A biblical strategy for alleviating depression or discouragement.
When we are hurting, whether it is debilitating physical pain or emotional affliction, such as severe depression, we are self-centered.
When depression envelops me, I usually think of others only in relation to what they can do for me. More than ever, I need their presence and affirmation. I want to know that they love and value me. Their strokes of my ego counter the constant self-recrimination that marks my depressive episodes. It’s downright difficult to express sensitivity and compassion to others when our own felt need for relief is so all-consuming.
Yet it isn’t impossible.
An Unexpected Call
Ed’s serious auto accident the year before resulted in a two-week hospital stay. Though 74, he worked part-time. The minor brain damage the accident caused left him permanently unable to work or to drive his car. While he was home convalescing from the accident, I called him once to let him know I was thinking of him and praying for him. Months later, he texted me and inquired about my physical and emotional health. He had long been aware of my insomnia and recurring episodes of depression.
“Take him to lunch!” commanded the inside whisper, which came out of the blue. “He needs a friend right now. He genuinely cares for you, but this is actually a call through which he is pleading for your concern and presence.” I had planned to keep working daily that week on a writing project, but believing the prompt came from God’s Spirit, instead I phoned Ed and said I wanted to take him to lunch. A couple of days later, I drove to his house in a neighboring town and took him to a restaurant for an unhurried chat.
I had asked the Lord for the capacity to listen well, to let him talk a lot more than me. When I probed about the aftermath of the accident, he lamented the lack of freedom due to the driving restriction. He wept when he described the difficult recovery, and how the policeman who covered the accident initially blamed him for it, which compounded his grief. A month passed before the accident investigator cleared him of any responsibility.
Ed kept thanking me for taking the time to visit him and paying for his lunch. He disclosed that few other people outside of immediate family members had reached out to him since the accident. Twice during the week that followed, he texted me to express his appreciation, effusive with his gratitude for my visit.
Ed didn’t realize how rough a week I was having when he originally texted and inquired about my health. Pain in my spine has ramped up, the shoulder replacement I had undergone six months earlier had not lessened the pain that prompted the surgery, and despondency had settled over me like dark, low-lying clouds weighted with rain. I didn’t initiate the lunch appointment because I felt like it. But by heeding God’s instructions, I later felt genuine joy over the fact that the time had meant so much to him. The time with Ed didn’t alleviate my physical symptoms, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say that I felt happier the remainder of the week.
I wonder who benefited more from the time together: Ed, or me?
Serving Ed in that relatively minor way wasn’t a natural thing for me to do. Yet the incident reminded me that successful Christian living is a supernatural endeavor. In Philippians 2:13, Paul asserted, “”It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” In Galatians 2:20, he reiterated our dependence on the Lord for Christ-honoring actions: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered Himself up for me.” God’s prompting and enablement resulted in obedience to Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interest of others.”
What the Lord prompted me to do in relation to Ed is the reverse of my normal self-preoccupation when I’m feeling down. It was a striking example of what I call grace-motivated effort.
Serving As an Antidote to Depression
The late pastor Bill Leslie discovered in glaring terms the despair-dissolving value of serving others. He told of a near breakdown he had, and how a spiritual mentor directed him to Isaiah 58:10-11. His study of these verses rescued him from a season of darkness, marked by feelings of exhaustion and burnout. “If you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday, and the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”
In When the Darkness Will Not Lift, John Piper tells Bill Leslie’s story and offered these concluding remarks:
“What struck Pastor Leslie so powerfully was the fact that if we pour ourselves out for others, God promised to make us like a ‘watered garden.’ That is, we will receive the water we need for refreshment and joy. He saw that God’s way of lifting gloom and turning it into light was to ‘pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted.'”
“God has made us to flourish by being spent for others. One of the causes of some people’s darkness is a slowly creeping self-absorption and small mindedness. And the cure may be the gradual embrace of a vision of life that is far greater than our present concerns.”
Relying on God’s Strength
How do we shift from a self-centered to an others-centered posture?
It isn’t easy for me, but the following suggestions have been helpful in shifting my focus from myself to others when I’m hurting.
- On days when pain wracks my my body or I’m emotionally downcast, I take a moment during my quiet time to ask the Lord to rescue me from self-absorption. I admit my egocentric mindset and plead with Him to make me sensitive to others whose pain or needs exceed mine. I recognize that serving others isn’t merely a human endeavor. I’m buoyed by the fact that the Lord provides the adequacy for me to do what I cannot do in my own strength.
- I claim the promise in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6: “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant.” Then the Holy Spirit instills in me the faith to believe that He can use me even in my weakness.
- I ask the Lord to provide answers to these questions:
*Who could use a call or a hand-written letter from me? (In a book on enhancing relationships, John Maxwell cited a study revealing the power of a hand-written letter. It is so rare to receive such a note that the positive emotional impact on the recipient exceeds that of a typed letter, an email, or even spoken words containing the same message!)
*Who in my church or wider sphere of influence is hospitalized and would be encouraged by a surprise visit from me?
*Who is a Christian leader (pastoral staff member, missionary, Bible study leader) who could use a note or call from me in which I complete this sentence: “I thank God for you because____________”)? Never underestimate the spiritual warfare that leaders face, especially those involved in evangelism and regular Bible teaching. What threatens Satan’s hold on people most is the sharing of the gospel and the faithful teaching of God’s Word.
- What need in a church ministry or in the community can I help meet? (A substitute teacher in a children’s class? A greeter who makes people feel special as soon as they enter the church foyer on Sunday morning? A volunteer cook for persons who are ill or homebound? A volunteer who delivers free meals for groups such as Meals on Wheels? Someone who temporarily fosters a dog who is waiting for a permanent placement through a local pet rescue organization?)
Your Personal Follow-through
What person, group, or venue of service came to mind as you read the previous questions? If you’re consumed by your pain or despondency this week, ask the Lord to spur you to action and to reveal to you what He wants you to do. Then listen for His inside whisper. You’ll discover that more positive feelings follow godly actions. We can’t wait for a spurt of happiness to prompt unselfish deeds.
I’ll close with a statement from Tim Keller that resonates with me: “The thing i remember from meeting truly gospel-humble persons is how much they seem to be totally interested in me. Because the essence of gospel humility is not thinking more or less of myself; it is thinking of myself less.”