In my high school cafeteria, I bit down on a hard morsel of food. I can’t imagine a bullet tearing through my cheeks hurting any worse. The food particle made a direct hit on an exposed nerve in a wisdom tooth with a large cavity. Screaming, I ran from the cafeteria.
For hours, until I saw a dentist, I endured mind-numbing, relentless pain. Believe me, that pain kicked out the usual things that roiled around in my mind on a school afternoon: friends, girls, school work, and baseball practice.
Significant pain of any kind typically results in self-preoccupation. That’s the first potential danger of depression.
1. Depression Spawns Self-Centeredness.
Usually, the negativity that accompanies depression is inward-focused: self-condemnation for weaknesses or failures; hopelessness in relation to personal goals; self-loathing due to the inability to control mood or to appropriate the joy that’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
It’s like an emotional toothache that makes concentrating on God or others more difficult.
Difficult, but not impossible!
Reversing this inward focus–the preoccupation with the pain–isn’t easy. But when I take the following steps, my mental lens shift at least a few degrees away from myself, toward other people.
*In a heartfelt prayer, I acknowledge my despair and it’s self-centeredness. I confess the selfishness, ask the Holy Spirit to fill me at that precise moment, and give me the capacity to think of others instead of myself. This prayer acknowledges that dealing with the effects of depression, even when sin hasn’t caused the despondency, nonetheless requires a spiritual battle.
*I phone, or write a note, to someone who needs encouraging. I sometimes ask the Lord to bring the appropriate person to mind. Even when I don’t feel compassion at that moment, I still express love to the person by striving to encourage him. I let him know I’m praying for him. (If I call, I pray for him over the phone.) I cite a trait he has modeled that I admire. I mention a specific way he has ministered to me.
Even if the act of encouragement doesn’t dispel my depression, I have the satisfaction of knowing that God used me and that for a few minutes at least, the despondency didn’t rule me. I am learning that I do not need to feel like serving in order to do it effectively. God honors my obedience, not how I feel.
2. Depression Engenders Doubts About Beliefs.
Despondency isn’t the only thing that fosters doubts about one’s faith. But a person spiraling downward in mood is more vulnerable to the erosion of confidence in long-held beliefs.
When we’re hurting, questions surface about God’s character. Does He love me? If He’s so powerful, why doesn’t He alleviate the pain? Is He there at all, or have I based my life on the greatest hoax ever perpetuated in the history of mankind? Our enemy, Satan, also takes advantage of these misgivings and fights hard to discredit the Lord and His Word.
When the foundation of my beliefs start to crack under the heavy weight of depression, here are a few things I tell myself or do.
(a) I tell myself that I cannot trust my vacillating emotions or thoughts when I’m smack dab in the middle of a depressive episode. When the dark mood lifts, the doubts may not persist.
(b) I review a realistic, biblical theology of suffering and acknowledge that afflictions of all kinds are par for the course when living in a fallen world. Christians aren’t immune. In fact, God’s Word promises suffering and indicates that God uses it for redemptive purposes: for our own development, and for His glory. Human suffering actually validates God’s Word. Here’s just a few of the pertinent verses:
*”The Lord is near to the brokenhearted” (Ps. 34:18). He assumes our hearts will break!
*”Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Ps. 34:19). Not even His promise to help (in the second half of this verse) negates the inevitability of afflictions.
*”In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
*”Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2). When, not if! Then in verses 3-4, we see the potential character benefits of adversity.
*”Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
*”Be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Also, consider the biblical stories of godly people who suffered not because they sinned, but in spite of their righteousness and commitment to the Lord. Job, Stephen, and the apostle Paul are three obvious examples. In Stephen and Paul’s cases, as with many of the churches in the New Testament, their suffering actually resulted in the spread of the gospel (Acts 8:1-4; Phil. 1:12-18).
The people who believe the health and wealth gospel, or who think God’s primary concern is their own comfort in this life, have a defective view of God’s means of grace, of the fallen nature of man, and of spiritual warfare. For one chapter of a book that gives a sound theology of suffering, read “These Inward Trails,” in James I. Packer’s classic, Knowing God. Packer is also known for this remark: “Too many of us expect God to give us on earth what He only promised for heaven.”
To reiterate, suffering–even if it takes the form of despondency–validates rather than erodes the reliability of God’s Word and the gospel. When we’re mired in a depressive episode, a more realistic, biblical perspective on suffering may alleviate doubts that surface.
Yet in relation to doubts, there is one thing I do to complement the first two reminders.
(c) I pore over books on apologetics that reveal the reasonableness of my faith.
Whether the author is Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Ravi Zacharias, Tim Keller, or another apologist, I read material that shows how Christianity passes the test of “legal proof,” or truth beyond a reasonable doubt. These thinkers encourage me because, though faith is essential, my faith is patently not unreasonable. In view of questions I had, the one book I’ve read that did the most to assuage my doubts was Strobel’s The Case For The Creator.
I’m not saying I was in a depressive episode when I first read the books. But when doubts surface due to despair, I peruse them again and review the significant ideas that I underlined or highlighted the first time around.
The Holy Spirit often uses such books to woo people to faith in Christ. But it is my contention that these kinds of books have an even greater ministry bolstering the faith and confidence of people who already know Christ.
Which of these two dangers have you or a loved one more often experienced?
Which suggestion that I made to deal with that danger resonated most with you? Why?
In my next post, I will share two more dangers of depression, and how to combat them.