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.

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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.

narrative theology for broken people

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