We’ve been looking at the subject of Normal Struggles, things that Christians face and today the subject is Despondency or what we might call deep sadness, despair or depression.
My first hope is that you will know that if you are experiencing this, that there is almost certainly relief around the corner. If you are in despair and you are in darkness today, there is little reason why you shouldn’t be strengthened and brightened soon. And if things are bright for you today and all is buoyant and enjoyable, perhaps this will help and prepare you for some darker days which the Lord may bring, or will help you to help those who are in some dark days.
Now there is a broad spectrum when it comes to the subject of “Despondency” or “Depression”. Some people hardly experience this at all; they are very up, buoyant people. The idea for them of being low means that they are just moderately tired at the end of a busy day. That’s all they know, most of the time they are up, up and up.
And then you get others who experience great heaviness and sadness, and it goes on for days, weeks, months or even years. They seem to have skidded into a trough or a pit, and their life drags very heavily, every day is hard work.
Then there is real depression which can be a physical illness as real as getting the flu or chronic fatigue or something like that. This is often loosely called chemical depression.
But it may not be chemical inward depression. It may be outward circumstances which have just taken their toll – there has been too much to cope with or think about. Maybe too many people problems, too many decisions to make and everything is just cumulatively crushing, and that is often called circumstantial depression.
And then there are anxiety, panic and panic attacks which are very frightening and then there are extreme mood swings, and then there is despair which becomes even suicidal.
Hope 103.2 is proudly supported by
If you think I am a little over-dramatic this morning, let me tell you in the Western world, it is likely that one in five people will have a significant episode of depression in their life, that is 20% of the people who are listening to this could be depressed. One in ten visiting a General Practitioner has depression. Every time a work day is lost because of an industrial dispute, there are 30 days lost at work because of depression and one in six with depression will attempt suicide.
I need to say that it is entirely possible the sermon will have little or no affect when depression is an illness. You would no more expect a sermon to help somebody who is physically depressed than you would hope to see a sermon help someone who has got high cholesterol or who has got diabetes.
But a sermon may have a significant affect if the person suffering depression has a distressed mind or they are in some spiritual darkness, and the reason for that is that the Word of God can bring a complete change of perspective. The Word or God can penetrate like a light in a dark place and change the whole vision that the person is experiencing and the truth, as Jesus said, can set people free.
So just in the last week, somebody was reported to me to have moved out of a depressed time – largely as a result of a recent sermon preached by someone else on the staff.
- If you are therefore in the grip of a lie and it is oppressing you
- you are starting to go to some extreme position because of your very negative thinking
- you have become quite reckless and careless in the way you live which is compounding the problem –
- you fear that the worst will happen which may not happen
- you think that fate has taken over when it hasn’t taken over
It’s the Word of God which may bring real illumination and help in these situations.
I remember some years ago I was at the Men’s Katoomba Convention and the speakers were all given a bucket of hand-written questions from the men at the Convention, and you had to pull out the questions which you were going to attempt to answer.
I was given a question that just simply said “I am depressed, what will I do?” and you have five seconds to think about this. So I said I would find a faithful friend, someone who you can talk with who will show you what the Bible says and pray with you and you need a capable general practitioner (GP)
And years since I would still say that’s probably the best balance of help that we need. We need a good Christian friend who will bring a Biblical perspective to our situation and pray with us (because sometimes in great depression you can’t even put two words together) and we also need a capable GP who will diagnose what is happening.
Now often people have rejected one of these two so the Christian, the devout Christian says “O the problem is all spiritual – you just need to repent and believe, forget about these prescriptions, throw your tablets away”.
Or the doctor says “It’s just all medical, you need tablets; forget about all the Christian mumbo jumbo”. Now we need to make sure we don’t squeeze either of these two people out of the equation.
So my question is this morning, what do you do when things feel very bleak, and great heaviness begins to set in, and you find yourself with decreased energy, and you can’t think properly, you can’t speak properly, you can’t relate properly and it all becomes tough? And if you are a Christian, sometimes it gets compounded by guilt and the sense that you ought to be happy and joyful and smiley and friendly all the time.
But actually what is happening for the Christian is that you are normal, you have a typical struggle going on and you can’t read your Bible – it doesn’t seem to help you – and you can’t articulate prayers and the idea of mixing with people is horrendous and the idea of going down to morning tea is impossible – what do you do in these certain situations?
We are not helped by some well-meaning Christian friend who comes along and tells us that we should ‘snap out of it’ and that here is a verse, here is a song to sing, here is a fridge magnet to put on our fridge. We’re not helped by these people.
So what do we do? If the cause is medical (what is often called endogenous) and the chemicals in the brain are being depleted so that your processes are slowing down – it is sometimes helpful to get a balanced life back;
Sometimes these things do help. We have been given creation to enjoy by a good God and the great Baptist Preacher, Spurgeon said once “a mouthful of sea air, a walk in the woods will not give grace to the soul but will yield oxygen to the body which is next best”.
But medicine may be needed, and if a Christian is prescribed wisely some anti-depressants, he or she should not be the slightest bit embarrassed about that any more than you would be embarrassed to be given medication for infection, antibiotics or something like that. You are being helped on a stage and God willing you will get through the stage, and you will be enabled or buoyed up for new strength.
But what I want to do for a few minutes is just speak to you as a Pastor because we are not in a doctor’s surgery this morning, but we are in a church building. And I want to think about what I would prescribe from God’s Word if someone came to sit and talk with great despondency.
Somebody was in my office recently, and I could see that they were heavily medicated and their problem was not the need of more medication but the problem was the need of some wisdom, some pastoral Biblical wisdom.
So what does the Bible counsel? This is my attempt to say something to you this morning as if I have the Bible in my hand and maybe the other hand on your shoulder and I am trying to think of you – this is my attempt to do that.
The first thing I would do? Ask the question the Bible asks in Psalm 42 and 43 which is: “why are you so downcast?”
- what has been happening?
- have you been through a particularly difficult time?
- is it because of work or lack of work?
- are you unwell?
- has there been some worrying news that hangs over you?
- has there been some hard battle which is niggling?
- is there a relational problem?
- has a relationship been difficult? has a relationship ended?
- are you experiencing some loss or some grief?
- are you feeling your age?
- are you feeling homesick?
Somebody sent me an e-mail recently giving thanks for a sermon. But she said the day before she listened to this sermon she said “my Cardiologist phoned to say that recent test results were not good, for the last 18 months I have had unremitting health issues, 3 operations, a fractured skull and face from an accident, metal plates in my face, my mum has had a stroke, my dad has had heart surgery, my son has melanoma and my father-in-law died.” There’s no surprise that somebody going through such a litany of trouble is experiencing great weariness and burden, if not depression.
Now are these not the sort of things which produce quite natural despondency just as if you have had a great high (perhaps you have been performing somewhere), and you come down again, you’ve had some very special occasion and then you come down again, you’ve received some very special acclamation, and then you come down again, and things begin to even out. There has to be that ebb and flow – the natural ups and downs of the world.
Should we expect to feel happy when we are being put through a serious testing which God may not just permit but ordain to good things through us? Surely a lot of life has its lows, and we have got to be prepared to ride the roller coaster of the ups and the downs.
The other thing is that even this person who is going through this needs some understanding and they need some support and they need somebody to say – this is a difficult time that you are going through, let’s try and think about what God says in his Word – and let me try and express in prayer what we might ask for.
But isn’t it also true that some of the people who go through very deep waters get useful for helping people who go through very deep waters? Is it not true that some of the best and most helpful people are those who have trodden deep things themselves? And they begin to grow in their appreciation for God, and they become deeply useful.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
Sometimes God by taking a person through some very deep suffering, not only teaches them a new appreciation for Him and his grace and sufficiency, but also equips them to help others who are going through very deep times.
To say nothing of the fact that some people who are in great and deep grief become extremely creative or their ministry is extended or expanded. Many of the most famous and talented people have been familiar with grief. Some of the most tortured souls the world has ever seen have produced from the pits very great and wonderful things – they have wrestled, they have suffered, and they have walked at a deep level and blessed others.
So it may be right first of all to see the despondency is something that God is going to use for something good in you and through you. And therefore not to assume that you are being tortured or bullied by a sadistic God but rather you are being taken on a particular path by a very loving and sovereign, wise and powerful God to experience things that you would never experience in an easy way which will change and transform your character and enable you to be of benefit to others.
But if somebody is going to walk out of the office, out of the study after a few minutes, I hope that they would walk out knowing that God is for them and not against them. And so I would want to ask a few basic things – and these are some of the things that I would ask.
- Is there a problem with them and God?
- Do they have a relationship with God? I am not asking if they believe in God – most people can tick that box – I am asking whether they belong to God and whether they know they do.
- Do they know that God is their Father?
- Have they put their faith in Jesus his Son?
- Do they know that one day they are going to be in glory?
- Why do they think they will be one day in glory?
- Is that all bound up with their performance which will discourage them or inflate them?
- Do they know they might put their trust in Christ’s performance and be secure for eternity?
I want the person to be so clear in their relationship with God and that Jesus has won their security for them – that they will look away from themselves and they will look back to what Jesus has won for them – that’s what I would hope.
One of the men who is standing for one of the Council Elections came to see me a couple of weeks ago, and I am not sure exactly why he came, he didn’t say why he came but in the course of the conversation I realised that he had probably come just to let me know that he was standing.
I asked him in the course of the conversation – “do you have a real faith in God?”
And he said, “Yes I think I do.”
And I told him “Do you belong.”
And he said “I hope I do.”
And I told him “Are you going to glory one day?”
And he said “Well I hope I am.”
Which of course means that he’s probably not because none of those answers is really clear or confident. And when I asked him what he might say if he came face to face with Christ – he went on with such a long and convoluted answer that in the end I told him “you really need to get rid of the mirror that you are staring at and you need a window which will help you to look at what Christ has done”.
And then last week I was talking with a farmer, and I asked him the same series of questions (I am a bit of a nuisance with people!).
I asked him “what will you say when you come face to face with Christ?” He went on with such a long, convoluted answer about his farm, his family, and his sons and in the end, I just stopped him, and I said: “Listen, let me ask you a question – if your children knock on your door will you let them in?
He said, “of course.” I said, “so you are now telling me that there is a God who is a heavenly father who is more wonderful than you or than me and you are not just sure whether he is going to open the door or not – you don’t know Him.” And he said, “you are probably right”.
So I thought we had probably arrived at square one and I hope that he might go from there to square two. But I would want somebody to know that their relationship with God is real and strong and secure.
But it is possible that they do have a relationship, but they have broken fellowship. It’s possible that they have drifted like the Prodigal son or daughter and I want to know what’s caused that. Is it that they have lost confidence in Christ or have they mistakenly assumed that something or someone is better than Christ? Because that is a mistake and I would want them to see again something of the goodness and the greatness of Jesus Christ so that they don’t turn away from him but turn towards him.
And some Christians do despair over their performance – they think that their Christian life rests on their performance. There is something built into them that just basically says all the time – ‘this hangs on me’, and that is depressing.
I want to give those people as best as I can such a deep view of the love of Christ that reaches utterly to them and such a high view of the love of Christ that will take them all the way to glory and such a wide view that can reach anybody in the world and such a long view that will never give up on them that they will not easily turn away from Christ or walk away from him. Because if they can go away with renewed confidence in his confidence and his greatness and experience again the fellowship, the joy of fellowship with Christ that may be a great contribution to their despondency.
But maybe their problem is with other people – think how often in the Old Testament or the New Testament the problem the people are going through is ‘other people’ – the enemies – the passage we had earlier to do with Elijah where he is being threatened with death, and he runs for his life – he is so despairing.
Or think of the Psalmist “Lord how many are my enemies”? I looked up and discovered 70 times the Psalmist talks about his enemies – the people who attack and persecute and grind you down, the people who wrong you.
And then what about the friends who fail you, the good people who fail you? This can often be the most painful hurt of all.
Psalm 55 says “if it was an enemy insulting me I could endure it; but it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend”.
You can see how Jesus would have fulfilled this passage as he thought about Judas who had received so much and seen so much but betrayed him – and it’s possible to be betrayed – it’s possible family members can undermine what’s happening or the flock, the congregation, can do this.
I understand that half the pastors in Western Sydney are on Prozac (antidepressant) because the task of ministry has just got so difficult, boring into rock.
So the depressed person will need to:
- work out how to deal with other people
- how to see the enemy
- how to know you are not alone when you have an enemy
- how to know that lots of people have enemies, that enemies are part of life and how to deal with the enemy biblically
- what to do with the ‘friend’ who fails them
- where forgiveness will come from
- how to be forgiving even if you can’t restore and repair the relationship, at least how to be set free from bitterness and
- how to love the family and the flock and not give up.
All of these things will be helped by the Word of God appropriately thought through.
It may be there is a problem with the past. Maybe there’s a sin which is just hanging around and has not been properly dealt with, not been brought to God.Think of how crushed David was after he had committed adultery. He said in Psalm 32 that he was groaning all day long. And then he said he confessed and he rejoiced to be forgiven. We need to do the confessing, don’t we, and then leave the forgiveness.
Think of how crushed David was after he had committed adultery. He said in Psalm 32 that he was groaning all day long. And then he said he confessed and he rejoiced to be forgiven. We need to do the confessing, don’t we, and then leave the forgiveness. Some people are doing the confessing and not taking the forgiveness. Some people are expecting the forgiveness without the confessing. But the two of them are essential and how much more should we bring our sins (especially ones that are on our conscience) to our heavenly father knowing that he sent his son Jesus to pay and wash them away.
Maybe there is a real scar from the past. Some depression is because deep in the past some damage was done or there was a long period of neglect, and suddenly down the track you react so strangely to something which another person looking on wouldn’t see to be so significant but to you it is a bruise or a scar because something deep in the past is missing or is very real and again we need to work out how are we going to respond in proportion to what is happening or see it and understand what it is.
Sometimes a skilful counsellor can help and work out what has happened and why it is affecting you. Sometimes the grief, the scar, the wound or the neglect is known, and the question now is: am I able to forgive this person? Am I able to move on by the grace of God? Or am I unwilling? Have I just drawn a line and said I am not going to forgive? In which case, there can be no progress or no growth. Some people sadly even wallow in the past – it’s pleasurable for them to stay with it and never make any progress.
Is the problem in the present? Is there some battle which is so embarrassing and so painful that it’s hard to know what to do, where to go, whom to talk to.
This week a guy said to me that he’d spent time in America and he said the Americans are so open and honest about their battles. He said they are too open and too honest – I am learning things I didn’t want to know. But compared with the private world of perhaps people around our neighbourhood and in this building, we don’t want to spread everything into everybody but it would be good to find somebody who is trustworthy and who will hear the battle and stick with us and often say ‘this is the the same for me’.
Is it a problem with the future? Is there some irrational fear, an inflated worry that seems that it’s just too big for God?
Now friends how much we need the Word of God – it’s the Word of God that brings the perspective and the freedom and the help, and we have to recognise that sometimes it’s a most skilful professional who is needed, but often it’s the normal believer who is needed.
Some decades ago a very able counsellor came to Sydney and he taught the clergy, he taught the churches that nothing that we were doing was helping people, and we needed to go off to the professional. Well 20/25 years later he has completely abandoned this and said – 99% of what needs to be done in people’s lives can be done by friends who will sit and listen and think about what does the Word of God say and how can we read this together and pray that it would have it’s good and full impact on us. So a great deal of this pastoral care, even with the despondent and depressed, can be done by people like us, sitting, listening, loving, prayerfully thinking with some Biblical wisdom.
I want to just close by just reminding you of Psalm 13 which is a short psalm, only six verses but it pulls all this together, and it begins – you don’t have to look it up – but it begins with a sense of inability to go on – and I think this is encouraging.
Four times in Psalm 13 he says
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
He is in absolute despair, and the grief is not small. And he seems to have two great problems; one is inward – I have great sorrow in my heart – and the other is outward – My foes rejoice in my downfall – Inward and Outward – Weak and Oppressed.
And the prayer is a very simple prayer in Psalm 13
“Look on me and answer me and give light to my eyes. I need you to illumine, need you to brighten what is so dark and seems to be getting darker”.
And then the Psalmist finishes with this decision – “I trust in your unfailing love. My heart rejoices in your salvation. The Lord has been good to me, I will sing to him”.
So you see what he does – he brings the need, and he reflects on the fact that God’s character, his attributes and his activities are unfailingly loving. He never stops being merciful and gracious. He never stops forgiving and restoring. He brings new joys. It were what Paul in the New Testament says “He, God, who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not along with Christ give us all things”?
So I want to encourage you to use despondency for good. It can often be a most profitable time and help people to see their despondency as part of a sovereign, good, wise and loving God. Turn to God, don’t turn away from him. It’s the easiest thing in the world,isn’t it,when you are low to go to some illegitimate pleasure to prop you up which just makes you more despondence because it fails you but turn to God, bravely bring the subject to him and ask him to provide what it needed and then watch and see how he listens to you and brings light into a dark place. PRAY – TRUST – WAIT.
Let’s commit this to God – let’s pray:
Heavenly Father we recognise that in the world in which we live there are great trouble and difficulty. We know that your own Son experienced the worst of this and we recognise that in the world we will have trouble.
We thank you for the great privilege of being in Christ. We thank you for the great privilege of being saved and loved. We pray that you would help us, your people, to walk with you and not away from you, to trust you in deep water and to learn and to grow and to develop in ways that honour you and may be a blessing to others.
We commend to you those in the family this morning who are really oppressed and despondent and we ask that you would hear our prayer for them, that you would listen to our prayer, that you would look in mercy and kindness on them, that you would shed light into their minds and hearts and that you would bring them to a new position of strength and joy. We pray that you would help us to be useful servants to one another and that we might be agents of love and truth and we pray that in all the ups and downs you would help us, as the Apostle Paul, to keep being content knowing that you will provide all things that are needed.
We ask it all in Jesus’ Name – Amen.