Hopefully, the days in which people were given a slap around the face, told to pull their socks up and cheer-up have gone. Everyone faces the blues from time to time. In our life-times probably 60% of us face what Doctors now call depression, one in 5 of us facing major depression. The blues and even dark thoughts are a fact of life for almost all of us, and we now think of depression more correctly as a malady.
We must therefore be sensitive to the place in which people find themselves. It is unhelpful to come out with a list of platitudes and even ‘inspired’ principles for freedom, without feeling people’s hurt.
Telling people what they did wrong to get to a depressed state is like poking them in the eye with a stick. Telling them what they can do to overcome their darkness also has to be handled sensitively, because our advice is often the latest in a long string of ideas that were no help at all.
Stress is a fact of life. When I started in retail management, I had never heard of people off-sick with stress. I didn’t hear of it for years. 23 years later when I left retail management, there was never a time when I didn’t have colleagues (plural) off with stress. By this time retail had been extended to Sunday and the old ‘half-day closing’ had long since disappeared. In retail the rhythm of life had been disturbed – one worked shifts, without any regularity. The impact this had on staff was enormous, but the impact was fed out to society as everyday became homogenous, everyday a shopping day, nothing was reserved for rest and no time was underlined as being special.
Most of the world population lives in cities, and we refer to work as the rat race. We live in a stressful place that previous generations did not experience. We are therefore having to develop strategies for our new lifestyle on the hoof, as we have no established model for coping with the lifestyle we now enjoy/endure*.
* Delete as applicable
If you are reading this from a dark place, please understand that I am not trying to minimise the difficulties you are facing, or claiming that if you print this article out and attach it to your head with elastic bands that you will be instantly healed.
There is however a journey into the light that is not only possible but achievable. Let us see what the Bible has to offer on this subject.
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. James 5:17 NIV 2011
1 Kings 19:3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank NIV 2011
The next morning Jezebel threatens his life and the triumphant Elijah falls from the highs of Mount Carmel to the lows of a deep dark depression.
Why? How did Elijah fall so low?
We start to see the answer in the treatment given to him by the angel - a couple of square meals and some quality sleep.
Yes – Elijah did not need someone to read the book of Romans aloud to him – what he really needed was a pattern of good, regular meals and a rest.
So many of our blues start when we don’t look after ourselves. In times of stress and difficulty, we can adversely impact our own mental health by not recognising our own physical needs and looking after them.
The impact of lifestyle cannot be ignored. Eating at regular times whenever possible and having a ‘bed-time’ are a good practice.
S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a very real syndrome that seems to be controllable with a daylight frequency lamp. Seeing daylight can help the blues on so many levels. A friend of mine recommends a weekly walk into the countryside or through parks as his therapy.
What can we say about other triggers of the blues?
Not everything is about food and sleep – what about the baby blues? Some women have experienced post-natal depression as a very real dilemma; is it just the result of hormonal changes in their bodies? Sometimes the high of bringing a baby into the world exposes us to a low when we have to radically alter our lives to care for it. Again this is a complex issue but a very real one to those who have suffered this way.
In Elijah’s experience it might also be true to say he was coming down from the highest high of his life and ministry.
Intimidation was also a trigger factor for Elijah. Intimidation is not always the Queen threatening to chop off your head! Situations at work and at home, with neighbours and bills that demand payment can all be the intimidating triggers that send us into a dark place.
Sudden shocks to the system can be another cause – abortion, bereavement, relationship breakdown, redundancy, retirement, sudden changes of all kinds.
Dark memories can also be triggers. These are things that we haven’t forgiven ourselves for, experiences that we didn’t cause but maybe we blame ourselves for, abuse, pain, mountains of baggage that needs disposing of or at least sorting through and filing.
Knowing the trigger may not resolve your issues, but it may give you a starting point from which to fight your way back. The problem of course is that often you feel no desire or ability to fight!
I have known Christians suffer for years because their ‘faith’ would not allow them to ask for help from their GP. Sometimes chemicals help (although they often make things worse for a few weeks first). Although many people have been negatively impacted by drugs that don’t agree with them or usage over too long a term, others have been genuinely helped.
A good GP will recommend alternatives to a bottle of pills too. Perhaps counselling will help. Many Christians worry about being counselled by an unbeliever, but there are Christian counsellors available and even non-Christians can help us sometimes you know!
In a hole
Jeremiah was literally in a hole. They dropped him in an empty cistern and he sank into the mud (Jer.38). They left him to starve/dehydrate to death. It was a very dark place but Jeremiah went on to get free from the hole he was in and wrote these words.
My soul has been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is.
18 Then I thought: My future is lost, as well as my hope from the Lord.
19 Remember my affliction and my homelessness, the wormwood and the poison.
20 I continually remember them and have become depressed.
21 Yet I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord's faithful love we do not perish, for His mercies never end.
23 They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness!
24 I say: The Lord is my portion, therefore I will put my hope in Him.
25 The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him.
26 It is good to wait quietly for deliverance from the Lord. Lam 3:17-26 HCSB
Jeremiah had forgotten what happiness was, he had no peace or hope and thought he had no future. He had suffered homelessness, affliction, bitterness and the poison of others lips; he continually remembered his life-issues and by his own confession had become depressed.
Does this sound like anyone you know?
For this dark prophet, there was a confession of depression followed by his own route out from the hole he was in.
Having a strategy
His strategy was simple;
i. He called to mind the goodness of God and meditated on it
ii. He recognised the transitory nature of life
iii. He reminded himself that God can be trusted and he began to hope again
iv. He looked for new mercy
v. He waited for deliverance, seeking God.
He had to call the goodness of God to mind, because it wouldn’t just come by itself – He had to direct his thoughts. Disciplining your mind to think about God’s goodness is essential for all of us.
Saying that he recognised the transitory nature of life doesn’t sound very cheery – but the sooner we recognise that it isn’t all about this life the better. John’s great encouragement to the persecuted church at the end of the first century was to talk to them about the return of their Lord and the promise of heaven (The Book of Revelation). Having a good this life/next life balance is as important as having a good work/life balance!
God’s faithful love wasn’t something he felt and he probably wouldn’t describe it as a warm fluffy awareness, but he made a step of faith in reminding himself of this truth. Faith isn’t based on our senses or feelings – it is based on the truth of who God is, and we must meditate on that if we are to get out of our hole. He reminded himself that the Lord can be trusted, no-one else may remind you today – it is a discipline that will help you focus on God, rather than the hole you are in.
He began as a choice to hope in God. There wasn’t a lot of hope around when he was in a hole, but he chose to believe and expect God to step in.
He looked for one new act of mercy and love from God. We must look too – it is there if you look! Dwell on it – be grateful for it. In fact have the same attitude that you find in Psalm 103. Even if you don’t feel like it, express your gratitude.
Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits — 3 who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, 5 who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's. Ps 103:1-5 NIV
He had to wait (we do not know how long) but instead of his cistern/prison just being a dark restriction in his life, he filled the space with God. He didn’t allow the waiting to wear him down further, but instead spent time seeking God.
Have I waved a magic wand – has this solved your problems? No – but I may have introduced you to the components of your answer! Will tomorrow be alright? I don’t know, but if you follow this path you can deal with today. If you leave tomorrow alone, then when tomorrow becomes today you will be able to deal with it as you would any other ‘today’.
If you are feeling really in a hole today and depression has a hold of you, it may seems great imposition to give you a list – another list – of things to do, but however hard it is, make a start on the first item. Jeremiah was helped this way when he was depressed and I cannot escape the belief that it might help you too.