The Hard Apprenticeship of Sorrow

Depression is a deeply damaging and oft times deadly malady.

I have never required hospitalization for depression or received a diagnosis. But most days I walk about with what I refer to as my dark or stubborn shadow. He sits on my shoulder and whispers destructive and damaging things in my ear. That is a typical day. And then there are the days when that little shadow gets especially wicked and I feel as though I am dragging behind me a rotting corpse. That is a disturbing image. But the sort of melancholy I am referring to is not a case of the blues on a Monday afternoon.

 

“Beloved the objects we look at are distant, and we are near-sighted.”
Charles Spurgeon

I am a melancholic; a depressive. I am typically rather sad and in some cases deeply sorrowing.

I have never required hospitalization for depression or received a diagnosis. But most days I walk about with what I refer to as my dark or stubborn shadow. He sits on my shoulder and whispers destructive and damaging things in my ear. That is a typical day. And then there are the days when that little shadow gets especially wicked and I feel as though I am dragging behind me a rotting corpse. That is a disturbing image. But the sort of melancholy I am referring to is not a case of the blues on a Monday afternoon. Depression is a deeply damaging and oft times deadly malady.

I do have times of genuine happiness and joy that are not infrequent. I will from time-to-time have seasons of peace such that I begin to wonder whether the sadness will return. Inevitably though he finds his way back to me and perches on my shoulder.

That was difficult to write. As much as we have learned about depression and anxiety and as openly as these matters are talked about there is nevertheless a stigma attached to them which causes the sufferer no small amount of embarrassment. Even as a pastor who can relate to depression I find it easier to talk to someone about their cancer than about depression with someone living in the pit.

Those who do not suffer with depression or paralyzing anxiety simply cannot understand the ones who do. They cannot understand how the mind can be in a state where even the most delightful blessings cannot be recognized much less enjoyed. The light is shut out by shadow. They speak to the sufferer with what may be generally true statements and counsel but as ones who use a tool unskillfully: “Just pray. Why can’t you believe God’s promises? Don’t you trust the Lord?” Instead of being a source of comfort, like Job’s friends, they wield true statements in such way that they feel like a cudgel landing on an already bruised head.

In his memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, novelist William Styron laments the blandness of the word depression. He writes, “For over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.” Styron suggests a term like “Brainstorm” or some other “truly arresting designation” (p. 37).

What a blessing then that Scripture gives the people of God a great lexicon of sorrow as well as examples of those who walked in the thick darkness. Indeed, there is an entire book of the Bible entitled Lamentations and the poetry of Job illustrates the dagger-like pain of unremitting sorrow. The Psalmists put sorrow to music.

Psalm 88:3-7
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

Psalm 69:15
Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.

Job 7:13-19
When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint,’
then you scare me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than my bones.
I loathe my life; I would not live forever.
Leave me alone, for my days are a breath.
What is man, that you make so much of him,
and that you set your heart on him,
visit him every morning
and test him every moment?
How long will you not look away from me,
nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit?

The Bible also provides us with portraits of those who experienced times of deep depression and anxiety. There was a time when mighty Elijah wanted nothing more than to lay down and die. As we have seen, the Psalmists and Job drank deeply from the cup of sorrow. Jeremiah was The Weeping Prophet. Jonah’s ministry was often accompanied by times of despair.

How often do we contemplate the fact that Jesus knew what it was to walk in sorrow and anxiety? Of course Jesus’ times of despair were not due to nor did they result in sin. But the circumstances which pressed upon him were such that he was referred to as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He wept at a friend’s tomb. He mourned over the spiritual blindness of his people. He experienced grievous physical reactions in the Garden of Gethsemane. Does it comfort you to know that our Lord experienced the deepest sorts of anxiety and sorrow?

Think also of the Apostle Paul. He expressed a longing to go home to be with the Lord (Philippians 1:23). He juxtaposed the Lord’s good purpose of using him further for the sake of the churches with his own desire to depart and be with Christ. This seems to be more than simply a wholly positive function of his knowledge of the goodness of the Lord’s presence. It seems to me that Paul’s eagerness to gain heaven was also tied to the weariness caused by his sorrows and suffering.

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