A bad day at work? The children awake half the night? Failure in an important examination? The aftermath of influenza? Weeks of dull cloudy weather instead of warm spring sunshine? These and many other factors affect our feelings and, both for the believer and for the unbeliever, the tendency is the same – to feel depressed and irritable. All are affected by their circumstances and their general state of health, some more than others; those with deeply sensitive minds can be crushed by what others would hardly notice.
For the true believer the problem is compounded for he sees a standard of behaviour and a picture of life which has the Perfect Man at its centre. It is that Man of perfect life and holy thought whom he seeks to follow. His great exemplar is the Man whose inner reaction to circumstances was never sinful, never unbalanced. What, then, of the believer’s dark days and times of depression? Is it always sinful to feel cast down? Or do we excuse any and every miserable feeling by saying, ‘Well, it’s only natural’? Have we a tendency to self-pity which so easily engulfs us on our bad days? Is a feeling of panic simply unbelief? How are we to distinguish between the natural and the spiritual in our lives – or is that even possible?
There are very serious and difficult questions to be faced in this area of Christian experience and there are no simple and quick answers. To see someone overwhelmed by grief through a peculiarly sudden and bitter bereavement, like that of Job’s, and then to accuse him of being guilty of some great crime for which God is chastising him, is to be guilty of the worst unkindness. This most certainly is not the mind of Christ, who would weep with those who wept, and who calls His followers to do the same. To see a pale, utterly weak and depressed sufferer from pernicious anaemia, and to berate him for not having a strong faith, not spending enough time in prayer, or failing in his Christian witness, this is cruelty unworthy of any Christian and betrays a serious lack of understanding. To promise instant relief from all troubles of the mind by some ‘charismatic healing’ is yet another form of delusion in these sad days when it is known that one in six people in the United Kingdom will suffer some form of mental illness which needs medical treatment during the course of their lives.
The first question to be asked when feeling cast down or depressed is a very simple one. A question which arises from the fact that we live in a fallen world and are liable to all its many ailments. Am I suffering from a physical condition like anaemia or a duodenal
ulcer? The best place to get the right diagnosis and treatment for such ailments is a good doctor, who will make use of the knowledge and skill which our wise Creator has so kindly given to men of the medicaJ world. To insist that, ‘My trouble is wholly spiritual’ when the blood is so weak it cannot properly sustain the body or the mind, is folly. We are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ and Jesus insists that it is the sick who need a physician.
If there is no evident physical reason for a depressed mind then a second question must be asked. Is this a temporary condition produced by circumstances beyond my control? A sudden shock or bereavement? Grieving is a process which takes time but everyone passes through such experiences and, although reactions vary in intensity, almost everyone returns to a more quiet and happy state of mind; but it does take time, and such grieving hearts need comfort, sympathy, and love. Grieving believers need the consolation of the Holy Spirit who brings to the mind such thoughts as those of Jesus weeping with, and consoling, Mary and Martha in their time of grief.
Another frequent cause of depression is excessive fatigue. A tired body and a weary mind cries out for rest and sleep. If that is denied then so often depression will begin to crush a mind already weak and weary. There are times when it is much wiser to go to bed and sleep than try to drive a weary mind to long prayers and intense Bible study. The next morning, by God’s grace, will be the time to read and pray!
Constant strains, unresolved but pressing problems, long-continued mental activity (as in the case of students), strains within the family, affect believers just as they do unbelievers. Sometimes it seems all too much and the mind gives way or cannot be controlled in the way it usually is. Many will call it a nervous breakdown or some such vague title, but the poor sufferer knows not what to call it or how to describe it clearly. What then? Do your ‘friends’ say ‘pull yourself together’ or chide you for lack of faith? But already the hurt mind is accusing you of many more evils than just lack of faith. The present seems so dark and confused and the future well nigh impossible. Satan sees his opportunity and knows exactly when and low to accuse. Unreasonable fears invade the mind and ‘a wounded spirit who can bear?’ (Proverbs 18.14); or, as Job so pathetically expressed it, ‘Men groan from out of the city, and the soul of the wounded crieth out: yet God layeth not folly to them’ (24.12).
Two things are essential, and a third may be necessary in this situation. Firstly, the great goodness of a God whose compassions fail not; a God who brought David up from the horrible pit (the pit of noise). A God who gives His Holy Spirit as the divine Comforter,
Encourager, and Strengthener; a God whose love and pity are infinite and who has never changed.
Secondly, the blessing of God through His chosen means of healing; through rest, through relief from excessive strain or overwork or as Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Come ye apart and rest awhile’. This healing may come through the sympathetic, patient understanding of those who love you (and they will need much patience to bear with this infirmity); through the constant reassurance of those who have passed this way before and who can say again and again, ‘It will not always be like this, you will one day be better, the hurt mind can be healed and strengthened’. ‘Weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning’. It is only ‘for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations’. David could speak to himself with heavenly logic in a similar situation, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him who is the health of my countenance, and my God’. But the sadly depressed sometimes cannot use such heavenly logic nor any other kind of logic; they need much reassurance from their best friends as they remind the sufferer of the faithfulness of the never-changing heavenly Friend.
Thirdly, it may be that medical help is necessary. God has given medical skill to men so that broken bones can be made straight and strong, and there is no hesitation about X-rays, bone setting, and plaster of Paris in such cases. God has also given much skill to those who seek to heal the sick mind but so often there is suspicion and fear which prevents sufferers from asking for the help they so much need. It would be far safer and far wiser to consult an understanding pastor or a sympathetic doctor, especially a Christian doctor, if that is possible, than to suffer in silence. A man like the godly William Cowper was helped so much by his dear friend John Newton, though that help was limited. Had Cowper lived today, many of his worst symptoms probably could have been much relieved by chemical or electrical treatments.
Natural depression has a profound influence on the spiritual outlook of a true believer and it needs much care to distinguish between what is the result of this illness of the mind and what is truly a spiritual condition. None of the foregoing comments are intended to suggest that all the believer’s times of darkness are the result of a natural sickness of the mind. They are not. There is a darkness of the soul which is due to the hiding of God’s face. There is a grieving of the Spririt which causes Him to withdraw His gracious comforts. Sometimes there are sins to be repented of before the light returns and the same Holy Spirit who is grieved is the One who shows the sin that has caused the darkness. He also shows the darkened soul the
way back to the light through the precious blood of Christ which cleanses from all sin.
However, for reasons known only to our Sovereign Lord some of the most godly of the Lord’s children, in the time of faith’s testing, have said, ‘I cry and shout and he shutteth out my prayer’; ‘My way is hid from the Lord’, or with Asaph, have said, ‘Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more?’ But how slow many are to read on, ‘This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High. I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all thy work and tell of thy doings’. How good and honouring to the Lord it is to ‘remember’, to ‘meditate’, and to’tell’!
There are means which the Lord has so kindly provided for the relief of this soul’s grief and spiritual darkness. The preaching of the word, prayer, mutual encouragement, exhortation, repentance, casting all our care upon the One who so lovingly and faithfully cares for us. Pastors, strong believers, and churches are called to minister to such sufferers in their times of spiritual travail. Jesus knew the strain and sorrow through which the disciples were passing and would pass, and tenderly urges them, ‘Let not your heart be troubled, ye believe in God, believe also in me’.
Yes, the happy day will come when the troubled ones will say, ‘He brought me up also out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it and fear, and shall trust in the Lord.’ That blessed Comforter does come again to give healing and strength to the soul. He does witness with our spirits that we are the children of God, and blessed assurance is restored so that life can once again be lived to the glory of God.