Suffering WellJuly 12, 2011
William Cowper experienced it. So did Charles Haddon Spurgeon and the Apostle Paul. What is it? Depression. Today, Christian counselors Ed Welch and Leslie Vernick explain what it means to suffer well when walking through depression.
William Cowper experienced it. So did Charles Haddon Spurgeon and the Apostle Paul. What is it? Depression. Today, Christian counselors Ed Welch and Leslie Vernick explain what it means to suffer well when walking through depression.
Bob: Ann is a wife, a mother of four; and a woman who has wrestled throughout her life with depression.
Ann: I think what helps people the most is basically just to say when someone is depressed or someone is grieving is, "I'm so sorry. Tell me about it. Tell me about what you're feeling." It's almost like it allows someone to open up that wound of pain. That's the biggest gift you can give that person.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, July 12th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey; and I'm Bob Lepine. Maybe someone you know, a friend or even a family member, is dealing with depression. Do you know how you can minister to him or to her?
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition. You know, when I was in high school, in the choir, we sang a musical version of Psalm 13, written by an author—I don’t know if it was Jean Berger or Jean (Ber-zhay—phonetically-spelled)—but this was a contemporary author who had written a musical version of Psalm 13. I don’t think I had ever read Psalm 13, but I have learned it because we sang it in choir.
"O Lord, how long will you forget me? How long will you withhold your favor from me?" Talk about melancholy—you talk about somebody who is in a period of depression—here is David expressing this kind of depression that has him looking around and saying, “I have no hope, I have no friends, I have no joy.” “How long will my enemies triumph over me? How long, O Lord, look to me and answer me.” I mean, it even has that line in there, “Lord, you're not even talking to me.”
Dennis: Yes, repeatedly, David talked about God hiding His face from him. In Psalm 88:18, he talked about how darkness was his closest friend. Think about that one—darkness is your friend? There certainly are, I think, vestiges of depression, discouragement, and deep, profound sadness expressed in David's life.
Bob: The Bible speaks to the issue of depression in all of our lives, doesn't it?
Dennis: It does, and we have a couple of friends who are going to speak to that subject as well. Leslie Vernick and Dr. Ed Welch join us again on FamilyLife Today. Ed, Leslie, welcome back.
Ed: Thank you.
Dennis: Leslie is a licensed clinical social worker. She is a counselor and has written a book called Getting Over the Blues: A Woman's Guide to Fighting Depression.
Dr. Ed Welch is also a counselor and works for Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. He is also a professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and has also written a book on depression called Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, Light for the Path.
Ed, I couldn't help but notice in your book that you dedicated this to your dad. In fact, let me just read your dedication because I think it gives us a little glimpse …
Ed: You're going to make me cry if you do this, but go ahead.
Dennis: "To my father, W. Edward Welch, who, on this side of heaven, after years of depression, guilt, and worry, persisted on an ordinary, yet heroic, path with quiet wisdom and is finding joy." What's behind that?
Ed: I grew up with a man who went through some of the early shock treatments in the United States. I had an opportunity to see depression fairly consistently—episodes that were very deep at least a couple of times a year; but I had a man who lived before me a persistent, persevering faith in the midst of those difficulties.
Dennis: How old were you?
Ed: Oh, it began as early as I can remember, seeing those kinds of episodes in my father, where he would simply be incapacitated and sometimes hospitalized.
Dennis: How was he heroic?
Ed: He was heroic in the sense that his faith, unbelievably, didn't seem to falter in the midst of that—which to people who are depressed— they would find that heroic, as well. Again, there was perseverance in his life; there was perseverance in being outward and in seeking to love other people, including ourselves in the midst of his depression.
My father is not the man he used to be. He is still alive today. He barely remembers me; but in the nursing home where he lives, they say, "There is a fine, Christian man,"—no matter who you speak to in the nursing home. Then you ask for some elaboration, “What does it mean to be a fine, Christian man?” They will talk about joy. When you see my father today, joy will be the thing that characterizes him.
Dennis: You would say, then, that watching him handle depression as a man for your entire life, not just your adult life—but since you were a boy—has really marked you as a follower of Christ.
Ed: It certainly has. As I see other people who struggle with depression, that word, “heroic,” comes up to me all the time because to seek in a meek and humble way to try to see Christ in the midst of that kind of pain demands a kind of faith that very few people have.
Bob: You know, as you talk about your dad, I'm reminded of something I heard John Piper say that had a profound—one of those things that just sticks with you. He said that when we experience good fortune in life, when we experience good things happening, and we say "Praise the Lord," the watching world doesn't go, "My, what a profound witness for Christ that is;" but when we go through darkness, valleys, and trials, and there is still joy, they can't figure that out.
Ed: The depressed person cannot imagine that they could ever be these pinnacles of faith, expressions of glory, but that's exactly what you're saying. A depressed person feels as if God does not hear and they are, at best, put on the shelf. To remind them, as we spend time with them, what an amazing testimony of glory they are to us and give them a vision for how they can do that with others.
Bob: You may have read—Piper wrote a book, in his Swans are not Silent series, biographies of Christians. One of them was this theme of people who were depressed. William Cooper, the man who wrote There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood, a contemporary of John Newton's, used to go over to Newton's all the time. You get this picture of thoroughly morose person that you wouldn't want to have around. Yet, Newton welcomed him in, continued to minister to him, and continued to give him grace. It's a compelling story because you wonder, “How many folks are enduring their Christian life and wondering, ‘Why am I here, and what purpose am I serving?’”
Dennis: You know, we don't think of a person being a man of faith or a woman of faith who is encountering depression; but Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great English preacher, was a man who profoundly struggled with deep, deep depression and discouragement. I think once he even was preaching at a large gathering of, like, 12,000 people. Someone screamed, "Fire!" Six people or so lost their lives, and it spun him off into a season of depression that he had to grapple with his God about.
Ed: His entire life he grappled with his God. One of the pleasures that I had in thinking about the material in this book and reading people who have been depressed is, you begin to find that many, many, many saints of the church have struggled with deep depression to the point where you begin to wonder, “If you're not feeling depressed, what's wrong with me?” because you see sort of this long list of God's favorites like Spurgeon, like J.B. Phillips, who have gone through very, very hard times—and like David, as we began the show.
Leslie: Like the Apostle Paul.
Dennis: Yes, you're speaking of Paul.
Leslie: Yes, in 2 Corinthians he talks about despairing even of life and "God who comforts the depressed comforted me by the coming of Titus." Paul was talking about his own despair and his own depression. Even in the midst of that, he had perspective on eternity, which gave him hope in the midst of that darkness.
Bob: Here is how we normally think, “I'm a Christian. I'm experiencing depression. Those two should not go together because, ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength,’ and I should be, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice.’” All of these statements, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy”—we think a Christian ought to be one whose life is characterized by joy. If I'm not feeling that, if I'm not experiencing that, is there something spiritually wrong with me?
Leslie: Well, James tells us that we're to consider it all joy whenever we face troubles. If we face depression, how do we face it with joy? I'll just do kind of a silly example. When you're working out at the gym, nobody finds that pleasurable, for the most part. If you're working hard enough, you're not finding it pleasurable; you're suffering.
Bob: Amen. Amen.
Dennis: Bob, you've never even been to the gym. Don't act like you've been there and experienced that.
Leslie: So the way I kind of get my hands around this concept of joy is what keeps you enduring in the midst of that suffering is that mindset that something good is happening in you. You're developing …
Dennis: That there's purpose.
Leslie: There's purpose; you're developing strength; you're developing muscles. Even if it's for vanity's sake, you're developing something inside of you. Spiritually, James uses that metaphor to help us understand that joy isn't this pleasurable, emotional high. It's an inner sense of calm; it's an inner sense of knowing that something good is happening in the midst of great suffering.
Bob: So depression and Christian—those should go together?
Ed: Bob, you started off with Psalm 13. If you want to get a good sense of what is the appropriate emotional gamut for the Christian life, you go to the Psalms. Recognize, of course, that the Psalms are not simply one person's experience, but these Psalms are all pointing to the Divine Singer himself. They are ultimately the Psalms of Jesus Christ. He is giving us words to say in the midst of our difficulties. We are encouraged to speak these very words to the Lord.
Bob: David comes, at the end of that Psalm—I remember singing it because the music changes. It goes from this minor key to a, "But on Thy kindness I, indeed, rely; let me exalt over Thy saving grace. I will sing unto the Lord." In one Psalm, you go from, "You're not hearing me," to, "I will sing to you." It is almost like, “What happened in the meantime?”
Ed: It is as if a depressed person must begin the Psalms with just little, tiny pieces, where you begin with a verse, "Okay, that captures me. I feel like God doesn't hear me at all." You, at least, find your heart encouraged and your faith built up that God understands and knows, is even giving you words to speak these things.
Then, in the midst of that, you develop a vision, over time, to say, "I don't want simply to have one little piece of that Psalm. I want that entire Psalm of David to be my own," which, again, is something utterly heroic that we can, I believe, in prayer, go to the Lord and ask for those kinds of things with the confidence that He will give us the Psalm.
Leslie: Well, we notice in the Psalms a lot, where David is pouring out his heart to God, by the end of the Psalm, David is listening to God. Part of the rhythm, I think, of prayer is talking and listening, for all of us, not just the depressed person. For the depressed person, it is very hard because, first of all, they've got to be honest. It is hard for a depressed person, sometimes, to be honest because they feel so ashamed that they are angry at God or that they have these horrible feelings inside—that they want to die.
It is really hard, sometimes, for them to just be honest with themselves; but we see in the Psalms that Jeremiah, David, and other people who talk to God, talk to Him honestly. God wants us to come to Him with an open, honest heart, even if what we say and feel are not the more pleasant range of emotions. The more we get in the habit of pretending—I talk a lot about women are good at pretending that they don’t feel what they really feel. The more we keep pretending, we distance ourselves from who we really are and what we really feel. Then we can’t fix “it” because we don’t even know what “it” is.
Dennis: You know, one of the things that, as we talk about depression, that hit me as I was reading both of your books, depression is a form of suffering. That does not sound like a profound statement; but, I think, if we simply establish a category medically that a person is depressed and we leave it in the medical realm—off in a corner by itself over there, even away from other forms of suffering—I think we need to be careful that we don’t divorce depression from the theme of suffering because we are called as we follow Christ to suffer.
Ed: If a depressed person somehow has the gumption to search Scripture, which is heroic, if they somehow have that gumption, and they try to look for the word, “depression,” they are not going to find much, if anything; but if they simply listen to their experience and recognize this is a profound form of suffering, suddenly every page of Scripture speaks to them personally.
Dennis: Ed, I want to take you back to your dad. “How did you see your dad suffer well?” because, ultimately, that's what you're saying he did and how he practiced an heroic faith.
Ed: One, he would ask for help. Believe it or not, he would ask me, as a teenager, for help. He would ask me, as a teenager, to pray for him in the midst of his depression and feeling so miserable. How many fathers ask their son— how many fathers have the humility to ask their son to help them in such a way? That is certainly one thing that I saw.
I mentioned his “out-wardness.” There was a persistent generosity in my father, financially and in terms of time, to people—and this was not unusual—to people who were miserable people. Miserable in that they felt miserable or their circumstances were miserable. He had a keen eye for people who felt like this.
Dennis: So in the midst of his own despair and dark tunnel, he reached out to others?
Ed: Heroic, absolutely heroic. One of the tasks that we, as people who walk along with those who are depressed, have is to be able to point out those amazing expressions of faith because the depressed person feels like they are forsaken by God. They feel like the Spirit is not with them in any way. They can't imagine anything good except for the alleviation of depression.
How can we, who walk along with depressed people, when they are willing to adopt part of a Psalm, be able to say, "That is the powerful work of the Spirit"? “We desire that your depression is alleviated. We desire that as much as you do; but notice this—to be able to seek Christ in the midst of suffering—that is—that is the stuff that the angels sing about and are amazed at. They say, ‘Oh, that is what the cross of Christ has done.’”"
Bob: I know there are a number of different strategies for dealing with depression. You list some of them in your book. You both talk about strategies for dealing with depression; but, I think, you've really touched on one here. If you can muster the energy to be involved in some kind of outreach ministry to others, if you can somehow just get involved in serving other people, that's therapeutic as it relates to your depression, isn't it?
Ed: One of the old men I had a chance to speak to, a 75-year-old man—he has been depressed his entire life. There is the kind of person—you want to talk to him and just glean the wisdom that he's received. His wisdom was really fairly simple.
The question was, "Why did you get up every morning?" He said, "The reason I got up every morning was because I was called to love people. I would look to love somebody every single day." There you want to take your shoes off and say, "I'm on holy ground. That kind of spirit is here."
Leslie: Well, certainly, I think that one of the things that depression does, and you speak to this quite well in your book, is that it really turns a person in on themselves. They become overly analytical, overly introspective. They examine every flaw that they have in life and everything that's wrong with them with a magnifying glass.
I think one of the strategies that is really important is that you begin to take your eyes off of yourself and you put them on Christ so that you begin to see things differently—even yourself differently, your purpose differently, and life differently. You begin to practice having an outward-focus. Some of us, by nature, even if we're not depressed, tend to have a more inward-focus. That can really get us into trouble because it makes us more depression-prone and more vulnerable to depression when life’s circumstances are difficult.
God wants us to look outward, fixing our eyes on Christ. Jesus did that as our example, and we are to do that as well.
Ed: I can start off with a comment for those who are living with depressed people. Try not to take it personally because one of the experiences of depression is that you are emotionally dead.
Emotionally dead means that if I love this person who is depressed—and I pour out my life to them, and they have utterly no response to me—at some point I'm going to fatigue. I shouldn't fatigue, but at some point I'm going to fatigue in reaching out to them because I'm not getting anything in return. The fact that there is nothing in return does not mean the person doesn't care about you. It means they are emotionally dead inside. They feel nothing.
Bob: When we are called, “to bear one another's burdens,” that is what we are being called to, aren't we?
Leslie: That right and to help the weak. So someone is weak at that point, we're to help bear their burdens or lift them up. We don't want to do that in trite, meaningless ways by just saying, you know, "Snap out of it," or, "The joy of the Lord should be your strength," or any of these quick and fast results that come from not really thinking deeply about someone's suffering. Come alongside, like Job's friends initially did. They just sat with him, and they comforted him. They said, "I see that your pain is deep, and I don't know what you're going through."
When they began to give him the trite answers, "This is why you're suffering," that they really irritated Job. Sometimes we can irritate a depressed person by misdiagnosing and saying, "Well, you must have depression because you don't have enough faith," or, "You must have some sin in your life," or, "You must be doing something wrong." All of that might contain some elements of truth; but wouldn't that be true for even a person who wasn't depressed, having those things true in their life?
Dennis: What you both are calling the person who is depressed to do, or the person who lives in close proximity to that person, is to live a life of faith and look beyond the suffering to the purpose of God in that suffering and to the God who takes us all through different things. “What is He trying to teach me? What does He want me to learn by loving and living with this person and attempting to encourage them and strengthen them in the midst of tough days?”
You know, personally, Barbara and I have never experienced depression like we're talking about here. So I really don't know what it means to experience that personal rejection, Ed, that you said someone who lives in a close relationship with a depressed person can begin to feel; but you know what? That person who does live there can look beyond the suffering to the God who loves them and to the God who wants to guide them, empower them, equip them, and encourage them to continue on.
Leslie: I worked with a couple who were—he was just a hero to her. She was so depressed she couldn't even lift up her eyes. She was that depressed. He just encouraged her, he prayed for her, he brought her to the doctor, he looked on the Internet for some sort of help for her. He was her strength and her energy. God used him in a mighty way to love her, and I think that's what God calls us to do to one another.
Bob: And the books that both of you have written are books, not just for those who are experiencing depression, but for those who are living with those experiencing depression. You've got strategies, not just for, “How do I deal with my own stubborn darkness?” but, “How do I walk somebody through that path?”
Ed: Certainly, in my book, and I'm sure Leslie's book is exactly the same way, my desire is that the book is a team project where a depressed person and another person come together because suffering is never a journey that anybody should take by themselves.
Bob: That's right. We have both of your books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. If our listeners are interested, they can go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on Ed Welch's book. It is called Depression: A Stubborn Darkness. Leslie’s book is called Defeating Depression.
Again, you will find more information on our website: FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order the books from us online or call 1-800-FLTODAY (1-800-358-6329). That is 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.” Get in touch with us. We can let you know how you can get either or both of these books sent to you.
I know for a lot of folks who are wrestling with an issue like this or any kind of suffering, tragedy, discouragement, or defeat in life, the question pops up, “How can God be a good God, a loving God, be all powerful, and still allow this kind of hurt to happen in my life?”
Our friend, Randy Alcorn, has tackled that subject in a 64-page booklet that is called “If God Is Good, Why Do I Hurt?” This week, we want to make a copy of that booklet available to you, at no cost. You may be new to FamilyLife Today, haven’t listened for very long. We would love to connect with you. This is a booklet that we would be happy to put in your hands, again, at no cost. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to request a copy; or call 1-800-FLTODAY and ask for the free booklet, “If God Is Good, Why Do I Hurt?” Again, the number is 1-800-FLTODAY; or you can order online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
As we wrap things up today, Ed, I was thinking about the fact that there are a lot of folks who are listening who may have never stopped to think about a parent's struggle with depression the way that you've expressed it today. They've never considered the heroic struggle that it may have actually been for a mom or for a dad to wrestle throughout their life with depression.
Ed: The last time I actually talked to my father I said this, "Dad, you have been just an amazing example to me of faith throughout your entire life. Your life is one of the significant things that has brought me to Christ because there were certain things I could not explain. Why would someone who feels that miserable, so often, continue to seek this Lord? There is something here that I don't understand. There is a hope possible here that I don't understand."
My father walked that for many years. I said to my father before, "Dad, thank you. I love you, I honor you, and I respect you. My life has been changed because I have watched your life."
Bob: FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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