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.

Opportunites for the Overwhelmed

“Hear my cry, O God; attend to my prayer. From the end of the earth I will cry to You, when my heart is overwhelmed; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” (Psalm 61:1–2)

The Psalms are filled with comforting promises and convicting precepts.  The more adversity and affliction we face, the greater the need for the Psalms.  We have opportunity to see that truly no temptations have overtaken us except those which are common to man (1 Corinthians 10.13).  If God was faithful when David was overwhelmed, then He will be faithful when we are overwhelmed.  We need refuge and relief.

Life presents plenty of opportunities for you to feel overwhelmed.

We are overwhelmed by the difficulties of this life. 

David faced plenty of these difficulties.  Think of the overwhelming feelings when his son, Absalom, rebelled against him and was killed.  David was moved deeply.  Overwhelmed, he cried bitterly, “O my son Absalom – my son, my son Absalom – if only I had died in your place!  O Absalom my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18.33).  Physical pain is also overwhelming.  If it is constant, it will wear you down and leave you feeling overwhelmed with depression.  I’ve had other times in my life when I’ve been caught in a lie or some other embarrassing situation.  Even though God forgives, I’ll think back on those times and cringe.  Sometimes we are so caught up in our past regrets, we are overwhelmed.  My relationship with Jesus Christ gives me victory over these over difficulties in life, but I often find myself just settling for getting by day to day.  I just sort of become resigned to feeling overwhelmed.  The goal is to grow closer to God when I am overwhelmed.  The difficulties of life tend to leave us overwhelmed; it becomes a way of life.

We are overwhelmed by the battles in our inner lives. 

My sin is always before me.  God convinces me to confess it and move on toward the mark set before me.  However, often the pangs of conviction leave me in deep anguish.  If I did not understand the mercy and hope God offers, I truly would have destroyed myself long ago.  I look at the inward condition of my soul at times and say, “O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7.24)  Add to this that I feel God is so far away.  Sometimes “my soul refuses to be comforted” (Psalm 77.2) and my spirit is overwhelmed (77.3).  Perhaps the Lord has cast me off forever (77.7).  Has his mercy ceased forever when it comes to me (77.8)?  Has He forgotten to be gracious to me (77.9)?  His anger toward me has stopped the flow of His tender compassion and mercy.  Of course, nothing is further from the truth, but it doesn’t change the way we feel.  Life presents external and internal opportunities for us to feel overwhelmed.

We are overwhelmed by the finality of death. 

I live under the constant prospect of death.  Of course, all of us do.  But I’m reminded of it daily.  My body has changed.  Cancer has crept in and made me aware of just how brief life truly is.  I struggle with the ability to maintain my schedule.  I feel overwhelmed.  There are times and seasons when I say with Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain …I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.  Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1.21-24).  Death holds no sting for the believer.  I welcome it in some respects.  It cannot come soon enough when my heart is overwhelmed!  However, deep depression and loneliness makes death dreadful.  Ungodly and ungrateful people die like animals; they have no understanding of eternity.  But we know the terrors of death’s finality.  Our hearts are severely pained within us.  The terrors of death fall upon us.  Fearfulness and trembling come and horror overwhelms.

The Lord presents plenty of opportunities for you escape being overwhelmed.

Prayer stabilizes life like nothing else can. 

When God sees that we are finally looking to Him alone for our strength and comfort, He is pleased.  We look to the Creator not His creation for these things.  No one else can help me.  No one else knows me.  The person I think will help me will eventually abandon me.  I fall …he falls.  We all perish together (see Isaiah 31.3; reminds me of “Ring Around the Rosie”).  But before the throne of God’s grace, I find Him answering before I call …hearing and acting before I speak (Isaiah 65.24).

Prayer will prolong my physical life in order to accomplish the will of God.  Prayer will deliver me from my rebellious spirit.  Prayer will stabilize my chaotic inner life.  “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (Jam 5.16).

God delivers us through prayer so that we might glorify Him.  He turns grief to joy in a season of prayer.  He gives peace through prayer.  “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6–7)

Prayer leads me to the Rock higher than I. 

Jesus Christ is the Rock.  He is sufficient to meet our every need.  If we really were convinced of that, we would pray.  We pray, “Lord God lead me to the Rock!”  The Rock upon which we have a secure foundation …the rock that crushes guilt, composes our thoughts, dissipates temptation …pours forth grace to go through affliction and wind up closer to God than we ever have been!  “Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I!”

I am sure that some readers cannot really relate to what I am writing, but the storms of life are coming.  You misunderstand Christianity if you think that you will always be in safe harbors and of sound mind and body just because you trust in Jesus Christ.  All of us are dying.  Life is very brief.  The best way to prepare for the inevitable is cling to the Rock higher than you.  The terror of judgment awaits us all.  The believer is judged for his life-work.  What is enduring and eternal?  What is vaporous and temporal?  Jesus Christ will declare it from His Bema Seat.

Other readers are overwhelmed by acute personal turmoil.  Realize that your natural tendency is to go to the creation rather than the Creator.  No pastor …no mother and father …no friend will stand in the place of God.  God is always faithful, and God will never fail you!  Overwhelming times present themselves to drive you to the Savior.  If you lived a constantly prosperous life, you would not see your need.  You would neglect the Lord Jesus.  As you mature in your relationship with Christ, you will recognize the purpose of affliction and be grateful for it.  There is great opportunity for the overwhelmed and great glory for the God of the overwhelmed.