Depression Is Our Teacher (Psalm 102:1-17)

Lord, hear my prayer!
    Let my cry reach you!

Don’t hide your face from me
    in my time of trouble!
Listen to me!
    Answer me quickly as I cry out!

Because my days disappear like smoke,
    my bones are burned up as if in an oven;
    my heart is smashed like dried-up grass.
    I even forget to eat my food
    because of my intense groans.
    My bones are protruding from my skin.

I’m like some wild owl—
    like some screech owl in the desert.
I lie awake all night.
    I’m all alone like a bird on a roof.

All day long my enemies make fun of me;
    those who mock me curse using my name!

I’ve been eating ashes instead of bread.
    I’ve been mixing tears into my drinks
        because of your anger and wrath,
        because you picked me up and threw me away.

My days are like a shadow soon gone.
    I’m dried up like dead grass.

But you, Lord, rule forever!
    Your fame lasts from one generation to the next!

You will stand up—
        you’ll have compassion on Zion
        because it is time to have mercy on her—
    the time set for that has now come!

Your servants cherish Zion’s stones;
    they show mercy even to her dirt.

The nations will honor the Lord’s name;
    all the earth’s rulers will honor your glory
    because the Lord will rebuild Zion;
    he will be seen there in his glory.

God will turn to the prayer of the impoverished;
    he won’t despise their prayers. (Common English Bible)

Author Marianne Williamson tells the story concerning a study of a group of chimpanzees. Supposedly, researchers observed primate behavior which correlates to human depression, such as eating at odd times, spending lots of time alone, and staying on the outskirts of the group. This behavior was observed in about 10% of the chimps, which is about the same percentage of Americans who show symptoms of depression. 

The scientists removed the depressed chimps for six months, to see how this would affect the behavior of the other 90%. You might think that in the absence of the depressed individuals, the remaining majority would produce another 10% of depressed chimps. Instead, when scientists returned six months later, all the non-depressed chimps were dead.

The interpretation and conclusion of the study is that the depressed chimps had functioned as a kind of early warning system, continually looking out for predators, tropical storms, and other threats to the group. Without that system in place, the group was doomed.

Whether the study can be substantiated, or is a fabrication, for those who pay careful attention to the inner person, knowing there is much more to us than physical pathology, this account of chimpanzees resonates deeply.

More than a mere problem to be fixed, depression can also serve as an asset to society. Depressed persons can serve an important role, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger.

I am not trying to put a positive spin on a terrible malady of mind and spirit. Instead, I’m simply pointing out that there is a lot going on beyond an individual’s inner sadness and struggle; it is also a community’s struggle.

Reading today’s psalm, especially if you read it aloud, you can feel the expression of deep lament borne from a person going through a major depression. Although there are persons in the church and society who, unfortunately, believe depression to be a sin, we get no such judgment from Holy Scripture. Depression just is.

Consider the following biblical characters:

  • Elijah became depressed. The prophet’s depression served as a sign and warning that there was something horribly awry in ancient Israel. Jezebel was the wicked queen, pulling the strings in a nation connected in a web of evil which permeated the land.
  • Moses became despondent time and again. The leader’s depressed spirit pointed to the faithless network of apostasy that kept rearing its golden calf in the life of the Israelite people.

Whenever we, as contemporary persons, become depressed it can and should serve as a billboard to others that something is terribly askew among us, and not just within the individual.

Please know that I fully believe depression ought to be addressed and treated so that the depressed person can come around again to a sense of happiness and hopefulness. Yet, there are also emotionally “healthy” people who try to push pills, hurry along therapy, and pronounce exhortations to the despondent people around them. It’s almost as if depressed folk make others uncomfortable and uneasy.

If depression points to societal ills, not just personal sickness, then it makes sense that non-depressed people want depressed people to get healthy now, because then they don’t have to take a good hard look at the systemic problems of our society and culture. 

Whenever we rush to make someone feel better, typically the person we really want to help is ourselves.

Depression and emotional struggles must be deeply felt, examined, and carefully dealt with. Thus, enter the psalmist. The sheer volume of laments in the psalter ought to clue us in that this is important work. Sadness and grief can get trapped in us like monkeys in a cage. Reciting psalms of lament can help express what is within us and serve as the pick which unlocks us to freedom.

Dealing with depression is a process. It takes time and therapy, perseverance and patience, to heal. Learning new ways to accept, cope, and transcend are difficult – they take time. Cheap hope is a switch which can be easily flipped; genuine hope is a large heavy gate that needs effort to open.

While the depressed among us learn to hope again, the majority who are free of depression ought to pay attention.

We who are depression-proofed persons ought also to examine ourselves, our families, our organizations, our workplaces, and our faith communities to determine what is awry and create new systems and new ways of living together on planet earth.

Depression helps us all become more aware of ourselves and our society. And it drives us to the One who can truly heal all of our ills, both personal and societal. In this way, depression can be our teacher, and not just an unwanted interloper.

After all, who wants to make a monkey of themselves?

Holy God, please observe all who live with depression and hold them in your good strong hands. Send them your love through therapists, pastors, friends, and family. Grant them assurance of your love in their dark hours.

In your mercy, hear my prayer concerning the depressed persons in my life. I feel powerless and inadequate to help. I am frustrated because depression can be so unpredictable. Help me find the resilience and resources I need to be with them during their time of pain. And teach me what I need to learn in their darkness, as well, through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

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