Spiritual Depression

If you are normal (and the jury is still out on this for some of you) you have faced periods of discouragement or depression. Everyone experiences down times. We can become sluggish from grief; from disappointment that something we put a lot of energy into does not turn out the way we expected; from a relationship that ends; because of health problems; from financial oppression; or from the petty frustrations of life that have seemed to bury us.

As we read the Bible we see many Biblical characters who faced times of depression (Elijah, Moses, Joseph and many of the prophets). This morning we will be challenged to stop looking at our circumstances, and instead look at what we have in the Lord.

Please understand. I am not trying to tell people who are going through very hard times simply to “buck up” (though there are times when I am tempted to say just that to people). I am also not trivializing the real torment of clinical depression. Some people suffer from a chemical imbalance that needs the attention of a physician. The kind of depression we look at this morning would be called spiritual depression. It happens when we feel cut off from God. God seems far away and we feel very alone. It is a spiritual problem rather than a biological problem.

We turn to Psalm 42 and 43. The reason we put the two Psalms together is because most people believe they are meant to be together. They seem to be three verses of the same song. The refrain, “Why are you downcast O my soul” or “Why am I discouraged?” is repeated in 42:5, 11, and 43:5. Verses 9 and 43:2 are also the same. Also, there is no title to Psalm 43 which may indicate the break is not supposed to be there.

This Psalm was written by or for the Sons of Korah. These men were Levites who were employed in service at the temple. Some believe they were involved with the music (think of a contemporary worship band).

The Symptoms of Spiritual Depression

The author of the Psalm describes his condition in a very honest way that gives us a pretty good picture of what spiritual depression looks like. I suspect you will recognize many of these symptoms from your own experience.

As the deer longs for streams of water,

so I long for you, O God.

I thirst for God, the living God.

When can I go and stand before him?

A Feeling of Dissatisfaction. The author loves the Lord. He wants to rekindle intimacy with God. He is not half-hearted in this desire (like so many seem to be), He is passionate about drawing close to the Lord. The problem is that he is frustrated with his situation. For some reason there is a barrier that seems impossible to overcome.

We don’t know if this person was physically kept from worshipping in the temple (was he part of the exile, taken to another land?) or was it an emotional separation? In other words, was he serving at the temple but he it was simply going through the motions? He may have been doing all the right things while feeling emotionally disengaged. Either way, the author finds himself dissatisfied. He yearns for God but cannot find Him.

Have you ever felt that way? Are there times when you open the Bible to learn from God but nothing seems to register? Are there times when you just can concentrate in prayer? Are there times when you leave a time of worship still feeling hungry for a touch from God? Most of us have felt this way on occasion.

Tears. The depression the writer experienced caused tears to flow and is affecting the writers’ appetite. He doesn’t feel like eating, he is too distraught. His emotions are all over the place like a roller coaster. This sense of alienation is not helped by the mocking of enemies.

Day and night I have only tears for food,

while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours?”

A person going through any kind of depression almost always shows this fact in their expression. The fact that you feel like crying all the time can’t determine whether you have spiritual depression, are going through a time of depression (because of a broken marriage or loss) or whether you suffer from clinical depression that needs treatment. (Clinical depression has a biological source or is a pattern so deeply locked in that you need help breaking the pattern). The point is that tears are a sign of something broken. No matter how much you try to put on a happy face, the brokenness comes through.

If you are like me, you have had times when you felt like a failure. You disappointed yourself, others, and you know you have failed to measure up to God’s standards. At these times I often am brought to tears of disappointment and feel spiritually depressed.

The Feeling of Being Overwhelmed. In verse 7 the Psalmist talks about waves and surging tides sweeping over him. In other words, he feels caught in the undertow of life. Circumstances become overwhelming and you feel helpless as life throws you around.

We mentioned last week that guilt often leads us into spiritual depression. We feel like such a failure that we continually “beat ourselves up”. People going through a divorce experience depression because of the loss of a relationship and also because of a feeling of failure. They don’t know how they will survive. There are so many decisions to make that it is overwhelming. This is why at various stages during a divorce people are almost inconsolable because life is overwhelming.

A Feeling of Persecution. In verses 9-10 and also in verse 1 of Psalm 43 the Psalmist reports that he feels attacked by others. They criticize, ridicule and make his life miserable. He says the taunts “break his bones” (v. 10). The pain of their words is real and it is intense. In such times we feel like we can’t measure up, we feel rejected, and may even feel like a failure because we can’t seem to meet the expectations of others. Sometimes this rejection and persecution is imagined (we are unrealistic in our own expectations) but at other times the rejection is very real.

This is a time when we can fall into a destructive negative cycle. Since we are increasingly negative, combative, and complaining, we tend to push other people away. We are so imprisoned by our feelings that we appear to be self-absorbed and aren’t much fun to be around. Consequently, others pull away which causes the sense of alienation and uselessness to increase. The cycle continues to spin.

What Causes Spiritual Depression?

We have seen some of the symptoms. What are some of the factors that bring about spiritual depression? There is no easy answer to the question. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (who was a Physician as well as a Pastor) lists five factors that can lead to spiritual depression.

Temperament. Some people are natural extroverts and some are introverts. Introverts can become so introspective that they become overly critical of themselves. They make a mistake and just can’t move beyond it (even though there is nothing they can do to change what happened). It is good to examine ourselves, face our failures squarely, and learn from our mistakes; it is bad to become so introspective that we cannot move on from those mistakes.

Physical Condition. There are lots of physical ailments that encourage depression. When we are tired, ill, or have any kind of illness it is easy to become depressed. This is why rest, exercise, and taking care of yourself is so important.

An Emotional Let Down. Often after a great blessing we see a rebound effect and subsequent depression. Think about the person who goes to a great conference and gets all enthused about their faith. Often shortly thereafter they experience a spiritual lethargy. The same is true after you share your faith, serve effectively, or even have a meaningful season of worship or prayer. Whenever there is an increase in intensity and adrenaline there will be a letdown to follow. When we have great spiritual “highs” we must be especially on guard for this condition. “Normal” looks sluggish when compared to the high of a great experience.

The Devil. The Devil works hard to enslave us to our temperament or circumstances. Lloyd-Jones writes,

“There is no end to the ways in which the devil produces spiritual depression. We must always bear him in mind. The devil’s one object is to so depress God’s people that he can go to the man of the world and say: There are God’s people. Do you want to be like that?”[1]

In other words the Devil wants to discredit us to the world so he leads us into times of depression.

Unbelief. The Psalmist understands this. Do you notice how He continues to urge Himself to look to the Lord? Ultimately, spiritual depression comes because we are guilty of fixating on our circumstances, our plans, and our desires rather than truly looking to the Lord.

Dealing With Spiritual Depression

First, Be Proactive. The fact that we become depressed or discouraged is not sinful. These emotional highs and lows are a part of life. There is no need to panic or to conclude that you are not a genuine believer because you feel some melancholy. However, we need to recognize when this is happening to us.

I find that there are times when I can see that I am becoming lethargic and my attitude is beginning to sour (or has soured). I am learning that in those times I need to take a day (or an afternoon) off. Often I am exhausted and I need to take a nap or get a real good night’s sleep. Sometimes I need to carve out some time to get alone with the Lord and read something that will enrich my soul and help me draw strength from the Lord.

If you recognize these symptoms in your life you may be able to “head them off at the pass” by getting some exercise, by taking a vacation, or even by changing your diet. The key is to recognize what is happening and instead of feeling guilty or dwelling on the negative, do something positive to address the issue.

Second, Cultivate a Thirst for the Lord. I remember the wonderful old story about the husband and wife who are driving in the car. The wife is sitting up against the passenger door and reflects that the spark seems to have gone from their marriage. She said, “do you remember those days when I used to sit right next to you and you would put your arm around me or I would put my arm through yours and put my head on your shoulder. I miss those days.” The husband looked at his wife and simply said, “Who moved?”

When we feel distant from the Lord we must face the reality that God is not the one who has moved. He will not abandon or desert us. The Psalmist recognizes this. He reminds himself to “Look to the Lord”.

The place to start is in prayer. In these times we can and must speak to God honestly (even if it is to say that we are having trouble speaking to Him). Tell Him how you feel. Examine your expectations. Are they unrealistic? Discuss what is really happening. Is it possible that you have over-reacted?

Turn to God’s Word. Open it up and listen to what it is saying. We have become so self-reliant, so conditioned to think that we need to “fix things” that we aren’t very good at coming to the Lord as one who is dependent and willing to wait on the Lord. Hear His promises; take note of the commands. I don’t know how God does it but if we will open His Word with a heart that wants to hear from Him it seems just the right verse comes along to get our attention.

Confess known sin. Unconfessed sin erects a wall between us and the Lord. Sometimes we feel distant from God because we are quite frankly, hiding from Him.

Third, Talk to Yourself. We must decide who (or what) is going to control our lives: our feelings, our circumstances, the expectations of others, or the Lord of Life? We, like the Psalmist must remind ourselves of what we know to be true.

We must remind ourselves that how we feel and what is true is not always the same thing. We must interpret our circumstances by what is true and unchanging rather than changing the “truth” to fit our circumstances.

  • We may feel we have fallen beyond recovery; but the truth is that if we confess our sin He will forgive us. Jesus has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. He paid the penalty for our sin.
  • We may feel useless, but God has given everyone a way to serve and honor Him.
  • We may feel all alone, but the truth is that the Lord has never left us, He holds us in the Palm of His hand.
  • We may feel too weak to continue; but God has promised that we can do all things through His strength.
  • We may feel that our life is over; but we must remind ourselves that our God is the God of surprises and some people who thought life was over find out that life is really just beginning. Sometimes life is not “over” it is just “different”. Those are not the same things.

I share this message often when I go to a Nursing home. I try to remind the residents that just because they can no longer do the things they once did doesn’t mean that there is nothing they can do! For example, often in the past we found that we had little time for prayer . . .the change of circumstance has now opened up the opportunity to build a vital prayer life. In the past we had no time for people, now we have lots of time. We may have had no time to serve the Lord through His church, but now we can. We had no time to grow in faith, now we have time to read and to study.

Fourth, Keep Going Forward. The Psalmist challenges himself to do what must be done. Any counselor will tell you that one of the keys to overcoming depression is to keep going. You may not have much energy or enthusiasm for the tasks that need to be done (whether it is doing the laundry or teaching a class) but we cannot walk out of the darkness if we stand still!

One of the great principles of life is this: when you don’t know what to do, keep doing what is right. Keep being kind to others, keep seeking God in prayer, keeping reading the Bible, continue to tell others about Christ, continue to be a good steward of what you have been given, continue to believe that God is leading your life and look for His guidance and continue to walk where He is leading.

Fifth, Take Advantage of the Community of Faith. The Psalmist knew where to turn for help. He turned to the Lord. (This doesn’t mean that you should never turn to a Doctor for help. If depression continues, be sure to talk to a Doctor and make sure you don’t have a medical problem.) However, much of the time the cure to our spiritual depression is found in looking up to God’s face rather than looking down at the circumstances of life. One of the ways to do this is to develop the habit of worship.

The Psalmist longed for Lord. He associated time with the Lord with being in His house with God’s people. This man mourned the fact that he was unable to worship with God’s people. Too often we see Sunday worship, Bible Studies, Church events as chores we need to do (sometimes I feel that way too). We see our time together as a duty rather than as a time of refreshment and a place where we will renew our strength for another week.

I know this sounds self-serving and I don’t say this to increase worship attendance. But we need these times together.  It is important to remind ourselves of the truth of Scripture. It is valuable to sing praises with other believers. It is good to take the focus off of ourselves and pray for other people. It is important to belong to a fellowship where we can find encouragement and where we can contribute in a significant way.

Many people are fervent in their worship in a time of crisis and then they fall away again. They feel their problem is solved so they don’t need “church” anymore. These people have not really addressed the problem (that they are disconnected from the true source of life) they have only addressed the symptoms. God calls us to come to Him and be part of a community of faith because this is how He has designed for us to fellowship with Him. We need encouragement, direction, and we need to be reminded that the true goal of life is something bigger than worldly applause, excellent health, wonderful experiences, or financial security. The true goal, the real key to life is found in our relationship with the God who is bigger than this life.

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t pant enough for the living God. I am too often distracted by the trinkets and amusements of life. I too easily settle for temporary pleasures or the applause of men. I do this even though I know that these things do not satisfy. I know that I am never more alive than when the life of God captivates me and fills me. As a result my life is often a roller coaster of emotions. The only way to cure this problem is to anchor to something (or in this case some ONE) who is stable and constant.

As we deepen our roots; as we grow in our love for the Lord; as we learn to pant for Him like a deer pants for water, we will find that spiritual depression will lift and joy will return. It’s really pretty simple: The closer we walk to Him, the less room there is for the circumstances of life to get between us.

[1] Lloyd-Jones Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1965) p. 19

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