By Dr. Michelle Bengtson
A Review of a Book Teeming with Helpful Insights from a Doctor’s Personal Journey through Depression
Note: You will receive a special treat in this review. I close my very positive review with a section I label, “A Question That Lingers.” I sent the post to Dr. Bengtson before I posted it, and asked her to respond to my statements and questions posed in that section. Graciously, she did. At the end of this post I will show her replies and you’ll see her perspectives.
A good book informs you. A great book forms you.
Michelle’s Hope Prevails (Revell, 2016) packs the potential to change the lives of readers struggling with depression, so it’s a great book.
How would I describe her book?
*Thoroughly biblical. Chapters brim with Bible verses and theological perspectives.
*Personal and transparent. She doesn’t treat the subject academically, but within the framework of her own struggles with depression.
*Practical. In addition to her reliance on the special revelation of God’s Word and spiritual weapons such as prayer, Michelle adds other practical tips for preventing or handling episodes of depression. At the end of each chapter, she also adds a “Your Rx” section where she prescribes carryover ideas, questions for reflection, and specific verses to examine for application.
Points to Ponder
Here’s a list of subject areas or points she makes that I deem significant. It isn’t by any means a comprehensive coverage of her valuable insights.
*She explains depression, cites its main symptoms, and explains underlying causes such as genetics, chemistry, reactions to harsh life circumstances, and spiritual roots.
*She emphasizes that our enemy, Satan, takes advantage of a vulnerability to depression and whispers lies that exacerbate despondency.
*Though realistic about trials in a fallen world, Michelle insists that experiencing God’s joy is an attainable and desired state for God’s people.
*Her primary weapon against depression is the truth of God’s Word: knowing our identity in Christ; our forgiven status before God; our position as a child of God; viewing ourselves as the object of God’s unconditional love; our worth to Him as seen in doctrines such as redemption, and the ecstatic prospect of eternal life with Him in heaven.
*One chapter, “God Uses Our Pain,” shows how trials—even depression—can transform us and expand our ministries to others.
*Michelle believes that recurring bouts of depression are not inevitable for a believer. While admitting that depression is a complex condition that may require multiple approaches to recovery, she asserts, “Depression does not have to become a permanent way of life.” She adds, “The overwhelming experience of depression can become a little smudge in the rearview mirror as God builds a new heart and a different character.”
In addition to her primary reliance on biblical truth to combat depression, Michelle offers other ways to handle a dark mood:
*Listening to praise and worship music. At the end of every chapter, she includes a recommended playlist of music that uplifts her. She says, “Listening to praise and worship music helped me to hold on when it seemed my grip was failing.”
*Consider medication for temporary relief of severe symptoms.
*Take good care of your body through adequate rest, nutrition, and exercise.
*Engage with other people socially.
*Consistently practice the spiritual disciplines, or means of grace, so we tap into God’s strength daily.
*Though it is a spiritual discipline, she offers a separate section on heartfelt, honest prayer to God.
*Practice praise and gratitude, no matter what circumstances we’re facing.
I underlined far too many sentences to record here, but I’ll give you a few excerpts that resonated with me or that I deemed significant. I hope these excerpts whet your appetite for her book.
*”Only when I started to understand what depression does to us spiritually, as well as what it cannot do, and then started cooperating with God, did I finally begin to experience the chains of depression falling off.”
*”The thoughts that led to your depression are not your thoughts. They are thoughts offered to you by the enemy that you’ve come into agreement with. The enemy aims to keep us in a state of bondage and despair under a canopy of heaviness and oppression. Our enemy influences us primarily through our thoughts during situations in our lives.”
*”The majority of books written on the subject, as well as a majority of practitioners, ignore the spiritual side of depression. The spiritual battle is the reason more people aren’t effectively treated and why individuals experience recurrence after treatment.”
*”If you want freedom from depression, you have to decide you are ready to dispel some myths and lies and replace them with truth—God’s truth.”
*”I once thought that things like my family history and difficult life circumstances caused my depression. But that was before I understood the spiritual contributors to depression. Now I look at past situations and experiences as seeds of depression. How I responded would either provide fertile ground for those seeds to flourish or choke out the seeds before they took root.”
*In an affirmation of God’s presence, she asserted, “We are implicitly promised that we will go through difficult times, destructive times, painful times, times that will change the landscape of our lives forever, but we will not go through them alone.”
*”Satan uses three primary tactics to perpetuate our depression: to kill our joy, steal our peace, and destroy our identity in Christ.”
*”Depression can be perpetuated by focusing on ourselves. When we focus instead on others and their needs, our own pain is lessened.”
*Michelle quotes Ann Voskamp: “Peace isn’t the absence of the dark. Peace is the assurance of God’s presence in the midst of the dark.”
*”Satan always attacks the area in which God has called us to minister.”
*”Would you agree that the price paid for an object establishes its value? Christ paid the price of His life when He died on the cross to save us.”
*In reference to the secure destiny of heaven for believers, Michelle writes, “Depression makes it difficult to remember the assurance of our destiny. In the valley of depression, I couldn’t see past my pain to the glorious, joyful future God had for me.”
*””Considering suicide isn’t about wanting to die. It’s about wanting the pain to end.”
*”God never protects us from that which He will use to perfect us….He turns our biggest messes into our greatest messages.”
A Question that Lingers
I previously stated that Michelle believes that ongoing depression is not inevitable for a child of God. One of her remarks that I previously cited is this: “Depression does not have to become a permanent way of life.” The back jacket of the book says her approach to depression “offers not just the management of symptoms, but the hope of true release.”
Why do I hesitate to accept those statements without some reservations? I do believe God can and does free some folks permanently from the vise-grip of despondency. Apparently, Michelle is one of those persons.
Perhaps I hesitate because total victory over this nemesis has not been my experience, despite decades of fighting it. To believe that ongoing bouts of depression aren’t necessary for a child of God is admitting failure on my part. It’s saying that I haven’t fully appropriated God’s truth to my situation.
I’m willing to admit that Michelle may be correct, and I could be wrong. Perhaps I’m not fully appropriating the promises of God and my identity in Christ to stave off depressive episodes.
Admittedly, I struggle to reconcile the Bible’s emphasis that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s control with the sadness that accompanies a bout of depression. I’ve started reading the thick tome by Randy Alcorn, Happiness. I’m open to what the Lord wants to say to me on the subject. I’d be delighted if my future pilgrimage mimics that of Michelle and I’m able, by faith, to keep despondency at bay.
But these questions still roil around in my mind:
Could a continued vulnerability to depression—even an occasional downward spiral into darkness—actually be a means of God’s grace in the lives of some people? Is it conceivable that depression is for some a “thorn in the flesh” that keeps them humble, desperately dependent on God, and more likely to promote intimacy with Christ out of sheer necessity?
Is it legitimate to affirm, enthusiastically, that appropriation of God’s truth and other weapons can shorten the stay of a depressive episode, lower its intensity, and soften the symptoms without totally curing a person of it?
Can rock-ribbed faith in God and His resources coexist with at least occasional lapses into deep despondency?
Could God possibly get more glory from a temperamentally weak person who often wrestles with depression, yet remains loyal to Him and maintains a fruitful ministry in spite of it? Could others’ observation of how a believer handles bouts of depression with the weapons of faith actually make God look good and more faithful? After all, God told Paul that His “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
In 2014, Zack Eswine wrote Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those Who Suffer from Depression (Christian Focus). This is the most thorough treatment I’ve read on the recurring depression experienced by Charles Spurgeon (1834—1892), the renown English pastor (who, by God’s grace, remained extremely fruitful as a preacher and writer in spite of it).
Spurgeon’s belief—and experience–was that God’s grace relieves depression, but doesn’t always cure it. Here’s an excerpt of Spurgeon’s own words:
We do not profess that the religion of Christ will so thoroughly change a man as to take away from him all his natural tendencies. It will give the despairing something that will alleviate that despondency, but as long as that is caused by a low state of body, or a diseased mind, we do not profess that faith in Christ will totally remove it….Depression of spirit is no index of declining grace.
I acknowledge that Spurgeon’s viewpoint isn’t infallible, either.
Despite raising this question in my review of the book, I highly recommend Hope Prevails and nod in agreement with her reliance on God’s Word to help in the battle, whether or not that significant help results in a total cure. I’ve read a spate of books on depression, and Hope Prevails is currently at the top of my list.
Dr. Michelle Bengtson’s Website
Go to her website and you’ll find other resources, including her blog. You’ll see a reference to a Hope Prevails Bible Study, a companion to the book. Subscribe to her blog and receive a free booklet titled “How To Help A Depressed Loved One.”
Dr. Bengtson’s Response to My “A Question That Lingers” Section
Please remember: Dr. Bengtson is a greater expert on depression than I am, and thoroughly acquainted with God’s Word. Also, the fact that my concerns were expressed in the form of questions suggests that I am not necessarily certain myself of all the answers.
My Statement: I’d be delighted if my future pilgrimage mimics that of Michelle and I’m able, by faith, to keep despondency at bay.
Michelle: The enemy will ALWAYS seek to attack where he knows we are weak For those of us who have struggled with depression, I believe the enemy will try everything in His power to bring back bouts of despondency, but if we can recognize that, and then take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:3-5), we can live from a place of victory. But it is very hard work. We have between 50,000–70,000 thoughts a day. That is a lot to take captive!
My question: Could a continued vulnerability to depression–even an occasional downward spiral into darkiness–actually be a means of grace in the lives of some people?
Michelle: Given that 3 John 2 says, “Beloved, may you prosper and be in health even as your soul prospers,” I don’t believe the downward spiral itself is part of God’s grace BUT the fact that God can and promises to use our pain is a reflection of His grace.
My question: Is it conceivable that depression is for some a “thorn in the flesh” that keeps them humble, desperately dependent on God, and more likely to promote intimacy with Christ out of sheer necessity?
Michelle: Isaiah 61 promises that God will comfort the brokenhearted, proclaims that captives will be released, and calls for festive praise instead of despair. I cannot believe that God would allow depression to be some “thorn in the flesh.” That is not His best for us, although I do believe by His mercy and grace that He will allow depression to result in greater intimacy with Christ.
My question: Is it legitimate to affirm that appropriation of God’s truths and other weapons can shorten the stay of a depressive episode, lower its intensity, and soften the symptoms without totally curing a person of it?
Michelle: I intentionally didn’t use the word “cure” in my book, because I know the enemy always goes back to where we are weak. But if we know how to recognize him and his lies, and do the hard work of taking every thought captive and making it obedient to Christ, I do believe we can avoid the great depths of despair that depression can bring.
My question: Can rock-ribbed faith in God and His resources coexist with at least occasional lapses into deep despondency?
Michelle: Yes, because we are human and no matter how hard we try, no one takes EVERY thought captive, and our feelings are the outward manifestation of the thoughts we believe.
My question: Could God possibly get more glory from a temperamentally weak person who often wrestles with depression, yet remains loyal to Him and maintains a fruitful ministry in spite of it?
Michelle: Others will be attracted to the joy of the Lord, not depression, in our walk with the Lord.
My question: Could others’ observation of how a believer handles bouts of depression with the weapons of faith actually make God look good and more faithful? After all, God told Paul that His “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Michelle: The Holy Spirit, who reminds us of God’s truth, surely can operate in a depressed believer who uses weapons of faith. But the fruit is what holds the promise. If we are using our weapons, then the fruit will be a lessening of depression and an increased faith in the battle.
Thank you, Michelle. You’ve given me and my readers lots to think about. Keep on serving strong.