Anxiety & Depression (introduction to a research paper)

  
 
What is depression like? Well, it’s kind of like drowning. Except you can see everyone else around you breathing…

During my senior year of college I wrote a short summary paper over the topic of “Psychoanalytic Social Theory” and its failure to address our real, deepest need: Christ. I don’t know if you would consider the paper to actually be very short, but I tend to be a little long-winded in the written word; and I feel that this is brief for the immense issue that it attempts to summarize. For me, when I write, it is the greatest avenue of any outlet. As C.S. Lewis once wrote in a letter, “Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills.”

That, of course, is a bit of an overstatement. However, writing really is a big help for a great many ailments, both in ourselves and in others. It is, perhaps, one of the quintessential ways of making sweet drinks from life’s sour fruit. Writing is readymade for those with some great angst. It’s appropriate for the anxious and the angry. Writing is for the lonely and the depressed and the misunderstood. For the frustrated and the fearful. For the poor in spirit and those who mourn. So, if or when I seem to come across as harsh or critical in my writing, please know that I am “preaching” to myself more than anyone, and these words are an overflow from my heart, from the grace that the Holy Spirit has overwhelmed me with.

This paper was one of the most therapeutic endeavors I have ever embarked upon; as I have suffered from bouts of depression most my life and have been diagnosed by different psychologists as bipolar, as having ADD, OCD, insomnia, and manic-depression… and with a family history of verbal abuse, physical violence, substance abuse, sexual sin, explosive anger, depression, anxiety, and many other dark things. I have had experience with multiple medications and seen numerous psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, therapists, etc. for help with these issues during the course of my life. I’m pleading with God to end these things in me and not pass them on to my children.

I have not seen any doctors for depression related issues for quite some time now, but I’ve had some really, really dark days in my life. And still do. Never any days where I thought seriously about killing myself, but would have welcomed death as an old friend if it came for me. I’ll just be honest and direct here, depression freakin sucks, anxiety can be so debilitating, and it seems to be so unpredictable and uncontrollable in a lot of ways.

Depression is also normal, it can affect anyone, and is as common an illness as the flu. Flu season seems to take place every year, but it can happen all year around. It can affect anyone, at any time. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are. It doesn’t matter where you live. It doesn’t matter what age you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.

The flu doesn’t discriminate. It’s universal. It can happen to anyone at anytime. Depression plagues us the same way. For me personally, there have been times when everything is seemingly going great, and then the smallest thing, the faintest thought, turns my entire world into a dark spiraling pit of despair.

When I’m really struggling, my mind can quickly turn anything into the worst thing ever. I will feel the unbearable weight crushing down upon me, and only seem to increase the weight of everything by thinking of more stuff to be depressed about. I will take a compliment and see it as a back-handed, sarcastic cut-down. I will begin to worry about things out of my control, past mistakes, “what ifs,” and things that haven’t even happened yet, but they might… I’ve even been “bipolarish” in my depression, by wanting to either be completely alone or surrounded by as many close friends as possible. I will quickly forget the innumerable blessings our Father has so gracious given me, and focus so intensely on every way I’ve ever been wronged that it brings a whole new meaning to the idea of “tunnel vision.”

I hate this about myself…

Can I talk to you for a moment, just as a (possible) fellow struggler with depression? God’s given each of us a certain amount of vitality and energy to walk in joy throughout life. The thing about depression is that it so often becomes selfish and prideful in the way that we focus so much on ourselves; and it takes up an unbelievable amount of energy to do it. So the energy given to you and me to do life well is used up on trying to find a release, to numb the overwhelming pain, or just take our minds off ourselves for a moment.

King Solomon touches on all this in the extremely wise and weighty book of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25 ESV). “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.” (5:18 ESV). “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do… Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (9:7,9-10 ESV).

Here’s another thing. It is impossible to truly love or receive love if no one knows who you really are, and you don’t have good friends and family walking through this with you. Because if anyone tries to love you, it will be too easy to deflect them and say that they actually love the version of yourself that you are presenting, not you. It’s hard to accept love when you think that if anyone really knew who you were, if they found out all the dark secrets of your past, your current struggles, and what is hiding in your heart, they’d run away from you faster than Usain Bolt… on steroids.

Let me try to explain some of this a little better. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verse 51, Mary makes this statement during her song of praise, “He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” What happens to the proud, to the depressed, to the neurotic, is we spend the bulk of our day and the bulk of our mental capacity on “what could be if we would have just…” or “what could be if this would just…” So we go, “Oh, if I would have just taken Greek more seriously, I’d be fluent right now… Oh, if I knew then what I know now, how much better of an athlete, student, employee/employer, parent, friend, etc. would I be… Oh, if I would have just chosen that instead of this… Oh, if that relationship had just made it through that rough patch… Oh, if I would have moved there instead of moving here… Oh, if that opportunity would have come instead of this… If I would have avoided this person and gone with that person… If I would have just been there and not here… If a certain person would just do this or that, or not do this or that…”

So when we operate this way, all our energy is spent on “What if… what if… what if…” to the detriment of our present and maybe even almost to the damnation of our future.

There is no future if you’re stuck in the imagination of your heart. There is no joy when we are focused too much on ourselves. There is no future if all your mental vitality is stuck in “what if” land. You’re perpetually never where you really are, always wishing you were more, always wishing you had more, always looking back to a past to fix your present rather than there being any real energy today to have God do something mighty so that tomorrow you’re all that you hoped He could be in you. We will count the days instead of making the days count. It’s an endless crazy cycle. It happens to many of us. It certainly happens to me. I’m not saying I never struggle with this anymore; in none of this am I saying there’s you and then there’s me… We’re perpetually stuck in this imaginary world of “Oh, if I just would have…”

While addressing this issue, the Apostle Paul goes so far as to tell us in his letter to the churches at Philippi, “… do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…” – Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV)
So, how about we just do now. Well, today kind of stinks… It’s still the morning and you already want to just go back to bed. I’ve been there. Today is painful and you don’t really like where you are today. Okay, my day hasn’t been perfect either, but that doesn’t get solved by fantasy. Science is not going to develop a time-machine, you’re not going to find a magic lamp in the desert, you’re not going stumble upon a hidden portal somewhere in the depths of the sea… so you’re not going back and changing anything! That’s why the gospel is so important. You’re not going back and changing anything. However, Christ has already, in the cross, redeemed whatever is lurking back there! But you’re not going back. The decisions you have made, you’ve made. The decisions you have not made, you haven’t made. That’s yesterday.

So, please don’t sacrifice today and tomorrow because of fairy tale “what if” land. Please let go of your pride, stop telling yourself that you’re too far gone, your past is just too dark, the pain is too severe, the depression is just too uncontrollable, please let it go and find some close brothers and sisters to walk with through this. And continue to walk with them (Galatians 6:1-5). Press into the Lord and pray for healing and hope like a stubborn, relentless child begging for a toy, and the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). God loves to answer our prayers and wants us to come to Him for rest, hope, and help. Please, remember there is always hope to be found and enjoyed in Christ Jesus. We find our grace-motivated strength not in our own willpower but rather in the fact that all of our sin (past, present, and future) all of our struggles, all of our shortcomings, and all of our failures were paid for, in full by Jesus Christ in the cross. We are saved to do good works (Ephesians 2:1-10).

“We never keep ourselves to the present moment. We look forward to the future as too slow in coming, as if to hasten its arrival, or we remember the past to hold it up as if it happened too quickly. We are so distracting that we stray into times which are not our own and do not think of the only one that is truly ours.” – Blaise Pascal

Even if you love Jesus Christ though, it is very possible, even probable, that there will be days or seasons where you are like the Psalmist in Psalm 42. There will be dark nights of the soul where your tears and your snot are your only food, where you are in a ball on the floor, and can’t think weekly or monthly, or it would crush you. The thought of having to endure longer than today feels impossible. And I’m talking to those of you who know and love Jesus Christ. If you think that sounds crazy, just read about the lives of Job, Joseph, Moses, David, Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Peter, James, Paul, even the life if Jesus Christ, and pretty much every other person mentioned in Scripture.

Are you not aware that we have an empathetic High Priest in the God-man, Jesus Christ? He experienced loss, hunger, temptation, pain, exhaustion, the death of a good friend (Lazarus), the deep betrayal of a close friend (Judas), rejection, being called a liar, His own family thinking that He was crazy and insane, He was spit upon, whipped, beat, taunted, slapped, mocked, stabbed, jeered, and crucified by the very hands of people He created. Jesus actually sustained their life and held their existence together all the while they nailed Him to a cross and cheerfully called out for His suffering.

Our God experienced deeper abandonment, rejection, pain, loss, and devastation than you could ever begin to even try to describe using every bit of existing vocabulary and every waking moment of the rest of your life. When we compare our pain to God on the cross, it is an embarrassment to us to try to belittle Him so. At the very same moment, it is a rich well of comfort to know our God is not immune to or ignorant of our pain and sorrow. He put on flesh and felt our deepest pains at such an astronomically deeper level so that when we approach our Father in our pain He can say to us, “I know… oh sweet child, I know… This world was never meant to be this way… My little child, I love you. Oh how I look forward to the day you will see Me crack open the skies and so fiercely reverse all this pain that your heart will be so on fire with joy it won’t even remember this present pain because gladness will have flooded your heart to such an extreme you will no longer be capable of feeling any sorrow. Until then, please, come to Me and rest. Rest in the work I have already accomplished for you.”

On the cross, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, He who knew no sin, became sin, so that we might become His righteousness… The Son felt the cosmic weight of sin, rejection, abandonment, and loss of relationship from the Father, whom He had perfectly loved before time and throughout all time up until that point… and He isn’t looking down at you and thinking all the negative thoughts you might be putting in His mouth, rather God is lovingly looking down on your as a son, as a daughter, as a fellow heir who has suffered in pain… pain He came to eradicate someday… and our God is still working in your life to bring about His good work, His great pleasure, His predestined masterpiece.

Oh, that we would stop dwelling on what we do not have today, and think about how much our Father has already mercifully given us. The prophets only had the promise of a future Christ to come… we get to see the world through the lens that He has already come and defeated death for us! Now we await His return to announce the war has been over since before it ever began. Our God ransoms hearts with ferocious passion, zeal, and joy so that you may share in His inheritance… that we may taste that same joy. Don’t settle for less, you have no right to stay trapped in sorrow; for life, and life to the fullest, was purchased for you.

Peter could not be any more clear about all this than he is in his first epistle: “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (1st Peter 5:5-11 ESV)

The beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not that in trusting Him everything goes just like you want it to go. The beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ is we get God regardless of circumstance, and He’ll be enough. He will be enough. God is enough. Feelings and circumstances change, but our great God is faithful and He does not fail to keep His promises. When we doubt God and look to ourselves, this takes us back to enslavement.

Tim Keller expressed these truths well when he said, “Christianity does not provide the reason for each and every experience of pain, it provides deep resources for actually facing suffering with hope and courage, rather than bitterness and despair.”

Also, some of us are trying to use God to get something we want this very day. Well, again, that’s not the good news of the gospel, the good news is you get God. Now is God able to accomplish more than we could ever dream, or think, or imagine? Absolutely, He is! Can He restore and heal marriages? Historically, we’ve seen Him do it hundreds of times. Can He lead you out of financial ruin? Absolutely, He can. Can He heal diseases? Yes! But is that why we go to Him? If that’s why we go to Him, then what we want is not Him, but rather Him to do those things. We want the stuff God could potentially give us, but not Him… That’s idolatry, that’s not love. It’s like having a friend you only call when you need a favor, or having a spouse and not loving them at all or having much to do with them other than when they are able to provide some comfort or do something for you.

A.W. Tozer famously said that whatever comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. Your real god and functional savior is what you most effortlessly think about. When you hear someone mention “God,” what do you think of? What image fills your heart and head when you think about who God is? As C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” How can we possibly humbly serve the true God of this universe if we’re so busy with and captivated by thoughts about our own self or how “God” can serve us…

I’ve had to learn that truth hard way… that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” In the end, I’ve only ever found any lasting hope in one thing, well, a Person actually. You may know this Person too. Through everything I’ve gone through, even when I’ve been at what feels like the end of my rope, Jesus Christ has always been there through every dark day and circumstance, with grace that outshines the darkest depths of darkness this fallen world has ever known. His love will not be silent or overcome by anything.

Also, one more thing, as much as I’d like to think there’s a chance I’ll never have another day bogged down by any level of depression, deep spiritual depression is actually a part of the Christian life. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones began his book, Spiritual Depression, by putting it this way: You cannot isolate the spiritual from the physical for we are body, mind, and spirit. The greatest and the best Christians when they are physically weak are more prone to an attack of spiritual depression than at any other time and there are great illustrations of this in the Scriptures.

A particular sign of hope in knowing you’re not alone in feeling this way and having these struggles comes from the account of Christ’s temptation in Luke 4. Notice Jesus was “led by the Spirit in the desert.” He didn’t do anything to get Himself there. The Holy Spirit led the Lord Himself into the desert for a specific purpose. This should set us on a journey to find out more about how to understand and address our depression. Sometimes we will actually walk away from seasons of deep depression and anxiety with new understanding in life, and be a stronger person because of it.

Lloyd-Jones continues in saying that some of us by our nature, and by the very type of struggles to which we are bent, are more given to this spiritual disease referred to as “spiritual depression” than others. But take heart, we belong to the same company as Jeremiah, Isaiah, as John the Baptist and Paul, Luther and Lewis, and a great many others. That’s a pretty good group of believers to relate to. And while you cannot fully belong to it without being unusually subject to this particular type of trial, it ends well.

“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.” – Proverbs 12:25

The Problem of Evil and Suffering

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This is a brief reflection on how evil and suffering may be, if anything, further evidence for God and our eternal need for His grace. For if you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because He hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have at the very same time a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t possibly know or understand. But you can’t really have it both ways. Most of our modern objections to God are based on poor or warped views of “fair play” and justice.

As a Christian, we should realize better than others that most of what we’ve needed for success in life comes from us having to go through some very difficult and painful experiences. We should be able to look back on our lives and see that sometimes that illness, disappointment, or an extremely difficult period we struggled through was not God turning His back on us, but rather an irreplaceable season of personal and spiritual growth. Just as Job’s patience in suffering turned him into an example that has helped hundreds of millions of people, and just as Jesus’ temptations prepared Him for His history-changing and world-saving career, so God’s Spirit leads us into our wilderness for our good.

Advice on suffering from one who has never suffered deeply is always shallow, stale, and unconvincing. Wounded healers are needed, and in Christ, we have a great physician who suffered more than we can imagine. Therefore, it is a detrimental mistake to think that if you abandon your faith in God it would ever somehow make the problem of evil or suffering any easier to handle. However, many people claim that “all the philosophizing in the world does not just let God off the hook.” God, however, more than cripples this complaint by what He has done through Jesus Christ. God deliberately came to earth to “put Himself on the hook” for us and experienced the greatest depths of pain and suffering imaginable on our behalf.

Christianity does not provide the reason for every single experience of pain and suffering, but it does supply us with deep resources for actually facing pain and suffering with hope and courage rather than bitterness and despair. On the cross Christ went beyond even the worst physical, emotional, and spiritual human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as His knowledge and power exceeds ours. In Christ’s death, He suffered in love, identifying with the abandoned and godforsaken. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it upon Himself. We cannot even begin to fathom the depths of His love and there will never be a greater love than that of Jesus Christ (John 15:13).

To suffer for Christ out of love and obedience in the face of pain, rejection, and suffering is the greatest thing we could ever do with our lives (2nd Corinthians 5:11-21; Hebrews 2:10-18). We should, especially as Christians, find joy in our pain and in turn praise Christ through our sorrows. For in the end, the beautiful promise of the Gospel is that even if we lose everything in this world, we still have Christ. We still receive the greatest thing there is in our relationship with Christ, because “for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). We cannot comprehend the immense value and worth it is just to know Him and be known by Him.

“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him.” – 1st Thessalonians 5:9-10 (ESV)

Also, as Christians we need to know that our suffering is not in vain. Because for those who suffer, the Christian faith provides a resource not just for the teaching of the Cross, but also for the fact of the resurrection as well. Christ promises a future that is not just a consolation for the life that we suffered through or the life that we never had, but a restoration of the life we’ve always wanted. Jesus insisted that His return will be with such power that the very material world will be purged of all decay and brokenness. Christ promises that He will not only heal all things, but all that might-have-been will be.

Our hope is that in Christ and the restoration He is going to bring, everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost. So that some day, things that look like broken glass to us here will make sense… as small parts of a beautiful stained glass picture of God’s redemptive work throughout history.