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Defying Depression

I struggle with depression. The thoughts and feelings intrude, as if from the outside. Their entrance is unwelcome, but they come in anyway, and they linger. My self is left fighting the flood of negativity, wave after wave, fearing that the feeling might never end. Its presence persists in the midst of activity and work, and renders me incapable of rest.

Insomnia and anxiety often come with depression. Sleeplessness creates chronic fatigue, which causes me to long for sleep. The weight paralyzes; it becomes difficult to get out of bed. Even everyday tasks become a difficult mission to overcome as the soul struggles to act. I might seem aloof or detached, cold and uninterested, but these attitudes are merely a means of self-preservation.

The pain of depression goes beyond emotional and physical agony; it also invites a sorrow that feels the difference between what is and what ought to be. Depression renders visceral the gap between the ways of God and the ways of the self and world.

We might be tempted to tell ourselves to get over it, as if we chose this condition for ourselves. We might even be tempted to think that experiencing depression is not appropriate for the “mature” Christian or for any “real” Christian to experience at all. But such responses create even more problems and miss that Christ himself was a man of sorrows. Indeed, the Psalms echo a deep familiarity with lament. In the midst of these struggles, the Psalms have become a constant source of help. On many sleepless nights, the Psalmist cries out to the Lord: “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted” (Psalm 77:2).

Insomnia creates the paradox of weary wakefulness—a painful stress that vacillates between fatigue that cripples and anxiety that jolts. No meditation or thoughts of God seem to work; my soul refuses to be comforted. He goes on: “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints” (Psalm 77:3). What a broken condition: the soul refuses to rejoice at the thought of the sovereign God and redeeming Lord—the Giver and Saviour of life himself. Despite our best efforts, nothing helps.

Yet the Lord is near: “You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:4). The darkness of the night indicates not the absence but the presence of God. He is the one who opens my eyes, and he is the one in control of my distress. In Psalm 42—“Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (verse 5)—the Psalmist begins to talk to himself in verses 10-15. He turns away from himself and points upward and into a deeper contemplation of the character and works of God:

Then I said, “I will appeal to this,

to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;

yes, I will remember your wonders of old.

I will ponder all your work,

and meditate on your mighty deeds.

Your way, O God, is holy.

What god is great like our God?

You are the God who works wonders;

you have made known your might among the peoples.

You with your arm redeemed your people,

the children of Jacob and Joseph. (Psalm 77:10-15)

A Measure of Defiance

This act is not without vigour or effort; it begins with a defiant tone: “I will appeal to this,” the Psalmist cries: consider the years of the Most High, consider his deeds, consider his character, consider his redemption. The Holy God is compassionate, and he did not merely lead us through the waters of the sea by the hand of Moses and Aaron (Psalm 77:16-20), but through the waters of death by the hand of Jesus.

He has willed it. We spurned the holy God and yet the Lord refuses to leave us in our wretched states. He takes our dead souls and gives us new life. He refashions our hearts and renovates our natures. He takes our guilt and gives us righteousness. He sanctifies ruined sinners and makes them holy. He breached our slavery to sin and transfers us into a kingdom of light. He took shamed foreigners and made them sons in the Son. Think on this, the Psalmist says, appeal with your whole body to this: God is holy, and he saves.

The Christian clings in union with Christ. In him all the spiritual blessings are enjoyed—yet there is a hiddenness to this enjoyment (Colossians 3:1-4); it indwells us by faith, not by sight, and as such is not yet publicly displayed in the world. As John Webster rightly says in a reflection on the letter to the Colossians, Jesus determines the creaturely order of being and knowing. If this is so, then the Christian is called to live “with a measure of defiance, on the basis of the fact that, though they ‘have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery of Christ’… they can expect no public consent.”[1] In the midst of depression, however, we act with defiance not merely against the contestation of the public, but also of the self. In the darkest depths of depression, we can feel dragged into an echo chamber of unending thoughts of despair.

The appeal, then, is also a grasping on to see with the eyes of the heart the reality that is still unseen: “Christ constitutes creaturely reality by binding it into his own.”[2] We strive to see that Jesus determines reality, and so Christian knowing is not merely a perspective on reality, but a conformity to reality itself. Christian metaphysics is not a hindrance but an aid that attunes the distressed soul to realities of Christ. Abide in his word, not our own. Depression creates feelings that contest our identity and cleansing in Christ—but the Spirit within us calls us to defy those feelings. The feelings might be real, but they do not indicate reality—Jesus does.

Rest, Pray, and Fellowship: The Beatific Vision

There is no formula that gets us out of this state. There is no immediate solution, no magic pill to swallow. Often, going through the process of feeling a wave of depression and experiencing the theology above is too difficult. But Christ holds us fast: he promises not immediate relief but his presence in the midst of the sorrow—a presence that allows us to endure.

The fatigue of depression might lead us to rest in solitude, but this solitude should not result in the despair of isolation. The task of defying reality cannot be done merely by preaching the gospel to ourselves—we need the indwelling intercession of the Spirit as we pray. We also need the body of Christ to fight against competing reality-indicators in order for us to see the real (2 Corinthians 4:8).

Pain reminds us that this world is not our home, and no emphasis on the new city of the eschaton should eclipse that our hope is not in the city per se but in the Lord who will dwell climactically with us: “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

This does not deny an embodied hope but puts the resurrection into perspective. We long for the pains of the body and sighs of the soul to end, and this is so when our communion with the Lord is consummated—where Christ is. There, faith turns to sight. There, sight beholds that Christ is all, and in all (Colossians 3:11):

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

 


[1] John Webster, “Where Christ Is: Christology and Ethics”, in F. LeRon Shults and Brent Waters (eds.), Christology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 45.

[2] Webster, “Christology and Ethics,” p. 50.

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