Depression and Suffering

depressed-216x300Reformed Theology has spent much time and effort with practical counseling.  Among these counselors is Dr. David Powlison.  Here is a talk he gave at RTS.  Well worth an hour and a half of your time.  You don’t have to agree with RT to profit.  Here are the notes I took while listening:

William Styron in Darkness Visible:  Depression used to be known as melancholia.  Depression describes an economic decline or a rut in the road.  Depression is a true wimp of a word for such a major problem.  Adolf Meyer first assigned the term depression to what was formerly known as melancholia.  The term leaves little trace of malevolence and horrible intensity of what one goes through in such a dreadful and raging experience.  

People like simple explanations and definitive solutions, but depression eludes such a reductionist formula.

Armand Nicolai, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard

    

  • Biological problems can effect mood.  But there are many other causes for depression that are not biological.
  • What goes on neurologically with depression?  Does depression cause neurological changes or is there a biological problem that causes depression (chicken or egg).  Nicolai says that it cannot be known.  Depression is not always biologically determined.

Joseph Glenn Mullin – Prozac Backlash (Harvard professor)

    

  • Antidepressants are less effective and more dangerous if you use them over a long period of time.
  • Placebo effect – 2/3 as effective as the real drugs.
  • 75% of those receiving medication could receive much less than they are taking.

Stephen Hyman (Harvard professor)

   

  • Psychiatrists cannot give people what they really need – meaning, purpose, and relationships.

Christian make the same error.  Is depression sinful?  Is there a place where Scripture reproves sorrow, anguish, and despair?  Does it call these things sin?  The wisdom books gives voice to this experience.  It is an experience of suffering.  The Gospel addresses what is wrong with us (sin) and what is wrong in the world (suffering).

Many of the psalms address this human condition of anguish, heart-ache, and sorrow.  

”Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

Immorality is unruliness.  But depression belongs to the fainthearted and the weak.  Sinfulness can be tangled up with suffering, however.  We can fail and experience anguish and guilt.  This is a proper feeling if you’re accurately gauging true offenses.

There is a normal sorrow at betrayal and the destruction of some temporal hope.  But that can lead to suicide and other warped thinking.  It can reveal that we made an idol out of something or someone on this earth.

Depression is hard and messy with not simple explanation or fix.  Job felt great turmoil and great grief.  His sorrow and anguish attended his pursuit of the living God.  He was presumptuous and God corrected him.  There are many causes that are external and internal that lead us into temptation.

The Bible does not weigh all the factors and give you a comprehensive analysis or full explanation.  The Bible doesn’t attempt to give a scientific answer.  The complexity of depression eludes such a cut and dry method of diagnosis.

  • Psalm 31 – sorrow, grief, abandoned, forsaken, despised, desperate; I commit my spirit into your hands
  • Psalm 32 – my body is wasting away
  • Psalm 34 – many afflictions, all my troubles, all my fears – you fill in the details; what are your fears and troubles
  • Psalm 35 – bereavement to my soul
  • Psalm 38 – sick, in pain, crushed, burning, utterly weak
  • Psalm 40 – evils surround me, evils overcome me, my heart fails me
  • Psalm 42-43 – Why are you cast down, O my soul?  Why are you disquieted within me?

Go through whatever you have to in life in order to get to Jesus.

Psalm 25 – 

It’s ironic that David dealt treacherously without cause (Bathsheba and Uriah).  People dealt with him treacherously and without cause as well.  “Lord, when you think about me, remember Yourself.”  
Read Psalm 25 carefully.

Many do not see God in their struggle.  Many do not see their sin and idolatry.  Along with the struggle, you must see God’s invitation out of it.  Psalm 25 has three things that many sufferers do not have:

  1. No awareness of sinfulness
  2. No Lord – therefore not teaching on mercy and love
  3. No faith with any kind of substance to it

However, their are a number of things that tugs at the sufferer in the person:

  1. Acute sensitivity to the beauty of creation
  2. Camaraderie and fellowship with other believers; pleasure
  3. Great valuing of Christian friends
  4. Impulse to get straightened out spiritually – can be unformed but the longing or sense is there
  5. Responsive to the candor of another
  6. Awareness of weakness and essential need

Eight Questions Creating Direct Linkages into Ministry:

  1. Do I need help?  We need awareness that we need it.  One gives it and another receives it.  God gives it through believers.
  2. Do I trust you?  It’s hard to trust people.  But God is to be trusted.  The only one who is truly trustworthy is God.
  3. Will I be honest with you?
  4. Do you understand me?  Have you gotten enough into my life that you truly understand what I’m going through.  God understands us for certain.  God is merciful and filled with lovingkindness.  He is willing to teach sinners to walk in His ways.  Christ both suffered and gives aid to those who suffer.
  5. Will the person listen?
  6. Will the person take to heart what you are saying?
  7. Will the person act?  Faith must move to love.  Small obediences …one step at a time.  What is the next right step right now?
  8. Will I persevere?  Will one thing lead to the next thing?  

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Live in a dark hole or a wide world?  You can move from one to another through Jesus Christ.  It’s more than feeling better.  It’s about getting to Jesus Christ.  God gives us His Word and lends us His ears in Psalm 25 (Bonhoeffer).  The Holy Spirit blesses fruitful sowing of the Word of God – careful listening and good questions.

Lost in Wonder and in Praise

Why is relational evangelism so effective and cold evangelism very difficult? Why do some wives exuberantly express gratitude for their husbands while others are clearly disrespectful and soured over their relationships with their husbands? Why is it easier to love some of our children while others pose quite a challenge for us? Why do some people seem so zealous and effusive when it comes to their relationships with God while others are listless and apathetic?

Psalm 57.7 records the praise of David which reached the heart of God: “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and give praise …I will awaken the dawn …For Your mercy reaches unto the heavens” (Psalm 57.7-10). Why is David effusively praising God when he is being hunted by Saul and must find refuge in a cave? The positive nature of this psalm is reinforced by the refrain found in both vv. 5 and 11: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let Your glory be above all the earth” (Psalm 57.5, 11).

The Mercy and Truth of God

We learn to pray for God to be merciful to us on the basis of our dependence upon Him (Psalm 57.1). David does not depend upon his worthy hiding place in a cave. His refuge is in the shadow of God’s wings until calamities pass him by. David counts on the mercy of God wed with the truth of God (Psalm 57.3). Mercy without truth is leniency. Leniency is wed to deceit. Genuine praise is the only appropriate response to mercy which reaches into the heavens along with truth unto the clouds (Psalm 57.10).

David found a literal refuge at a temporal moment of crisis in his life. He praised God for it when he could have complained about the fact that he had to hide in the first place. David looked beyond his temporal need to see the glory of God in the mercy of God. The truth was that David deserved judgment as all sinful men do. Instead, God demonstrated mercy toward David and all mankind by sending His Son to die for us. Mercy is only possible when one understands the truth of God’s commitment to His justice. “Grace (positive blessing that we do not deserve or earn) and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17).

David trusted in the fact that God is both truthful and merciful. That led to the effusive praise we see here. It’s something that doesn’t just belong in our private prayer time. It’s a statement about our God that everyone needs to hear and see in our lives – both in word and deed! It binds us together as believers. It awakens our desire for God so that we may delight in God.

The Exaltation and Glory of God

There is only so much that one life can do to exalt and glorify God. David recognized this. So, he turned to God to exalt Himself above the heavens …to glorify Himself above all the earth. This is the spirit of Psalm 45 when the Psalmist calls upon God to ride prosperously. “Gird Your sword upon Your thigh, O Mighty One, with Your glory and Your majesty. And in Your majesty ride prosperously because of truth, humility, and righteousness; and Your right hand shall teach You awesome things” (Psalm 45.3-4).

Psalm 148 carries the same theme. The Psalmist calls all creation to praise the LORD. Angels, sun, moon, stars, the heaven of heavens, and waters above the heavens must praise Him. Sea creatures, fire, hail, snow, clouds, stormy winds, mountains, hills, fruitful trees, cedars, beasts, cattle, insects, birds, kings, people, princes, judges, young men and women, and older men and children – “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is exalted; His glory is above the earth and heaven” (Psalm 148.13).

Our prayer time must be a praise time as well. We must not only see the glory of God in life; it ought to be our driving desire to pray for recognition and realization when it comes to the glory of God in our specific lives.

If we are to glorify God, we must reflect His character to the world at large. Many times people speak of God’s goodness in a general sense; let us be specific. How was God good in your life today? Think of what you have in Christ even though you have sinned against Him numerous times. Think of how merciful He is. Think of the fact that He has drained the cup of God’s indignation toward sin and the sinner.

He has blessed you with His presence when you deserve alienation from Him. He answers your prayers daily. He provides mercy, grace, peace, access, hope, and love. He does so even when you choose to turn your back on Him. “Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy.”

We must understand the mercy of God firsthand. It’s not enough to see it in the lives of others. When we see God’s mercy and truth and how they are met together in Christ, we become truly lost in wonder and in praise. We are grateful; we adore Him! We express that gratitude and adoration differently, but it is expressed. We cannot help but express it! If we love someone, we want the whole world to know it. How much more so when it comes to our relationship with God! This is what Paul means when he writes, “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5.10). “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103.1-2)!

The exaltation of God is not our duty but our privilege! But it is something so overwhelming that we look to God to be effective in expressing it. “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let Your glory be above all the earth” (Psalm 57.11).

Relational evangelism is much more effective because people see God’s truth along with God’s mercy as we compassionately unfold the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Wives respond favorably to husbands because they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that their husbands love them. A child becomes the apple of a parent’s eye because of the reflection of Christlikeness found in the child. Christians serve God with zeal that boils over because they are overwhelmed by the mercy of God.

You might argue, “Well, we should evangelize even when we don’t feel like it. We should endure our relationship with our wives even when they are disrespectful. We should love our children even when they are unlovely. We ought to serve God even in the midst of confusion about His providence.” But I would say that that’s the wrong approach. It doesn’t need to be that way. There does not have to be a day that goes by where we are not filled with the Spirit and lost in wonder and in praise!

Prayer God Answers

We all have a desire to pray in such a way that we see God continuously working in our lives and answering our prayers.  I venture a guess that most Christians remained unsatisfied with their prayer lives.  There is a plethora of books which teach us how to pray effectively.  1 John 3 provides a foundational element to a prayer life that pleases God, but it is often overlooked. 

John reminds us that the children of God and the children of the devil are revealed by whether or not they practice righteousness (3.10).  Cain is typical of a child of the devil.  He brutally murdered his brother.  He did so because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous (3.12).  We brutally murder our brothers and sisters in Christ as well.  We are supposed to reveal to the world that we are children of God, but we often behave like children of the devil.  “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (3.15).

It seems clear that Christians often become bitter and hate other Christians.  They are still children of God but behave like children of the devil.  The eternal life they could enjoy is not abiding in them.  They are no longer influenced by the eternal life that they have as children of God.  They expect answers to prayer without dealing with their hatred or bitterness. 

We need to be reminded often of the extent to which Jesus Christ demonstrated His love toward us.  He laid down His life for us.  “And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (3.16b).  But how does the love of God abide in or influence us when we neglect to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ (3.17)?  If the love of God is not abiding in us, we will not please God with our prayer.  Instead we shut our hearts down when it comes to God’s love.  This is precisely why we fail to meet the need of another brother in Christ.

God Answers the Prayer of His Loving Children

Love is a verb.  We don’t just talk about love, but we actually love in deed and in truth (3.18).  Love is a work of God governed by the truth of God delivered to us in the Word of God.  Our obligation is to love sacrificially even as Jesus loved.  By this we know that we are of the truth, and our hearts will be confident before the Lord in prayer (3.19).  I can rest assured that God is not only pleased with my prayer, but that He answers my prayer!  How?  First, I decide to sacrificially love my brothers and sisters in Christ.

There are times when my heart condemns me (3.20).  There are other times when it doesn’t condemn me (3.21).  But God is greater than my heart or conscience.  He is all-knowing.  I must turn to the truth and conviction from the Spirit of God from the truth or Word of God.  If I confess the sin of failing to love my brother, He cleanses me from ALL unrighteousness.  Since that is true, I have confidence to come before the throne of grace and ask. 

God Answers the Prayer of His Obedient Children

“And whatever we ask we receive from [God], because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (3.22).  Secondly, prayer that pleases God is prayer from an obedient heart.  I endeavor to keep His commandments.  I don’t have because I often don’t ask.  I don’t ask because I don’t keep God’s commandments (see Psalm 34.15; 66.18).  “The effective prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5.16b).  Effective prayer comes from not only a ‘positionally’ righteous heart but from a practicing righteous heart.

God Answers the Prayer of His Believing Children

Specifically, we know God’s commandment as stated in 1 John 3:23:  And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. (1 John 3:23) Third, prayer that pleases God also believes.  We must believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scripture. 

If we keep God’s commandments, we abide in Him.  We are being influenced by Him.  But more than that, He abides in us.  We influence God through prayer (3.24).  All of this is enabled by the Holy Spirit and made possible by the person and work of Jesus Christ, our Lord.  The sovereign God is influenced by my prayer when I am loving, obedient, and believing.  This is prayer God answers.  What could be more important than that?

Do You Really Fear the LORD?

Who is the man that fears the Lord? Him shall He teach in the way He chooses. He himself shall dwell in prosperity, and his descendants shall inherit the earth. -Psalm 25:12–13

Psalm 25 generally teaches us that if we commit ourselves to God in prayer and cast our care upon Him, He will provide all the comfort and support we need.  The two verses above remind us of the blessing that belongs to those who fear the LORD.  But first…

What does a person who fears the LORD look like?  

Let’s suppose I ask, “Who in our church really fears the LORD?”  What particular person would come to mind?  We’re all Christians.  Christians are supposed to fear the LORD.  So it shouldn’t be too difficult.  But it is.  If we were to name someone, we ought to spend a lot of time with him or her.  They are promised the blessings of this passage.  What Christian does not want to be taught in the way God chooses?  Who doesn’t want to dwell in prosperity or goodness?

Look at your heart.  Check your conscience.  Do you fear the LORD?  If you do, come close to me.  I want to find what you’ve found.  “Who is the man that fears the LORD?”

  1. Do you respect God’s authority?  Do you know that all things are working toward a certain goal?  “When all things are made subject to [the Lord Jesus], then the Son Himself will also be subject to [God the Father] who put all things under [Jesus], that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15.28).  God is to be all in all; therefore, He must be respected and feared.  If you submit yourself to God’s authority, you fear Him.  Nobody who disregards the authority of God fears Him.
  2. Do you dread God’s displeasure?  Our sin is repugnant to God.  All of us have sinned and have, therefore, deserved the wrath of God.  What brought us to salvation was a realization that we deserved punishment …that we are not good.  Past sin provokes in us the need of God’s mercy.  It’s not that we think about our past activity with regret sometimes.  It’s more than that.  We are broken over our sin.  We know poignantly the displeasure of God.  We know what it is like to be without hope or peace in this world.  We feared the displeasure of God and found refuge in Jesus!
  3. Do you tirelessly pursue God’s will?  Every day, do you wake up and say, “God, I want your will to reign supreme in my life?”  Do you fear God enough to know that your own will destroys you?  You say, “Well, surely I’m going to blow it, Pastor O!”  But I’m not asking you if you’re perfect.  I’m asking if you are pressing toward the will of God!  I’m asking if you are pursuing the glory and joy of ministry in the will of God!

Now you might think that you’re a prime candidate for a person who fears the LORD.  But do you really seek out the will of God daily?  Are you so determined to do the will of God that nothing distracts you from it – no hobby, pleasure, or person?  When someone shows you that you are not in the will of God, how does that work itself out for you?  Are you ready to humble yourself and obey?  Are you ready to face trial and struggle to have the will of God?  Well if you are a person who truly fears the LORD, here’s what God has in store for you…

What blessings are in store for those who fear the LORD?

  1. The LORD shall teach you in the way He chooses.  Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Once you receive Him, He empowers you by His Spirit to walk in Him.  “You shall be rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abound in it with thanksgiving” (Col 2.6-7).  Jesus said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’  Therefore, everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me” (John 6.45).  God “will guide [you] with [His] counsel, and afterward receive [you] to glory” (Psalm 73.24).
  2. You shall dwell in goodness.  Consider that you deserve the wrath of God but instead you shall dwell in prosperity.  Your sins are forgiven you.  You have been justified by your faith.  You shall have peace with God.  2013 holds challenges, trial, and temptations.  A retrospect over 2012 should indicate that had God not enabled you, you would have fallen to many temptations and discouragements.  They would have overwhelmed you.   “For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Timothy 1.12).  The LORD “will keep [you] in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on [Him], because he trusts in Him” (Isaiah 26.3).  “When He gives quietness, who then can make trouble?” (Job 34.29)  The NKJV has a marginal notation for prosperity.  It is literally goodness.  You shall dwell in goodness if you fear the LORD!

Who fears the LORD?  If you do, God will teach you in the way He chooses.  He will make you to dwell in goodness!  If you don’t, you will remain in the dark and dwell in that darkness until you do.  Let us labor this year for that which endures unto everlasting life …not for that which will perish.

Glittering Generality or Stimulating Specificity

“Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them” (Mark 11.24).

Prayer becomes arduous when viewed from a duty perspective.  How does one get to the place where prayer is valued as more necessary than physical food?  The crux of this verse is found in the word ‘believe’.  The miracle of faith and a supply of grace to obey fuels vibrant prayer lives. 

The verse indicates that we ought to have a sense of definiteness when we pray.  “Whatever things you ask…” means that I ought to have some ‘things’ to bring before the Lord.  “Believe that you receive them” communicates faith; we ought to count them as received already. 

It is good to consider what we shall ask of the Lord as we examine our motives.  The ‘things’ we ask for are specific things …specific people.  We ought to pray simply and specifically not with mock modesty and flowery, glittering generalities.  Our honest straightforward approach ought to be verbalized in our own words.  Abraham’s words are best for Abraham; our words are best for us.   

God will hear you when you pray because He has promised to hear you.  You won’t reach Heaven with harmonious logic and beauty in your prayer.  Shake off formalism and talk to God as a child speaks to his father.  Don’t allow the lips to move without the heart.  

Your Turn:  How do you define prayer?

Upon the Mercy of a Heavenly Court

Perhaps David wrote Psalm 25 while languishing in the desperate consequences (vv. 16-17) of his great iniquity (v. 11), namely the murder of a faithful man named Uriah.  David had Uriah killed to cover up the adultery with the man’s wife, Bathsheba.  The adultery resulted from an abuse of authority and the king’s own idleness.  And yet he prays the following in verses 6-7:

Remember, O Lord, Your tender mercies and Your lovingkindnesses, for they are from of old.  Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to Your mercy remember me,  for Your goodness’ sake, O Lord.

Remembering and Forgetting

David desires that God remember mercies and lovingkindnesses, but forget the sins of his youth and his transgressions.  “Remember me …forget my sin!”  Who wouldn’t want that outcome when it comes to prayer!

This is unadulterated boldness in prayer.  David prayed for an outpouring of God’s mercies and lovingkindnesses (note the plural) even though he had been disobedient and was suffering the consequences from it.  I don’t normally want to ask God’s blessing upon my life after I’ve sinned grievously; yet, that’s exactly what David is doing.

When you think about it, it makes sense.  After all, who needs mercies anyway?  Who is desperate for the lovingkindnesses of God once again?  The answer is those whom need it most …those who have sinned greatly and are so needy.  That’s good news for you and me!

Unchanging God

For I am the Lord, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.  -Malachi 3.6

The same could be said of us.  God hasn’t changed; therefore, we are not consumed (even though we deserve to be consumed).  The essence of mercy is that God does not give us what we deserve because His character is constant …He is governed by His compassion and lovingkindness.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.  – James 1.17

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.  – Romans 11.29

So if David asked God to remember former mercies and lovingkindnesses, we ought to ask for the same.  We ought to plead with Him that He will continue to grant them to us as individuals, families, and a church.

For the Lord will not forsake His people, for His great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you His people.  -1 Samuel 12.22

Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have.  For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’  – Hebrew 13.5

If Jesus loves you (and if He died for you, He loves you), you can rest assured that He will love you to the very end!  So, are you in deep distress?  Do you really think God has dismissed you from His presence?  Do you believe that He will not extend tender mercies and lovingkindnesses toward you once more?  Then, you don’t know much about His unchanging character.  Throw yourself upon the mercy of God’s heavenly court!