Excerpted from ‘Beauty in the Browns’ (Focus on the Family)
Beauty in the Browns
By Paul Asay
Each person’s depression is a stew filled with all sorts of different ingredients: chemical, biological, environmental, circumstantial. Some people have lots of one sort of ingredient and less of another. Sometimes it can last for two weeks and never come back, and sometimes it can come and go, nearly at a whim, for decades. Some people respond well to one sort of treatment while others go completely unfazed. Doctors and psychologists can spend their lives studying the condition and still find more questions than answers.
But when you’re a Christian, the question comes with an extra dollop of hurt and mystery. When we ask, why do we suffer from depression, what we’re really asking sometimes is why did God allow me to suffer from it?
I don’t have an answer for you. I’m no Old Testament prophet who knows the mind of God. I feel, keenly at times, the ache of that mystery. Your pastor may have a better answer for you, or your therapist, or a theologian. But let me offer you some thoughts I’ve gleaned from my own journey.
SIN AND SHAME
I know, I know, awkward. Talking about sin is very much out of favor in the culture today, and even we Christians sometimes dislike discussing it much. And—contrary to what some Christians may have told you—depression is not a sin.
But depression, I believe, can in some instances be a by-product of sin—not a punishment from God, exactly, but a punishment we subconsciously inflict on ourselves because we know we’re out of alignment with him.
We are who we are, but we know we’re not all that God designed us or wants us to be. God’s original blueprints for each of us were unique, and each uniquely beautiful. God saw what each of us could be—our ideal form—and imbued us with a spark of that. And when God looks at us, I think he still sees all that beauty inside us, the creature he meant for us to be.
But sin—the world’s sin and our own—twists that ideal and makes us who, on this earth, we really are. And because we understand dimly that our mortal reality of ourselves doesn’t match the God-given design that still lurks deep down in us, we feel incredible dissonance: Who we are and who God designed us to be is so very, very different.
If you’re depressed, I think this is where you have to start: Look at your life. Look at your behavior. Look at your sins—because, let’s face it, we all have a few that we hold onto dearly, even if we try to hide them. And then deal with them. Confess them. Don’t let them sit and chisel away at your ideal form. Naturally, the benefits to expunging what sin you can from your life goes well beyond depression—and there’s no guarantee that scouring off the sins in your life (let’s not kid ourselves, an enormously difficult task, and one that you might have to repeat by the day or even hour) will cure or alleviate your depression. But it’s one less trigger. One less reason to feel that sense of guilt and shame and worthlessness that I’ve found to be such a big part of my own depression.
But let me add a caveat: Sometimes we feel guilt or shame for things that aren’t at all, or aren’t precisely, sins.
Sometimes, I think, depression can be a way that we subconsciously punish ourselves—we toss ourselves into a dungeon we think we deserve and toss the key far, far away. But that, perhaps, shows a lack of faith in both the justice and mercy of God. It’s his responsibility to judge us—not ours. Our responsibility is to live our lives as best as we can and reflect Christ in those lives to the best of our ability. Hard to do that when we’ve thrown ourselves into a dungeon.
One final word about sin and shame mentioned in a 2012 paper that “a single study” found a higher disposition to depression in religious substance abusers. Addictions—be it to alcohol or drugs or porn or anything—are often thought by Christians to be sins or signs of weakness, even though scientific evidence stresses that addictions are diseases. Perhaps, when it comes to discussing the issue in the context of depression, it’s almost beside the point as to which it is. The point is that addictions can go hand-in-hand with depression: Dealing with that addiction can, thus, address an aspect of that depression. Get help for that addiction—as painful as it might be to admit that you have one, as hard as it might be to quit.
When you read the Bible, it’s amazing how often folks find themselves wandering in the desert or wilderness—places without much food or water, places of danger, and most especially, places of isolation. In the New Testament, the Greek words most often translated to “wilderness” for our English-reading eyes is eremos or eremia, which means “isolated place.” In the Bible, these isolated places are almost locales for trial, of suffering, of tempering. No one has a particularly great time walking in the wilderness.
Depression is its own wilderness, the very definition of an isolated place. The solitude, separation and loneliness can be profound.
But as isolated as they may be, the wilderness—be it physical, emotional, or spiritual—can be places of encounter, too: encounter with God.
Moses had his chat with the burning bush in the wilderness. Then, when he led his people out of civilized Egypt, they all spent forty years out there, following pillars of cloud and fire, eating manna God dumped on the ground, receiving God’s very own Law. Prophets were perpetually running to the desert—either with the purpose of talking with God or just in a pique, like Elijah—finding that God had followed them out there. Many a Christian hermit and monk sought solitude with the Almighty in the most unpleasant of places: Pain, as much as we try to escape it or ease it, seems sometimes intrinsic to hearing God. To hear, as Elijah did, his “still, small voice.”
It’s a lovely phrase isn’t it? That still, small voice. The translators for the King James Bible gave us that phrase, and many a translation still embraces it. But, according to Jewish scholars, that translation is not quite right. Rather, the Jewish word (kol d’mamah dakkah, it’s sometimes written) means “the sound of thin silence.” It’s not the whisper we so often imagine: “it is probably a kind of silence that most of us have never experienced,” writes a meditation from the Jerusalem Prayer Team. “Perhaps a total, complete silence.”
I wonder sometimes if depression can be more than a trial, more than a desert of isolation and despair. If we can force ourselves out of ourselves for a time, perhaps even this isolated place we walk through can be a place of encounter. Perhaps, in the static of our souls, we can still feel the thin silence of God.
We don’t feel much like reading our Bibles or praying when we’re depressed. But of all the onerous tasks that seem to loom over us in the throes of depression, these are perhaps less taxing than eating or taking a shower. And we may not feel God immediately in those times. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before Satan stopped pestering him: Moses spent 40 years. God’s timetable is, unfortunately, not our own. It’s possible we might not feel God at all.
Depression can make feeling anything pretty difficult.
But that doesn’t mean that he’s not there. Sometimes, the silence isn’t about God’s absence, but his presence.
Depression comes with no easy answers. The silence, at times, can be deafening. But in that silence, we can find beauty, too, and purpose. And instead of letting depression consume us, perhaps, with God’s help, we can find the will to deal with it … and do some good in the world in spite of it.
Excerpted from Beauty in the Browns: Walking with Christ in the Darkness of Depression by Paul Asay. © Focus on the Family 2021. Used by permission of Focus on the Family (rights managed by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.) All rights reserved.