Spiritual Depression

Some people think only those with weak wills or a lack of faith suffer from depression. The truth is even the most faithful Christians can get depressed. Some experience acute situational depression – such as when a loved one dies or a relationships ends. Others battle chronic clinical depression, due to their particular brain chemistry.

The Bible is filled with examples of believers who battle depression. While it offers us no simple cure, Scripture does provide spiritual principles and practices that can help us move through the dark nights of our souls to the bright morning sun, the light of Christ.

Depression is an illness, a disease that impacts us not just emotionally, but also physically and spiritually. Thanks be to God, medical science now has a number of ways to treat the symptoms of depression – with prescribed medication, talk therapy, monitored nutrition, and regulated exercise. But how do we treat depression spiritually?

Psalm 42 shows a model for moving through the darkness of depression in the light of God’s love. First, we recognize our spiritual need. Beginning in verse one and two,

As the deer pants for streams of water,

so my soul pants for you, my God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

There is no doubt depression has physical and emotional causes, but there is also a strong spiritual component. For healing to happen, we need to recognize our longing for God, to seek God where He may be found. The deer needs water not only to relieve thirst, but in order to survive. Likewise, we need God in our daily lives to save us from self-destruction, from spiritual death.

Doctors, therapists, and other health care providers can contribute to recovery, but they can’t produce healing. God alone in Jesus Christ is the Great Physician. For healing to happen, we need to look to the Lord.

Later in verse 2, the Psalmist asks,

When can I go and meet God?

The Psalmist is in exile, a stranger in a stranger land. He is separated from the fellowship of faith, restricted from worshiping God with other believers. This isolation compounds his despair. Later, in verse 4, he brings to mind days gone by.

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.

These are bittersweet memories for the Psalmist. He is reminded of the joy and thanksgiving he once shared within the faith family. At the same time, he is made aware of what is now missing from his life.

I can greatly appreciate the Psalmist’s struggle being separated from his faith family. The time I was away from church during my hospitalization, I felt a huge void in my life. It was a tremendous blessing to hear from so many of you. Your faithful prayers, encouraging notes and cards, phone calls, and meals for my family greatly enhanced my healing process. I was daily reminded of the depth of God’s love reaching out through the body of Christ.

The first step toward healing from depression is to recognize our spiritual thirst for God. We can then call on God for help. Often, God’s help comes from within the body of Christ – through encouraging words and acts of kindness.

Depression is a powerful disease from which there are no quick fixes. In verse 3, the Psalmist cries out from the depths, My tears have been my food day and night…”

He is overcome by emotions that seem to have little basis in outward circumstances. The weight of his despair is overwhelming.

In my years as a pastor, I’ve known many people who, as they fought depression, stop coming to church. This is a common strategy the enemy uses—divide and conquer struggling souls by isolating them from the fellowship of faith.

I visited one such woman and, as our visit ended, I encouraged her to come to church on Sunday. She replied,

“I really can’t. I’m afraid I would just break down.”

I thought about it a bit, then said,

“That would be great if you did. The Bible tells us that the sacrifices pleasing to God are a broken and contrite spirit. God promises us that those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”

We could all benefit if we were to break down in tears from time to time. And what better place to do it than in God’s sanctuary, the living room of our Heavenly Father.

To compound his troubles, the Psalmist is under enemy attack. In verse 3, he notes that people, “say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” Verse 10 adds to this, describing the effects of these attacks,

My bones suffer mortal agony

as my foes taunt me,

saying to me all day long,

“Where is your God?”

It’s sad to say, but many people in the world are eager to kick us when we are down. These enemies of the Psalmist may be calling into question the existence or power of God. More likely, however, they are casting doubt on the Psalmist’s faith. It’s as if they are saying, “You say you believe in God, why then are you suffering?”

Jesus went through similar mocking as he hung on the cross. One of the thieves hanging beside him said, “If you are the Christ – save yourself and us!”

Such taunts are bound to aggravate our depression. When facing such attacks, we need to call on the Spirit of Christ who, while hanging on the cross, was able to say to his accusers, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

In Psalm 42, the Psalmist tries to make sense of his depression, to be freed from its grip. In verse 5, he asks himself,

Why, my soul, are you downcast?

Why so disturbed within me?

Often with clinical depression, we cannot find an external source or cause that would account for the depth of our sorrow. We may simply wake up one morning and find it is next to impossible to get out of bed. This may persist for weeks, months, even years.

One of the most effective forms of treatment for depression is called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. This approach recognizes that what we think governs how we feel as well as how we behave. If we think life is just a meaningless series of events, we are likely to feel depressed and lack the motivation to do anything about it. If, however, we replace this negative thought with a more positive one, we can overcome feelings of despair and move toward healing.

This is just the sort of thing the Psalmist does at the end of verse 5. He speaks to his own soul, saying,

Put your hope in God,

for I will yet praise him,

my Savior and my God.

The enemy wants us to believe when we feel depressed that nobody cares, that our life lacks meaning and purpose, that God (if there is a God) is too busy with other things or is simply unconcerned about us. God, in Christ, constantly challenges these lies.

In Matthew 10, Jesus says,

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (vv. 29-31)

The God who created us in His image cares deeply about us and wants us to live in His love. The God who, in Jesus Christ, gave His life to set us free from sin and death, shines His light in the darkness of our despair. God’s gift to us through faith in Christ is a Spirit of joy. We may sow in tears, but with Christ, we will reap with laughter.

As we pass through dark valleys in our lives, it is good to remind ourselves of the power of God’s love. Picking up in verse 6 of Psalm 42, we read,

My soul is downcast within me;

therefore I will remember you

from the land of the Jordan,

the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.

Deep calls to deep

in the roar of your waterfalls;

all your waves and breakers

have swept over me. (vv. 6-7)

The Psalmist is saying in this poetic imagery that God demonstrates His tremendous power in the world, and in our lives. The God who produces waterfalls, waves, and breakers can certainly satisfy our thirsty souls. God is certainly strong enough to lift us up when we are cast down.

Though the Psalmist may not feel as if God is with him in the moment, he does not let this feeling undermine his faith. In verse 8, he proclaims,

By day the Lord directs his love,

at night his song is with me—

a prayer to the God of my life.

We can’t let our feelings undermine our faith. In Jesus Christ, God is with us, whether it feels like it or not. By day and by night, we do well to remind ourselves of God’s loving presence.

One thing I highly recommend for you as you go through dark valleys is, like the Psalmist, you keep a song in your hearts. There are so many hymns and praise songs that lift us up when we are down. We do well not just to sing these in church, but throughout the week.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, and to us, to speak

to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:19-20)

Through music, the Holy Spirit lifts up our hearts and minds so that we can feel the warmth of God’s love, and share this love in our relationships – with God and with each other.

The demon of depression can be tenacious, voracious, and debilitating. Even when we draw on the resources of our faith in Christ, the darkness may persist. In Psalm 42:9, the Psalmist returns to his complaint,

I say to God my Rock,

“Why have you forgotten me?

Why must I go about mourning,

oppressed by the enemy?”

My bones suffer mortal agony

as my foes taunt me,

saying to me all day long,

“Where is your God?”

We may believe with all our hearts and mind that God is with us in Christ. And yet, it feels like God is nowhere to be found. The Psalmist reveals how attacks from the enemy can call our faith into question.

When facing depression, often our biggest enemy comes from within. We struggle with self-doubt, question our value, even wonder if we have faith. Our adversary works hard to infiltrate the minds of believers and plant ideas that discourage us, that keep us growing in our relationship with Christ. To counter this attack, we need to “set our minds on things above” – to fill our minds with spiritual thoughts.

Through depression, the enemy attempts to insinuate doubt in our minds that we have a God in Christ who cares deeply about us. Our adversary tries to divide and conquer us, getting us to isolate ourselves from God and from God’s people. Satan manipulates our feelings such that we can begin to doubt our relationship with Christ.

The good news is that the only power the enemy has within us is the power of suggestion. We can win the spiritual battle as we open our hearts to the living Lord. Psalm 42 concludes with the refrain in verse 11,

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.

When you go through depression, you may have no idea where this feeling is coming from. But you can know that you are never alone. Jesus says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

You can also know with the certainty of faith that God will lead you through the darkest valleys with the Light of his love. With faith in Christ, one day, we will rejoice together with all God’s children. There will be no more tears. No more suffering. No more sorrow. Only praise to the One who created us in love, in whom there is no darkness – only light. The Light of Christ.

Ricocheting Madly In-Between: The Emotional Life of Sylvia Plath

At age 19, Sylvia Plath was a top scholarship student at a prestigious college, a published (for pay) author, and a vibrant, blond beauty with many suitors. Yet, all was not well within her. She writes in her journal, “I have much to live for, yet unaccountably I am sick and sad.”  Rather than talk to someone about it (a friend advised her to see a psychiatrist), she tries some encouraging self-talk, and she is able to temporarily “pick herself up by her bootstraps.”

“I have started on the rise upward after bouncing around a little on rock bottom. I know I am capable of getting good marks: I know I am capable of attracting males. All I need to do is keep my judgment, sense of balance and philosophic sense of humor, and I’ll be fine, no matter what happens.”

Yet, her very next journal entry reveals that the benefits of self-therapy are short-lived. She falls deeper into the pit of despair.

“Now I know what loneliness is, I think. Momentary loneliness, anyway. It comes from a vague core of the self – like a disease of the blood, dispersed throughout the body so that one cannot locate the matrix, the spot of contagion.”

Plath, however, does not let this “disease of the blood” incapacitate her. She continues to write, to go to classes, to go out on dates. But inside, she is dying on the vine.

“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of parties with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear.”

Plath talks very little about her family in her early journals. One entry, however, does reveal her mother’s concern for her emotional health – a concern not well received by Sylvia.

“My enemies are those who care about me most. First, my mother. Her pitiful wish that I ‘be happy.’ Happy! That is indefinable as far as states of being.”

While the young Plath perceives happiness as unattainable, she does believe behavioral choices contribute to emotional states.

“I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.”

At 19, however, Plath saw life as very much worth living.

“For all my despair, for all my ideal, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

Tragically, this love of life and desire to learn dissipated over the next decade. At age 30, Sylvia Plath, on the verge of publishing her now-classic novel The Bell Jar, committed suicide.

The Hollywood Silver Linings Playbook: Fake Right, Go Wrong

To do justice to Silver Linings Playbook, I’m dividing this meditation in three parts. First, I will tell you how great a movie it is and encourage you to see it. [The book is much, much better.] Then, I will tell you how wrong the movie’s message is in the end. I will give the final word, though, to one of my blog readers who experienced the ending quite differently.

First, the movie is great. Never has a film been made that so accurately and compassionately depicts the turmoil of people who battle bipolar. As Pat (Bradley Cooper) plows through volumes of literature (reacting to A Farewell to Arms by throwing it out the window), erupts in a rage over his wedding song played at his psychiatrist’s office, and explodes in violence toward his mother when he can’t find his wedding video, we see the ravages of the illness. Yet, the loving person of Pat is not far away, as he moves quickly to remorse and regret.

Cooper’s portrayal of Pat is nothing short of brilliant. Standing on-screen beside Robert DeNiro (as Pat, Sr.), Cooper more than holds his own. Jennifer Lawrence does a competent job as the fragile, volatile, strong-willed Tiffany. The supporting cast contributes greatly, particularly Chris Tucker, as the comical delusional psychotic creatively looking for a way out of the hospital.

Not only does the movie accurately portray one man’s mental illness, but also the “craziness” in the family system within which so many bipolar folks live and breathe and have their being. From Pat Sr.’s gambling addiction, to the barely controlled marital rage of Pat’s friend Ronnie (John Ortiz). Even beyond the family system, the scenes where a neighborhood kid drops in wanting to take a reality video for a class on mental illness is spot-on. The craziness of bipolar is not an isolated aberration. It is embedded in our culture.

Finally, the story itself (until the end) is exquisitely complex. I often find myself trying to anticipate resolution as I watch films, and this one had my mind going in multiple directions at the same time. It was like a very enjoyable roller-coaster ride.

But then, there is the end. Every move has a message that is driven home by the way the movie ends. While the primary intended message of this movie may well have been to de-stigmatize mental illness (in which case, it succeeded), there was a more subversive message that won the day in the end, likely as a result of Hollywood’s formulaic equation for romantic comedies.

The Hollywood Silver Linings Playbook for battling bipolar has basically seven steps:

Meet a woman with a mental illness who has stopped taking her meds, is lost in grief and is actively pursuing a sexual addiction.

When you are taken aback by her sexual aggressiveness (an offer “to f@#$ me, as long as the lights are on”), start back on your meds to mellow out.

Let down your physical and psychological boundaries when she pretends to be your wife.

When you discover she has lied and deceived you, go through with your commitment to her.

When she tragically tries to pick up another man at a bar, rescue her.

Leave your wife and profess your undying love for this very ill woman.

Snuggle together on a comfy chair trapped in a system that perpetuates the chaos within you.

When I shared this reflection on the movie in a blog post, I received a wonderful response, including many comments from viewers who reacted quite differently than me to the movie. To balance this meditation and motivate you to see the film, I’d like to close with a comment left by one reader:

You make some good points here…. but I think part of Mr. Cooper’s character’s problem was unrealistic hope for a marriage that had run its course. For sure not every bipolar patient should jump ship and look for a replacement. But love is indeed healing. Yes, Hollywood loves romance. But I believe the romance in this one.

A Companion in Darkness

After completing the first draft of my spiritual memoir, I sent it to several friends who had shown an interest in my reflections. One friend wrote back and asked if I had read the book Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness by. I had not, but I soon picked up a copy at my local library.

Greene-McCreight is an Episcopal priest who, like me, battles bipolar. Darkness Is My Only Companion is her attempt to wrestle with her illness and make sense of it in light of the church’s teachings. It is an honest, searching work that serves well to provoke thought about how Christians can best respond to the needs of those with bipolar.

One strength of Greene-McCreight’s approach is that she provides a balanced, Biblical perspective on healing. Quoting Ecclesiastes 4:12, she writes,

“‘A three-fold cord is not quickly broken.’ The three cords to my rope were the religious (worship and prayer), the psychological (psychotherapy), and the medical (medication, electroconvulsive therapy, and hospitalization).”

In addition to being a parish priest, Kathryn is a wife and mother whose bipolar symptoms first appeared when her children were quite young. She agonizes over the dilemma of her depression:

I would avoid the family, in part because the noise was so painful to me that I could not stand it and in part because I did not want to make others miserable by my presence. I did not understand at that time that my family and friends truly missed me. I later came to realize this and moved my nest from our bed to the living room as I improved. I was silent and still unable to move, but at least I was there, with the children and my husband.

One of the greatest blessings of this book for me was found in Greene-McCreight’s thoughtful theological and pastoral reflections on the Christian response to suicide. She writes,

“… a Christian’s suicide, especially that of a Christian teacher or pastor, is the final act of disobedience, of betrayal of the Creator. Of course, I know this is often not consciously chosen, or when it is conscious, it is a choice born of tremendous unbearable pain.”

She goes on to consider those left behind, citing an example of a friend’s pastor who suffocated himself. Finally, she acknowledges,

“… the stakes are high: the Christian’s suicide in effect contradicts every good word about God one could ever have preached, undoes every good work dedicated to God and neighbor that one could ever have accomplished. I cannot allow myself so to undermine my very life’s work. I pray to God for strength to hold on.”

Acedia and Me: A Mental Health Perspective

The first year I was on disability, I found it difficult to get out of bed. Before I conceived of writing this book of meditations, I didn’t know what to do with myself. We lived on a seven-and-a-half acre homestead and there was plenty to do, but I seem to be pathologically allergic to real work.

While at the library one day, I picked up a book by poet and spiritual essayist Kathleen Norris called Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. Norris is a wonderful writer, and there is much to be said for the book, but my purpose here is to briefly unpack what she reveals about the elusive yet pervasive condition known as “acedia.”

Exploring early monastic literature, Norris discovers that before there were seven deadly sins, there were actually eight vices, one of which is the difficult-to-define acedia. Norris describes it this way:

“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. . . He makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and . . . he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself.”

Norris is careful to distinguish spiritual acedia from clinical depression. She is not suggesting psychological disorders are the result of demonic spirit.

“The boundaries between depression and acedia are notoriously fluid; at the risk of oversimplifying, I would suggest that while depression is an illness treatable by counseling and medication, acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer.”

Not everyone who battles acedia has a psychological disorder. But, many with psychological disorders must battle acedia. To engage in this spiritual warfare, we need the full armor of God—Bible study, daily prayer, weekly worship, and faithful fellowship.

Like An Unquiet Mind, Acedia and Me is the story of one woman’s encounter with spiritual dis-ease. It is more descriptive than prescriptive, but as the demon is detailed, we become better aware of who our enemy is so we can better prepare to win the war.

The Song of Vincent Reconsidered

I was in high school when I first heard Don McLean’s tribute song to Vincent Van Gogh (also known as “Starry, Starry Night”). I found the song captivating and beautiful. One line of the song, however, troubled me. Near the end, as McLean reflects on the tragic death of the great artist, he sings,

“This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

This line infuriated me. I saw it as a glorification of suicide. I thought of my Grandpa Joe Etsy and how angry I was at him for leaving his family behind. Beautiful? I don’t think so.

When I reflected on this on my blog in early 2013, I received a very passionate and thoughtful reply that completely changed my interpretation of this line, and enhanced my appreciation for the song.

From: Julia

Re: the line in McLean’s song

“This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you,” I did not think he was suggesting suicide as the only resolution; in fact, quite the opposite. Note the entire context: “when no hope was left inside…you took your life as lovers often do. BUT (emphasis mine) I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant…”

To me, the “but I could have told you” implies that his tragic death might have been prevented if Vincent could have come to understand and accept that he would never be fully understood or appreciated by the world. Acceptance of this might have lessened the frustration and sorrow that exacerbated his depression, especially if that understanding came from a sympathetic friend, which McLean wistfully imagines he could have been.

It’s easy, of course, for us to imagine in hindsight that we would have been the sympathetic friend Vincent lacked. What haunts me is wondering how many Vincents we all pass by every day, without seeing…

The Dream Team is a Nightmare

My memory is fuzzy around the period after my initial diagnosis in 1995. I’m not sure if I saw the movie The Dream Team then or if I had seen it earlier. I do remember that when I first saw it, I thought it was hilarious. Composed of a cast with Christopher Lloyd, Peter Boyle, and Michael Keaton as psychiatric patients running rampant in New York City, what’s not to love?

After viewing it in 2013, I was left to wonder, “What drugs was I taking to have enjoyed it so much?” My answer is, “Probably not enough.”

I won’t spoil the movie any more than it does itself. I will simply detail my three major problems with the film.

First, the underlying message is that if people with psychosis just stop taking their medication and face extremely stressful challenges, they naturally come to their senses and are healed. I realize in 1989, there were still a lot of psychiatric patients overprescribed massive amounts of Thorazine, but a new generation of psycho-tropics was emerging and, in many states, long-term institutional care was no longer an option. The film takes place outside New York City, and I’m pretty sure New York was either closing or had closed its state psychiatric hospitals by then. The movie tries to be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and fails miserably.

Second, the movie laughs at (rather than with) psychotics. The characters are one-dimensional and, apart from one family scene (with Christopher Lloyd’s character and his daughter) that is supposed to be touching, it simply mocks characteristics of stereotypical psychotics rather than reveals humorous foibles they find in life.

Third, it’s just not that funny. The funny bits could easily fit in a trailer. In fact, I can only remember one – when Peter Boyle’s character (who thinks he’s Jesus Christ) tells a man on a gurney to “Rise and walk.” The man gets up and falls. Okay, now that I think of it, that isn’t even funny.

Perhaps the movie was a propaganda film for states closing psychiatric hospitals in the vain hope that community-based care would be more humane. If this is the case, I suppose it succeeds on a certain perverse level. Who wouldn’t want to live next door to the Savior of humankind? Especially when he is off his meds.