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.

James 5:13-20 – Pray In Times of Trouble

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (New International Version)

This entire letter of the Apostle James to a suffering church is grounded in two important theological truths:  God is good; and God acts powerfully in the world for good. 

The foundation of Christian prayer is the conviction that God cares – that the Lord hears us and responds. Prayers can be lifted at any time. Yet, the God-focused and God-honoring prayer has a price. It will cost us time, effort, vulnerability, and follow-through with appropriate action. Biblical prayer is more than private requests; it requires something of us as a community of believers in Jesus.

When To Pray?

We are to pray whenever there is trouble in our lives which causes us to suffer. Whether physical trouble, emotional suffering, or relational difficulty, we are to pray about it all. We are to pray even when we do not feel like it. In short, we are to be pray continually because there is always a need for prayer.

The Apostle James practiced what he taught. The Roman historian, Eusebius, wrote concerning James that “his knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people.” James was in constant intercession to God for people. 

“His knees grew hard like a camel’s because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people.”

The fourth-century historian Eusebius, describing the Apostle James

Like James, we all need prayer is to be our default response in trouble and suffering. When in trying circumstances, a temptation is to lash out at the person who enabled the adversity. We may even become mad at God for allowing trouble in our lives.

Yet, when afflicted, suffering, or in trouble, we need to pray. Sometimes God will always take away our afflictions, suffering, or troubles. Sometimes not. However, by bringing our circumstances before the Lord and acknowledging our need for divine help, we can see God intervene in the situation we are presently facing. What’s more, prayer can give us the grace we need to endure and come closer to God.

So, when the bottom drops out; when you feel you are hanging by a thread; when circumstances are overwhelming or grow worse by the minute, we should pray. We should pray, whether afflicted, sick, or overcome by guilt and shame.

The cost of prayer is time. For many people, time is as precious as money. So, we try to fit prayer into our lives without ever altering our schedules. That will not do. Prayer takes time because it is a conversation with God, and it requires extended focused attention.

Who Should Pray?

Everyone is to pray – including everyone in the church who are happy, suffering, healthy, or ill. Specifically, James tells us the elders of the church are to pray for those who are sick – including physical suffering, mental illness, emotional hurt, and spiritual sickness. Prayer is for all those who are weak, weary, and worn down by life circumstances.

Notice the chain of responsibility here in today’s New Testament lesson. The onus is on the sick person to contact the elders of the church. Scripture clearly puts the need for communicating an adverse situation on the person who is undergoing the trouble. For many people, this is humbling and difficult, so they simply don’t do it. Prayer has a price: openness and vulnerability.

When the needy person communicates the trouble, then the elders are to anoint the person in the name of the Lord and offer a prayer of faith for the afflicted person. It is the leadership’s job to pray. In the ancient biblical world, anointing with oil was a deeply symbolic act of encouragement. It was a tangible way of lifting the person out of trouble.

And all kinds of sickness are in view: physical ailments of bodily sickness; heart problems of anger or bitterness; spiritual struggles of doubt; emotional challenges of depression or anxiety; along with anything and everything that causes ill health. It all should be prayed over, with people being anointed and encouraged.

Prayer is not a strictly private affair; it is a communal activity. Consider the thought that if you are not experiencing healing, wholeness, and health – whether physical, relational, or spiritual – then perhaps God is calling you and I to more than private prayer but to corporate prayer offered by the elders of the church. 

It is not just the prayer offered by one solitary individual that makes the sick person well – it is the collective faith prayer of the church’s leadership on the troubled person.

How To Pray?

Pray in faith. Pray earnestly. Trust God for healing and wholeness with prayers that are persistent, passionate, and prolonged. Again, this will cost the troubled person a profound willingness to be vulnerable, real, and honest. No vulnerability, no healing. No gut-level honesty with the true condition, no power to raise the person up. No willingness to stop fighting and let go of the pride and perceived ability to handle it ourselves, no end to the trouble.

Today, many people throughout the world are trying to independently get out of their trouble and do not want others to help them through the ministry of prayer. The cost of letting others see their terrible situation is too high for them. So, they suffer in silence, failing to confess and receive healing prayer.

Why Pray?

The goal of prayer is total and complete healing from physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual ills. In addition, it is through prayer that prodigals return from their wandering in the muck of the world.

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. The Old Testament prophet Elijah simply believed God’s Word and prayed accordingly. Elijah knew from reading the book of Deuteronomy that God said whenever God’s people wander from the truth, there will be drought, no rain. 

So, Elijah prayed the words of God. He prayed that it would not rain, and it didn’t. Then, when there was a great revival of the people back to God, Elijah prayed it would rain with passionate, sincere, believing, and persevering prayer. And it rained a gulley-washer.

So, let’s pray…

Good and gracious God, we believe you are compassionate, willing, and able to heal people in the name of Christ. Today we pray for those requiring surgery; needing confidence and courage; trying to understand their suffering; having a sense of guilt or failure; experiencing great anxiety; lacking patience; feeling disappointed; tiring of limitations; wearying of old age; lacking sleep; and wandering from the truth. For all these people and their situations of trouble, we pray to you, Lord, for healing, health, and wholeness. 

Eternal God, send your Holy Spirit upon each person we are praying for right now. Drive away all sickness of body and spirit. Make whole that which is broken. Give deliverance from the power of evil. Provide strengthening of faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who suffered on our behalf, yet also rose from death so that we, too, could live a new life.

Most gracious God, you are the source of healing. We give you thanks for all your gifts to us, but most of all, for the gift of your Son, the Lord Jesus, through whom you gave and still give strength and deliverance to all who believe. As we wait in eager expectation for the coming of that day when suffering and pain shall be no more, help us by your Holy Spirit to be assured of your power in our lives and to trust in your eternal love, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.