Christian Living

Spiritual Life

Lost at Sea: A Helpful Insight on Depression

Years ago, my sister, Rachel, drifted out to sea into the dark depths of depression. Family crises, chronic health problems, and other factors sent her spiraling downward. Rachel sat for hours, wracked by sobs, her eyes empty and sad. She raged over insignificant things and withdrew from people. Pressures of single parenting added even more weight. Fighting fatigue, Rachel willed herself out of bed every morning, only to repeat the routine.

I couldn’t understand how a person so committed to Christ could be so enveloped by mental darkness. Despite my prayers, each day Rachel slipped farther out into the emotional deep, while I stood on the shore, helpless and confused.

I wasn’t the only one struggling. Folks at church witnessed Rachel’s disturbing moods and suspected a spiritual low had settled in her. Some urged her to read the Bible more, pray, or listen to praise music. Others tried to cheer her up.

What these people didn’t realize is that a person in depression can’t just put on a happy face. Thanks to help from a Christian therapist and my own research, I have discovered that we can offer companionship to those adrift on depression’s turbulent waters.

Understand depression. I began by learning about depression. I’ve had down days brought on by winter, midlife, a layoff. However, more severe experiences, like the death of a loved one, health problems, or divorce, can bring on depression that can last for weeks, months, or years. This mental gloom is even packaged in some families’ DNA, passed on through bloodlines for generations.

A moderate case of depression is like an overcast day, with more clouds than sun or no sun at all. But an extreme case is like a stubborn darkness, an in-your-bones sadness that won’t let go.

Rachel’s depression fit this model. It became chronic, or major, lasting for years. Understanding things about the brain gave me new insight. If it lacks the chemical serotonin, which controls emotions and other neurological functions, depression can set in. Medications and talk therapy keep Rachel’s brain in balance, much as insulin and diet keep the pancreas functioning in a diabetic. Our frail emotions and the brain’s need for chemical balance are part of what makes us “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

Don’t confuse depression with lost faith. What about the person at church who doesn’t smile and admits that God seems distant and uncaring? Has she disconnected from God?

I used to think so, remembering King Saul (1 Samuel 18-31). But Rachel has convinced me that depression doesn’t always signal a problem with faith. After an emotionally heavy week, she couldn’t wait to get to church on Sunday. She sang “Amazing Grace” with tears wetting her face. She told those in her support group that the only thing getting her through each day was God. These were not signs of a woman out of fellowship with God but of a woman walking with God through the dark.

It’s risky to judge a person’s spiritual condition solely by her behavior or words. Job cursed the day he was born and struggled to sense God’s presence (Job 3:1; 23:3-9). With God’s help, we can discern the difference between faulty faith and the honest cries of human pain.

Be quick to listen and slow to speak. One Sunday when Rachel shared her feelings with a fellow member, the woman responded, “Things can’t be that bad.” When she heard the word depression, yet another person saw it as the work of the Devil.

These responses reveal a tendency to speak too quickly instead of listening to someone’s pain. Doing this discounts the feelings of the depressed person. In speaking before we listen, we inflict more hurt.

A sensitive friend of Rachel’s followed James’ advice: “be quick to hear . . . [and] slow to speak” (1:19, NIV). Every week after Bible study, she hugged my sister and asked how she was doing, then quietly listened. “I’m praying for you,” this woman said. One day she asked Rachel, “Do you ever feel that God has deserted you? I’ve had times like that.”

A quick ear and slow tongue grant permission for the depressed person to express herself without fear of judgment or correction.

Make your prayers supportive. When Rachel first drifted into depression, I believed God for healing. A compassionate God wouldn’t want His child to suffer such mental torture, would He? I claimed scriptures, like Jeremiah 32:27: “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” When Rachel’s depression worsened, I thought God had met His match.

Eventually, however, I viewed God’s denials to my requests as redirection of my prayers. Though some are healed of depression, Rachel would not be. But she could survive.

So I prayed for coping skills, that her doctors would find the right combination of cognitive therapy and medications. On her bad days, I asked God to be real to her, that she would see Him on her dark sea (Mark 6:45-51). Remembering Paul also pled for healing from his “thorn in the flesh” and was denied (2 Corinthians 12:8), I prayed for God’s grace in Rachel to withstand depression.

God has answered these prayers. Rachel has accepted her depression as a lifelong battle that forces her to depend on God. She is showing me that God’s power isn’t shown only in healing, but in making our worst weakness strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).

In the boat. Depression has changed Rachel and me. It’s been a good change, forging a deeper bond between us. I’ve left the shore and climbed in the boat with her. Together we row on the endless dark sea, locked in a rhythm of love and faith.

We’re not alone. Beside us sits the Man of Sorrows, gripping the oars and rowing when our strength is gone. A few friends have climbed inside as well. And from where I sit, there’s plenty room for more.

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