“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 …
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.