A Psalmist’s Cry for the Depressed

sad man
Psalm 77 is among many psalms that are a voice for those of us struggling with depression and mental illness. Their words have comforted the saints throughout history, and they still speak for us today.

The darkness weighed on me like a wet blanket in the middle of winter. Relief was nowhere in sight. I was cold, stuck, and depleted.

I had long moved past the point of feeling anything. The only thing I felt was numbness — a non-feeling. Pain didn’t faze me. Good news didn’t penetrate my heart. Emotion was impossible for me at this point in the game — maybe because the tears had all been cried, lost down the drain of dreams, hope and happiness.

Depression wasn’t on my radar. I’d been a fairly happy child. I remember being sad about things, but for the most part, the world was bright. I didn’t have a depressed person in my acquaintance — or was I just ignorantly unaware?

But adulthood brought the sobering reality that my notion of the world was naïve. Suffering descended like a rite of passage, and depression slowly followed. I still remember my dad looking at my husband shortly after we were married (and shortly after our first of many bouts of suffering) and saying, “She wasn’t always this sad. This has changed her.”

I was changed. And I wasn’t going back to normal. I still haven’t.

Types of depression

In his book, “Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer From Depression,” Zach Eswine defines depression in three different ways: depression from circumstances, depression from constitution (biological depression), and spiritual depression (feeling deserted by God). There are times when all three are at play, but these are helpful categories to have because they help us pinpoint and live with the specific depression we are facing.

For some, depression is brought on by suffering, the weight staying long after the suffering ends. For others, there are biological, hormonal or chemical imbalances that contribute to depression. And for still others, it is a dark night of the soul, where the depression is owing to a perception that God is no longer near. Each of these manifestations of depression is hard to walk through, and none have an easy fix.

My depression is largely circumstantial. Life in a broken world has broken me, and even though my circumstances might change, the darkness these circumstances caused remains — like an unwanted houseguest who just doesn’t get the memo that it’s time to leave. It won’t ever leave now — it has grown too comfortable. Sometimes this houseguest sleeps, resting up for the next outburst, but this guest is never truly gone.

I used to think that what I had wasn’t true depression. I was still able to get up in the morning. I was able to do my job. I didn’t completely retreat into my own head. I didn’t have truly suicidal thoughts, or at least I thought they weren’t real enough to take seriously. (Pro tip: This is the problem with self-diagnosis.)

What I didn’t understand is that depression manifests differently in different people. For some, it takes the form of being paralyzed to move forward. For others, it hides behind the façade of busyness and self-sufficiency. Both scenarios are a cry for help — only one is obvious at first glance.

Likewise, as Eswine notes, depending on the category, depression will have different treatments, means of healing, and even understanding of how things ended up so bleak. We are served in defining depression in its categories, but also in its normalcy. These categories show us that there are many reasons a person may become depressed, and not one of them stems from sin (though we all can sin in response to our sadness). Defining depression helps us understand how multi-faceted a person and his or her experiences can be.

Learning to cope

There is a stigma attached to depression, especially in the Christian community. We are conditioned by Western Christianity to equate happiness with following Christ. We view prosperity and good times as a mark of faithfulness. We bristle at the notion that a person can trust God while also living under a cloud of sadness. We struggle with holding the tension between sadness and hope. This can be a hard load to bear for the already downtrodden soul.

Perhaps in our lowest moments, we are best helped by faithful examples of those who have walked the depressed road before us. Two giants of the Christian faith (and there are many more) faced a life of depression.

Charles Spurgeon, known for his fiery preaching and fruitful ministry, was a man under a dark cloud his entire adult life. His depression was largely owing to a tragedy he witnessed as a young preacher, making his depression largely circumstantial. But he also struggled with many physical ailments. His life was one of trial upon trial, both in his body and in his mind. In his darkest moments, Spurgeon found solace in the psalms. In his meditation on Psalm 88, which many consider to be the saddest psalm in the psalter, he says: “Terrors are upon me, they pursue my soul as the wind.” Yet in all this, Spurgeon is a man revered for his faith and trust in the Lord.

This leads to our second giant of the faith who also faced depression. King David was a man on the run for most of the early part of his life. He faced misunderstanding from his family (1 Samuel 17:28-52), betrayal by those he loved (2 Samuel 15-19), and even the weight of his own sin (Psalm 51). Because of his bouts of depression, we have some of the richest language in all the Word to help us walk through our own dark seasons.

The psalms have long been sung by God’s people in the throes of sadness. They are the language of the distressed, the heart cry of the anguished, and the familiar friend to the depressed. And while sometimes we go to them in praise, we also go to them to find comfort when the darkness will not lift.

Like Psalm 88, Psalm 77 is a dark psalm that ends with no resolution. In Psalm 77:3, the psalmist says, “When I remember God, I moan.” Even thinking about God leads him to despair.

The Bible isn’t surprised by or condemning of our depression. Instead, the Bible just is. It’s a calming presence when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a close friend when we need to see that God hasn’t left us. It holds our hand in depression and guides our prayers when we can barely eke out a whisper (Rom. 8:26-27). The Bible doesn’t promise depression will end, but it does promise to light our path in the darkness (Ps. 119:105).

So how do you cope when you can’t find light for the path? This is where psalms like Psalm 77 help us greatly. The author, Asaph, begins the psalm by acknowledging that he is in trouble (verse 2). He is in so much trouble that even though he is crying out to the Lord, the very remembrance of God makes him moan. But what helps us, the depressed sufferer, is that he calls it like it is. He doesn’t pretend all is well, or even shy away from telling God how he feels. He can’t sleep (verse 4). He can’t speak (verse 4). And even when he tries to do the normal things that can lead to gratitude, like remembering what God has done, he only has more questions. Will you forget me forever? Will you cease to show your love to me?

In your struggle with depression, do you ask hard questions of God? God is not surprised by our feelings and our deepest cries. He knows them already. Even in our darkness, we can keep going back to the God who is light (1 John 1:5), asking him to make that light dawn in us again.

There is a turning point in Psalm 77. It doesn’t turn to complete trust like other psalms of lament. But it does lead to a shift in perspective.

Then I said, “I will appeal to this,

to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;

yes, I will remember your wonders of old. (verses 10-11)

There are times when “our spirit makes a diligent search” (verse 6) and we come up short in our own lives. But there is also a long line of God’s mighty acts in Scripture and in history that we can appeal to in our fight for faith. This is what the psalmist does. He appeals to God’s works in history past, even if he can’t see God’s works in the present. It doesn’t remove his dark cloud of sorrow, but it does give him something to cling to. We can cling to it, too, because we are saved by the same God and given the same hope. We can remember what He has done in our salvation in Christ. We can remember what He has done for Christians throughout the centuries — Christians like Charles Spurgeon and King David. We can remember what He says He will still do. And we can wait on Him to do the same for us.

When will it end?

Depressed people commonly ask: “When is this all going to end?” Depression is sneaky. Even the moments of calm and sunshine can be misleading. They deceive you into thinking you have left the valley. There is brightness on the horizon. All you can see are trees and sunny days. But you can’t see your feet — which are about to take you over the edge into another valley — until it is too late. For many, depression is a lifelong roller coaster of unexpected dips and sudden turns that never makes it back to the station so you can unbuckle and exit the ride.

I know because I live with depression every day. A sunny day can be enjoyed only so much because I know a storm is brewing. The warmth of summer is clouded by the impending frigidity of winter. It’s a suffering that doesn’t always end in this life, and like the psalmist I wonder when God will act (Ps. 10:1).

But there is a hope for the Christian.

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.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:4-5)

This is not a trite or pat answer. This is an anchor on which to cast your weary soul. We cannot always find the cure or solution to depression in the immediate, but we can trust that there is a day coming when it will not plague us any longer. Depression has an end date, maybe not in this life, but most certainly in the one to come. Better days are coming.

And even when the darkness doesn’t lift, remember the psalmist of Psalm 77. He pressed forward even without the resolution. He continued coming back to the only One who could change his circumstances. He appealed to His unchanging character, and he remembered His works for all time. His testimony is our testimony. His prayer is our prayer. Through the bleakest of days, he reminds us that we are not alone, even when we can’t see the light.

Copyright 2020 Courtney Reissig. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Courtney Reissig

Courtney Reissig is a pastor’s wife, freelance writer and blogger. She has written for a variety of Christian websites including The Gospel Coalition and Her.meneutics. When she is not writing she enjoys running, reading, cooking and eating the fruits of her cooking labors. She is married to Daniel and is the mother of twin boys. They make their home in Little Rock, Ark.

 

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