grip.
In my defense, I did not think that up by myself. Somewhere along the way, someone smarter than me–there are so many of those!–had said it, and it sounded logical. (My one wish is that all to whom I spouted that well-meaning nonsense have forgiven me and forgotten it.)
The Bible has great powers, and Scripture can do many things. In some cases, no doubt, memorizing or quoting or meditating upon God’s Word does indeed banish the “blues.” But to make it a panacea, a cure-all, for all kinds of depressions is not wise.
So, where is wisdom concerning depression? Herewith my little contribution to the subject.
1. Recognize that depression is a condition with a hundred expressions and perhaps a thousand causes.
Your depression and mine may be completely unalike.
Alice is depressed because she was dumped last night by the guy she’d planned to marry. Bob is depressed because he is running from God and nothing in his life is working. Clay is depressed because he was turned down for the promotion and now learns his kid is failing his senior year of high school. Deanna is depressed because the news from the doctor is the worst imaginable. Elvira is depressed because she’s finally begun dieting and is missing her sugar high. Franklin is depressed because of hereditary conditions that haven’t been determined yet. Grace is depressed because of a chemical imbalance in her body. And Hank? He loves to be depressed and is suspicious of anyone happier than he.
If the causes are varied, and the way we act when depressed is unique to us, it makes sense that the cures are varied also.
2. Some of the best people on the planet have battled depression.
Martin Luther fought depression. Charles Haddon Spurgeon did. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill did. Elizabeth Elliot dealt with it.
Most learned to live with it, or at least figured out something to do when that “black dog” settled upon their spirits.
Mrs. Elliot, the prolific Christian writer and widow of martyred missionary Jim Elliot, talked in one of her books of what she did when depressed. One symptom, she said, was a lack of energy and an unwillingness to tackle any kind of major project. So, when depressed, she would simply do the next thing. Instead of making multiple plans for the rest of her day, she looked around her house and chose one chore to tackle and nothing else. When that was completed, she would choose another. By the end of the day, she had been productive even while feeling terrible.
3. Make one important decision about your depression: “When depressed, I will make no important decision.”
A seminary professor told his preacher-students, “Never resign on a Monday.” The implication–for you non-preacher types who may not get the insider allusion–is that pastors are frequently depressed on Mondays as a result of a) fatigue, b) something that happened at church on Sunday, c) all the things that should have but did not happen at church on Sunday, or d) all of the above.
The biggest decision of all which some depressed people have been known to make is to end their lives. Suicide, it has been said, is “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Counselors dealing with possible candidates for ending their lives aim first of all to get them to live through the night, to get up tomorrow and see if they don’t feel differently.
4. The best illustration of depression–and what to do about it–is found in the life of Elijah.
The story is found in I Kings 19 and surrounding chapters.
The timing of his depression. Elijah had just won a great victory over the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel (I K.18). He had literally had a mountaintop experience that had to have left him emotionally exhausted.
The trigger of his depression. He’s riding high now. Then he gets word that Queen Jezebel is furious with him for defeating then slaughtering her pet prophets. She sends word, “Let the gods do to me and more also if I do not make you as one of them by this time tomorrow” (I K. 19:2). And that did it.
Elijah ran for his life. Literally. “When he heard that, he arose and ran for his life and went to Beersheba….” (19:3) Beersheba is about as far to the south as one could go and still be in the country.
The trouble with his depression. He’s out of commission, out of work, out of hope, and out of ideas. He wants to die.
“And he prayed that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”” (19:4)
His depression was accomplishing what the devil had not been able to do: put him out of business. It was important that Elijah get his act together and get back to the front line. How the Lord accomplished that is instructive for us.
The triumph over his depression. The Lord sent an angel. That word simply means “a messenger.” So, in your depression, perhaps your angel is a husband or wife, a co-worker or your best friend. Or this preacher.
a) He needed rest. “He lay and slept under a broom tree” (19:5). “…and he lay down again” (19:6).
b) He needed nourishment. “The angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat'” (19:5). “And the angel of the Lord came back the second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you'” (19:7).
c) He needed touch. I’m honestly not sure this is intended in the text, or whether the angel is just bumping the man of God to wake him up. But still, it’s there.
A “touch” indicates closeness of another, and some physical contact in a meaningful way. However we interpret that to mean.
d) He needed God’s assurance. In his depression, Elijah said, “I’m the last of the good guys. The last one standing.” But God said, “No you’re not. I still have 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (19:18).
God is not impressed by pity parties, whether they are put on by prophets and preachers or by the rest of us.
The truth of depression. This malady has always been around and presumably will be with us so long as we live in these houses of clay. What each of us has to do is learn how to deal with them so we can function.
Someone pointed out to me once that only truly bright people experience depression. I have no idea whether there is anything to that or not. But it might be worthwhile to remind yourself of it the next time that “black dog” settles upon your shoulders: “If I were less intelligent and not so highly motivated, I’d not have this problem.”
Would that help? I have no idea. Try it and see.
Is it true? If so, saying it sounds like the height of snobbery, so I think I’d keep it to myself. (There’s every possibility that less educated people may have the same problem and just not have the luxury of identifying it or dealing with it.)
5. My experience with migraine headaches has helped me deal with symptoms of depression.
I was in my late 30s and pastoring a busy church the first time those lights started flashing and then the hammers began throbbing inside my brain. I had no idea what was happening. I shut myself in my church office, pulled the drapes and turned off the lights. That seemed to help. A couple of hours later, the pain subsided and I was fine.
What happened there, I wondered. By asking around, I found numerous friends who lived with migraines on a regular basis and were often incapacitated by them.
In my case, after several headaches, I decided–without an ounce of medical evidence to back it up–that what was happening was that the blood vessels carrying oxygen to my brain were constricting, and when the brain was deprived, it was reacting. Therefore, I made plans.
Ever since that moment, when the tiny lights begin flashing and I find focusing on anything difficult–a sure sign that a migraine is just ahead–I begin making a conscious effort to breathe deeply. I inhale slowly and fully, hold it, and then exhale gently. Back and forth.
Result: no more migraines. Not in decades.
How is this instructive for dealing with depression? Just this: when you emerge from a time of depression, analyze it. Try to find the trigger, that event or person or thought that set it off. See if there are ways to anticipate depression. If you can tell when such a bout is coming on, you can find ways to head it off.
God bless you in that. Let me know if you have a story worth passing along to others in this way.