I had slept more than usual the previous night, so I couldn’t blame insomnia for the lethargy of mind, body and spirit that blanketed me last Thursday. It’s how depression often expresses itself.
A rank hopelessness. An all-consuming despair, which I often cannot link to any circumstance, that saps my motivation for necessary and important tasks. A pessimistic view of the future that promises further bodily decline, without the emotional reserves to accept it graciously and exhibit joy. I said it aloud: “Nothing matters!” That’s a common refrain that I mutter to myself on the worst days.
I flipped off the light in my office, closed the blinds, and reclined on the couch, avoiding the nagging of the stack of ungraded lesson plans on my desk. I had promised the students they’d get back their lessons the following day. But I figured the only thing I was going to accomplish that day was taking up space.
Then it happened. Certainly not for the first time, but I’m grateful for the timing. Without intentional effort on my part, God’s Spirit reminded me of Psalm 50:15: “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor me.”
“It’s yet another day of trouble,” I whispered to the Lord. “You say, ‘Call on Me,’ so that’s what I’m doing. Oh, You know full well that I don’t come because I’m spiritual, but because I’m not. Not as an indication of robust faith, for right now I think my faith is tottering on the brink of collapse. Yet what little faith I do have left, I’m choosing to put in You right now. You promise rescue, not from the harsh realities of living in a fallen world, but rescue in the sense of some type of intervention that sustains and uses me despite the dark mood. So I ask You to complete that intervention so my life and ministry honors You today. Enable me to accomplish what, in my own strength, will not get finished. This verse has prompted me to cry out to You hundreds of times over the years, and You never failed to be God, to do what I didn’t have the capacity to do apart from Your Spirit. I beg You, God, do it again. I’ll get up now, believing that Your power will eclipse my weakness.”
Lights back on. A cup of coffee to sip. Hours later, I had marked up all those lesson plans. I cannot say it was easy. No, I felt like a soldier weighted down with a backpack stuffed with supplies, lugging a heavy rifle, slogging through a field a foot deep in mud while wearing cumbersome boots. But I finished, and my comments to each student were thorough and practical. I even took a brief break as I graded, told a joke to a friend down the hall and asked another colleague in a nearby office about a prayer request he had given a few days before. That’s patently not what this introverted man is typically like when he’s mired in the slough of despondency.
I thanked the Lord for the ability to focus, in contrast to the first hour of the day when I sat in a stupor, immobilized by sadness. Then I asked Him to help those prisoners in my Bible teaching class (part of CIIU’s two-year A. A. degree in the local prison) to make the needed revisions and to enable them to teach His Word with great effectiveness.
I received help. He received glory.
As I reflected on last Thursday, I thought of a negative online review of my book Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement To Sustain God’s Servants, released in 2014. All other reviews of the book that I’ve read are very positive. It isn’t that I cannot take criticism as a communicator. More than once I’ve profited from practical suggestions by a critic. But if that reviewer were evaluating the scenario I previously gave you about last Thursday, he’d have problems with how I handled God’s Word.
In effect, he accused me of throwing Bible verses at complex problems, such as my depression. He labeled the practice of preaching memory verses to myself as an unrealistic way to address a troubling situation. He suggested that I memorize verses, and when I’m in need of anything, I expect the problem to dissipate by flinging a verse at it. He didn’t disparage all Scripture memorization, but he took an unfair jab at me by suggesting that the verses I cited in the book were used superficially and didn’t flow from who I am as a person. His exact words were, “Scripture memory is great when it works in the heart and becomes a part of who you are, but I don’t think that reciting its words is a fix-it-all.”
What follows is an excerpt from a chapter of Serve Strong on the encouraging promise of God’s presence. It’s one of the chapters where the reviewer said I used the Bible erroneously. You decide if this example (and the one I described from last Thursday) were incidences when I employed a memory verse in a flippant or inappropriate manner.
Reassurances of God’s presence come from direct quotes in Scripture attributed to the Lord. To an afflicted people He said, “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” (Isa. 41:10). After giving a disciple-making mandate to His followers, Jesus added, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). And the author of Hebrews comforted his readers with these words from the Lord: “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).
I recall a year-long span when a shroud of depression enveloped me (2003). Neither prayers nor Bible reading nor medical intervention loosened the vise-grip of despondency. The last thing I was mindful of was the presence of God. Yet I kept fulfilling my role as a professor at a biblical university, striving to remain faithful to my calling.
One particular day, as I walked across campus to my classroom, an inner voice taunted me: “If God wanted you to teach today, He’d give you the heart for it. Cancel your class and go home. He isn’t with you today. When is the last time you felt His presence, anyway!?”
Instantly, God’s Spirit projected on the screen of my mind biblical promises I had memorized, the same verses pledging His presence that I previously cited. After rehearsing the content of those verses, I addressed myself: “No, I don’t feel God’s presence today. But His Word, which insists He is with me, is far more reliable than my feelings! I choose to believe He’s with me and that He’ll enable me to teach, because He said so and He doesn’t lie!”
Did my despondent spirit evaporate entirely? No, but those promises buttressed my faith and enabled me to teach passionately that day on the subject matter. Quoting Scripture to myself doesn’t magically eradicate problems, yet the discipline sustains me and prompts me to take the next step through darkness rather than yield to unbelief.
Well, if that’s an example of throwing Scripture at problems, then I’m guilty as charged. I’ve been pitching God’s Word at my depression for decades, so at least I’ve had a long career on the mound. And when it came to the two occasions cited in this post, at least I threw strikes.
Flinging a verse at an obstacle is not a panacea. I said as much in the final paragraph of the book excerpt. But as long as we’re conscious of the verse’s context and the problem we throw it at is conceptually related, it’s nonetheless a vital discipline that taps into God’s gracious provision. Preaching a verse to myself offers sustenance, not a cure, for my depression.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to keep my arm loose. I might need to pitch again tomorrow.
When has a reminder of a biblical promise prompted you to pray, and kept you going when you felt like surrendering to the problem facing you? Let me hear from you.