God’s Sovereignty in the Midst of Depression
“Everything seems so pointless…”
“I think about what would happen if I just didn’t wake up in the morning…”
“I know I’m supposed to pick myself up and keep going, but I just can’t see the use anymore…”
As a freshman at Columbia, I would walk across campus with a sense of hope and wonder. I would pause to look up at Butler Library and smile to think that somehow, for whatever reason, God had led me here. Now, as a junior – perhaps a bit more jaded than I once was – I often find myself with my eyes toward the ground. As my Columbia experience progresses, it seems that gloominess has crept into my day-to-day. More and more, statements like the ones above seem to characterize the conversations I overhear and engage in with others.
At a university that places an almost impossible workload upon its students, along with high expectations about the internships they’ll gain, the careers they’ll pursue, and the connections they’ll make, it’s no wonder that students feel beaten down by life’s daily demands. A 2011 Columbia Health Services reported that, “Stress at Columbia is a unifying experience and the only commonality (norm) across all schools with which students can identify.” This “stress culture” that all Columbians know too well can lead to deep depression and hopelessness. In each semester of my freshman and sophomore years, a Columbia student committed suicide. In almost all of these cases, depression and stress have been listed as factors in these students’ decisions. It is not surprising, then, to say that for many, this sense of weariness that seems to be a general part of the Columbia experience becomes more than just a temporary case of the blues, but a deep, pervasive sadness that can affect their ability to lead their everyday lives. What can we do when it seems impossible to “Keep your head up” or “Pluck yourself up by the bootstraps” or, as Paul commanded in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice!”?
This question can seem especially troubling for Christians. The greatest news of all has been given to us – that Christ died to set us free from chains of sin that kept us from God, that His resurrection from the dead was the beginning of setting the world aright. In response, how can we not be examples of joy, peace and contentment to an anxious world? Reconciling the Christian hope we are meant to have with the crushing experience of hopelessness, anxiety and sadness we may actually feel can seem like an irresolvable struggle. This apparent conflict can make Christians who struggle with depression feel as if it were taboo to tell others what they’re going through, and leave those who don’t struggle with depression at a loss for what to say to their friends who approach them about it. What does God offer to His children who are depressed? Is depression contrary to the Christian life?
Let’s consider another set of statements:
“My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for…”
“I feel alone in the universe…”
“That darkness surrounds me on all sides—I can’t lift my soul to God-no light or inspiration enters my soul . . . what do I labour for?”
These statements, unlike the first set, are not from fellow students. They come instead from the private writings of some of the preachers and saints that Christians today hold in the highest regard. Charles Spurgeon, the man of “sunken spirits,” was one of the most famous orators of his day, earning him the moniker “The Prince of Preachers.” Yet he suffered greatly, not only from persistent physical ailments, but from periods of “causeless depression” which gave him an immense amount of spiritual turmoil and anguish. Martin Luther, the man who started the Protestant Reformation and changed the course of church history forever, was also the man to remark that he “felt alone in the universe.” His struggles with anxiety and depression were so strong that he pleaded with his friends and his wife never to leave him alone for fear that he might harm himself. Mother Teresa, who gave her life to serve the poor of India and became for many a symbol of purity and Christian love, suffered from deep pain and wrote to God of a pervasive spiritual and mental “darkness” that refused to leave her.
The private struggles of these revered Christians demonstrate that depression does not stand apart from the Christian life. Nor is it a burden only for those who have somehow failed to understand the promises of the Christian faith. In fact, for these Christians, their periods of depression were central to their relationships with Christ. Perhaps their most deeply held conviction was that, although their depression could at times seem “causeless” or overwhelming, they never believed their struggles were meaningless. Spurgeon, for example, suffered from more than just psychological pain. Aside from physical ailments –chronic gout left him with inflamed joints and his wife became an invalid at the age of 33 – Spurgeon was beset with tragedy early on in his career. On the night of his first major preaching event, seven people were killed in a stampede when the crowd lost control. For years afterward, he was criticized and hounded by fellow preachers.
But despite his trials, Spurgeon held a firm conviction that there was a purpose to his suffering. He wrote of his depression, “I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable … Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house.” He believed that it was God who was in control, God who allowed him to experience this sadness, and God who was renewing him by it. He did not see his trials as pointless suffering, but as an instrument of God’s grace.
But what could possibly come of this weariness and pain? Mother Teresa believed that it brought her closer to the Lord by making her totally dependent on His promises. She wrote of her experience, “God cannot fill what is full – He can fill only emptiness – deep Poverty…It is not how much we really have to give – but how empty we are – so that we can receive fully in our life and let Him live His life in us.” Mother Teresa saw the deep emptiness she experienced as a means by which to purposely wait to be filled by the Lord, rather than by the temporary things that bring happiness in this world.
A friend once remarked to me, “One of the most frustrating things about being a Christian and being prone to depression is this: that there is a light, that there is a mountaintop, but I just can’t reach it.” It is one of the most difficult experiences I can think of– to want to exclaim with the joy of David in Psalm 34:8, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” and yet to feel more like David in Psalm 6:6, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.” Yet the Psalmist knew something that is difficult to remember in the midst of suffering. As Christians, we serve a God whose character and being exceeds our own experience of Him. The same David who cried out in Psalm 6 testifies in Psalm 34 yet again, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (v. 18, 19) – not because he had yet been delivered from all suffering, but because he knew that God had promised to do so, that this Savior and Redeemer is not just the God he was experiencing in the moment, but a God who by His very nature saves and redeems and promises to do so. The nature of Christian hope is not in something that we can see or experience now. It is in the future coming of Christ to fix everything that is broken, and to begin His plan of renewal for the world. Paul writes in Romans 8 that this renewal includes the “redemption of our bodies.” He continues, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (v. 23-25)
We are not just “prisoners in the dark” wandering through “Egyptian wilderness” that goes on forever. As Christians, when we seek to comfort each other in depression and anxiety, we are not just seeking a hand to hold as we head into inevitable oblivion. We can continue to strive in the midst of darkness because we know there is a reward beyond it. Continuing to believe and trust in the midst of that darkness that God is who He says He is and that His plans will come to pass is the greatest testimony of faith. The darkness that Mother Teresa felt in her soul endured even to her death. She wrote late in her life, “I want to smile even at Jesus and so hide if possible the pain and the darkness of my soul even from Him.” And yet she remained adamant in her trust in God, writing, “Pray please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything. For I am only His – so He has every right over me.” Such faith and endurance is in true imitation of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Despite unspeakable pain, Jesus looked to the rich reward ahead of Him – to the glory of His Father and to His beloved people finally in their rightful place as sons and daughters of God. When we endure through seasons of anxiety and despair, we are following in Jesus’ footsteps. We are looking forward to the joy set before us, to our prize – Jesus Himself – and that prize will be far greater than anything we can imagine. The light people strive for and the joy people experience here on the earth are only a taste of it.
One thing I must clarify – by no means do I make any claim that depression, sadness, and despair are good. We are meant to trust in God’s sovereignty in the midst of depression. As Christians, we can see depression as a chance to rely on God’s promises and to imitate Jesus in endurance and faith. Our perseverance in the midst of depression and support of each other through these times is a testimony to the power of our faith. Yet none of this in any way negates the significance of the pain that those who suffer from depression experience. I do, however, hope to convey that good can arise out of terrible and painful experiences. Most importantly, I hope to convey that God has plans “for welfare and not for evil…to give a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) to those who are depressed, that He is close to those who are suffering, and that He has not forgotten them in the midst of their pain and sadness.
Not only are they not forgotten, but they are understood. It is good to look to Christians like Spurgeon, Luther and Mother Teresa as examples because they point, ultimately, to the One who truly provides hope to the depressed. The Lord knows what sorrow is like, because He is our Creator and thus knows our emotions intimately. Moreover, because of Jesus’ life and death, our God knows the depths of human sorrow and despair. We must not forget that God put on flesh to become a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Before He endured the cross, Jesus testified that His “soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34). Jesus, too, felt overwhelming hopelessness and grief. Jesus, too, felt isolated and utterly alone. Jesus, too, prayed to the Father that such suffering would pass from Him.
But He endured it. He conquered it, and He rose again. Jesus’ resurrection is the event that heralds a new order of things, a new way of living. Jesus’ resurrection promises that in the aftermath of sadness and of pain comes deep and complete renewal. In the church today it is easy to take for granted the idea of the cross as a symbol of redemption. We must place ourselves back at the foot of the cross where Jesus died, and see Jesus’ death through the eyes of those who followed Him. What good could possibly come from killing, in the most brutal way, an innocent man who had only healed and brought hope to the sick and oppressed? When Jesus cried out before He died, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) the disciples must have echoed His words. The cross, at first glance, seems everything contrary to the symbol of grace, forgiveness, and redemption that it has come to be for Christians today.
Yet Jesus’ death on that cross, and His subsequent resurrection is what today enables our hope. Thus an ugly instrument of torture becomes a beautiful symbol of God’s mercy and perfect plan for the world. Luther recognized this paradox, and it was this strange image of God revealing Himself when He seemed all but hidden, that brought Him through the darkest times of depression and hopelessness. He called this “a mark of the revelation which is concealed under the contrary.” The night Jesus died, the land was covered in darkness, the earth quaked, and all hope seemed lost. We have the privilege to know that this was not the end of the story. God’s word dictates that “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). The cross was a reminder to Luther that God is working in the midst of suffering, that His plans will not be hindered.
The cross is that symbol for us, as well. And it is not the only one. God has placed small, tangible reminders all around us. Bit by bit, God is renewing this broken world. Spring, with its flowers, comes after the cold of winter. Friends fight and reconcile. Babies are born. People reflect the imaginative, innovative personality of their Creator . Jesus came to, “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…to comfort all who mourn – and to grant for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a beautiful headdress for ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Isaiah 61:1-3). Jesus came to do these things. And he will come again. And on that day he has promised that he will “wipe every tear from their eyes”, and “neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain.” (Revelation 21:4)
The morning will come. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But as Christians, we look forward to eternity, to Jesus’ kingdom fully established, to a new heavens and a new earth – one that has no place for depression. Until then, we must point each other to this hope. As a church, we must not only provide a forum for people to talk openly about their experiences of depression and despair, but also reassure those who suffer that they are not alone. We must not condemn each other in periods of hopelessness, but instead encourage and pray for one another to once again be captured by the beauty of God’s ultimate plan. We can look to the signs of redemption all around us, to the cross which symbolizes God’s faithfulness when all seems dark, to God’s promises that suffering is not meaningless, and to the coming day when he will bring the renewal of all things – including our souls, bodies and minds.
Charles Spurgeon, Columbia University, depression, despair, grace, hope, joy, Martin Luther, mercy, Mother Teresa, paradox, sorrow, stress