The Hard Apprenticeship of Sorrow
“Beloved the objects we look at are distant, and we are near-sighted.”
I am a melancholic; a depressive. I am typically rather sad and in some cases deeply sorrowing.
I have never required hospitalization for depression or received a diagnosis. But most days I walk about with what I refer to as my dark or stubborn shadow. He sits on my shoulder and whispers destructive and damaging things in my ear. That is a typical day. And then there are the days when that little shadow gets especially wicked and I feel as though I am dragging behind me a rotting corpse. That is a disturbing image. But the sort of melancholy I am referring to is not a case of the blues on a Monday afternoon. Depression is a deeply damaging and oft times deadly malady.
I do have times of genuine happiness and joy that are not infrequent. I will from time-to-time have seasons of peace such that I begin to wonder whether the sadness will return. Inevitably though he finds his way back to me and perches on my shoulder.
That was difficult to write. As much as we have learned about depression and anxiety and as openly as these matters are talked about there is nevertheless a stigma attached to them which causes the sufferer no small amount of embarrassment. Even as a pastor who can relate to depression I find it easier to talk to someone about their cancer than about depression with someone living in the pit.
Those who do not suffer with depression or paralyzing anxiety simply cannot understand the ones who do. They cannot understand how the mind can be in a state where even the most delightful blessings cannot be recognized much less enjoyed. The light is shut out by shadow. They speak to the sufferer with what may be generally true statements and counsel but as ones who use a tool unskillfully: “Just pray. Why can’t you believe God’s promises? Don’t you trust the Lord?” Instead of being a source of comfort, like Job’s friends, they wield true statements in such way that they feel like a cudgel landing on an already bruised head.
In his memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, novelist William Styron laments the blandness of the word depression. He writes, “For over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.” Styron suggests a term like “Brainstorm” or some other “truly arresting designation” (p. 37).
What a blessing then that Scripture gives the people of God a great lexicon of sorrow as well as examples of those who walked in the thick darkness. Indeed, there is an entire book of the Bible entitled Lamentations and the poetry of Job illustrates the dagger-like pain of unremitting sorrow. The Psalmists put sorrow to music.
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.
When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint,’
then you scare me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than my bones.
I loathe my life; I would not live forever.
Leave me alone, for my days are a breath.
What is man, that you make so much of him,
and that you set your heart on him,
visit him every morning
and test him every moment?
How long will you not look away from me,
nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit?
The Bible also provides us with portraits of those who experienced times of deep depression and anxiety. There was a time when mighty Elijah wanted nothing more than to lay down and die. As we have seen, the Psalmists and Job drank deeply from the cup of sorrow. Jeremiah was The Weeping Prophet. Jonah’s ministry was often accompanied by times of despair.
How often do we contemplate the fact that Jesus knew what it was to walk in sorrow and anxiety? Of course Jesus’ times of despair were not due to nor did they result in sin. But the circumstances which pressed upon him were such that he was referred to as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He wept at a friend’s tomb. He mourned over the spiritual blindness of his people. He experienced grievous physical reactions in the Garden of Gethsemane. Does it comfort you to know that our Lord experienced the deepest sorts of anxiety and sorrow?
Think also of the Apostle Paul. He expressed a longing to go home to be with the Lord (Philippians 1:23). He juxtaposed the Lord’s good purpose of using him further for the sake of the churches with his own desire to depart and be with Christ. This seems to be more than simply a wholly positive function of his knowledge of the goodness of the Lord’s presence. It seems to me that Paul’s eagerness to gain heaven was also tied to the weariness caused by his sorrows and suffering.
Paul, who wrote to the Philippians that they should be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6) confessed to “the anxiety” he bore for caring for the churches. In fact he compared his anxiety for the churches to the pain he had experienced at the hands of torturers, shipwrecks, and threats from bandits (2 Corinthians 11:28).
Once when waiting to hear word about whether the Corinthian church had repented of their sin or remained steadfast in their rejection of him as their shepherd he fell into a time of despair that can only be described as depression. So great was his sorrow that the Apostle could not even fulfill his mission to take the gospel through the open door provided for him in Troas (2 Corinthians 2:12ff). Imagine all that Paul had endured over the years for the sake of the gospel. He had endured beatings and lashings and imprisonments and all manner of physical pain and depravation. And yet he kept preaching. But in the face of depression he collapsed and walked away from an open door the gospel.
Church history provides many examples of those who suffered from depression and anxiety. Martin Luther seemed to feel everything deeply. And because he seems to have never had an unarticulated thought we have records of his suffering from despair and sorrow.
In Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan wrote of the Slough of Despond, the Giant Despair, and Doubting Castle as ordinary impediments that every Christian must endure.
William Cowper, the great poet, hymn-writer, and friend of John Newton, suffered with such maddening depression that he made multiple attempts at suicide. Nevertheless, through those times of thick gloom he could write words of sublime consolation:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face
E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die:
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.
When this poor, lisping, stamm’ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save:
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save.
Of all the examples afforded by history the man who has been of most help to me is Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon was pastor of the world’s largest church at the time and one of the most famous men in England. He is the most prolific writer in the history of Christendom. His sermons were in such demand that for some years the transcripts were the largest weekly parcel to leave the coast of England on their way to be read by Christians around the world. His accomplishments in ministry which included an orphanage and school for pastors were so prolific that they boggle the mind.
Spurgeon also knew frequent times of melancholy so deep that he could be reduced to a heap on the floor. He was remarkably open about his struggle with depression especially for a man in Victorian England. For example in one sermon Spurgeon said, “I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” References to depression, sorrow, melancholy, etc pepper his sermons. He showed unusual insight into the various causes and “cures” for depression.
Knowing that many of the Lord’s servants have been afflicted with deep melancholy Spurgeon wrote:
“There are some true souls whom God loves who yet do not often enjoy a sunshiny day; they are very dark as to their hope and their joy, and some of them have perhaps, for months, lost the light of God’s countenance.”
Spurgeon did not berate the depressed or belittle their suffering. This is no doubt due in part to his own experience of affliction. But his empathy certainly owed also to his confidence in the Lord’s compassion:
“Some of you may be in great distress of mind, a distress out of which no fellow-creature can deliver you. You are poor nervous people at whom others often laugh. I can assure you that God will not laugh at you; he knows all about that sad complaint of yours, so I urge you to go to him, for the experience of many of us has taught us that, ‘the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.’”
The causes of depression are wide and varied. Much of my experience of depression has been the result of anxiety and shame. Shame is a tough one. There is a helpful role that shame can play in people’s lives. We refer to people who seem to have no boundaries on their behavior as shameless. Shameful acts ought to prompt godly sorrow and repentance.
But when God’s redeemed people continue to hear the loathsome accusations of shame the experience can be crushing. In my worst moments that little shadow on my shoulder whispers in my ears words that confirm my worst suspicions about myself; that I am a failure as a husband, a father, a pastor, and a friend.
My typical response to even the gentle correction of friends is not defensiveness but far greater self-recriminations and loathing. My mind quickly concludes that not only must the correction be valid but the truth of the matter must be much, much worse. My shortcoming must be the result of the fact that I am a rotten person. This response is like an involuntary reflex. My mind goes there before I even have a chance to breathe.
While serving in a difficult church my sorrow and anxiety were intensified. One evening I passed out in an elder meeting and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. In those few years there were days so dark that I would arrive home unable to speak; unable to think of anything but the pain. It was like stepping on a nail. In those moments every bit of reality was subsumed into the intensity of the wound.
By God’s grace, my wife Karen did not try to “fix” me. She did not try to argue me out of my pain. Yes, she would gently challenge my perspective and that is needed at times. But the best thing she did as I would collapse into my chair unable to feel anything but fear and sorrow was to open her Bible and begin to read to me from the Psalms.
The combination of the power of God’s Word and the tenderness of my wife’s care would begin to poke holes in the opaque shroud that had settled over me. Never underestimate the power of God’s living word to comfort the fearful and sorrowing soul. The Psalms continue to be my choicest place of refuge when the voice of shame shouts and the cloud of sorrow settles over my life.
I do not expect to be completely free of this affliction so long as I am on this side of the New Creation. I will continue to ask the Lord to take it away. But at this point it looks like that is not in his plan. What is more, I can tell this affliction has served some purpose in my life. I suspect that were it not for this painful thorn my sins would be far greater than they already are. Without the mitigating effect of sorrow and anxiety I think my pride, anger, greed, jealousy, and lust would all be far worse. In fact the sorrow and anxiety that accompany me daily may be the prime instrument the Lord has used to keep me from bringing reproach upon the name of Christ and his church.
Please don’t misunderstand. I do not have a romantic notion of depression and anxiety as though they are something I bear bravely or gladly. I do not like this affliction. When it flares my first response is never, “I thank you God for the wonderful test of my faith. Oh the wonderful things I will learn from this!” Nor do I stoically accept the great sorrow when it comes. I hate it. I hate every second of it. And while to this day I still persist in asking God why he chose this affliction for me to bear I am not completely blind to the necessary things he has done in me through it.
I can say this much for certain. This hard apprenticeship of sorrow has caused me to long for Christ’s appearing more than I otherwise would have. The promise that our returning Lord will wipe away every tear from our eyes is fuel for my desire for the New Creation. Christians who suffer from depression and anxiety tend to long for that home for which we were ultimately made.
I often exert great effort to make this world my home. But the only thing that restricts me from settling down too comfortably is my stubborn shadow. Nothing has humbled me or driven me to prayer and dependence upon Christ so much as depression and anxiety. And so in my best moments, even if through gritted teeth, I can say, “Thank you for this thorn.”
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:1-4)
Revelation 21 & 22
Christians Get Depressed Too by David Murray
Depression: Looking Up From The Stubborn Darkness by Ed Welch
Spiritual Depression: It’s Causes and Cure by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones