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Dealing With Depression and Despair

by Alex Wilson

I’ve been there, more than once or twice. Doubtless you have too. In a deep valley of discouragement, and even a pit of despair. My worst time was back in 1976, several months of blackness, when at times I really wished that I didn’t have to go on living. I wasn’t tempted to take my life, but I wanted God to! Then again later there were some weeks of heavy gloom and depression.

Such moods are as old as Adam, I guess. And the affliction is very widespread too. Let me give you a quiz related to this. Who Made These Statements?

(1) “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation.”

(2) “I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.”

(3) “During a very serious illness, I had an unaccountable fit of anxiety about money matters.”

(4) “My nerves were ragged, frazzled, exhausted. And such gloom .and depression fell upon me as I have never known, although depression is an old ac­quaintance of mine.”

(5) “God seemed nonexistent. The grave seemed my endless goal. Life lost all of its glory, charm and meaning. Prayer brought me no re­lief; indeed, I seemed to have lost the spirit of prayer and the power to pray.”

(6) “I found that I could usually struggle on pretty well during the day. But at night it was as if I were the picked target of the Enemy. Irrational fears gripped my spirit, unreal guilt swept over me. Even my sense of God disappeared, though it never reached nihilism or utter despair. Still, when I turned to God for help, He seemed remote and unapproachable. ”

OK, are you ready to check your answers? (1) Martin Luther, mighty reformer. ( 2) Charles Spurgeon, one of church history’s great­est preachers. (3) Spurgeon again. ( 4) Samuel Logan Brengle, bold evangelist of a former day, and a writer of books about holiness which formerly were widely sold and translated. (5) Brengle again. (6) J. B. Phillips, noted author and Bible translator in the 1950’s -70’s.

Are you surprised? After all, these men were spiritual giants. And more could be mentioned, such as David Brainerd, dedicated mission­ary to the American Indians. His father-in-law, Jonathan Edwards, called him “the most melancholic person I have ever known.” Then there was William Cowper, the English poet who wrote such hymns as “There is a Fountain” and “Oh for a Closer Walk with God.” He expe­rienced acute mental sickness off and on from the age of twenty till his death at sixty-nine. He wrote his greatest hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” after an attack of insanity during which he tried to drown himself. Another example is F. B. Meyer, the outstanding preacher, leader and writer whose books still sell well decades after his death. After serving God fruitfully for many years, he experienced a period of nine years in which he lived in deep darkness and depression, wondering if he even belonged to the Lord at all.

“But this is preposterous!” someone may object. “Spiritual giants don’t get shaken by desperation, have fits of anxiety, give way to nervous spells of gloom and fear, have attacks of insanity, wish they would die, and doubt their salvation. People who live like that can’t be called great Christians. In fact, were they really Christians at all, or just counterfeits? Surely, at best they were living in sin and carnality when they had such experiences!”

Oh? Are you sure? Well, let’s take another quiz. (Don’t you love them?)

QUIZ NUMBER TWO

Who Made the Following Statements?

(1) “Cursed be the day I was born!”

(2) “0 Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

(3) He prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”

(4) “I am not able to carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now.”

(5) He cursed the day of his birth. ‘May the day of my birth per­ish… Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, to those who long for death that does not come?’

(6) “I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning.”

(7) Grief and anguish came over him. He said, ‘The sorrow in my heart is so great it almost crushes me.”

(8) “I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.”

(9) “We groan and are burdened.”

(10) “My heart is troubled.”

(11)”He was deeply moved in spirit and trou­bled.”

 

Here are the answers: (1) Jeremiah; see 20:14-18. (2) Jonah 4:3, 8. (3) Elijah, 1 Kings 19:4. (4) Moses, Num. 11:14f. (5) Job 3: many verses. (6) David, Psa. 31:9f. (7) Christ, Matt. 26:37f. Good News Bible. (8) Paul, 2 Cor. 2:4. (9) Paul, 2 Cor. 5:4. (10) Christ, John. 12:27. (11) Christ, John. 11:33.

Did you realize how often such deep depression was experienced by God’s people–yes, by spiritual giants, including our Lord Himself? And many more examples could be given.

There is no joy in recording such facts. But that is what they are-­facts, which stubbornly refuse to go away. So it is better to face them than to live in a never-never dreamland where God’s people never feel devastated and everyone lives happily ever after, even in this life.

 

COMMON CAUSES

Let’s think briefly about various sources of depression.

1. Temperament inclines some people–like Brainerd and Cow­per, no doubt–to become more depressed than the average person. Unlike your character, which develops according to the moral choices you make throughout your life, you are born with temperament. You inherit it from the genetic pool of your parents and grandparents. So “melancholic” David would be more liable to moods of discourage­ment than “choleric” Nehemiah. And “melancholic” Jeremiah would have to wrestle against depression more than “choleric/phlegmatic” Daniel, who lived during the same black period of Judah’s downfall and captivity. Don’t get me wrong. One’s temperament does not ex­cuse his faults; but it does explain his temptations. Some are more tempted to anger, others to laziness; some to pride, and others to de­pression; etc. ( If you are at a loss regarding terms like melancholic, phlegmatic, and choleric, used here not just in their traditional sense but to describe various basic temperaments–then I recommend to you Spirit-Controlled Temperament, a book by Tim LaHaye. You will find it fascinating and illuminating even if you don’t agree with all of it. )

2. Sickness, some types of injuries, and sometimes even normal exhaustion account for much depression. Brainerd had TB; Luther and Spurgeon both had gout, a disease which commonly has the side-ef­fect of depression. While Brengle was preaching in the open air, a drunk hit him in the head with a brick. The injury intensified the prob­lems with despondency which he already had by temperament. Elijah was exhausted, and Job suffered from excruciating boils, when they sank into the pit of despair.

3. Intense emotional strain due to difficult circumstances, espe­cially opposition or danger, is another source of depression. It cer­tainly was a factor in the cases of David, Jonah, Jeremiah, Elijah, our Lord Jesus, and Paul.

4. Sometimes melancholy is due to aging and diseases that may at­tend it, such as hardening of the arteries or Alzheimer’s disease. This probably explains F. B. Meyer’s sad decline when he became old.

5. Our failures and sins. The two are not identical, but we lump them together here. Sometimes our mistakes and defeats get us down:-­the “if-onlies” of life. At other times we are depressed-and rightly so, because of our sin and guilt. David surely was, after his Bathsheba affair. He bore stirring testimony to that fact in Psalms 32:3-4 and 38:3-4. He would not have been a holy man or even a normal human being had he not felt shame, remorse and contrition. And since every last one of us experiences failure, commits sins and has to battle sin from time to time (to say the very least), is it any wonder that depres­sion is so common? In fact, ought it not be more common? But blessed are those who know how to use “the Christian’s bar of soap” described in I Jn. 1:7-9 and Prov. 28: 13. To be cleansed is one great antidote to sadness and despair.

Interestingly, just today the newspaper reported a study showing that 237 of patients hospitalized for psychiatric problems blamed their, mental illness on “sinful thoughts or actions.” No doubt some of con­sciences which they allowed to become calloused and seared. The Bi­ble mentions both of these dangers: I Cor. 8:7, 10; 1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15; Eph. 4:18f.

6. The sins and follies of others often cause intense pain and an­guish of heart. Those who are dearest to us can hurt us so sharply: “a foolish son brings grief to his mother” (Prov. 10:1). No doubt Paul was saddened when John Mark left the evangelistic team and ran home to momma. Paul was no doubt more deeply grieved when De­mas abandoned him at a time he was most needed. And our Savior loudly lamented His own people’s stubborn rejection: “0h Jerusalem, Jerusalem. ..how often I have longed to gather your children together …but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). They hated Him without a cause; no experience can be more bitter.

7. Our great adversary the Devil is surely a major cause of depres­sion. Discouragement is one of the weapons he uses the most. He uses any or all of the six factors just mentioned; he schemes and maneuvers to lure us into the quicksand of sadness, the “slough of despond” men­tioned in Pilgrim’s Progress. So beyond the other causes, and back of them, Satan orchestrates his forces and still “seeks to work us woe. On earth is not his equal.” Woe to any Christian who forgets that we are in a spiritual war.

 

CONCLUSIONS

The “dark night of the soul” experienced and described by saints and mystics through the ages is not unusual, nor necessarily sinful. Depression may result from sin, or may result in sin, or may have nothing to do with sin. That is, sin may cause depression, as it troubles our conscience. In such a case, the needed cures are repentance and confession. Or depression may cause sin, if we let it lead us to bitter­ness or rebellion. But not all depression is sinful: I may need God’s help in fighting it without necessarily needing His forgiveness for wal­lowing in it. This presumes that I have not wallowed in it. Instead I have accepted by faith those causes and conditions which cannot be changed, and resisted by faith those causes and conditions which should be changed.

Samuel Logan Brengle gives us an example of one way to resist depression. We now complete the quote we began before: “Prayer brought me no relief. Indeed, I seemed to have lost the spirit of prayer and the power to pray. Then I remembered to give thanks and to praise God, though I felt no spirit of praise and thanks­giving. Feeling, except that of utter depression and gloom, was gone. But as I thanked God for the trial, it began to turn to blessing, light glimmered, grew very slowly, and then broke through the gloom. The depression passed away, and life was beautiful and desirable again and full of gracious incomings once more.

(Quoted from Healing for Damaged Emotions, by David Seamands, ch. 10; a most valuable book – AVW).

 

Note well Brengle’s third sentence there. It is a key that often turns the lock. It is not our only weapon, but one of the more impor­tant. Practical steps are not to be despised nor neglected. But along with all of them, praise the Lord despite your bad feelings or lack of feelings. “Praise the Lord anyway!” There is Light at the end of the tunnel.

 




One Response to “Dealing With Depression and Despair”

  1. Absolutely amazing website! This is very helpful to me because I have been experiencing some of the most depressing and lonely times the last couple of years because I injured myself on the job, lost my job, lost my house, my wife left me for another man because of my faith, and my closest supposed “Brother” in Christ turned on me and has slandered my name to everyone except Obama…..
    But praise be unto the glory of his grace, if we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him; this has helped me so much because it helps me to see that this is somewhat normal for the christian, that i’m not alone; many other patriarchs of the faith have experienced this, and that GOD will get me through for his namesake and for his own glory!!!!!! thank you and may GOD bless you richly in all spiritual things



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