The Ups and Downs of a Depression-Pocked Day
You don’t want to get stuck on an elevator. You’re stranded in a tight space with folks you don’t know, in claustrophobic conditions, unsure how long you’ll wait for rescue, all the while hoping that the others used deodorant that morning.
But what if the power mechanism works, but goes haywire. Imagine it doesn’t stop on the designated floors, but instead keeps going all the way to the top floor, then descends down to the basement, then back up, ad infinitum, never stopping to let anyone on or off.
That’s similar to what I experienced emotionally and mentally on August 27. More mood highs and lows than I can remember in one day.
Scene 1 Early Morning
Leaving the bed for the bathroom, I felt weighted down. The heaviness of spirit seemed physical, as if I’d gained fifty pounds overnight. A slower gait, as if I were slogging through a swamp. Lethargy of mind, home to cobwebs far too numerous to sweep away (and to think I’m normally a “morning person”). Suffocating sadness, as if a dark fog obscured all the typical reasons to live and to work.
I showered, dressed, and drove to Columbia International University, functioning more like a robot programmed for mundane duties than a human being who looked forward to the day’s ministry.
Scene 2: Arrival At CIU
As I approached the door to my office building, I precariously carried files in one hand and used a cane with the other (due to recent knee surgery). As I opened the door, the files fell and contents scattered. Out loud–though no one was within earshot–agitation fueled coarse language that spewed from my lips. Then a computer glitch wouldn’t allow me to open my emails. I quickly discovered that verbally berating a computer does not motivate it to work better!
Impatience on steroids–that’s how I’d describe my attitude the first hour after arriving.
Then the self-condemnation began. I became the object of my own toxic language. I knew my overreactions were not compatible with my faith, much less my role as a Christian professor and writer. So in no uncertain terms I let myself know how immature I was, especially since it wasn’t the first time I had exhibited such unflattering symptoms of depression. Figuring I’d never be anywhere close to emotionally or spiritually whole, I muttered, “I want to die! Please, Lord, let it happen today!”
All this before 9:00 a. m., yet no adverse circumstance had occurred in previous days to spawn such attitudes and behavior. The melancholy mood….just was.
The elevator had descended all the way to the basement.
Scene 3: Mid-Morning
I stretched out on the couch in my office, hoping that closing my eyes and resting my body would assuage my turbulent spirit. The Holy Spirit immediately nudged me to confess my sin. I don’t consider the depressed mood a sin, but the impatience and coarse language–even if no one else but God heard the words–merited acknowledgement. Depression increases my vulnerability to certain sins, but doesn’t excuse them. I took comfort knowing that in God’s eyes, I was as clean as the wind-blown snow, because He promised forgiveness (1 John 1:9).
Then I wept as I begged God for His sustenance: “Please, Lord, rejuvenate my spirit. Give me strength to face the tasks of this day, and to do so with joy. Unless You help, there’s no hope for me.” That’s when words of encouragement that I had memorized from God’s Word flooded my troubled mind.
*”Behold, God is my Helper. The Lord is the sustainer of my soul” (Psalm 54:4).
*”Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
*”Call on Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me” (Psalm 50:15).
*”The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for Your compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul. ‘Therefore, I have hope in Him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him” (Lamentations 3:22-25).
I’ve never known my Master to disregard anyone’s desperate, heartfelt plea for help. For a while, stability returned and I studied for my afternoon class and for a conference where I’d speak in October. I sensed that the elevator was approaching the top floor.
Scene 4: First Class of the New School Year
That day marked the launch of my 38th and final year on the CIU faculty. In a “Communicating God’s Word” class, we experienced an extended get-acquainted time and I whetted their appetite for course content and assignments. How impressed I was by their obvious heart for Christ, as I heard several describe summer mission trips that were not required for their major at CIU. As this small group of students left the room, a couple of them thanked me for the session. There’s nothing like the enthusiasm of youth to shoo away my despair.
Exhilaration. That’s the word best describing how I felt when I got back to my office. I was beginning to think the elevator was stuck at the top floor, where there’s a glass enclosure allowing for a panoramic view of the outside beauty of a large city.
Scene 5: Rapid Descent
By late afternoon, physical exhaustion fueled discouragement again. Due to a history of blood clots, I can’t take the meds for low testosterone, which causes debilitating fatigue. I began feeling sorry for myself because my productivity later in the day typically nosedives. “How will I ever reach my writing goals? Where will I find the time and mental energy to finish prep for the October marriage conference I accepted in Vienna? What was I thinking–that I’m still 38 years old instead of 68?!” The more-severe-than-usual tiredness that day made death seem like a welcome relief.
The elevator swooped from the top to the bottom floor in record time. I eagerly anticipated going to sleep a few hours later, which would offer respite from my emotional as well as physical malady. A line from Shakespeare came to mind: “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.”
Scene 6: Musical Reprieve
Every couple months, on a day when depression clamps me in its vise-grip, I go online to watch a video of Ray Boltz singing my favorite song: “The Anchor Holds.” That’s how I ended Monday. The lyrics describe a storm that batters a ship and tears the sails, yet the anchor holds and keeps it afloat. The song acknowledges the reality of dark, stormy nights of the soul, yet stresses the presence and sustenance of the Lord during such times.
(Yes, I’m aware that after he wrote and produced this song, Boltz announced that he’s gay. But that doesn’t eclipse the truth of the lyrics or keep the song from filling up my empty spiritual and emotional tanks. I never hear the song without crying and worshipping the Lord and thanking Him that, despite the depression, He’s the anchor who keeps me afloat.)
The elevator started rising as I heard the song and whispered my thanksgiving to God. Some of the soothing Bible verses that I had preached to myself during the morning stay on the couch resurfaced, buoying my spirits yet again.
Reflections on the Day
1. Perhaps you’re thinking, “What a whiner! I think what you told yourself during the negative self-talk is the truth: you haven’t grown up! How can you call yourself a Christian leader and let depression get the best of you? Whatever happened to “taking thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5)? Not to mention the sins of word and attitude you exhibited after arriving at CIU. I wouldn’t want one of my children to take a class from you.”
My response? If you believe depression and Christian leadership should always be mutually-exclusive, try reading a biography of Charles Spurgeon, David Brainerd, or John Bunyan. I suppose those outrageously fruitful heroes of the past were spiritual infants, too. When it comes to the tendency for despondency, at least I’m in good company. And at least when I sin, by God’s convicting grace, I confess it. Can you say the same thing, or are you beyond the need for daily confession? (By the way, I wouldn’t want you as my pastor, either.)
2 In retrospect, I’m mulling over the timing of the rough day I had on August 27.
The first day of my final (and 38th) year on the faculty of CIU. I yearn to finish well, to give every class session my best shot. I’ve prayed for favor with the total of twenty-three students in my two classes, twenty of them I’m teaching for the first time.
The intensive marriage conference my wife and I will lead for several churches in Austria in October. This is a first-ever opportunity for leading workshops on this topic, with scores of preparation hours still ahead of me, plus efforts to apply some of what we’re preparing to my own 47-year marriage.
Could the timing indicate that spiritual warfare was involved in what went on inside me this past Monday? I’m not one who looks for a demon behind every bush, nor do I believe that the cause of every episode of depression is Satanic. But I have served long enough, and studied the issue of spiritual warfare often enough, to know that Satan often attacks either before or early on in new ministry ventures.
He opposes the teaching of God’s Word, which is a big part of both my classes this semester. And he opposes Christian marriages because their purpose is to depict Christ’s reconciling relationship with His church (Eph. 5:22-32). Satan hates Christ and His church. That’s why married Christians wear targets on their backs.
I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the enemy is using my vulnerability to despondency to wreck havoc in my heart and mind at this particular time. Like I tell others, if Satan doesn’t cause you much trouble, you probably aren’t much of a threat to him.
3. I’m pondering what constitutes victorious Christian living for a person diagnosed with chronic depression. Is it total elimination of dark moods, through claiming the promises of Scripture and appropriating all the aspects of our identity in Christ? Or, in spite of despondency, is it persevering in our walk with Christ and in the ministry to which He has called us?
Authors I deeply respect believe that total healing from depression is God’s goal for every believer. I don’t doubt that it can and has happened for some of God’s people. I’m just not ready to conclude that it is God’s will for total cessation of depression to mark every one of His melancholy children. Just as He doesn’t heal every believer of severe illness or physical disability, perhaps His divine curriculum for some emotionally-weak folks is to live with it in a way that makes Him look good and sufficient.
Could an ongoing vulnerability to depression actually be a means of God’s grace in the lives of some people, a “thorn in the flesh” that keeps them humble, desperately dependent on God, and more likely to stay intimate with Christ out of sheer necessity?
Is it legitimate to affirm that appropriation of God’s truth and other spiritual weapons can shorten the stay of a depressive episode, lower its intensity, and soften the symptoms without totally curing a person of it? Could God possibly get most glory from a person who often lapses into depression, yet remains loyal to Him and who maintains a fruitful ministry in spite of it?
If the elevator stayed at the top floor, would I miss out on experiencing the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9-10? God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Paul answered, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me….when I am weak, then I am strong.”
For you, in what area of weakness does God want to demonstrate His strength?
Despite the exhibition of my weakness in this story, how did I illustrate the efficacy of faith and spiritual weapons to sustain me?
What part of the article resonated most with you? Why?