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.

Psalm 32 – Don’t Waste Away

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore, let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart! (New International Version)

Depression is downright awful. It is the leading cause of disability in the Unites States among people ages 15-45. More sobering is the fact that two-thirds of all persons with depression have not yet sought help.

The psalmist was once one of those persons. When he kept silent, it was as if his bones went limp and wasted away inside him. The emotional pain of such an experience transcends our language.

David, the psalmist, had every reason to feel deeply about the circumstances of his life. He had been both the victim and even the perpetrator in all kinds of very troubling situations. Yet, as the king of Israel and Judah, he kept the stiff-upper-lip of stubbornly holding everything inside. 

The very word “depression” literally means to depress or stuff the emotions down inside and keep them tightly held within, not allowing them to see the light of day. Deep inside, those feelings don’t just go away. Instead, they sit, not going anywhere, and eventually rot the soul.

“It’s so difficult to describe depression to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling — that really hollowed-out feeling.”

J. K. Rowling

There was a time in my past in which I was so good at stuffing my feelings that one night when my neighbor had a blow-out of a party at two o’clock in the morning, I actually felt no anger. Just so you know: That’s not healthy. I had an anger problem. Not the kind where you explode, but just the opposite – the kind where you stuff every unwanted feeling in the book.

Recovery, for me, meant first recognizing that I was depressed and had a lot to be angry about. Next, I began to let myself feel the past situations of my life. And I need to tell you that what was inside me wasn’t at all pretty. 

Like a wound that needs peroxide, dealing with depression hurt like hell. But I couldn’t heal without it. I couldn’t go around it or avoid it; I had to go through it. 

Finally, I learned to not only identify my feelings, but take charge of them. I discovered I could choose to say how I feel without apology, and I could say it all in a way that helped others, as well as myself. Like David of old, I had to get what was inside on the outside.

The Christian season of Lent is an appropriate time to do this sort of internal work. This is no time to sit on neglected feelings or stuff emotions. It may seem as if opening up will cause internal shame, outward regret, or judgment from others.

But that would be a lie.

Shame cannot survive the light of day; regret typically happens when we fail to do something; and millions of others are struggling with the very same sort of things you are.

What’s more, God is patiently awaiting for us to break our silence and tell what’s troubling us. With the Lord, there is bountiful grace, unconditional forgiveness, and emotional healing.

I don’t believe depression is a sin which needs to be confessed but rather a terrible condition of the spirit that must be named and dealt with. So, if you are experiencing:

  • Feelings of sadness or a depressed mood that lingers for weeks, even months
  • A loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • A loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • An increase in useless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
  • Feelings of worthlessness, shame, or guilt
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Then, it is high time to get help. A place to start can be with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or online at findtreatment.samhsa.gov

It is also wise to speak with a trusted family member or friend about the need for help and support, as well as a safe faith leader, pastor, or chaplain. There is no reason for anyone to have to live with crushing emotional and/or spiritual pain day after day.

Gracious God, your stamp of approval is on the penitent – those who are brutally honest with the inner self and receive your mercy. I will not keep silent. I will declare to you the current state of my life and not run away from the ugliness within. Through the gracious Name of Jesus, I pray with thanksgiving. Amen.

Psalm 102:1-17 – Depressed

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Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to favor it;
the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold its stones dear,
and have pity on its dust.
The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all the kings of the earth your glory.
For the Lord will build up Zion;
he will appear in his glory.
He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their prayer. (NRSV)

Author and teacher Marianne Williamson told the story (most likely apocryphal) 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 happens to be near to the 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 attend to the inner person and know there is much more to us than physical pathology, this account of chimpanzees resonates deeply. Rather than being merely a problem to be fixed, depression can serve as an asset to society, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger. That means there is an upside to depressed persons – they serve an important role.

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 believe depression is a sin, we get no such judgment from Holy Scripture. Depression just is.

hope in the darkness

Consider the following biblical characters: When the prophet Elijah became depressed, it 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. When Moses became despondent time and again, it pointed to the faithless network of apostasy that kept rearing its golden calf in the life of the Israelite people.

And when 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 emotionally ill people around them. It’s almost as if depressed people 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.  When 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 biblical 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 key 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 medieval gate that needs effort to open.

While the depressed among us learn to hope again, the majority who are depression-free ought to pay attention. We need also to examine ourselves, our families, our organizations, our workplaces, and our churches to determine what is awry and create new systems and new ways of living together on planet earth.  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 this darkness. Through Jesus Christ, my Savior, I pray. Amen.