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Defeating Depression

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Defeating Depression

Rejection Hurts.... It can come from family... peers... work. And if we experience it repeatedly, it can cause us, no matter how dedicated, to become depressed.

O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived;

You overpowered me and prevailed.

I am ridiculed all day long:

everyone mocks me.

Whenever I speak, I cry out

proclaiming violence and destruction.

So the word of the Lord has brought me

insult and reproach all day long.

But if I say, "I will not mention him

or speak any more in his name,"

his word is in my heart like a burning fire,

shut up in my bones.

I am weary of holding it in;

indeed, I cannot.

I hear many whispering,

"Terror on every side!

Report him! Let's report him!"

All my Friends

are waiting for me to slip, saying,

"Perhaps he will be deceived;

then we will prevail over him

and take our revenge on him."

Cursed be the day I was born!

May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!

Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,

who made him very glad, saying,

"A child is born to you—a son!"

May that man be like the towns

the Lord overthrew without pity.

May he hear wailing in the morning,

a battle cry at noon.

For he did not kill me in the womb,

with my mother as my grave,

her womb enlarged forever.

Why did I ever come out of the womb

to see trouble and sorrow

and to end my days in shame?

But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior;

so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail.

They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced;

their honor will never be forgotten.

O Lord Almighty, you who examine the righteous

and probe the heart and mind,

let me see your vengeance upon them,

for to you I have committed my cause.

Jeremiah 20:7-10, 14-18, 11-12

Christians don't get depressed.

Do you believe that? A popular speaker has asked more than 100,000 Christians across America this question: "Is there anyone present who has never, ever, been depressed?" And the answer? Through all his speaking engagements, not one single person responded.

"Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down / Standing in the need of prayer," the old spiritual goes. Do Christians get depressed? Of course they do. And they always have. From the writer of old spirituals to the spiritual giants of the Bible, Christians have struggled with depression. It is both an ancient and a universal problem. And very few people, Christian or no, have escaped its numbing effects.

There are several types of depression. Some people suffer from a chronic sort of depression, a clinical one caused by a malfunction of our brain's chemicals. Thankfully, modern medicine can now treat this sort of chemical disorder. But the type of depression the rest of us suffer is the type the psalmist knew: "Oh, my soul, why art thou cast down within me?" he asked. History is littered with great people who have battled depression. Hippocrates described a state of mind 2400 years ago that he called "melancholy." Winston Churchill, the great statesman who led Britain during some of its crucial, modern times, suffered personally with a desperate "dragon of depression" that he feared would slay him.

But surely, the great spiritual leaders never had trouble with depression, did they? The easier question, after a close look at the Old Testament, might be to ask which leaders didn't! In reality, these strong Old Testament characters could easily be called the "miserable majority" when it came to depression. Moses, Elijah, Jonah—the list reads like a roll call of fame. Some of God's mightiest heroes who have proven themselves to be the most committed among us have struggled with periods of dark, desperate depression.

Read Numbers 11 and hear Moses cry out, "God, I wish You'd kill me! I can't bear leading these people any longer! All they do is grumble about how good the food was back in Egypt Please just kill me!" Look at 1 Kings 19:4—Elijah, after his confrontation with the prophets on Mt. Carmel, rushes into the wilderness and cries, "God, just kill me! I've had it with this business of being a prophet!" Refer to the fourth chapter of Jonah where the prophet, strangely enough, is depressed because his "revival" was a big success. He didn't like God giving all those sinful Assyrians a second chance and asked God to just take his life. The more we look, the more we realize that depression is no respecter of persons.

The Depressed Prophet

But the worst case of all seems to be that of Jeremiah. From the chronicle he left us, his discouragement seems to be the rock-bottom depression of all time. Yet this is the prophet who was most often quoted by Jesus. No man in history could have possibly served God with greater integrity in more difficult circumstances with more complete surrender and undivided loyalty than the prophet Jeremiah. And yet this man was terribly, terribly depressed, as Jeremiah 20 shows us.

Jeremiah's book reads like a diary, the intimate papers or memoirs of a man called by God to prophesy. It's as if we are looking over his shoulder as he wrote about his innermost feelings. He seems to be writing to no audience but himself and God. And that perspective is very unusual, because it's something we don't get to do with any other prophet in the Bible. And maybe such an intimate angle is what makes Jeremiah's case so vitally alive, so vitally appropriate as we look for ways to defeat this devastating condition of depression.

The Reasons Why God's People Are Depressed

First, Jeremiah's "diary" can help us answer why we as God's men and women can succumb to depression. There are several viable reasons it can happen to any of us. Jeremiah's prayers in verse 7 of chapter 20 are almost painful to read, they are so open and personal, and seem so close to blasphemy. Jeremiah cried, "O Lord, you have deceived me... You overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me."

Literally, he says, "God, You entice me, You seduce me, You tricked me into being a prophet And now for all these years, I have preached Your message and have gotten no response at all." Remember that Jeremiah had spent twenty years—two long decades—of his life proclaiming doom and destruction to his generation. With no results. So this prophet began to imagine "divine deceit." This discouraged man pointed his fingers at the heavens and in effect asked, "God, have You been a liar to me? Have You been like a river bed in the holy land, full of torrents of water during the rainy season, but now only a deceptive, dried-up river bed, a disappointment for a dry and thirsty man?"

This wasn't the first place Jeremiah prayed such a terrible prayer. Jeremiah 15:18 cries out with the same pain: "Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?"

Becoming depressed is easy when we imagine that God has deceived us. And if we are as honest as Jeremiah, we'd have to confess we've all looked up and made the same sort of remarks:

"God, I believed that if I married in the faith it would be like heaven. Instead it's turning into hell. Things haven't worked out like You promised."

"Lord, I've always lived like You taught us to live, been honest in all my dealings. Yet my life is in shambles. Things haven't worked out like You promised."

Or, "Lord, I thought if I gave You a tenth and put my finances in Your hands, everything would work out okay. But things haven't worked out like You promised."

We've all looked to heaven and imagined "divine deceit." If a spiritual giant like Jeremiah could fall into that trap, then how can we avoid it?

Repeated Rejection

But I think there was another reason that Jeremiah may have been so susceptible to depression. And it is one with which we are all too familiar ourselves. Verse 7 shows us this painful reason. "I am in derision daily," the New King James Version says. "Everyone mocks me." The emphasis here in the Hebrew is the idea that all day long people "whisper about me. They hold me in contempt. They deride me." Jeremiah faced repeated rejection from the people around him. Besides believing God was deceiving him, he believed the people around him were calling him names, rejecting him from every side, from across the entire nation.

Yet Jeremiah wasn't paranoid. They were whispering about him. When little children would see him in the marketplace, they would taunt him by saying, "There goes ol' 'Magor-Missabib,' " as it is in the Hebrew. "There goes ol' 'Death and Destruction.' " He'd hear from the men at the gates: "Look, here comes ol' 'Death and Destruction.' " He'd hear it in the marketplace: "OP 'Death and Destruction' is coming this way." Jeremiah had been preaching about death and destruction—about violence and oppression:—For two very long decades. That's not exactly the kind of message that wins friends and influences people. And so, the people began to deride him. Even his family plotted against him. In Jeremiah 20:10, the prophet writes, "All my friends are waiting for me to slip." He says, "All the men who say 'Shalom, Jeremiah, shalom,' whisper and rub their hands together as I pass, muttering, 'Just wait until he slips. Then we'll get revenge.' " But worse, his family was no better. When you read Jeremiah's biography, you find in the first chapter that his family actually plotted his death when he heard God's call to prophesy.

So, finally, maybe inevitably, all the rejection began to get to Jeremiah. He couldn't turn to family, to friends, or ultimately even to the Lord Jehovah. He experienced repeated, deflating, depressing rejection.

All of us can identify with this feeling in one way or another. We may never have had a whole nation whispering about us, but we know what it feels like to be rejected. It may go as far back as the playground. Whether it was being the last chosen for a team, whether it is being turned down for a job or ignored by someone you love, rejection hits hard—and the feeling doesn't go away for a long time.

I remember a fellow who lived down the hall from me in college—he was an expert on rejection! He was a good old boy but he had this problem with dates—he couldn't get one. He was turned down so many times that we all began to keep score. Then, finally, on the twenty-first request, some girl had mercy on him and accepted. We all laughed about it, even making a victory line as he went out the front of the dorm. But you know he was hurting. He'd been rejected twenty times, and it was public knowledge. It had to hurt.

Rejection Kills

Dr. Robert S. Elliott, an eminent cardiologist, was giving a lecture to a convention of his peers when he suffered a coronary right in the middle of his speech. Out of that experience, he wrote a book called Is It Worth Dying For? In his book, he records the impact and difficulty that can be caused by rejection. In 1965 he was sent by the U. S. government to deal with the highly skilled young men who worked at Cape Canaveral. It was a crucial time because the space program was being forced to cut back. After every space launch, the total work force was being cut by 15 percent. And these highly intelligent young men, some only 29 years of age, were literally dropping dead under the stress of not knowing if they were next to be rejected.

Rejection hurts, no matter what time of life we experience it, no matter where it originates. It can come from family, from peers, from social circles, from work. And if we experience it repeatedly, it can cause us, no matter how dedicated, to become depressed.

But surely a godly Christian can keep a tight rein on these feelings. Can't he respond rationally to those closest to him as he copes with depression?

Responses When God's People Are Depressed

Not if Jeremiah is a typical case history. Jeremiah cursed the day he was born, in verse 14. Instead of "Happy Birthday," Jeremiah was saying "Cursed Birthday." The Book of Leviticus states that it was a capital crime to curse your parents. And that's really what Jeremiah was doing! He was getting as close to blasphemy as he could without receiving capital punishment.

Such a response isn't that unusual. "I wish I had never been born!" Jeremiah might exclaim. I've had many people express such feelings to me more than once. Jeremiah was saying it. Depressed people will say it. And they all mean it. They do curse the day they were born. They'd rather not have been born than to go through this state of mind. The depression overwhelms them with an irrational feeling of unfairness. It's a natural response, and would be bad enough if it stopped there. But it doesn't. When we are coping with depression, we begin to react by being irrationally unfair to those around us. And that's even more depressing, especially to those closest to us.

Anger and Depression

Mortimer Ostow, a psychologist who deals with people suffering from depression, says that depression at every phase of its development includes a component of anger. And the anger is usually directed against the individual who is expected to provide love and support but who ultimately disappoints. This anger can force anyone on the verge of depression into responding in an irritating or hurtful way.

So depression cannot only make us darkly bitter, it can make us irrationally unfair, causing our own darkness to ooze out and touch the lives of others. When Jeremiah cursed the day he was born, he didn't stop there. In verses 15-17, he cursed the man who announced the news of his birth. And then he prayed that he wished the man had taken a sword and slain Jeremiah and his mother on the spot! That's a black and bitter response, if there ever was one.

What do you say to somebody like Jeremiah? "Oh, cheer up, Jeremiah, ol' boy. Things will get better"? I don't think so. He wouldn't believe it. And yet this is one of the greatest spiritual giants of our heritage?

I like what Martin Luther said about Jeremiah. He said, in essence, that those who say Jeremiah is not spiritual enough have never really experienced the stuff of real life and ought to keep their mouths shut. Jeremiah's depression didn't mean he was secretly a spiritual midget. Instead, it revealed a spiritual giant who still found himself experiencing growing pains. Even though the prayers found in Jeremiah 20 fall far short of the Sermon on the Mount, they come from the hurting heart of one of God's best, one of God's greatest servants of all time.

Resources When God's People Are Depressed

Surely, though, being a Christian should help in some way to get rid of such awful depression. Yes, it should. And it does. Through the pages of Jeremiah's "diary," we see what happens when a person of faith is knocked down by rejection, when he imagines that God has let him down, when he experiences lingering loneliness and alienation and then looks up and says, "God, I've had it." And then it shows us how that person defeats his depression. Verses 11-13 show a glimmer of hope. In these three verses Jeremiah gets on top of it. He finds a way up and out of his deep, dark experience, and we can too.

God Is Still Working

What were his resources? How did he get on top of it all? First, he realized a very fundamental truth. Even though God is silent, He is still working in our lives. Remembering that fact is Lesson Number 1 in defeating depression. But why, we want to ask, why does He seem to be turning a deaf ear and a mute voice to us? There are no easy answers to such a question. I imagine Jeremiah had decided that God had closed shop and left town after he had preached twenty years without any visible response. Yet, slowly he found that God does work in silence.

We can see this truth in one of the last cries of Jesus on the cross, which was followed by one of the most awful silences in all history. Christ called out to God from the cross, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—words so striking that we have them recorded in His native tongue: "Father, Father! Why have you forsaken me?" At that moment, more than any other, Jesus needed a word from God. And all was silent, deafeningly silent. Yet God was busier than any other time in history, because during those six hours of silence, God was actively redeeming the human race. And come Sunday morning, God spoke loud and clear.

Depression comes easy if we begin to feel that God doesn't have anything to say to us, but the first rule of defeating depression Jeremiah's way is to remember that God works in silence.

Keep Right on Talking

Lesson Number 2 is just as important, although it may seem very hard to do: Regardless of how bad things seem, never quit talking, to God. There are prettier prayers in the Bible than Jeremiah's. If I were going to write a sweet, daily devotional book of pretty prayers, I wouldn't choose these of Jeremiah. Colorful, yes. Honest and open, yes. Pretty? No.

But believe it or not, those harsh, angry prayers are what saved Jeremiah's life and ministry. Sounds crazy, but it's true. Because even as bad as things seemed to be, Jeremiah kept right on talking to God.

You may have never thought about it this way, but we do something rather strange—we talk about God behind His back, as if He weren't listening. We grumble and mumble about our own sort of "divine deceit." And just as we wouldn't talk to someone we felt had done us wrong, we rarely talk to God about our suspicions. So we talk about Him or around Him, but we usually stop short of actually talking to Him about the problem.

Instead of talking about God behind His back, though, Jeremiah had the grace to tell God exactly how he felt. And he found, as most of us can, that being open with God is one of the best ways to get-up-and-out of deep depression.

"But," you're probably worrying, "I can't rant and rave at the Lord Jehovah! What about lightning bolts? What about honor and humility?" Jeremiah didn't worry about those things. And we shouldn't either. Our relationship, our emotional and spiritual well-being, are at stake! Telling God how you feel won't make Him so dizzy He falls off His throne. He's taken on bigger and harder prayers than ours.

Over and over the psalmist told God everything that was on his heart. Job cried out the same way. And so did Moses and the rest. How will God react? Will He recoil at such impudence?

If you've ever been a parent, you no doubt remember the first time your baby threw a punch at you. In frustration and rage the baby lashed out, punching at the closest person. What did you say to that child? Did you scream, "You impudent little thing, I'm finished with you!"? Not likely. Probably you loved the baby all the more because of how tiny and fragile, how weak and helpless the baby was in its frustration and confusion. And that's how our Heavenly Father is with us.

Closing off ourselves from Him out of pride or anger or self-pity will only grease our slide into deeper depression. Talking, even when the prayers are harsh, painful, even impudent-sounding, can help you overcome, just as it helped Jeremiah.

Reclaim the Promises

But there's one more lesson Jeremiah can teach us about defeating depression. Lesson Number 3: Reclaim the promises and the praise of God.: Reclaim the promises and the praise of God. Somehow, at his lowest, Jeremiah began to remember the promises God had made to him years before: "I will be with you." "They will not prevail against you." These were just two of the promises Jeremiah had heard from Jehovah. And as soon as Jeremiah began to recover the promises of God, he found, once again, the praise of God.

In verse 13, he began remembering all the good things God had done for him, all the times God promised to never reject him, to protect him. And he began to praise God for God's understanding.

We can do that—and we can experience the same change, because when we praise God for what He's done for us, we'll begin to remember those promises of God—to be with us always, to help us with our burdens, to show us the way.

I know this to be true in my own life. As a seminary student, I pastored one of those small village churches, and things seemed to be going well. Then, for some reason, I began to imagine rejection—even from the people I was working so hard to help! Looking back, I can see my depression was caused by that seeming rejection—just as it was for Jeremiah in a much larger way. But at the time, I couldn't see. My resignation shocked that little congregation. It was one of the worst experiences I have ever had. Almost everyone burst into tears, asking us what was going on and what was wrong.

As we packed our belongings into a little truck and pulled away, I was never so low in my entire life. I even decided to quit seminary after the semester was over. I intended to save my high grade average, but I went further and further down into depression and flunked exam after exam. I had never felt like this before. Never had anything quite like this happened to me. In the middle of it all, someone told me I should stay busy, so I went out and got a job selling encyclopedias. And, believe me, that is not the job for anyone coping with rejection!

But somewhere down at the bottom of that awful experience, somehow through the grace of God, I learned that God was still there in my life. He was there, even through my disobedience, depression, and disappointment. Even my bad choices and feelings of rejection had not alienated Him. I realized that He wasn't through with me yet. And I began to praise God, thanking Him for the people in that little church who believed in me and trusted me. Then I followed that up with praise for everybody who had ever done anything good for me in my whole life. And slowly, somehow out of that experience, I was able to find the courage to ask that little church to take me back. And they did, with a unanimous vote—which was better than I did the first time around!

I know what it's like to sit where Jeremiah did. Most of us do. I also know what it's like to find my way up and out of that hole, to go on with Chapter 21 of my life. And most of us can do that, too. In the middle of that deep, dark, demonic depression, if you had told me that I would have had the ministry I've had in the last ten years, I would have just stared at you. And with a bitter, humorless laugh, I would have replied, "No way. I'm finished."

But I wasn't. Jeremiah wasn't. He preached for another twenty years and we find no record of any depression experience as debilitating as this one. And, even though it may be hard to believe while you're wrestling with your own black fog, you're not finished either. Whatever your reasons or your reactions, you can take three powerful lessons from Jeremiah's responses.

And, through the grace and wisdom of an understanding God, you can defeat depression and be on the "grow" again.

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