Holding On to Your Faith In the Dark Night
Jo Swinney was at Regent from 2000 to 2004. She lives with her husband Shawn, a fellow Regent grad, and their two daughters in London, UK. She wrote about her experience of depression in Through the Dark Woods (Monarch, 2006) and has written three subsequent books. She blogs at www.joswinney.com
Depression attacks hope and relationships, it throttles appetite and energy; it muddies thoughts and demolishes confidence. And it will destroy faith in a good God given half a chance. I know from long and painful personal experience the way depression can make a person think God is hateful, judgemental, and distant—if in fact he exists at all. I know depression can urge you to conclude your failings are too great to overcome even by a loving, self-sacrificing God, that your inability to serve the poor—you are barely able to brush your own teeth some days—is evidence your faith is hollow hypocrisy. But I also know faith can survive depression. Here I am: a Christian! Here are some ways to give your relationship with God a fighting chance at survival through dark times:
1. Challenge your thoughts
One of the reasons it is so exhausting to be depressed is that you have to be constantly arguing with your own inner monologue. But argue you must, because your depressed mind will tell you all kinds of lies: God doesn’t love me, or even like me. God is cruel and distant. I am beyond salvation. I am very likely possessed by demons, or perhaps the devil himself. As often as you can, choose not to listen to these thoughts. Choose not to accept them. John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote this to his friend, the poet John Cowper, who suffered terrible bouts of depression and had survived numerous suicide attempts: “Doubt your despairing thoughts. Who do you think you are to make final declarations about your soul that lie hidden in the secrets of the Almighty? No. No. Renounce such confidence. If you have no ability for faith in the love of God for you, make no more such great pretences to have such certainty of faith in your damnation. This is not yours to know. Rather, yours is to listen to Jesus.”
2. Don’t over-spiritualize
Chris Danes, a UK-based educator and writer, has been unable to work due to mental health issues since 1997. He writes, “During the first phase of my illness, I truly believed I was sinful. I was certain that I was not really ill at all. I saw myself as a worthless failure and a hopeless drunk on the short road to hell. I was convinced that my failures were all my own fault…So for a long time, I resisted my counsellors’ and doctors’ assertions that I was truly unwell.” As depressed Christians, we are vulnerable to reading our condition in simplistic spiritual terms when our symptoms are the result of many complex factors, including biochemistry. These interpretations take us further into darkness and despair, and as Danes found, can be a barrier to seeking appropriate medical help.
3. Access medical help
Identifying depression as a medical condition rather than spiritual weakness is key to our faith’s survival. Prayer, in isolation, is not the best way to treat any illness, mental illness included. It took me several years to accept I needed professional help. I was finally persuaded by Thena Ayres, the Dean while I was at Regent, that although I was coping much as I might manage life with one arm, two would surely be better and perfectly achievable with the right treatment. I ended up seeing a psychiatrist for three years and I’ve been taking medication for over ten. The combination brought more healing than I would have dreamed possible.
4. Let God carry the relationship
When we are healthy and well, we can make the mistake of thinking our relationship with God relies almost entirely on the effort we put into prayer, Bible reading, church going, service and so on. Depression can dismantle every ramification we’ve put in place to grow in faith, leaving us as dependant on God’s care as newborns. That is uncomfortable, frightening, and humbling. But I can testify that every time I’ve been unable to hold up my end of the relationship, God has held things together. We need to be as gentle and kind to ourselves as God is when we are low. There will come a time when we can manage more than weepy, monosyllabic, God-ward groans. But while we are just surviving, God holds us close and expects little in return.
5. Stay connected to your Christian community
While there is a clear biblical call for Christians to meet regularly for teaching, worship, and mutual encouragement, attending a church service can be beyond endurance for someone in the depths of depression. There are too many people in one place; there is a high risk of one or more of these people being too kind and making you cry, or saying something damaging and making you cry, or ignoring you and making you cry even more; you can’t go in your pyjamas and take a blanket to hide under; you are almost guaranteed to come away with the impression that you are the only Christian in the building who hasn’t got it all together.
However, as we all know, church is not a building and church is not a Sunday service. Church is the body of Christ, a community of believers, a family. There are plenty of ways to stay connected even if we can’t face the big get-togethers. The old illustration of the burning coal that grows cold when set on the hearth is echoed in the dying faith of many a Christian who has chosen to go it alone. It’s tempting to blame the church, its leaders, its lack of pastoral care and missing theology of suffering when someone with depression falls through the cracks, but it works both ways. We need to fight our inclination to disappear and do what we can to stay present.
6. Let your Christian family care for you
God meets the needs of the world by and large through those who love him, are formed in his image, and are obedient to his will. When we are broken and in pain, the most tangible way he will care for us is through the care of his people. When I look back over my worst episodes of depression, there are signs everywhere that God had not forgotten me. I think about my three Christian roommates during my undergrad, who took turns each morning to bring me tea and sit on my bed until I could face the day. I think of Catherine and Michael, my Regent friends whom I called when I felt an unbearable urge to end my life and who got there within minutes and stayed until the danger passed. I think about Karen, who scrubbed two weeks’ worth of accumulated oatmeal pans, plates encrusted with unidentifiable remains, and dangerous-looking mugs—a shameful mountain of dishes that had come to symbolize my inability to cope. In times of depression, we can’t rely on feelings of God’s peace and presence as confirmation of his reality or love. But if we let our Christian family care for us, we will have concrete evidence God is there with us.
7. Find ways to help others
There is a huge spectrum of depression, and if you are at the extreme end, breathing in and out is probably where you should focus your efforts. My depression has been dysthymia— low-grade, chronic lowness, interspersed with more severe episodes through which I was still able to function more or less normally, albeit with super-human effort. If you, like me, are able to keep up a semblance of normality, I highly recommend the spiritual discipline of service. Depression by its nature causes us to be inward looking, self-focused, and disconnected from the world outside our own tortured minds. Meeting the needs of others re-establishes connection, reminds us we have something to offer, and takes our attention off ourselves. But perhaps the most compelling reason of all to serve others out of our weakness is that this is what Christ himself modelled. Henri Nouwen writes, “Jesus [made] his own broken body the way to health, to liberation and new life. Thus like Jesus, he who proclaims liberation is called not only to care for his own wounds and the wounds of others, but also to make his wounds into a major source of healing power.”
8. Avoid people with toxic theology
Here are some examples of toxic theology I have encountered: depression is inherently sinful because it demonstrates a lack of trust in God. Joy is a fruit of the spirit, so if you are depressed, the spirit is not in you. Depressed Christians give God a bad name and repel potential converts. You cannot be a depressed Christian because Jesus defeated all illness on the cross (Isaiah 53:5 “by his stripes we are healed.” Proof). Depression is the result of a sin: find the sin, repent, and all will be well. God likes you being depressed because then you know how much you need him.
When you hear this kind of nonsense, stuff your fingers in your ears and run. Run fast towards the horizon and don’t stop until these misguided assertions are but a pinprick of harmless heresy somewhere behind you.
9. Pray the Psalms
The Psalms are a priceless gift to Christians in a dark place. They give us words when we are free-falling through a silent void—a way to express our sense of abandonment to God. They give us a vent for our disillusionment and anger and allow us to voice our most profound doubts. And then they anchor us to the experienced truth of God’s love, God’s faithfulness, God’s steadfastness, God’s presence. When you can’t pray, pray the Psalms. You could start with Psalm 6: “My soul is in deep anguish…my eyes grow weak with sorrow. Turn LORD and deliver me; save me because of your unending love.”
10. Remember the bigger story
Depression robs us of perspective and the ability to see clearly in any direction, but “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1). The bigger story is that God will one day end all suffering, and in the meantime, he can use it for our good and his glory. Life can be nasty, brutish, and short, as Thomas Hobbes would have it, but for a Christian there is a greater narrative. Eugene Peterson writes, “The hard work of sowing seed in what looks like perfectly empty earth has, as every farmer knows, a time of harvest. All suffering, all pain, all emptiness, all disappointment is seed: sow it in God, he will bring a crop of joy from it.”