The closer they are to one another, the more they thrive, the better they grow.
The togetherness they experience enables each one to withstand the inevitable assaults of adversaries. Literally, they support one another when threatening circumstances encroach.
Their individual health depends on the nutrients that others provide.
No, I’m not talking about Christians who develop close ties with other believers. (At least, not yet.) I’m referring to the largest, most enduring living things on earth.
Giant sequoia trees (also called “Redwoods”).
It isn’t unusual for a sequoia tree to live 2,000 years. A few reach 3,000 years in age. Some have grown as high as 350 feet, or the equivalent of a 30-story building. At least one giant sequoia has reached 25 feet in diameter. They grow better in close-knit groves. One reason is that when these trees drop cones, twigs, and bark, the subsequent decomposition by the soil’s organisms keeps returning nutrients to the soil, enabling the trees to keep growing even when rainfall is low.
The second reason they grow better in groves is the one that impresses me more.
You’d think that trees this tall and wide force their roots deep down into the earth. How else can they survive, and stand ramrod straight, after high winds and other forces of nature assail them?
But that is not the case. Sequoias just burrow anywhere from three to twelve feet down, not deep enough to support such monster trees. What is their secret?
Their equivalent of what Christians call “authentic fellowship.”
Instead of going far down, sequoia roots spread horizontally far from the tree, occasionally as far as 100 yards! So when the trees grow close together, those roots intertwine, wrapping around each other. By interlocking with the roots of several nearby trees, any given tree is much stronger, more stable, than it would be on its own.
What a picture of the absolute necessity of close relationships among God’s people, especially when stormy circumstances threaten our spiritual and emotional equilibrium!
In his commentary on spiritual gifts, in which he compared the church to the interdependence of the human body, Paul said, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:26-27). The scores of relational commands in the New Testament reveal the need for each other, especially admonitions to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), and “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 5:11).
When discouragement occurs, or even when we’re mired in a full-blown depressive episode, how can we intertwine with others, so we’re strong enough to withstand whatever threatens our stability and growth in the Lord? What can we do so our feeble roots don’t have to bear all the weight that’s causing our spirits to sag? The ways to apply the lesson of the redwood tree are myriad, but here are two that I heartily recommend.
Phone A Friend
A true friend is someone you can call at 3:00 a.m., and know without a doubt that he or she won’t mind being awakened. I don’t recall ever phoning a friend in the middle of the night, but I’ve certainly called their number on many occasions, when I couldn’t navigate the dark roads of a depressive episode alone.
Louise is a case in point.
She’s with the Lord now. She was old enough to be my mom. In fact, my wife loved her so much she called Louise her “South Carolina mom.” Though chronic pain kept Louise confined to her home for more than a decade before her homegoing, she coordinated our church’s prayer chain. She regularly interceded for our church’s staff, for the missionaries we support, and for anyone who called or visited her. When you asked her to pray, you didn’t doubt that she would follow through.
Louise twisted her strong roots of faith around my feeble roots to help me through the worst bout of depression I’ve ever faced. It lasted for about 18 months, 2002-03. Despondency settled over my spirit like a dark fog, especially on weekends when less structure and responsibility left me more vulnerable to despair. My wife’s prayers and words of encouragement often penetrated my darkness. More than once, during the most horrific weekends, Dolly took me on a drive to get me out of the house.
Yet I recall a particular Sunday afternoon when overwhelming hopelessness mingled with what felt like a panic attack, leaving me physically, mentally, and emotionally immobilized. After arriving home from church, I sat on my bed, grabbed my toes, started rocking back and forth, wondering how I could survive until bedtime, when sleep would finally bring relief from the despair. The thought of waiting 9-10 hours for sleep filled me with dread. I thought death would be preferable to the long wait.
Dolly knew I needed additional support. She dialed Louise’s number.
When Louise answered the phone, I cried and tried to describe the angst of my depression, and the panic I felt about facing the remainder of the day. Louise didn’t start with counsel. She just began praying aloud. For a long time, she pleaded with the Lord on my behalf, asking for His sustaining grace. Then she assured me of her love, and promised that she’d keep praying for me daily. This was the first of several such desperate calls to Louise during that 18-month span.
I’m not claiming that her prayers immediately yanked me out of the stupor, or left me rollicking with joy. I am saying that she, and the Lord to whom she appealed, held me up. She tapped into the Lord’s strength for me when I was too distraught to pray. Louise kept me from crashing down in the midst of the inner storm that battered my heart and mind. She was an older, more mature sequoia tree who resided close enough to me to interlock her roots with mine.
Do you have a Louise to call? Will you be a Louise for someone else going through a rough time?
Consult A Counselor
My most helpful counselor I’ve had is a devout Christian, with an advanced degree in psychology, who sees everything through the lens of a biblical worldview. (That’s the only kind of counselor I recommend.) What he has learned about human thought processes and behavior enables him to listen intelligently, to offer insights on the triggers for, and relational implications of, a major depressive episode. I probably saw him between 50-70 times over a six year period.
Tom didn’t cure me of depression, but he helped me to manage it better. For a long time I couldn’t identify direct benefits of the sessions. Yet gradually, things he said seeped into the creases of my mind and started to make sense, affecting how I responded to people and to circumstances.
He helped me to see that emotional scars remain, even decades after a traumatic experience of rejection, long after my resentment and anger had yielded to the God-given grace to forgive. He drew out the hurt and tears, explaining that the forgiveness we extend, which removes anger and bitterness, doesn’t always erase the pain. He revealed reasons in my background for what I call my “neediness,” yet nudged me to love others unconditionally, even when they do not return the same degree of affection. The past still affects me, yet it doesn’t have to control my behavior.
Tom also shed a bright beam of light on certain areas of temptation to sin. Though he asserted that my sin did not directly cause my depression, he admitted that I’m more vulnerable to certain sins when I’m downcast. He worked with me to identify situations and stressors that hurled me closer to the abyss of depression, or which ramped up temptation when experiencing despondency. He explained that certain temptations promise, falsely, an escape from the pain of depression.
Tom epitomized the fact that a counselor can serve as a means of God’s grace.
When it comes to finding a counselor to wrap my roots around, here’s my main point: a counselor’s capacity to help you may depend as much on you, as on his or her credentials and wisdom.
Please follow two tips I’ve learned the hard way. (After all, a redwood tree can’t just stand there. It must extend its roots before other trees’ roots can grab them!)
- Be brutally honest and transparent with your counselor, right from the start. Don’t withhold anything from your story. Don’t worry about whether he or she will disrespect you if you spill the unvarnished truth. (Chances are the counselor has heard a lot worse.) Don’t waste time and money pretending that you are more spiritual and mature than you are. Disclose past traumas, relational disputes, even sin patterns….anything that shows how you tick, or why you don’t. If you’re too proud to do this, you won’t benefit much from counseling. Who can help bear your burdens if you don’t reveal those burdens? (See Galatians 6:2.)
- Approach counseling sessions like you would a class with an esteemed professor. Yes, I realize that you may talk more than the counselor, yet prepare as if you’ll be tested on the sessions, on whatever you and the counselor say. For me, this includes taking notes of the interactions during each session, reviewing those notes before the next meeting, then jotting down questions to ask the counselor next time. Through questions, I either seek clarification of something he or she said, or get the counselor’s take on a new subject.
A godly counselor will help heal your heart, purifying your affections and motives, as well as help heal your mind, shaping how you think about what happens to you. Yet his or her help requires your willingness to extend your roots horizontally, trusting another person to interlock with you, to fuel your growth.
Phoning a friend and consulting a counselor won’t result in the lifespan or height of a giant redwood. Yet like those trees, perhaps you’ll stand more erect, better able to fend off the inevitable storms that slam into you.