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.

Heartfelt Prayer (Lamentations 5:1-22)

Orthodox icon of Jeremiah praying

O Lord, reflect on what has happened to us;
consider and look at our disgrace.

Our inheritance is turned over to strangers;
foreigners now occupy our homes.

We have become fatherless orphans;
our mothers have become widows.

We must pay money for our own water;
we must buy our own wood at a steep price.

We are pursued—they are breathing down our necks;
we are weary and have no rest.

We have submitted to Egypt and Assyria
in order to buy food to eat.

Our forefathers sinned and are dead,
but we suffer their punishment.

Slaves rule over us;
there is no one to rescue us from their power.

At the risk of our lives, we get our food
because robbers lurk in the wilderness.

Our skin is as hot as an oven
due to a fever from hunger.

They raped women in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah.

Princes were hung by their hands;
elders were mistreated.

The young men perform menial labor;
boys stagger from their labor.

The elders are gone from the city gate;
the young men have stopped playing their music.

Our hearts no longer have any joy;
our dancing is turned to mourning.

The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!

Because of this, our hearts are sick;
because of these things, we can hardly see through our tears.

For wild animals are prowling over Mount Zion,
which lies desolate.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.

Why do you keep on forgetting us?
Why do you forsake us so long?

Bring us back to yourself, O Lord, so that we may return to you;
renew our life as in days before,
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure. (New English Translation)

“’Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac?”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Prayer is not about getting the right words strung together in a correct formula in a perfect disposition of the heart. Rather, prayer is conversation and a dialogue with God. 

Sometimes prayer looks a lot more like a triage unit in a hospital than it does a steeple on a church. Prayer often looks like desperation more than it does praise. 

God is a Being that we can tell the truth about what is really going on in our lives. Prayer isn’t prayer when we just tell God what we think God wants to hear.

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The biblical book of Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah’s extended prayer of grief, lament, complaint, and raw feeling. His hometown of Jerusalem was decimated by the invading Babylonian army. Thousands of people were taken out of the city and into exile. The ones left, including Jeremiah, were beside themselves with anger, grief, sadness, and fear.

We hear his cry to God, not worrying about whether it is appropriate language or not. Jeremiah’s words and phrases to God were heartfelt and real:

“We’re worn out and without any rest.”

“All the joy is gone from our hearts.” 

“We are heartsick.”

“We can hardly see through our tears.”

“Why do you keep forgetting us, God?”
“Lord, why dump us and leave us like this?

“Give us a fresh start, for God’s sake!”

Jeremiah was not concerned about how he looked or sounded, and not afraid to express his real thoughts and feelings.

Every thought and feeling is a valid entry into prayer. It is of utmost importance that we pray what is actually inside of us and not what we believe God would like to hear from us. 

The Lord doesn’t like pretense and posturing; God wants the real us. 

Plastic words and phony speeches are an affront to God. We must pray precisely what is on our minds and in our hearts – unfiltered, if need be. No matter the headache or the heartache, we only need to pray, without any concern for doing it perfectly.

“Suffering forces us to change.
We don’t like change and most of the time we fear it and fight it.
We like to remain in emotionally familiar places
even through sometimes those places are not healthy for us.
On occasion, the suffering is so great that we have to give up.
We surrender the old and begin anew.
Often it is the pain we experience that leads us, not only to a different life,
but a richer and more rewarding one.” Dennis Wholey

Gracious God, sometimes I feel like I have to have it all together to even speak to you. Yet you already know my heart better than I know it myself. Forgive my constant hiding from you and accept my heartfelt prayer to you for grace and help, through Jesus Christ my Savior and Lord. Amen.

How Can I Move Through My Grief? (Lamentations 1:7-15)

The Lamentations of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Her people recall the good life
    that once was theirs;
now they suffer
    and are scattered.
No one was there to protect them
from their enemies who sneered
    when their city was taken.

Jerusalem’s horrible sins
    have made the city a joke.
Those who once admired her
    now hate her instead—
she has been disgraced;
    she groans and turns away.

Her sins had made her filthy,
but she wasn’t worried
    about what could happen.
And when Jerusalem fell,
    it was so tragic.
No one gave her comfort
    when she cried out,
“Help! I’m in trouble, Lord!
    The enemy has won.”

Zion’s treasures were stolen.
Jerusalem saw foreigners
    enter her place of worship,
though the Lord
had forbidden them
    to belong to his people.

Everyone in the city groans
    while searching for food;
they trade their valuables
for barely enough scraps
    to stay alive.

Jerusalem shouts to the Lord,
“Please look and see
    how miserable I am!”
No passerby even cares.
Why doesn’t someone notice
    my terrible sufferings?
You were fiercely angry, Lord,
and you punished me
    worst of all.
From heaven you sent a fire
    that burned in my bones;
you set a trap for my feet
    and made me turn back.
All day long you leave me
    in shock from constant pain.
You have tied my sins
    around my neck,
and they weigh so heavily
    that my strength is gone.
You have put me in the power
    of enemies too strong for me.

You, Lord, have turned back
my warriors and crushed
    my young heroes.
Judah was a woman untouched,
but you let her be trampled
    like grapes in a wine pit. (Contemporary English Version)

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The only way to the mountain is through the valley. The only way to make the pain go away is to move through it – not by avoiding it, pretending it’s not there, or trying to move around it. Pain and suffering are inevitable; misery is optional.

The reality is that, when experiencing catastrophic loss, you and I will grieve forever. We shall never “get over” it; we only learn to live with it.

Yes, I do believe there is spiritual and emotional healing. Significant change and grinding loss doesn’t need to define who we are. We can rebuild ourselves around the loss we have suffered.

Yes, you and I will be whole again. However, we shall never ever be the same again. It isn’t possible – nor should it be.

The prophet Jeremiah, the exiles in Babylon, and the remaining people of Jerusalem faced a tremendous and heartbreaking adjustment to a new world full of changes and losses. Expressing that grief was central to not becoming stuck in the past, living in the here and now, and moving into the future.

Grief is the normal mental, emotional, spiritual, and/or physical response to any significant change or loss. Grief is not optional but necessary. It is our personhood’s way of facing the pain and moving through it to a place of finding renewed meaning, support, and purpose in life.

How do people move through the grief?

  • Community: Grief needs a witness. It must be expressed. We must tell our stories of life, love, and loss. Otherwise, the grief just sits unmoved deep within and eventually becomes gangrene of the soul.

Help carry each other’s burdens. In this way you will follow Christ’s teachings.

Galatians 6:2, GW
  • Connection: Grief doesn’t so much go away as it morphs into fond memories of remembrance through ritual behavior.

Then Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, NRSV)

  • Character: No one is defined by their grief, their disease, their mental disorder, their disability, or their addiction. In many religious traditions, people are identified as carrying the image and likeness of G-d.

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him.

After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun. (Romans 8:29-30, MSG)

  • Care: Practice caring for yourself. Give yourself the grace and the permission to be happy… or sad… or angry – to feel what you need to feel. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

  • Compare not: Please do not compare your grief and loss with anyone else’s. The truth is this: The absolute worst loss is your loss, not somebody else’s.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18, NIV)

  • Count: Count your wins. Count your blessings. Say them out loud. Write them down. Share them with a friend or loved one.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

    and forget not all his benefits,

who forgives all your iniquity,

    who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit,

    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. (Psalm 103:2-4, ESV)

Sometimes, prayer is the only possible way forward. Maybe the Lord will once again hear us and respond, as of old:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people… I have heard their cry… for I know their sorrows.” (Exodus 3:7, NET)

May the presence of the Lord melt your fear and discouragement. May God strengthen and help you. May the Lord lift you and hold you in gracious and compassionate hands. Amen.

Lament Your Losses (Lamentations 3:19-26)

“The Lamentations of Jeremiah,” a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord. (New International Version)

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

Nicolas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

None of us gets off this planet without experiencing terrible grief. It is endemic to the human condition.

Grief attaches itself to any significant change or loss – bereavement, divorce, surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and so much more – bring grief to our lives. They are unwanted events we did not ask for. 

The worst response to grief-producing events is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, stuff the feelings down, and just move on.

It’s actually unbiblical to respond that way because Holy Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.

Lamentations is an entire book of the Bible given to a single purpose: lamenting a grievous loss.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem. Not only was Jeremiah commissioned to proclaim an unpopular message, but he was also given a promise that the people would not listen to him. Jerusalem would be destroyed. The people sent into exile. This only compounded Jeremiah’s sadness with complicated grief.

Jeremiah is a melancholy messenger who preached exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach. God’s words came true. The people did not turn from their empty worship and wayward lifestyles. And they persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment.

The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

In his terrible grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah wept and lamented the loss of his hometown and the temple.

It was only after an extended time of grieving that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God. The Lord’s compassions become new every morning. And the renewal will happen without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.

Cheap hope tries to circumvent grieving and lamenting of loss. Genuine hope knows the true path of renewal is through the grief, not around it.

There are two popular phrases in Western culture that need to be jettisoned altogether when speaking with people experiencing change or loss. These phrases, at the least, are not helpful; and, at worst, are harmful:

  1. “Get over it!” can short circuit the grief process and puts grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope. Far too many people in the world, and even the church, remain stuck in some stage of grief, unable to effectively move through it because others expect them to be joyful and victorious; but they really feel downright awful – and now also feel guilty for being sad.
  2. “You have to be strong!” is typically said to people who are in a state of weakness. But they can’t be strong. We would never think of telling someone with broken bones to have the strength to walk or even drive anywhere without assistance. We understand they need to heal. Yet, we tell this to people with broken spirits, and then can’t understand why they don’t just bounce back from their emotional stupor. Broken spirits and broken hearts, like broken bones, need time to heal.

Lament is the pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person, like Jesus. Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many, if not most, emotional problems today. 

“Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss

We all accumulate losses over the course of a lifetime. Many are small losses; some are devastating losses. The death of children, disability, sexual assault, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament. 

All these changes are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were. We must move through the grief by lamenting each loss. And as we lurch ahead, we cling to the words of Jeremiah. Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed and swallowed whole from grief, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?

  1. Remember our afflictions and losses. Avoid superficial responses to significant events. Acknowledge, own, and feel the pain of the loss. This is the path to realizing new life.
  2. Pay attention to faith, hope, and love. This can only be done if we are alert to the grief process. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution or acceptance. We rarely move neatly through each stage. The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love to us, not just in spite of the suffering, but because of it.
  3. Do not minimize your pain and suffering. We must sit with our pain. Do not dismiss your loss by saying others have it worse, or that it’s nothing. Year after year, many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments. The result is a profound inability to face pain. And it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Know that Jesus grieved. Messiah is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3) At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Come on everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people. (John 11:35) When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks. (Luke 13:34) On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!” But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Holy Scripture tells us that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)

Grief and lament is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and essential for emotional health.

Life does not always make sense. There is deep mystery to the ways of God. The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us. While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating. Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s resetting a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it. Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells. The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden. 

We must be willing to wait, in some cases, years. Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan. Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have submitted to grief and lamented their losses are:

  • Patient with others and able to wait on God
  • Kind and compassionate
  • Lack pretense and have no need to impress others
  • Comfortable with mystery and don’t need all the answers
  • Humble, gentle, and meek
  • Able to see God in the mundane, banal, and lowly
  • At home with themselves and with God
  • Equipped to love others as Jesus did

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to keep grief from catching up to us.

Slow down. Let grief catch you. Express lament. Allow grief and lament to do its deep and powerful work within you, to the glory of God. Amen.