Depression and Psalm 102

in Bible study last week I taught on Psalm 102, and our conversation drifted quickly to the struggle of depression and suffering. The following is an article I wrote to follow up our conversation. I hope it may be a helpful reminder and encouragement to those who suffer from times of depression.

First of all, there are many causes for seasons of depression. Whenever I experience a time of isolation or depression I ask myself four questions to evaluate it.

These are four reasons for suffering in the life of a believer (and I would qualify extended periods of depression as a form of suffering):

  1. Is this caused by sin in my own life? Is there something God wants me to do that I am not doing? Is there something God wants me to quit doing and I refuse? Is my depression caused by unrepentance and I am just far from God? Maybe you are depressed because life if not working out according to your plan. Maybe you are suffering because of poor choices you have made. If the cause of your circumstance is something you’ve done, is there anything you can do to improve the situation or do you just need to humbly accept the consequences of your choices and adjust your life accordingly?
  2. Is this caused by the sin of someone else? Am I suffering because of the actions of another? If so, what do I need to do to prevent resentment and bitterness from leading to sustained depression? Examples would be suffering abuse at the hand of someone else, suffering the consequences of someone else’s bad choice, like a spouse that chooses to leave the family or financial hardship brought about by poor decisions of another person.
  3. Is this caused by the presence of sin in this fallen world (natural disaster, disease)? If so, what can I do to lessen the suffering brought on by this situation? Maybe you experience seasonal depression that is triggered by a traumatic event in your life, or the death of a loved one or some other event. If you begin to recognize a pattern to your times of depression, talk with someone who may be able to help you identify a trigger and help you set up some preventative measures to lessen or end your times of depression.
  4. Is this a time of suffering with an unknown cause? If so, am I living in the truth that God is sovereign even when I don’t understand? Many times we overlook the things we can do to help improve our situations and our emotions; we have more control over our minds and our emotions than I think we realize sometimes. But when we take an honest look at our lives and we can find no reason or “trigger”, it may be that God is allowing a time of depression and suffering to prepare us for a time later down the road or maybe it’s to teach us something about Him or about ourselves. Or maybe we could be like Job and our suffering isn’t actually about us at all.

Second, I hope that no one thinks this post is intended to offer a quick fix to depression or other forms of suffering we experience. The truth is that there is no 3 step program to end suffering; sometimes we do all of the “right things” and we continue to suffer. Ultimately, we are to turn to God and worship Him because He is worthy to be worshiped and praised— whether we are freed from our suffering or not. This Psalm is not about how to end depression; the point of Psalm 102 is that we should focus our thoughts and our worship on God in spite of our depression. Job said, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him.” If anyone had a reason to be depressed, it was Job! And depressed he was; he sat in his underwear, outside, in an ash heap, covered in boils, grieving the death of all of his children and the loss of all of his possessions. Yet through all of that he still praised God.

In his commentary on this Psalm, Spurgeon gives two lists for us to keep in mind.

First is the relationship between the afflicted man and prayer (Spurgeon’s words are in bold):

  1. Afflicted men may pray. Being in a time of depression does not somehow disqualify us from praying.
  2. Afflicted men should pray even when overwhelmed. In fact, I can’t think of a time when we need to pray more!
  3. Afflicted men can pray—for what is wanted is a pouring out of their complaint, not an oratorical display. God knows your heart, but He still desires you share it with Him!
  4. Afflicted men are accepted in prayer—for this prayer is on record. If God did not want us to pray in times of depression, He would not have recorded a lesson in how to pray when we are depressed.  

Second is a reminder of the things “unbelieving sorrow” makes us forget. Unbelieving sorrow describes those times of depression that are brought about (or sustained longer than they need be) by unrepentant sin in our own lives:

  1. We forget the promises of God.
  2. We forget the past and its experiences. Sometimes we are so focused on the present suffering we forget the healing and saving work God has done in our lives in the past.
  3. We forget the Lord Jesus, our life.
  4. We forget the everlasting love of God. This leads to weakness, faintness, etc., and is to be avoided.

Sometimes we have legitimate reasons to be depressed for a time: grief, chemical imbalances, trauma, stress. But by not working to combat the depression, we stay in it longer that we need to. Sometimes depression becomes our identity and then it becomes an idol. To prevent this from happening, we must continue to remember the things listed above so that the times of depression we cannot control to not last longer than they should.

The point of this post is to remind us (remind me) that we are to continue to praise God through our times of suffering just like we praise Him in our times of joy. Sometimes, the truest worship comes in the times of sorrow and pain and depression. It’s easy for people to worship in the good times; even Judas Iscariot appeared to worship Jesus when the money bags were full and the multitudes crowded around to see and hear Him. But to worship in the bad times, to praise Him in the midst of the storms of life, is to show the depth of your devotion and love for Him. And sometimes, just keeping the focus off of us and on Him, the times of depression just may not be as bad as they could have been. 

I hope this clears some questions people may have concerning depression. I have been known to overclarify things in the past, but I just want to make sure that everyone knows that I do not discount depression or the experience of depression. The Lord created us capable of having the emotional experience of depression which means we must learn how to use it for our growth and for His glory, and I hope conversations like the ones this hopefully begins will allow us to learn how to do that better!

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