Who Am I . . . When I am Sad?

Who Am I . . . When I am Sad?

Psalm 42 & 43

Three years ago, I found myself in a difficult season of ministry. Nathan’s condition seemed at an all-time high, and weeks previous, I suffered my worst cycling accident resulting in a fractured pelvis and torn labium in my right hip socket.  One Sunday I came home from church, sat at our granite island in our kitchen, and said to Roimaw: “Life would be easier on everyone if I just died.” I meant what I said.  I was convinced that it would have been easier on everyone in my life if I was dead. 

I want to share with you five things that I have learned about depression and human emotions over the years based on my own personal experience and from those in my life who have suffered from depression:

  1. Depression is a deceiver that will make your problems and circumstances seem much bigger than they really are.
  2. Emotions cannot just be turned on and off like a light switch.
  3. How you feel is not always a reflection of reality or what is true.   
  4. Your ability to feel emotion is a gift from God and a part of your DNA as one who is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. 
  5. No emotion, good, bad, happy, or sad can last forever.   

We live in a broken world where things are not the way it should be.  We are also broken because like all of creation, we are under a curse, which is the curse of sin.  The longing of us all is peace because where peace is, so also is joy.  The word the Bible gives for the kind of peace that brings lasting joy is shalom, and it is this kind of peace we are made for.  One theologian explains: “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight…. Shalom… is the way things ought to be.”[1]  However, it is not the way things are.  Sin vandalizes shalom. 

Because things are not the way they ought to be, we experience sorrow.  Sometimes our sorrow can feel overwhelming, and sometimes that sorrow seems inescapable.  Sorrow, after time, can turn into depression.  Disease, unfulfilled expectations or dreams, death, broken relationships can all cause a deep and lasting sorrow that can turn into depression.  This kind of depression is known as situational depression.

There is another kind of depression that is known as clinical depression.  Clinical depression, also known as major depressive disorder, is more severe than situational depression because it often affects a person’s ability to function well.  Sometimes clinical depression is the result of an imbalance in levels of certain chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters.  Some of the triggers for clinical depression can include the following:

  • Genetic factors a person is born with or develops.
  • Major life events such as abuse and other forms of trauma.
  • Alcohol and drug dependence.

Millions of people suffer from clinical depression and almost all people experience situational depression at some point in life in one form or the other.  There are even examples of some very godly people who experienced depression in the Bible such as Elijah the prophet who, after God used him to miraculously out show the false prophets of Baal, he ran and hid in a cave convinced that he was the only prophet of God left on earth (see 1 Kings 19).  Or consider Job who lost just about everything and eventually thought it would have been better if he had never been born (see Job 3).  Another example is found in Jeremiah the “weeping prophet” who wrote out of a broken heart concerning God:

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago … though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. (Lamentations 3:1-8)

In other words, “Here I am… stuck in this horrible situation, and to top it off you have forgotten me God.”  Then Jeremiah cried: “…my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD’” (vv. 17-18).

In his book on suffering, Randy Alcorn writes, “Sadness, grief, and times of depression are part of life under the Curse; God gives us the resources, including his people, to move forward.”[2]  One of the resources we are given to help us work through our sadness and depression is in Psalm 139, but it is seen more clearly in Psalm 42-43 (which is really one song).

You Have Purpose

We already spent two weeks in Psalm 139 and what I am about to say, I have already said since we started this series.  However, I am going to say it again because we all need to hear it again and again: You are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.  Because you are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, your purpose is rooted in the following:

  1. You were made for a relationship with God.
  2. You were made for a community with God’s people.
  3. You were made for the purpose of serving within a community in God’s mission.

What this means is that you are valuable not because of what you can do or offer in life, but because of the God who has made you in his image.  What you will discover repeatedly in the Bible is that you are loved more than you can ever imagine even though all of us are broken and sinful human beings.  In fact, we are told that apex of God’s love for you and me is seen in the crucifixion of Jesus: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

If there is nothing guiding you in the darkness of your grief, sadness, or depression like a lighthouse to remind you that you exist for something greater than what you are feeling, you will be swallowed up by your grief.  There has got to be something outside of yourself that will guide you to the harbor of the reality that you are loved with an everlasting love by a God who “formed you and knitted you together in your mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). 

Here is the thing though: Depression is not an easy fix.  In Psalm 42-43, often, the way out of it is a process that involves at least three things listed by the Sons of Korah who experienced the despondency of the soul.

Remember Who You Are

As the deer pants for the flowing streams…”  The deer the Palmist is talking about here is not the one that finished running a race, ran a touchdown, or scored the winning goal in closely contested soccer game, and now longs for a nice cold bottle of Gatorade.  This deer is counting on the flowing stream because if he doesn’t get to it soon enough… he will die.  For the deer, he has to have the stream of flowing water because his life is dependent upon it.  The problem is that the deer arrives to place where he has satisfied his thirst before, but now when it seems to matter most… the riverbed is completely dry.  This is why the deer is panting, he is panting because the place that once held water, has not water. 

Like the panting deer, the Psalmist is thirsting for God, but does not find him.  He wants to see the face of God and experience the intimacy he once knew.  It is not that God has left him, however the Psalmist has lost the experience of God’s presence.  The Psalmist, like many of us, has wandered into a place of utter spiritual dryness… and is desperately thirsty for Him as though His life was dependent upon it because he lives for God.

The psalmist thirsts for God because that is where the soul is satisfied, but it seemed as though God was far from him.  Multiple times, the psalmist hears the taunts of the enemy: “Where is your God” (vv. 3, 10)?  The psalmist felt like God abandoned him, then finally cried out: “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me! For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy” (43:1-2).  It only took two times for the Psalmist to cave into the taunts of the enemy: “Where is your God?”  “Where is your God?”  Then the Psalmist responded to God: “Why have you abandoned me?”  In other words: What the Psalmist heard was: You are not loved, you are not loved!  Then he finally asked God: “Why don’t you love me?” 

So what does the Psalmist do?  He repeats something three times to remind himself of who God is: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall against praise him, my salvation and my God” (vv. 5, 11; 43:5).  Do you hear what he is doing?  He is preaching good news to his weary and doubting heart.  What sermon is the Psalmist preaching to his heart?  “You can hope in the God who is all knowing, always present, all-powerful, and because he is all of those things equally, he is eternally faithful.”  Can you hear what else he is telling his doubting heart?  He is reminding himself that because he was made for God, he will praise him again!    

Remember what I said: Depression is a deceiver, and one of its lies is that, “You are alone and no one cares about you.” 

Recall What is Real

Depression distorts just about everything around you as well as your experiences.  Studies have also shown that it even increases the intensity of pain.  Depression can also deceive you into thinking that dulling the senses through food, alcohol, or narcotics will make you feel better when it will only make things worse.  Depression can also make you want to withdrawal from people, when what you need most is the support of your community. 

The Psalmist does something that teaches us how to address the lies we tend to believe while suffering from either situational or clinical depression.  The Psalmist begins in verse 4, “These things I remember…” What things?  The days when he experienced God’s presence within the community of God’s people: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival” (v. 4).

I call verses like this: “Signposts of God’s Faithfulness.”  We all have them.  Signposts of God’s faithfulness are those seasons in your life where you experienced the presence of God.  During the dark seasons or the seasons when God seems (not is) distant, those signposts remind you that God is not only real, but that he has a history of being active in your life.  For me, my signposts include how God met me on Rout 1 on July 12, 1991 after being hit by a car.  They include the time when I had a $4000.00 seminary bill and how God put it on Kurt and Shauna’s heart to write me a check for $4000.00 without me ever asking or telling them about my bill.  Those signposts also include the time God miraculously healed me from seven lesions of calcified plaque in my left coronary artery by baffling my cardiologist by completely cleaning them out.  Most importantly thought, is the signpost of what I know of God through the Bible; in seasons of doubt, it is what I know of my God that remind me of his faithfulness.   

Reach Out to God and His People

Finally, the Psalmist says something that sits in the middle of his song in verse 8.  It serves as the answer to the skeptics in his life and the doubts of his weary heart.  We tend to think top to bottom when we read a book, and essay, or a paragraph.  However, in the Bible sometimes the emphasis is right in the middle of the sentence, paragraph, or chapter in the Bible; scholars call this chiasm.  In the case of Psalm 42-43, the emphasis is not verse 1, 5, or 9; the emphasis is found in 42:8, “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

Remember what I said a couple of weeks ago?  We tend to measure God’s goodness against our flawed and broken selves.  Depression can deceive us into believing that God is not good to us.  There is only one word the Psalmist uses for “steadfast love” and that word is hásed, which is God’s unfailing and covenantal love.  Not only is God completely and perfectly good, but he is faithful even when we are not.  The Psalmist reminds himself of God’s unfailing faithfulness under the dark clouds of doubt, and then he reaches out to God with these words: “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!  Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre O God, my God” (43:3-4). 

Notice what the Psalmist says in these verses.  He says I will go to the altar where God and his people can be found.  He doesn’t say that he is going or that he will not go; he is saying that because God’s love is unmerited, unconditional, and always faithful God will not let him go regardless of how he feels.  What the psalmist needs, is not the seclusion of a dark room, but the place where he knows God is and his people can be found. 

Remember what I said last week?  The remedy to your loneliness is the same place where you can find help for your weary soul: A relationship with God and the community of his people.  Last week I ended my sermon with a verse from Hebrews 10:24-25, I feel that it is appropriate to do the same today: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Application

Depression is real and it can be very dangerous.  The way the Psalmist fought through his was by remembering who he was as a child of God, recalling the reality of the faithfulness of God in comparison to how he felt, and reaching out to the God who he knew would never let him go.

Earlier we sang Amazing Grace which, as you know, was written by John Newton.  What many do not know is that Newton’s close friend and colleague was a man by the name of William Cowper.  Like Newton, Cowper was highly educated, fluent in Latin and Greek, and had a profound understanding of the Bible.  Newton and Cowper were not only neighbors, but served together in the church Newton served as the pastor.  Together the men had written dozens of hymns and published them as a hymnal titled, Olney Hymns, which became famous worldwide.

What many people do not know is that, before meeting John Newton, William Cowper attempted suicide three times due to the pressures he experienced while at law school.  It was Newton’s friendship that helped Cowper recover.  However, while enjoying great success in ministry with Newton, Cowper’s brother, the Rev. John Cowper, died unexpectedly and triggered William’s struggled with depression.  After church on January 1, 1773, Cowper went for a walk, and while on that walk began to feel another attack of depression was about to come upon him, so he struggled to make his way back home, picked up his pen, and wrote what many consider a literary and spiritual masterpiece titled, God Moves in a Mysterious Way.  His poem as served to comfort my heart through the seasons of my life.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants HIs footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm

Deep in unsearchable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works HIs sovereign will

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face

His purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste
But sweet will be the flower

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain
God is His own interpreter
And He will make it plain

In His own time
In His own way...

During the night of January 1-2, Cowper suffered night terrors and hallucinations.  Sometime in the middle of the night, he believed that God commanded him to take his own life.  Cowper attempted suicide but was rescued by Mary Unwin and John Newton.  Cowper never recovered and spent the rest of his life disillusioned and in and out of institutions. 

Depression is real, mental illness is real, but so is God.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face

[1] Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995; 10.

[2] Randy Alcorn. If God is Good. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2009; 461.