Some initial thoughts on depression

I read Spurgeon’s observations on depression today. He took portions of Psalm 23 and took the reader through a journey through the psalm. Each portion of the psalm paralleled a phase in the journey from despair to joy. Spurgeon immersed the despondent soul through each step of the Psalmist’s journey. Here is his paraphrased translation, which captures beautifully the sentiment of the author:

Yea, though I walk through the valley shaded by the mysterious wings of death, and though I know nothing of my way, and cannot understand it, yet will I fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thou knowest the way that I take. There are no mysteries with my God. Thou hast the thread of this labyrinth, and Thou wilt surely lead me through. Why should I fear? Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Gloom, danger, mystery, these three all vanish when faith lights up her heavenly lamp trimmed with the golden oil of promise.

He observed that at times men are driven to loneliness where his loyalty to God is tested.

Spurgeon concluded with this short story:

I have read of a little boy who was on board a vessel buffeted by the storm, and everyone was afraid, knowing that the ship was in grave danger. There was not a sailor on board, certainly not a passenger, who was not alarmed. This boy, however, was perfectly happy, and was rather amused than frightened by the tossing of the ship. They asked him why he was so happy at such a time. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘my father is the captain. He knows how to manage.’

The great Baptist preacher noted that there is a supernatural trust between child and father. The child, though tossed to and fro, still maintains an almost supernatural trust in his father’s ability to protect and direct his life. This type of trust needs to be categorized as a divine trust.

Spurgeon himself underwent profound depression in his early life. The story is told that when he was a preacher at the age of 18 someone in the crowd shouted ‘fire’! The congregation exited the building quickly and in the process one young lady was trampled by the crowd. Her death, it is said, led Spurgeon through prolonged periods of depression. He was largely absent from the pulpit ministry of his congregation.

One can hardly imagine that the greatest Londoner in evangelical history struggled with severe bouts of depression. That episode, in fact, was the valley that Spurgeon walked before becoming the evangelical titan as he is known today. Depression is no respecter of persons. Whether it is referred to “hell on earth,” or “the dark night of the soul,” depression happens and when it does we need to be prepared to deal with it wisely and graciously.  Here are some practical and initial steps in dealing with those near you who reveal the outward manifestations of depression:

First, don’t overwhelm them with words. There is no remedy that works with everyone. Pet remedies to cure depression or cliches that we hear so often do nothing more than accentuate the problem and possibly end the possibility of further progress. It’s important to keep in mind that depressed people are not looking for quick tips on getting over depression. For many, to be depressed is the only place they have been for years and to offer quick solutions is to offend the history that has shaped this individual’s life and led him to this situation.

Second, and this seems very simple, but profoundly fruitful: talk less, listen more. Depressed people have unique stories; these stories need to be told and someone will need to be there to hear them. The story of Job’s friends in Job 2:11-12 who stayed with him for seven days in silence is a remarkable testimony to the nature of dealing with pain. The rest of the story changes our view of Job’s friends, but it’s important to affirm that their silence echoed an important truth. The truth is that to listen is more difficult than to offer our supposed quick fixes.

I once knew a man during my theological training who believed he could  fix his mother’s problems. His mother was in profound pain after the death of her husband. This fellow student thought he had the theology to fix the situation. But every time he tried he only made matters worse. He failed to understand that his mother was not interested in solutions, she was interested in grieving her loss. He should have listened to her, cried with her, and taken her pain as his own.

The sooner we learn this lesson the better. We live in an age where depression is increasing at a rapid rate. Technology, relationships, a world where money moves quickly and where bankruptcy can be declared the day after you gained tremendous wealth, all these things make depression a reality in the lives of many people. This is not to say that some people mistake sadness or sorrow for depression, this happens often I would assume. Some rush to attach a title to their woes to validate their emotions. But we must remember that in most cases depression tears down the life of those closest to us and we must be prepared to be the embodiment of the first aid kit with wisdom, love, care, and tenderness.

Someone depressed may have been the protagonist to their own story of depression, or they may have bee recipient to the excruciating pain that seems to never go away. But you don’t have to know why a person is in pain in order to show mercy. God shows mercy, whether our troubles are caused by ourselves or someone else. a

Finally–and so much more can be said about this–be prepared to go through this process of healing for the long haul. Depression does not generally cease in a day or a week, but may take months or years to overcome. Be patient. Stay active in the person’s life. Read to them. Call them. Text them. Pray with them when they cannot pray for themselves. Encourage walks. Do not allow the slowness of the process to discourage you from persevering. When a strong relationship has been established, when the one depressed understands that you are a friend and not a foe, then be prepared to be honest about details that need to be worked on.

David Powlison once told the following story:

A thirty-five-year-old man had struggled with depression for almost a year, and it was beginning to show in his physical appearance. When he came to church he was unwashed and unkempt, and, as a result of his indifference, his clothes where so mismatched that they called attention to him. Everyone at church saw these outward signs, but no one said anything because he was “clinically depressed.” Yet one friend who saw him on a particular Sunday was loving and honest. You look horrible! Your hair is a mess, you are gaining weight, and your clothes look like you are a street person. Tomorrow I am going to pick you up at 9:00 in the morning. I’m going to take you to the barbershop, then we are going to go clothes shopping.

The depressed person later stated that that comment of concern was what marked the turning point in his life.

That comment made  a difference because of an established relationship of trust. Depression is pain. Those who suffer in depression need to see that their situation is not beyond hope. And you are the embodiment of that hope to him. Be that hope. Show that hope. And live that hope to him. In God’s grace he will learn to live his days in the house of the Lord forever.

  1. See David Powlison on depression; Journal of Biblical Counseling  (back)
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