Depression with Dignity
Scriptures: Psalm 22:1-24; Mark 15:21-37
I have in my files a questionnaire used by counselors to assess
whether a person is depressed. I took it out this week and used it to assess the writer of Psalm 22.
Question 1: Does the person suffer from insomnia? Verse 2: "O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest." Insomnia: check.
Question 2: Does the person show chronic tiredness or low energy level? Verse 14: "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast." Low energy: check.
Question 3: Does the person report feelings of inadequacy, self-depreciation, or loss of self-esteem? Verse 6: "But I am a worm, and not human." That, to me, is low self-esteem. Check.
And further down this question: Does the person experience social withdrawal? Verse 6: "But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by people."
Any clinical counselor will tell you that the writer of Psalm 22 is depressed. Sometimes we think that Christians should never feel depressed, that Christians should always have hope and joy and peace. But here in the Bible is a psalm, sung by God's people for centuries, showing all of the symptoms of depression without the least trace of embarrassment.
In fact this psalm is quoted by no less than Jesus himself: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This whole psalm is a picture of what Jesus experienced on the cross. Here are some other parallels:
Psalm 22:7-"All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads." While Jesus hung on the cross, Marks says, "Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads."
Psalm 22:15-"My mouth is dried up like a potsherd." If you remember, during Jesus' crucifixion they keep trying to give him something to drink, but he refuses.
Psalm 22:16-In the NRSV this verse says, "My hands and feet have shriveled." But the ancient Greek translation of this verse it says, "They pierced my hands and feet," which, of course, is exactly what happened to Jesus on the cross.
Psalm 22:18-"They divide my clothes among them, and for my clothing they cast lots," which is what the soldiers did with Jesus' clothes.
Jesus does not just quote Psalm 22, he experiences it in all its grim darkness.
But you don't have to be crucified to feel the absence of God. About
as saintly a person as I can imagine is Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa spent most of her life as a nun working among the poor and terminally ill on the streets of Calcutta. But very few people know about the inner spiritual darkness and turmoil that Mother Teresa experienced for much of her life. Recently Doubleday published a collection of her letters called Come Be My Light. In these letters Mother Teresa reveals the depression and the sense of God's absence that afflicted her for much of her life. Here is an excerpt of a she wrote to her archbishop in 1956:
I want to say to you something-but I do not know how to express it. I am longing-with a painful longing to be all for God-to be holy in such a way that Jesus can live His life to the full in me. The more I want Him-the less I am wanted. I want to love Him as He has not been loved-and yet there is that separation-that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God (p. 164).
In another letter she writes,
There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God-so deep that is painful-a suffering continual-and yet not wanted by God-repulsed-empty-no faith-no love-no zeal. Souls hold no attraction-Heaven means nothing-to me it looks like an empty place-the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything (pp. 169-170).
The whole book is an amazing testimony. For almost sixty
years Mother Teresa served God even though she rarely felt God's presence. Even though she often felt abandoned by God, she kept praying, kept worshiping, and kept serving in some of the most desolate and depressing circumstances imaginable. She believed in serving God whether she felt God's presence or not.
And that is the key to Psalm 22. The writer of Psalm 22 may have felt
God's absence but he or she never quits talking to God, almost wrestling with God like Mother Teresa did. In verse 1 the psalm writer says, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But verses 3-4 read almost like a confession of faith: "Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you delivered them." But in verse 6 we are back to being depressed: "But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people." But in verse 9 there is another expression of faith: "Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast." But this leads to another cry of anguish in verse 11: "Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help."
Psalm 22 is a cry of anguish like no other, but it is a cry of anguish
directed to God, and the writer never quits pouring out his or her heart to the Lord.
Let me say here that depression can also be an illness that needs
treatment. Sometimes depression involves a real biochemical imbalance in the brain that can be helped with medication. So prayer should never be a substitute for seeing a doctor.
But a doctor cannot do anything about your relationship to God.
Medication cannot help you feel God's presence again in your life. For that we need something else.
And here is where we begin to see a change in the writer of Psalm 22.
Verse 22: "I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."
Sometimes when we don't know how to pray, we need to be with others
who will pray for us. Sometimes when our hearts cannot sing, we need to be with other people who will sing for us. And then, surrounded by the songs and prayers of others, God shows up again. Verse 24: "For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him."
Despite her profound sense of God's absence, Mother Teresa continuing
her work as nun, ministering to the poor and worshiping God every day with the other sisters in her convent. And in time things began to change for her. In 1961 she wrote,
Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness. When outside in the work [meaning her work of helping the poor] or meeting people [sharing faith with others] there is a presence of somebody living very close to me. I don't know what this is, but very often, even every day, that love in me for God grows more real. I find myself telling Jesus unconsciously most strange tokens of love (p. 211).
Feeling depressed is not a sign that you are a bad person or
that you are rejected by God. Depression may be a sign that you need to see a doctor. But feeling God's absence is a sign that you need a community of faith to hold you up. It is not wrong to feel sad, angry, or depressed. The psalms are written by people who felt all of those things. But healing happens when you bring those feelings to God in a community of faith where the Son of God, who experienced these things himself, can meet you.