God’s Grace is Always Sufficient
When thinking about depression I am reminded of William Cowper (1731-1800). This name might not be known by many. His loyal friend the ex-slave trader John Newton, though, will certainly be more familiar because he is the author of the popular hymn “Amazing Grace”.
Cowper was often plagued by doubts and melancholy. His depression was so serious that he spent time in an asylum, a place for people who suffered from mental illness. His friendship with John Newton proved to be an enormous blessing for him. John Newton was always at Cowper’s side whenever he needed him. Cowper said, “A sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had”.[i] To have true friends when you go through the valley of depression is a real blessing.
Both these friends made many hymns which were published in the hymnal “Olney Hymns,” named after the place where John Newton lived. Being occupied with this positive work of writing Christian hymns was of great benefit to Cowper in his battle with depression. It made him look away from himself to Christ. This proved to him time and again that God’s grace was always sufficient for him.
Understanding or Misunderstanding
Perhaps many of us have difficulty understanding depression, and for that reason we are sometimes not very good in supporting those who suffer from this condition. That is no reason to say things like: “Get over it” or “Pull yourself together.” That is not very helpful and can have the opposite effect. Don’t we all experience occasional moments of low mood and sadness? That’s normal and nothing to worry about. Some people, however, experience these feelings more intensely, for long periods: weeks, months or even years. Depression is a serious condition that affects one’s physical and mental health. Read the quote from Beyond Blue which shows how serious it really is.
“Men are known for bottling things up. But when you’re feeling down, taking action to call in extra support is the responsible thing to do. Trying to go it alone when you’re feeling down increases the risk of depression or anxiety going unrecognised and untreated. Depression is a high-risk factor for suicide, and plays a contributing role to the big difference in suicide rates for men and women. On average, one in eight men will experience depression and one in five men will experience anxiety at some stage of their lives. Blokes make up an average seven out of every nine suicides every single day in Australia. The number of men who die by suicide in Australia every year is nearly double the national road toll.”[ii]
It is when these symptoms become severe and when they affect a person’s ability to function in daily life that help is needed. They need to turn to their pastor or elder or a brother or sister in Christ to be encouraged in the truth of God’s Word and receive care for their soul. They need the support network of family and friends to encourage them in everyday activities.
There are times when the problem becomes so serious and severe that professional help is also required. When that happens, it is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, people who suffer from depression or anxiety need much courage to admit they experience these problems and to seek help. It would not be right to ever underestimate the seriousness of depression or anxiety. Where can a Christian go for understanding and help?
Where can a person with anxiety and depression turn when everything seems bleak and hopeless? Wherever they look, they see the world through tinted glasses, dark, sad and hopeless. When their whole world falls apart and nothing seems to go their way, it can be so easy for their faith to falter. Where shall they go when the darkness of spiritual depression descends into their lives?
David felt that way and he says to God in Psalm 42:9, “Why have you forgotten me?” Sometimes he felt completely deserted by his heavenly Father. Fortunately, he knew the answer and encouraged himself by pointing to God: “Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.” In verse 4 of Psalm 43 he even speaks about the God of his exceeding joy and about playing the harp and praising God.
We might wonder how we can sing when we don’t feel like it. How can we possibly sing the hymn “It is well with my soul” when we are in a crisis like the author of that hymn? How can we sing when we feel totally crushed? Martin Luther had the answer: “When you are happy you will sing, and when you are not happy you will also sing, because singing makes you happy.” Isn’t that a wonderful advice?
Instead of listening to our soul when we wake up in the morning and are reminded of yesterday’s problems, we ought to speak to our soul like David did. We can preach the gospel to ourselves: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). This is the gospel of joy, the gospel of life.
A World Full of Fear
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) addresses fear of the future as a contributor to depression. In a sermon on 2 Timothy 1:7 he says this:
“It is possible to be so gripped by fears of the future that we become ineffective in the present. Satan’s primary goal is to discredit Christ, therefore he attacks Christians. To do so, he tempts us to dwell on the future. If a Christian dwells on the future, fear of the unknown becomes paralysing. The result is depression in our present time. Our natural temperament, characteristics, and make up contribute to depression. Our inclinations do not disappear once we become a Christian. We must, therefore, recognize our fears and our tendencies, and strive to deal with them. Fear of the future, for some, is a specific fear. For others, the fear is general. For all who are gripped by this fear of the future, they must fight as a new creature, filled with new life. For God has not given a Spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind. The future may indeed be filled with sorrow, challenges, and suffering. Yet we trust the Lord and boldly step into the unknown with our confidence placed in Christ.”[iii]
These are comforting words in times of depression including times of uncertainty due to COVID. Depression and anxiety can be so overwhelming that it plunges us into immense darkness, so dark that it almost feels like death. But David shows us the way of deliverance in Psalm 130. From the depths of sadness, he pleads with God his Saviour to hear his humble cry. And he is confident about God’s willingness to hear him. Together with Paul he reminds us of God’s grace which is always sufficient, as it says in 2 Corinthians 12:9.
Look Away from Yourself
To look away from yourself and your own troubles is a good remedy and good medicine for people suffering from depression. In the church there are many opportunities for reaching out to others and to get actively involved in helping those in need. It’s not easy, but small steps in reaching out to others, one person at a time, one day at a time will be rewarded in blessings. Just like in the example of Cowper and Newton, it is also a real treasure having supportive relatives and friends. How rich we are to belong to the church of our Lord and to be surrounded by brothers and sisters in the Lord! They are a gift from the Lord.
May we all learn to look away from ourselves and focus on Christ, our Saviour.