Believe it or not I love talking about depression.Before you switch off and think that Cris has got some weirdo to talk to you – let me explain.
I’ve had clinical depression for nearly ten years; and for about half of that time I’ve also studied it theologically, worked as a chaplain on an acute mental health unit and run a mental health awareness charity. My experiences of depression have varied wildly from the hefty book “A handbook of depression” – it wasn’t a handbook, it was about a 1000 pages long and definitely didn’t fit in one hand without nearly breaking my wrist(!) to living through my own enduring journey with the illness. And I love talking about depression because it is through my own journey with depression that I have learnt the most about God. The God who is there, relentlessly even when we feel like we are in hell.
It’s my heart that the church is a place where we are honest about our struggles and honest about our pain. It’s why I did a ridiculous thing and started a charity having absolutely no idea what I was doing (I still don’t) and it’s why I try my best to be honest about my own darkness.
And I love that your church is doing this series.
I love it because finding God in the dark remains one of the greatest challenges to the christian faith. How can we view a God of light who allows hearts and minds to sink to such depths?
The question of where God is in the dark is one of the main reasons that people turn away from the faith – because of the constant tension that God is all-powerful, all-loving and all-knowing – and yet life hurts. We are let down by those around us, by our bodies and my the things we most hold dear.
Life is fragile – and so are we.
I don’t like admitting to my own fragility – I like pretending that my fragility is in the past and that I now just get to talk about it – but that’s not true.
The truth is, that I am fragile, at times my mental health is fragile. And when I saw the title that this talk was to have I couldn’t get away from sharing my own struggle with fragility.
One of the most glorious things I’ve learnt about God in my life is that our fragility does not exclude us from His work.
And there is perhaps not a better example of God working through the fragile than Paul. The latin root of the word ‘fragile’ is unsurprisingly “to break” and Paul was well and truly broken, wasn’t he?
A man of strength broken by God so that he could be God’s man.
Paul knew about pain, and that’s why I trust this passage in Romans so much.
The first verse, if I’m honest, used to annoy me quite intensely.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us”
Thanks, really helpful. It seems glib, a get out clause for God when we first read it.
And then we remember what Paul had been through – he’s not talking from a life without pain. Most of the letters we have included in our Bible written by Paul are written from a prison cell.
Paul is not diminishing the suffering we share in life.
He’s saying that the suffering, although great, is nothing compared to what is to come.
He’s also not saying that suffering is a prerequisite to glory. What he is setting out is a vision for something so beautiful and so indescribable that our pain can’t compare.
Hope is mentioned six times in this short passage – Paul’s trying to tell us something, I think.
And he needs to be persistent about it because hope is one of the first casualties of pain and certainly of depression.
Depression tears through our hope exposing nothing but the regrets of the past and the fear of the future. Even the things we know to be true – can be dressed up as lies in depression. Jeff Lucas writes in his book “Faith in the Fog”
“Logic is often one of the first casualties when depression descends”
It’s why if you try and tell someone with depression all the good things around them they will most often look at you blankly. Because logic disappears. Nothing good can be seen on the horizon and there is no changing that fact.
In the past ten years I have probably had about 20 “episodes” of severe depression. And even though logic and those around me tell me that I will come through, that the darkness will lift and the colour will come back – depression doesn’t believe it. It’s a pessimist that tells you that past victories were a fluke and that there is nothing good set before you.
Depression blinds us to the promise Paul sets out in the next few verses that:
“The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Andrew Solomon, who wrote an incredibly detailed memoir of depression called the “Noonday Demon” said:
“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality”
Its life that fades away when depression pushes itself to the fore. It’s the bondage to decay that becomes all consuming.
My bondage to decay was quite literal. Decay is a word rarely used in relation to suicide; but I’d argue its very apt. And it’s estimated that 15% of those with clinical depression will die by suicide.
For many, with every act of harm, no matter the momentary relief, the desire for death was strengthened. And when I made an attempt on my life – logic was gone and decay had certainly set in. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “The thought of suicide is a great consolation; by means of it one gets successfully through many a bad night.”
That is bondage to decay. There is no consolation or solace in suicide, not really. Not for the individual and not for those left behind. And yet in the midst of the blackest of night – God shows up – and that is where we get our liberation from. Paul doesn’t say here that we will be liberated from the hard stuff in life – but it does give us a vision of eternity.
The writer and psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison writes the following about the experience of suicidality:
“When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace.”
In the midst, it can feel like no-one else could possibly understand our pain and our exhaustion with life – and yet we see it even in the Bible
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah fresh from a victory but exhausted and hounded by his enemies, flees. The text said he ran for his life and then he prayed that he might die. The text says:
Elijah was afraid[a] and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
The Lord appears to Elijah
And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
10 He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’
11 The Lord said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
What does God do? Crash in with the miraculous and make it all better? No.
He lets Elijah sleep, provides him with food and listens to him – then with a renewed vision and renewed call – he sends Elijah on his way.
Obviously, we can’t diagnose Elijah with depression – but we can see that Elijah was struggling with life! What’s more, the story of Elijah gives us a great model of care for those we know are struggling.
We can walk alongside, we can offer comfort and practical help; a listening ear and prayer; a hot meal and a lift to the doctors surgery.
It’s not our job (unless it actually is!) to be psychiatrists and mental health workers – it’s our job to be the church of Christ, caring for its members.
And Paul goes onto say “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” How right! I can hope for a healed mind – but I don’t hope for a finance – I have one of those!
So often we don’t dare to hope for what life could look like, let alone hope what eternal life could look like. Our hope, like our bodies, is fragile! And so God gave us His Spirit.
The Spirit is our foretaste of heaven and our comfort. Verse 26 says “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness,’ for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
God’s spirit, intercedes for us.
Let’s have some time to let that sink in.
It’s the Spirit that moved over the land at creation, and the Spirit that filled the Virgin’s womb.
And he helps us; interceding for us when we just don’t have the words. The Spirit takes our prayers seeking pain relief – and offers our pain for God to work in.
The hope that Paul professes throughout this passage is partially realised in the presence of the Spirit. It is the spirit who comforts and translates our wordless pain and petition into prayers before the Father.
In the same way that a Mother can distinguish her child’s cries between hunger and exhaustion, so the Spirit presents ours before the Father and whispers the tender comfort of a parent to our most fragile parts.
One of my favourite writers (I like him so much I critiqued his book for my degree and at times felt like I was reading it so much I had no words left of my own to say!) is Frank Lake and he writes about God making our pain creatively bearable.
In other words, God takes our pain transforms it. It will still hurt – but it will be worth it. Throughout the Bible we see God taking his people’s pain and giving them back a future they couldn’t have dreamt of.
Sometimes, if we are honest we wouldn’t dream of it.
If you’d told me when I was little girl that I was going to grow up spending my life talking about depression and suicide – I can’t think I would have been particularly enamoured with the idea.
And yet here I am, still broken, still rather neurotic but doing a job because God took my pain and made it worth something. Rita Snowden says
“You ask me what forgives means, it’s the wonder of being trusted again by God in the place I disgraced him the most”
When I became so controlled by the thoughts in my mind begging for an ending – God trusted me to try and understand more about suicide and depression.
God doesn’t leave us to rot in our own mess and mire – he takes it and does something unimaginable with it. God took Paul the Persecutor to become a Pastor. A murderer by the name of Moses went onto to deliver God’s people to freedom and each time he seems to use the hardest parts, the parts where we are weakest to bring Him glory.
I wonder where it is your weakness lies?
The part you perhaps try to hide from God?
And I wonder what it could look like in the creative hands of God.
What would it look like if it were “creatively bearable”?
What would it look like for you to make someone else’s depression or pain more bearable?
It might be taking a meal round once a week.
Or being a listening ear?
Maybe it’s going to a doctors appointment with them?
For me, it looks like this. It looks like being able to get on with my life, work partly from home and enjoy good friendships and a happy relationship. It looks like every few months taking a few days out, to sleep and to cry and to talk to those I love.
God has not taken my depression away – just as he did not remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh, just as he did not remove the sufferings ahead of Paul – but he has shown me redemption.
Our comfort is not only that we have glory to come – it’s that we have God with us through His spirit. Our God is not one who sits above our pain merely observing it.
God hurts. The Father is aggrieved, Jesus wept, the Spirit groans.
A grieving God is and will always be my greatest comfort.
We aren’t alone in our pain – because God is in pain with us.
A philosopher called Nicholas Wolterstorff who wrote widely about justice and ethics penned a tiny slip of the book in the wake of the death of his son, called “Lament for a Son” and in it says this:
“God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. … 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. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor. … Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.”
God doesn’t survey our frailty with pity. He came to us in the frailest form of humanity; a baby refugee to teenage parents.
We are fragile – but we have a mighty God who became fragile for our sakes.
Depression strips us of strength – We Are Fragile – but God is our Spirit of strength.