More than they could handle

I had intended to carry on with part two of Elijah’s struggle with depression as my next post, but this letter from a friend was just too valuable not to make public. He writes from plenty of experience as a fellow servant of God and sufferer in the trenches of life.

Tiffany,

I just read the three entries of your blog (Messytheology). I like it a lot. We can relate, and still relate. Thank you for writing. Keep doing so . . .

I will only make two or three comments in agreement:

He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship. He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead. He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains.
Lamentations 3:5-7

Jeremiah was a faithful prophet of God, preaching 40+ years without a convert, called to endure horrific struggles. He was in despair for a large portion of his life (Lamentations 3, the early verses, is an example). We have even taken some of his words and made them into praise and joyful songs (“Ah, Lord God, Thou hast made the heavens. . . . “), yet if one looks at the context of that song, Jeremiah had just been told to go and spend hard-to-come-by silver on a piece of property outside Jerusalem as the armies of Babylon prepared to wipe Jerusalem off the map. And his “Ah, Lord God” was a painful, guttural cry, not a joyful song.

Even future blessings don’t erase the past.

Job. How can anyone say that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle? His wife couldn’t handle it. He didn’t either. He fell down and gave up. Then God spoke to him exactly what he needed to hear. But Job lived the rest of his days with memories of the past – even future blessings don’t erase the past.

Joseph. He was in so much turmoil of soul, that even years and years later, when God had blessed him in Egypt and given him a “ministry” and family and purpose, he had two sons, and their very names indicate that Joseph had yet to overcome the grief and pain of his childhood. So every time he called their names out, he reminded himself of the pain and trouble. Then God brought right to his doorstep the source of all of that pain from years earlier – his brothers and family. Troubling to grapple with.

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Lamentations 3:19

I agree with you that the English word “depression” isn’t found in most English Bibles . . .yet the words “despair” and “downcast” are. I believe that was what we call “depression.”

Robin and I both look forward to more from your blog. Press on.

Tab for the Hunters

Advertisements

More than we can handle

I hate it when people tell me that God won’t give me more than I can handle. Where in the Bible does that platitude come from? As I search the Scriptures, I find many stories of God’s servants being driven beyond the breaking point by wave after crashing wave of overwhelming circumstances. The Bible may not use the label depression, but it describes their physical and emotional condition in a way that lines up consistently with the way we experience depression today.

Elijah was a faithful servant of God, listening to His voice and following His directions. He had already endured standing up to a corrupt tyrant, being hunted for his life, having most of his colleagues murdered, and surviving a severe famine while in hiding. Now God was directing him to go back into the danger zone, to single-handedly confront the king, challenge a multitude of pagan priests, and defy the powerful spirit they all feared. Elijah obeyed God with incredible boldness of faith, and, in the strength of God, he won the day. But the cost of that glorious day was the many inglorious days that would follow.

… He himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. 1 Kings 19:4-5

Once again hunted and chased. Physically exhausted. Emotionally spent. Elijah sat alone under a tree in the middle of nowhere and begged to die. “I have had enough, LORD. Take my life…” (1 Kings 19:4). Giving himself up to the blissful release of sleep, he longed to never have to return the world of grief and pain, where each today held a constant struggle for survival and each tomorrow promised only more of the same.

God understood. He knew the limits of Elijah’s frame. After all, He had designed it. And He knew beforehand that those limits would be exceeded by what He was giving Elijah to do. So how did He handle His used-up servant? How did He respond to Elijah’s depression?

Far from growing impatient with our limitations or casting us aside in our frailty, God gives us permission to be weak.

God did not chastise Elijah for his weakness. He did not pump him full of motivational slogans and shove him back into the boxing ring. Nor did He cast him aside and tell him to come back for further service once he had gotten his act together. Instead He compassionately cared for his basic needs. Food. He sent an angel to wake Elijah and feed him a warm, comforting meal. More sleep. Another meal. God Himself served His frail servant, again sending an angel to wake him up, feed him, and help him along the way. “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you” (I Kings 19:7)

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”

God does give us more than we can handle, so much that at times we are left feeling broken, useless, and despairing of life. Far from growing impatient with our limitations or casting us aside in our frailty, God gives us permission to be weak. Our depression does not surprise Him. He gets it, and He knows how to handle it. He stoops down to lovingly tend us, compassionately creating seasons of rest and healing for our feeble bodies and fragile spirits.

Depression?

“Depression.” The word hung in the air between us with the same gravity as if my doctor had just said “cancer.” How was this possible? I knew that depression happened to other people, but not to me. I was physically and emotionally tough. I was governed by my mind, not my emotions. I was theologically grounded. And on top of all that, I was in cross-cultural ministry. Never mind that I had been relentlessly buffeted by major illnesses, miscarriages, strained team relationships, ministry to a demanding, mentally unstable neighbor, and life in culture that constantly degraded me as a woman. I should be able to handle that. I should at least be stronger than depression. But I wasn’t.

Life had become a bleak, endless serious of struggles to survive and obstacles to somehow overcome. I woke each morning with dread at the thought of having to live through another day. Joy? Pain? I was immune to both. Food had no taste. Fun was just more work. I had become robotic, exerting all my effort to perform the many challenging tasks that were duty. Duty drove me. It was not an option to quit or to fail, but I felt constantly on the verge of both. And God? He seemed to me the harsh taskmaster, the strict teacher who never smiles till Christmas. I wanted to live my life for His glory. I wanted to do great things for Him. But it felt like He was ordering me to carry a heavy load up a long, steep mountain, all the while tossing more burdens on my back and taking a stick and whacking my legs out from underneath me. I kept trying to do all that I thought He wanted of me, but I was rapidly reaching a breaking point. Dengue fever. House guests. Another miscarriage. As I broke the news to the local women who worked in our home, I sunk to the kitchen floor in uncontrollable tears. The only thing I could pray was, “Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”

I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven. As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy. Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us …
Psalm 123:1-3

That cry for mercy echoes throughout the Psalms, accompanied by detailed descriptions of the agonies endured by those who have walked these paths before. In Psalm 123, the only way the psalmist can pray is to repeatedly beg God for mercy. As I did in the depths of depression, he sees his relationship with God in terms of an aloof master and a desperate servant, crying out for mercy.  And yet the cry for mercy is also a cry of surrender. It is admitting that we cannot handle it on our own. It was the sound of my own subtle, self-sufficient foundation cracking apart.

The cry for mercy is also a cry of surrender.

I didn’t realize it then, but that breaking point was precisely what God had been carefully working me towards. He did not want me to approach Him as a dutiful slave, working for Him as if it were all up to me to get it right and if I didn’t He would be angry and toss me aside. He was calling me to relate to Him as a child, trusting that His compassionate love for me would not fail even when my strength did. Psalm 103:13-14 reassured me: As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.

My depression did not go away simply because my approach to God changed. But in the midst of it, I found the deep, sweet comfort of a broken child resting in her Father’s steadfast arms.

God in the mess

Depression. Trauma. Shame. What does the advancing kingdom of God have to do with our inner struggles? How does Christ’s coming 2,000 years ago change our current, messy reality? I admit that I have often felt that the God of Sunday-morning worship was a million miles from the mess of Monday-morning blues, that the tidy, lofty theology of the Scriptures bore little relevance to my complex, conflicting emotions, and that the kingdom of God was more of a spiritual nicety than an active reality. But I am not content to give in to those lies and give up on a God who is intimately involved in restoring the most broken places of my soul.

In the midst of the many dark valleys in my own life, I have gone searching for Him. I needed to know where He was in my circumstances and how He was leading me forward through them. At times that search has been long and agonizing, leaving me questioning along with the psalmist “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46). At other times it has been sweet and intimate, leaving me at rest under the shelter of His wings even while the storm still swirled around me.

As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Psalm 103:13-14
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Psalm 139:13

The fierce storms that I have weathered have often left me battered and broken, stretched beyond my limits and feeling devoid of life. In that inglorious state, I have wondered how God could possibly love or be glorified by my train-wrecked frame. He has slowly but surely convinced me that He knows the limits of my emotional frame because He designed it that way (Psalm 139:13; 103:14). He understands why prolonged, overwhelming circumstances would leave my soul drained and unresponsive, why experiencing helplessness in the face of overpowering evil would for years afterwards cause me to tremble and curl up in a tight ball, or why other peoples’ demeaning treatment would result in my own self-loathing. If God designed my frame to work in these ways, then surely He “gets” what is going on inside me even when I don’t understand myself.  He knows exactly where I am broken and perfectly how to fix it. Far from walking away from me in the midst of my brokenness, He has drawn near to comfort, heal, and restore.

Through the stories of Scripture, He has proven Himself the most brilliant of counselors, the most effective of healers.

But God’s healing in my life has not come merely through the experience of His Spirit within. Searching His Word for stories that parallel my own has opened my eyes to just how much the Bible does say about our inner struggles. I take the questions of my heart to these biblical stories. I empathize with what the characters were thinking and feeling. And then as God responds to their unspoken questions and unseen needs, I experience Him responding to me. Through the stories of Scripture, He has proven Himself the most brilliant of counselors, the most effective of healers.

Messy people are at the core of God’s kingdom. The sick in spirit are the very ones for whom Jesus came. And good theology actually can address the cries of our heart.