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.

Cultivating a Life of Faith:  A Man of Promise – Genesis 21.1-21 (Pt 11)

We must read Abraham’s story with our own in mind.  What have we learned from his journey?  Those cultivating a life of faith must…

  1. …be set apart from the world, to God, and for His glory (Genesis 12.1-4).
  2. …begin with a proper perspective of God and upon godliness (Genesis 12.5-20).
  3. …deny self and choose the path of separation (Genesis 13.1-18).
  4. …be courageous enough to see beyond today and serve the King of Peace (Genesis 14.1-24).
  5. …persevere and imitate those who have already received the promises (Genesis 15.1-21).
  6. …refuse to compromise and live lives of conviction (Genesis 16.1-16).
  7. …be properly motivated for a daily commitment to God (Genesis 17.1-27).
  8. …develop intimacy with integrity in order to effectively intercede on the behalf of others (Genesis 18.1-33).
  9. …be intolerant of sin (Genesis 19.1-38).
  10. …acknowledge and confess carnality before our Heavenly Father (Genesis 20.1-18).

Genesis 21 brings us to the realization of a promise God had made to Abraham through the provision of a son, namely Isaac.  Yet Sarah’s solution through her handmaid Hagar and the subsequent birth of Ishmael continues to create problems.  Hagar and Ishmael are both driven away from the homestead and into the wilderness where God continues to provide for both.

Isaac:  The Promised Son (21.1-7)

God promised an heir all along.  He had asked, “Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18.14).  Now in clear, unmistakable terms God keeps His promise “as He had said”, “as He had spoken”, and at the set time “of which He had spoken.”

The Lord visited Sarah.  This marks a momentous event.  God will visit the children of Israel and look upon their affliction when they are in bondage in Egypt.  Luke 1.68 tells us that the Lord God of Israel “visited and redeemed His people.”  Later, after Jesus raises the widow’s son, great fear comes upon all, they glorify God and say, “…God has visited His people” (Luke 7.16).  The birth of Isaac points to an even greater birth:  “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given…” (Isaiah 9.6a).

This passage reveals that Sarah laughs a second time.  The first time she laughed, it was a nervous laughter years ago when God had revealed what He would do.  She laughs now out of sheer joy, and we laugh with her some four thousand years later.  When she asks the question, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?”  She acknowledges that only God could be at work in her life.  And, indeed, only God could be at work in delivering the promised son.

Sarah desired to see God work in her life, but she hardly believed it possible.  Sometimes it is easy for us to ignore the fact that God is at work in and through us.  Other times, we take credit for what He has done and strut in arrogant opposition to Him.  Be careful with this.  As James Dixon wrote, “We seldom consider that a request to see God work in our lives may be a request for testing and trial.”  This is exactly what happened to Sarah, and God made her laugh!

Ishmael:  The Parting Son (21.8-21)

Ishmael scoffed.  You won’t settle what is meant by this by merely studying the lexical meaning of the word.  Was Ishmael cruel toward Isaac?  Was he arrogantly asserting his own position as the oldest son and, therefore, the rightful heir?  Was he simply being immature, showing a lack of respect?  Whatever the answer, Ishmael simply did not understand his place in the house of Abraham.  It was also some form of persecution because Galatians 4.29 makes that clear.  Isaac was the heir and Ishmael was not.  So Sarah has Abraham send Ishmael and his mother away into the wilderness.  But God meets them both in their distress.  He will not only care for Hagar and her son; he will make good on His promise to make a great nation from Ishmael.

Sarah sinned when she gave Hagar to Abraham back in Genesis 16.  Abraham sinned by not leading Sarah and fostering security in the promises of God.  Ishmael sinned in scoffing at the plan of God.  Sin brings judgment.  When Hagar realized she carried Ishmael, she despised Sarah.  Things were never the same.  Abraham gave Sarah the power and discretion to handle the situation with Hagar.  So in a spirit of vindictiveness and retaliation, Sarah treated her without mercy for her insolence.

Sarah sought for a solution to a problem.  But because she acted independently of God, an avalanche of consequences came crushing down on Abraham’s family.  Sarah sought for blessing and happiness but found only struggle and misery.  Hagar had to return to Sarah, which must have really been a humbling experience.  She must submit again to Sarah, but she must have struggled to maintain a good relationship with her.  Now in Genesis 21 Sarah casts out Hagar and Ishmael for good.

Abraham was very displeased.  This was his son that had been cast out.  God had told Abraham in Genesis 17.20:  “I have blessed [Ishmael], and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly.  He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.”  And God would do exactly what He had promised.  Only Abraham could not be a part of Ishmael’s life.  Ishmael would have to be entirely entrusted to God.  God will use this event in Galatians 4 as a portrait for the salvation He now offers:

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband.” Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free (Galatians 4.21-31).

We are children of the freewoman.  Christians are similar to Isaac in that we experience supernatural birth.  We are a part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to mankind.  Unto us a Son is given!  We should not live as those enslaved.  As Ishmael persecuted Isaac, those according to the flesh persecute those according to the Spirit.  Those according to the flesh are true legalists.  They believe that what they do merits favor with God and will gain them an inheritance.  We should cast out the legalist from our assembly even as Abraham cast out Ishmael.  The legalist will not share in the inheritance with the legitimate sons and daughters of God.  Those who believe they can won’t!  But is it possible for a genuine Christian to revert to legalism?  Yes!  And when he or she does, they ought to be confronted.  They ought to repent and trust fully in Christ for sanctification as they did for justification.  We are children of faith not children of the flesh.

 1. Those born according to the flesh will persecute those born according to the Spirit.

We could not apply this text in Genesis 21 in this specific way if Paul did not do so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 4.  Genesis 21 is instructive in showing us the heart of man.  Those born according to the flesh will persecute those born according to the Spirit.  It will always be this way.  As a matter of fact, a Christian walking in the flesh (condition) even though he is in the Spirit (position) will often persecute his own brother or sister in Christ.

Anyone born according to the flesh or walking in the flesh just cannot endure the fact that anyone could walk according to the Spirit and be blessed and favored by God.  Jesus says in John 15.19:  “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”  That we call ourselves saints or elect ones in Christ is enough to provoke the hatred of the world.  Ishmael mocked Isaac.  Israel mocked the Christ.  Those in the flesh mock the true sons and daughters of God.  “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (1 Timothy 3.12).

 2. Those born according to the Spirit are true children of the promise.

We are justified by faith; therefore, we are no longer bound under the tutor (Galatians 3.24-25).  We are all sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  If we are Christ’s, then we are truly heirs of the promise (Galatians 3.29).  As children of the promise, we must escape the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Peter 1.4).  We must cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7.1).  As Christians we are empowered by the Holy Spirit of God to demonstrate the righteousness of the Son of God for the glory of God.  Anything short of this goal is not normal Christianity.  We must truly be Spirit-fed and Spirit-led Christians.  True Christians evidence the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  If they don’t, they will have no personal assurance that they are children.  We won’t be assured of that fact either.  There are always weeds among the stalks of wheat.

 3. Those who are sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father shall share together in the inheritance as saints of light.

Paul wrote:

For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light (Colossians 1.9-12).

Only the saints in the light are partakers of the Father’s inheritance.  He will cast out all others.  There is neither Jew nor Greek in God’s economy of grace.  All are one in Christ.  Anyone who refuses Christ will not participate in the inheritance which awaits us in Heaven above.  Those who stand on the promises will alone find a solid foundation for their hope, namely the confident expectation that Jesus is coming to take believers to be with Him forever!  What great assurance!  We will not be disinherited.  We cannot be.  We have so much in Christ!  There is so much yet in store for us.  It is simply unreasonable for us not to live for Him.

Parents must endeavor to keep their families together for the glory of God.

Every family is dysfunctional.  Dad acts like an imperial dictator.  Mom wallows in self-pity.  The children are lazy and rebellious.  Family members take one another for granted.  Children scoff and mock when it comes to their siblings.  Not much has changed in 4,000 years.  Our joy can turn to sorrow in a hurry.

As parents, we must endeavor to keep our families together in spite of all of this.  We must avoid rashness and unreasonable demands.  We must respond with the same compassion and mercy that governs our Heavenly Father when we sin against Him.  If we must correct our children, let us temper that correction with genuine prayer.  Let us not be extreme in our response.  We can be excessively permissive and excessively autocratic.  Both are hurtful.  Ask yourself, “What does the Scripture teach?”  Pray for discernment.

The most severe correction should be reserved for scoffing at the will of God in family life.  Meet children head-on when they don’t pay attention to and make fun of your Bible time together.  If they don’t take seriously the things of God, we cannot let it pass.  If they must pluck out an eye or cut off an arm to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so be it.  What we must be careful of is to make sure we don’t correct our children for our pleasure and convenience.  We cannot discipline our children in anger for this very reason.  It is not for our profit, but for His (and theirs)!

All of us who are sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father are secure.

Jesus said of His true disciples, “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10.28-29).

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.35-39).

It’s not the privileges in store.  It’s not the possessions we hold.  It’s the promises we have.  Rely on the promises of God.  Read the Bible not just for a list of duties before God and man; read it to receive the promises of your Heavenly Father.  Let this sink in as you read it:  The Son of God loved you and gave Himself for you (Galatians 2.20).

“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…” (Ephesians 2.19).

Cut to the Quick

Millard Erickson speaks of “individual eschatology” in Christian Theology.  Better to study last things and how they relate to one’s own personal life.  Study concerning the end of your life is confrontational.  You are confronted with your choices – good and bad.  You consider the high price of sin, the clear causes of suffering, and whether or not it was worth living the life you lived.

The Wages of Sin

The people of God in Lamentations 4 faced a bleak and brutal end.  Their desperation drove them to the very brink.  Children were neglected and worse.  The people had once donned scarlet finery, and they now are found embracing ash heaps (4.1-5).  Since they were the people of God and therefore highly culpable for their sinful choices, their end was torturous and painful (4.6 cp. w/ Luke 12.47-48).  Even the upper strata of society is brought low.  Once brighter than snow and whiter than milk, they are now blacker than soot (4.7-11).

God allowed this tragic end.  He fulfilled His fury and poured out his fierce indignation.  Every word in these opening verses is filled with misery and devoid of mercy.  This is the high cost of sin:  a face-to-face confrontation with one’s own end.  It’s our pit where there is no human hope of rescue in sight.  Isolated and alone we wonder what has led to all the suffering we are experiencing.

Two Causes for Suffering

The answer is found in the fact that we are sheep without a shepherd.  The religious leadership in our country is bereft of the spiritual discernment needed to lead.  Most are still optimistic and generally very positive about the outlook for our country.  They preach peace while all the while remain a cause of suffering.  They fail to bring people face to face with their sin and rebellion.

The kings of the earth, and all the inhabitants of the world, would not have believed that the adversary and the enemy could enter the gates of Jerusalem.  Because of the sins of the prophets and the iniquities of the priests, who shed in her midst the blood of the just.  – Lamentations 4.12-13

A second cause for the grief and pain that comes upon us is found in our inclination to trust in the creation rather than the Creator.  “Still our eyes failed us, watching vainly for our help; in our watching we watched for a nation that could not save us” (4.17).  “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17.5).

Unlikely Hope

Where’s the hope in that?  It’s found in the fact that in spite of gut-wrenching grief and pain, God will make it right.  Before the dawn of hope, one must identify the cost of sin and the causes of suffering.  You trace the rainbow through the rain.  As you consider your end as a child of God, consider also that guilt and culpability are gone.  Death has lost its sting!  Suffering is finished upon the cross of Christ!  God cuts to the quick so that we might become sensitive to the conclusion of our own story.