Depression attacks hope and relationships, it throttles appetite and energy; it muddies thoughts and demolishes confidence. And it will destroy faith in a good God given half a chance. I know from long and painful personal experience the way depression can make a person think God is hateful, judgemental and distant- if in fact he exists at all. I know depression can urge you to conclude your failings are too great to overcome even by a loving, self-sacrificing God, that your inability to serve the poor- you are barely able to brush your own teeth some days- is evidence your faith is hollow hypocrisy. But I also know faith can survive depression. Here I am: a Christian! Here are ten ways to give your relationship with God a fighting chance at survival through dark times:
- Challenge your thoughts
One of the reasons it is so exhausting to be depressed is that you have to be constantly arguing with your own inner monologue. But argue you must, because your depressed mind will tell you all kinds of lies: God doesn’t love me, or even like me. God is cruel and distant. I am beyond salvation. I am very likely possessed by demons, or perhaps the devil himself. As often as you can, choose not to listen to them. Choose not to accept them. John Newton, author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ wrote this to his friend the poet John Cowper who suffered terrible bouts of depression and had survived numerous suicide attempts: ‘Doubt your despairing thoughts. Who do you think you are to make final declarations about your soul that lie hidden in the secrets of the Almighty? No. No. Renounce such confidence. If you have no ability for faith in the love of God for you, make no more such great pretences to have such certainty of faith in your damnation. This is not yours to know. Rather, yours is to listen to Jesus.’
- Access medical help
Identifying depression as a medical condition rather than spiritual weakness is key to our faith’s survival. Prayer, in isolation, is not the best way to treat any illness, mental illness included. It took me several years to accept I needed professional help. I was finally persuaded by Thena Ayres, the Dean while I was at Regent, that although I was coping much as I might manage life with one arm, two would surely be better and perfectly achievable with the right treatment. I ended up seeing a psychiatrist for three years and I’ve been taking medication for over ten. The combination brought more healing than I would have dreamed possible.
- Let God carry the relationship
When we are healthy and well, we can make the mistake of thinking our relationship with God relies almost entirely on the effort we put into prayer, Bible reading, church going, service and so on. Depression can dismantle every ramification we’ve put in place to grow in faith and leave us as dependant as newborns on God’s care. That is uncomfortable, frightening and humbling. But I can testify that every time I’ve been unable to hold up my end of the relationship, God has held things together. We need to be as gentle and kind to ourselves as God is when we are low. There will come a time when we can manage more than weepy, monosyllabic, God-ward groans but while we are just surviving, God holds us close and expects little in return.
- Stay connected to your Christian community
While there is a clear biblical call for Christians to meet regularly for teaching, worship, and mutual encouragement, attending a church service can be beyond endurance for someone in the depths of depression. There are too many people in one place; there is a high risk of one or more of these people being too kind and making you cry, or saying something damaging and making you cry, or ignoring you and making you cry even more; you can’t go in your pyjamas and take a blanket to hide under; you are almost guaranteed to come away with the impression that you are the only Christian in the building who hasn’t got it all together.
However as we all know, church is not a building and church is not a Sunday service. Church is the body of Christ, a community of believers, a family. There are plenty of ways to stay connected even if we can’t face the big get- togethers. The old illustration of the burning coal that grows cold when set on the hearth is echoed in the dying faith of many a Christian who has chosen to go it alone. It’s tempting to blame the church, its leaders, its lack of pastoral care and missing theology of suffering when someone with depression falls through the cracks, but it works both ways. We need to fight our inclination to disappear and do what we can to stay present.
- Pray Psalms
The psalms are a priceless gift to Christians in a dark place. They give us words when we are free falling through a silent void, a way to express our sense of abandonment to God. They give us a vent for our disillusionment and anger and allow us to voice our most profound doubts. And then they anchor us to the experienced truth of God’s love, God’s faithfulness, God’s steadfastness, God’s presence. When you can’t pray, pray Psalms. You could start with Psalm 6: ‘My soul is in deep anguish…my eyes grow weak with sorrow. Turn LORD and deliver me; save me because of your unending love.’
Jo Swinney wrote her first book, Through the Dark Woods, about her experience of depression. She is an author, editor and speaker and lives with her family in Bath. She blogs at www.joswinney.com