From my middle school days, I remember a few classes that were not particularly kind to me, especially to my report card. One of those was geography, which was such a struggle that I still do not know where I am. Another one was seventh grade English. Miss Howard was a pretty no-nonsense kind of teacher, yet I was a pretty pro-nonsense kind of student. There are some days when I am convinced that my middle school antics prompted God to steer me into youth ministry as some form of divine retribution…but then I remember how much I love youth ministry and realize it is a supreme act of grace. And God was gracious to me in my seventh grade English class, when I slaved day after day to memorize a long poem that I would have to recite in front of the class. At the time, the words meant little to me, despite the explanations that I am sure Miss Howard gave us. Since then, this has become my favorite poem, and I would like to share it with you. It is called “If,” by Rudyard Kipling…Oh, and I no longer have it memorized.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Somehow poetry speaks to us in a way other words cannot. The turn of a phrase can stir the soul in a powerful way. Author, Diane Setterfield gets at this when she writes, “There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” Nowhere is this truer than in the pages of Scripture, which we know from Hebrews 4:12 are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Within God’s Word, then, we should expect that sections of poetry are particularly powerful to speak to us. For the next five weeks, we will be covering various Psalms of the Bible, and you will get to hear messages from Pastor Mark, Pastor Bobby, and myself – a veritable trifecta!
The great thing about the Psalms is that they speak to us from the depths of human emotion and experience. No matter what you are going through, there’s a psalm for that! If you have ever spent nearly an hour in a greeting card shop, looking through scores of cards and then finally finding the perfect card for the perfect situation of a loved one, and maybe even exclaiming that this card puts it exactly like you feel – if you have ever done that, then you will appreciate the way that the Psalms express human emotion and experience. They are like greeting cards written by God to you, and all you have to do is find the one that expresses what you felt but were unable to say. So five weeks is a short time to cover these, but I hope you will consider continuing to read them through a practice that I have begun recently: reading through a few Psalms a day and praying them back to God. The added benefit is an empowered prayer life – the perfect cure-all when you feel like your prayers are bouncing back to you off the ceilings. Hopefully this not only gets you ready for a great sermon miniseries but also encourages you to begin a new practice, praying heartfelt Scripture back to God.
Today we look at Psalm 88 and cover Depression, When Darkness Is Your Closest Friend. Depression comes in many forms and for many reasons. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, major depression is very common and involves several symptoms affecting a person’s ability to sleep, work, or just enjoy life. To quote someone who struggled with depression, “It was really hard to get out of bed in the morning. I just wanted to hide under the covers and not talk to anyone. I didn’t feel much like eating and I lost a lot of weight. Nothing seemed fun anymore. I was tired all the time, and I wasn’t sleeping well at night. But I knew I had to keep going because I’ve got kids and a job. It just felt so impossible, like nothing was going to change or get better.” Almost all of us have either felt this way or know others who have, which makes this psalm especially helpful to us.
Biblical ways to handle depression
A Song. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. To the choirmaster: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness. – Psa 88:1-18 ESV
And this is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
You may have realized that there are happier Psalms in the Bible. As a matter of fact, according to commentator Derek Kidner, this is the saddest Psalm there is! There are plenty of lament Psalms like this, in which a person pours his heart out to God in anguish, but they typically end on a positive note, or at least some sort of resolute steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds. Psalm 142, for example, finishes with, “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Your name; the righteous shall surround me, for You shall deal bountifully with me. Psalm 109 is full of despair from persecution by enemies, yet it still ends with a word of praise to God. But Psalm 88 ends with “darkness,” and it is difficult to find a ray of hope at all anywhere in it.
Reactions to Depression…
Heman the Ezrahite is said to be the author of this particular Psalm. We will learn a bit more about him later, but his reaction to his troubling situation – whatever it was – is similar to the reactions everyone has when dealing with depression and despair. First, people feel alone. Heman felt as though all his relationships had been severed. Verse 8, “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape.” And verse 18, “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.” We know we need relationships to make it through this life, and it is a nightmare to consider that in our worst moments we have no one to lean on or turn to. Second, Heman felt helpless and trapped, like he could do nothing about his situation. Verses 4-5 are particularly dark: “I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.” People who go through depression and despair like this turn in on themselves. Their focus is only on the negatives in their lives, and they become the victims of their situation. See if you can see this in Heman’s lament to God. There are several “woe is me” statements and just as many “why are you doing this to me, God?” statements:
- I am counted among those who go down to the pit.
- I am…like the slain that lie in the grave
- I am shut in so that I cannot escape.
- Your wrath lies heavy upon me.
- You overwhelm me
- You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them.
- You cast my soul away
- You hide your face from me
- Your dreadful assaults destroy me
Dealing with Depression…
We turn to God alone for relief
So what exactly can we find in this psalm that will help us? Why did God see fit to include this “greeting card” in His Word to us? How do Heman’s words help us deal with depression in our lives and in the lives of those we love? When we look at this psalm, we are able to understand, perhaps better than anywhere else, that we must turn to God alone for relief . Amid his grief, Heman persistently turns to God. He starts off telling God that he sleeplessly cries out to Him day and night. He asks God to hear his prayer. In verse 13 he says, “But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” When he cries out to God he does so continuously. We get the sense that he also calls out to God alone for help, without turning anywhere else.
These days it is easy for us to turn to several other places for relief from depression. I read an article just this week about antidepressants. Its author, Roni Rabin, states that one in ten Americans is on antidepressants, and one in four women in their forties and fifties is on antidepressant medication. Rabin cites a study indicating that two thirds of his large sample group did not have clinical depression and yet were still prescribed these medications. Our society has a tendency to medicate problems, yet researchers still do not fully understand how mental health medications even work. Going even further, much of what we have come to trust – regarding psychiatry, medications, ideas of chemical imbalance, and the like – much of what we trust is suspect.
Bruce Levine, Ph. D., psychologist, and author of Commonsense Rebellion. He says, “No biochemical, neurological, or genetic markers have been found for Attention Deficit Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Depression, Schizophrenia, anxiety, compulsive alcohol and drug abuse, overeating, gambling or any other so-called mental illness, disease, or disorder.” Medications like antidepressants are also suspect in many cases. Studies have shown that at least two thirds of individuals on placebo medication do just as well as those on an actual antidepressants. My goal in bringing up all of this is not to get you to throw out your meds; instead, I question how much stock we place in sources other than Scripture for help with our struggles. We do not want to be guilty of Jeremiah 2:13, which says, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” A spring of living water exists for those willing to study and apply God’s Word to their lives. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us it is useful for every area of right living so that we can be thoroughly equipped for every good work. And how does this work in the Psalms for the situations of life? According to C. Hassell Bullock, “The Psalms…have a therapeutic value. Those who read them seriously and appropriate their content prayerfully cannot long have a low view of themselves or a low view of God. One’s view of God is determinative of one’s self-image.”
When you face the constant, overwhelming turmoil of depression, do you find someone or something to help improve your self-image with positive thoughts, or do you turn to the Creator of the human psyche to align your perspective with His? In so doing, you might discover an important truth that you would have missed; or you could uncover a sin that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. These sorts of things can often be the underlying symptoms that are masked by medications or by simple positive thinking without basis. What we often misdiagnose as depression is a spiritual issue. Who else can handle the depths of despair but the God who formed us? Pastor Tony Evans tells of a time when he was with a group of people on an elevator that became stuck. After a moment of realization came over the people in the elevator car, he notes his surprise at how frantic and irrational people became. They are panicking, banging on doors, and desperately yelling in hopes that someone might hear them. After this continued for awhile, Tony Evans moved to the front of the car, calmly opened a small cabinet in the wall, and pulled out the phone inside it. He was connected right away with an operator who was able to get them the needed help. We have a heavenly Father who does provide help, and we need to petition Him with persistence and turn to His word for help with our struggles.
We take a long-term perspective of our dark days
Heman also shows us the need to take a long-term perspective during times of depression. In order to do this, we need to look beyond this psalm to learn who Heman was. This little known biblical figure was pretty well known during his day. 1 Chronicles 6:31-38 tells us that Heman was the grandson of Samuel the prophet, and he was appointed by Kind David to lead worship before God. Nine chapters later we learn that he was one of three chief musicians, joining Asaph and Ethan. Some think these men were responsible for first compiling the earlier psalms into a written collection. Heman was known not only for his music but also for his wisdom. In 1 Kings 4:31, Solomon is said to be “wiser than anyone else, including…Heman.” Yet Heman, the wise worship leader and psalm writer, apparently struggled with extended periods of depression. His lament repeats that he is either as good as dead or not far from it. There is no way for us to know, but somehow I doubt that He wrote this psalm while on his death bed. More likely, his depression was something that came in periodic waves, and this psalm captures one of those bouts, an especially difficult one. We get to see that God used Heman in powerful ways, and we understand that his problems were relatively short term. They probably also helped him to grow to be more mature in his faith.
I came across the following story from Jack Handey’s book, Fuzzy Memories:
There used to be this bully who would demand my lunch money every day. Since I was smaller, I would give it to him. Then I decided to fight back. I started taking karate lessons. But then the karate lesson guy said I had to start paying him five dollars a lesson. So I just went back to paying the bully.
What is it worth to you to fight off the bully of depression? It takes time and constant effort. When you give in to despair, you give up hope of ever overcoming your situation. But when you adopt the long-term perspective of your situation, you realize that training yourself to handle depression in a godly way is an effort that will mature you. You realize that this world is filled with hurt and pain, but one day we will be free from it. This is not the end, and we await a glorious hope in God.
We realize that Holiness is the goal, not Happiness
In the meantime, we must also realize that holiness is the goal, not happiness. You might be like Heman, prone to bouts of depression, wondering why you have such a difficult time with this and others do not. Maybe you are doing it all wrong. Maybe you just are not good enough. Maybe you are doomed to endure what Heman calls the wrath of God in your life. The Bible gives us a different answer: God desires to make you holy, mature in Him. If you struggle with depression, you can learn to cope with it in a biblical way, and you will mature in a different way than those who do not have this struggle. I believe Heman’s depression helped him to mature and lead worship with an added depth.
Luke Epplin recently wrote an article for The Atlantic news website about what he calls the “you-can-do-anything cult of self-esteem.” He compares the computer-animated children’s movies that invariably take a character who wishes he were someone else and is unhappy with his role in life, and then somehow allow that character to do what he wants to do. In the recent movie Planes, Dusty Crophopper is a crop-dusting plane who is able to somehow compete with the planes built for speed in the “Wings around the Globe” race. Then, in the movie Turbo, a snail is able to get out of his garden job and somehow compete as a racer in the Indy 500. I am not knocking the movies; they will make it to my Netflix queue before long, I am sure, and there are positives to the message they give. At the same time, we love to affirm ourselves with the idea that we deserve our happiness and should pursue whatever we think makes us happy. Whenever we do, we find ourselves in opposition to God, who knows that what is best for us is contentment found not in what makes us happy but what makes us holy. By all means we must pursue goals and excel in this life, but we should never do this at the expense of contentment in our circumstances. The person who struggles with depression has an opportunity not to escape it but to learn holiness and a special closeness with God through it. What happens as a result? Christ is glorified. You become an example to others, able to say, “Yes, I am a Christian who struggles with depression, but I can tell you that the gospel has power over everything including depression. When I draw close to God during my darkest days, I find all the strength I need, and I do not need to go searching anywhere else.”
An anonymous woman shared her struggles with depression, describing an overwhelming sense of guilt and despair beginning at age 12. She often cried out to God for help but always felt dirty, first spiritually, then physically. She clawed at every minor blemish on her body, preferring mutilation to perceived imperfections. Over time, she sought help from psychologists, who told her her problems were a result of a chemical imbalance and prescribed medication or increased dosages any time she mentioned feeling unhappy. When she received counseling, the positive effects were always short-lived, even though she faithfully did all the mental exercises at home afterward. In all of this, her misery increased while her overall health decreased significantly.
Later on, she went to a biblical counselor to seek help from God’s Word for her depression. She writes, “I began to learn the importance of actually living out the truths I read in the pages of my Bible, applying every doctrine to my life. For example, when I felt depressed, I would meditate on the truths found in Ephesians 1, thinking on the benefits of God’s salvation rather than trying to think positively about myself. I began to memorize scripture to help me in my weaknesses, focusing on what God thought of me, rather than what I thought of myself.” This woman learned to fight the lies within her depression with the truth of God’s Word, confronting sinful or faithless thoughts, and renewing her mind with Scripture. We serve a mighty God who gave us a living and active word to handle every situation we encounter. Aren’t you glad that we can find hope from the Bible in all of life’s circumstances, including depression?
Many people struggle with mental health. As Christians, we can see from this passage that mental health is important to God as well. In June 2013, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution – “On Mental Health Concerns and the Heart of God” – with which I wholeheartedly agree. You can view that resolution here. In this fallen world there will unfortunately always be mental health issues. Christians may differ on the best approach to such issues, but we can agree that God is not far from those who struggle, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. As Psalm 34:18 says, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”