A Light in the Darkness

A First-person Account Of Depression . . . And Faith

I stand with the rest of the congregation for a familiar hymn. Except mouthing the words takes a herculean effort. My heart is sad and parched. I feel out of place in the midst of so many people with smiling faces and praise on their lips. I can't remember the last time I felt buoyant in spirit, or put my heart into worship. Guilt badgers me, for I'm aware that the joy that I'm without is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

I'm trying to muster enough resolve to keep a lunch appointment with a student, and to teach an afternoon class at the university. My lesson plan is prepared, but the last thing I want is to be around people. As I walk to the campus cafeteria, I hope the student won't show. The idea of listening to and feigning interest in another person creates pressure that I resent. My gait is slow and my spirit is lethargic as I approach the entrance. There's a high humidity in my heart that smothers motivation and saps energy for the daily routine.

I sit in my recliner, clutching the second handful of tear-soaked tissue. In stark contrast to the afternoon sun, my spirit is pitch-black. "Where are You when I need You?" I cry aloud to God as despair envelops me. "Don't You care enough to help?" My weeping becomes so violent my body convulses. All the prayers I've uttered seem in vain. The pain won't ease up.

Those vignettes from the past year depict my ongoing struggle with depression. When I'm caught in its gravitational pull, I'm either robotic, too numb to feel anything, or the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme and there's a torrent of tears. But whether I'm void of emotion or hypersensitive, hopelessness taunts me. In those moments a battle rages in my spirit between despair and faith. One voice within me insists that the darkness is inevitable, that the pain will never subside. The voice of faith offers a rebuttal, pointing me to God and asserting that hope will have the last word.

Despite the severity of the symptoms I've experienced, I choose to believe the voice of faith. Hope can triumph over despondency. I believe that the essence of the gospel is hope, that God is good, that any form of adversity can serve a redemptive purpose. So I refuse to wave a white flag when my spirit sags. I identify with the Psalmist, who in a single verse acknowledged despondency, then told himself to focus on God as an object of trust: "Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God" (Psalm 42:5).

I can't claim complete victory over the nemesis of depression. Yet I can share how I contend with it and avoid yielding to the foe of hopelessness. I can tell you what I'm learning about keeping faith when the feeling is gone. What follows are several lessons and coping strategies I've discovered in the trenches of this battle.

There is no direct correlation between the onset of depression and the quality of my relationship with the Lord.

A myth persists among some Christians that if a person is right with the Lord, despondency won't descend on him. A member of my church, aware of my depression, confronted me and inquired about my devotional life. I assured her that days in which I've had unremitting emotional pain began with Bible study, fervent prayer, and confession of known sins. She walked away, apparently unconvinced by my assertion.

I'm not suggesting that time alone with God and His Word isn't crucial in the fight against despondency. What I am saying is that a neglect of spiritual disciplines isn't a satisfactory explanation for my emotional lows. I can be in the vise-grip of depression when I'm in close fellowship with the Lord, or I can be lighthearted when I'm not so close to Him.

More than once in David's life, he experienced life-sapping melancholy that was apparently not the result of sin or disobedience. According to Psalm 13:1-2, David felt sorrow in his heart and thought that God had abandoned him. On a different occasion, David asked the Lord to be responsive to his tears, and expressed a desire to smile again (Psalm 39:12-13). The same man who the Scriptures call a "man after God's own heart," who encouraged others to "taste and see that the Lord is good," experienced bouts of discouragement we would likely call depression today.

Medical experts agree that recurring depression, especially when it cannot be linked to a personal setback or external event, has a biological basis. That's why medical intervention may be needed. Since 1990 I've been under a physician's care. Through early 2002, prescription medications boosted my mental health and kept the depression in check. Since then, the effectiveness of medicines has waned and I've been depressed more often than not. This has forced me to rely more on my faith and my relationships with others for sustenance. I'm discovering that even depression that has a physical cause must be fought with spiritual weapons, as well as with medications.

The promises in Scripture fuel the faith that's needed to fight my despondency.

Though there's not a cause-and-effect relationship between my devotional habits and experiences of melancholy, my first weapon in the fight against despondency remains the promises in God's Word. I've discovered through trial and error that memorizing selected verses keeps me from giving up and yielding to the despair.

John Piper emphasizes that "wherever despondency comes from, Satan paints it with a lie. The lie says, 'You will never be happy again. You will never be strong again. You will never have vigor and determination again. Your life will never again be purposeful. There is no morning after this night. No joy after weeping. All is gathering gloom, darker and darker.'"1

When I'm bombarded with similar messages, I buttress my faith with verses that combat Satan's lies, such as these words from Psalm 30:5: "Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." Another buoyant promise that keeps me from drowning in discouragement is Nahum 1:7: "The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in Him." No matter how I'm feeling, I strive to cling to a right view of God, as depicted in these words from Isaiah 30:18: "The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion." I cannot prevent most attacks of despondency by memorizing Scripture, but I can shorten its stay and minimize its effects by focusing on God: Who He is, what He has done for me, and what He has pledged Himself to do.

The author of Psalm 73:26 also fought despair by riveting his attention on truth about God. He acknowledged weakness and despondency with these words: "My flesh and my heart may fail." But he refused to yield to discouragement. He battled back by telling himself, "But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."

One effect of depression in relation to my work is the inability to feel God's presence as I prepare for and teach classes at the university. That's when I lock my mental lens on Isaiah 41:10: "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." Like the Psalmist, I "preach to myself" or engage in biblical self-talk. I remind myself that He is with me whether or not I feel His presence. I tell myself that God's Word, which promises Him presence, is far more reliable than my fickle feelings. The outcome is that I work with renewed confidence and vigor.

The love and support of other Christians sustain me when I'm depressed.

In addition to clinging to God's promises, I desperately need the love and support of my closest friends and family. During a particularly rough week, my wife and closest friends thought I might be suicidal. Then one friend took me to breakfast and assured me of his love. Another dropped by the house unexpectedly late the same day. "I'm sitting by your side for the next couple hours," he announced. "I didn't come with advice, but I'm here in case you want to talk or to pray. Even if you choose to read the paper or watch TV, I'm not leaving your side for a while."

Their actions affirmed and encouraged me. I was on the receiving end of two of Paul's relational commands to believers: "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). "Therefore encourage one anther and build each other up, just as is fact you are doing" (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

The Greek verb translated "to encourage" literally means "to come alongside." Remember the last time your car had a dead battery? You asked someone to pull their car alongside yours. You used jumper cables to connect the good battery and the depleted battery. The energy flowed into the weaker battery until it started your car and functioned on its own. What a picture of the ministry of encouragement! It occurs when sensitive people pull alongside someone whose battery is low, someone who needs an infusion of strength, someone who can't function without assistance. I thank God for the two friends who pulled alongside that day and gave me a jump-start.

No one can help me bear the burden of depression, though, unless I'm willing to be transparent and admit my need. I have to swallow my pride, to risk appearing as if I'm not living victoriously, before I can receive an infusion of strength from other believers. During my most downhearted days I call close friends and ask them to pray with me over the phone. Once I drove to a friend's house and knocked on the door. When his wife answered, I pleaded through tears, "Can I borrow David for a while?"

Anyone who's depressed needs the safe harbor of a friend or a small group where he can drop anchor and receive emotional support. In some cases, the more professional help of a Christian counselor may also be needed.

Depression softens my heart and makes me open to the Holy Spirit's work in my life.

Though emotional pain is not the direct result of sin on my part, depression pays dividends in my war against sin. When I'm victimized by a flagging spirit, I'm in a more dependent state and my heart is softer than usual. I pray more, if only for relief. And when I'm in the presence of God more often, the Holy Spirit takes advantage of my brokenness to beam a light on areas of impurity. He can expose sin more readily because there's less pride hindering the process.

For a several week period I supplemented my prayer time with meditation on Psalm 139:23-24: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there be any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

Subtly, the focus of my prayers began to change. Along with pleas for help with melancholy, I started asking the Lord to search my heart and expose offensive ways. Before long the tears I shed were a result of conviction, spawned by sensitivity to sin instead of depression. I became increasingly conscious of a tendency to stretch the truth; of lustful thoughts that I'd rationalized as being inevitable for men; and of attitudes that kept me from greater intimacy with people close to me. Repentance wouldn't have occurred, though, if my heart had not been first crushed by depression.

I don't know if God permits my despondency for the purpose of purifying me, but His cleansing work has been an outcome of it. A key factor has been persisting in prayer regardless of how I feel. Keeping the line of communication with God open prevents my heart from going cold and hard.

Depression provides an opportunity for God to receive more glory through my life and ministry.

How does a person best glorify God? Is it through some avenue of service, or a demonstration of uncompromising character? No doubt we honor Him in those ways, but I'm convinced that God gets more glory when we're needy, when we're in a situation requiring His intervention.

The idea that God gets more glory through our weakness rather than our strength is couched in Psalm 50:15: "Call on Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor Me." When we're compelled to pray due to the limits of our own resourcefulness, God answers our plea, or displays His power in some manner. The consequence is that we praise Him and testify before others of His faithfulness. Or others who see our perseverance and the fruit of our ministry salute Him, rather than us, since they're aware of our shortcomings. Second Corinthians 12:9 reinforces this concept. Referring to the limitation posed by Paul's thorn in the flesh, God said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

Realizing that my need provides an opportunity for God to be magnified motivates me to pray when I'm depressed. I believe He will hear my plea because my situation offers an occasion for Him to act. It's the Giver, not the recipient, who gets the glory. I feel confident that God will use me in my full-time ministry despite the despondency, since it gives Him a chance to do what only He can do.

Charles Spurgeon was prime example of a person who honored God despite debilitating weakness. His first bout with depression occurred when he was 24: "My spirits were sunken so low that I could weep like a child, yet I knew not what I wept for," reported the eloquent British preacher. The melancholy spirit returned repeatedly throughout his life, causing him to admit, "Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness." 2 Despite the bouts with despondency, Spurgeon was a prolific preacher and author who made a huge impact on his generation. He understood experientially how human need magnifies the sufficiency of God. Spurgeon wrote, "We shall bring our Lord most glory if we get from Him much grace."3

Spurgeon's remark resonates with me, because I am a man who's receiving much grace from God. If my life glorifies Him as a result, then even my depression serves a redemptive purpose.

Though bouts of depression persist, a ray of light often penetrates the darkness. I see the light in the promises of Scripture, in the faces of supportive friends, in the purifying work of God's Spirit, and in the realization that my plight provides a prime opportunity for God to get glory. Thanks to these means of sustenance and Biblical perspectives, Micah 7:8 rings true for me: "Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will by my light."

Copyright 2013 Terry Powell

Reader Comment
What an honest, insightful and helpful testimony. My wife has suffered in much the same way and I can empathize and endorse all that Terry has revealed. I admire my wife's strength and faith as she continues to witness to God's amazing love and grace even though at times she can't feel His presence.
John Noble

1. John Piper, Future Grace. Multnomah Books, 1995. Page 303. (I heartily recommend a chapter in this book titled "Faith in Future Grace vs. Despondency.")
2. Charles Spurgeon, as quoted in Future Grace. Multnomah Books, 1995. Page 301
3. Charles Spurgeon, as quoted in Future Grace. Multnomah Books, 1995. Page 9

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