A review by Stuart Brogden
Zack Eswine has written an easy-to-grasp overview of a condition many Christians and pastors spend too little time understanding. Some because they’ve bought into the lie that being healed by the stripes of Christ is a temporal healing, and we should have no sickness if our faith is strong enough. Some because they do not understand mental problems and do not trust psychiatrists. Eswine studied Charles Spurgeon, who suffered with depression and wrote about it, and he brings the Word of God and the words of men to bear to clear the air and give us hope. My hope is to bring to light a few of the good insights this book has to offer and help my fellow Christians better understand this issue so that we might be used to do good to our brothers and sisters who are suffering with depression.
So let’s sample this book, see how Spurgeon dealt with it, and how our Creator advises us.
“Conversion to Jesus isn’t heaven, but its foretaste. This side of heaven, grace secures us but doesn’t cure us.
“Though substantial healing can come, Charles reminds us that often it waits till heaven to complete its full work.
“We do not profess that the religion of Christ will so thoroughly change a man as to take away from him all his natural tendencies; it will give the despairing something that will alleviate that despondency, but as long as that is caused by a low state of body, or a diseased mind, we do not profess that the religion of Christ will totally remove it. No, rather, we do see every day that amongst the best of God’s servants, there are those who are always doubting, always looking to the dark side of every providence, who look at the threatening more than at the promise, who are ready to write bitter things against themselves …
“Therefore we sufferers of depression in Christ may grow terribly weak, even in faith, but we are not lost to God.
“It is Christ and not the absence of depression that saves us. So, we declare this truth. Our sense of God’s absence does not mean that He is so.”
This is critical for us to grab hold of – our position as children of God, His redemption and righteousness is not based on or determined by how we feel. It is based on His work to earn His place as the Lamb of God, taking our sin upon Himself, and imputing His righteousness to us. These facts and the promises of God are what determine our standing before Him. Our emotions are given to us by God but we are prone to being dragged away from Truth by them.
“Religion offers both a challenge and a help to those who suffer mental disorders. This challenge surfaces when preachers assume that depression is always and only a sin.”
The author goes on to identify the hope is, as studies which indicate people who are part of a religious community do better with mental health (citing Lauren Cahoon, “Will God Get You Out of Your Depression?” (ABC News, March 19, 2008))
Depression for the Christian is often based on the perception that God has abandoned him. This is a very tangible example of how our theology matters and how our faith must rest in Christ and not our perceptions of His love for us. No doubt, this is easy to say and terribly hard to find comfort in when one is captured by his emotions. Our author quotes saints of old often and here, he shows us they did not neglect Satan. The devil doesn’t cause depression but he certainly is eager to encourage it! At this point, the Christian must fight.
“We plead not ourselves, but the promises of Jesus; not our strengths but His; our weaknesses yes, but His mercies. Our way of fighting is to hide behind Jesus who fights for us. Our hope is not the absence of our regret, or misery or doubt or lament, but the presence of Jesus. “Doubting Castle may be very strong, but he who comes to fight with Giant Despair is stronger still!”” (a quote from Charles Spurgeon, “Christ Looseth From Infirmities,”)
He goes on to cite “three tough words” from Spurgeon. First, he defends those who suffer by pointing them to Christ. Secondly, he cautions them not to haunt themselves on purpose with the dreaded notion that somebody somewhere might be happy. Thirdly, Spurgeon would – when he thought it necessary, be direct with those who refused to fight their depression. His sermon, A Call to the Depressed, is cited as a prime example of this tactic. “Perhaps in this sermon, we see Charles the human being trying imperfectly to administer help to sorrows not easily diagnosed. In his earnest and fragile attempts to help, we see our own.”
“Jane Kenyon’s remarkable poem, “Having it out with Melancholy,” poses two “God” problems associated with depression and our attempts at care. First, depression ruins our “manners toward God” because it teaches us “to exist without gratitude,” and tempts us to answer the purpose of our existence as “simply to wait for death,” since “the pleasures of earth are overrated.” Second, depression tempts our friends to offer the following advice: “You wouldn’t be so depressed if you really believed in God.””
This chapter provides the reader with biblical counsel for those who are depressed, who, our author points out, “lean on metaphors” to describe how they are feeling. Mental problems are hard to convey to those who have not experienced them, so abstract descriptions rarely suffice. The Bible communicates mental anguish via metaphor: Ps 88:3-7, 69:15, Job 13:25, Prov 18:14, et. al.
Three ways metaphors are sufficient to communicate to those in depression:
“(1) Metaphor leaves room. It does not propose to cover every angle, understand every possibility or to explain every detail. It does not require only one possible explanation. Language that proposes to do this with depression exposes its ignorance of the situation at hand.
“(2) Metaphor allows for nuance and difference. Since each person’s experience with depression differs, metaphor allows for diverse expression. Formulaic prose or platitudes immediately reveal their lack of realism regarding how depression damages someone.
“(3) Metaphor requires further thought and exploration. It is a word of invitation more than destination which, we observed earlier, is crucial for gathering up the debris of depression.”
The Bible communicates a creator God Who completely understands His creatures and the plights we face.
“A larger story about God exists that possesses within it a language of sorrows so that the gloomy, the anguished, the dark-pathed, and the inhabitants of deep night are given voice. Such a god-story is neither cruel nor trite. Such a story begins to reveal the sympathy of God.”
Divine sympathy is your teacher, dear caregiver; your ally and friend, dear sufferer. Let His sorrow’s language help you.
Four ways we can make things worse:
“1. We judge others according to our circumstances rather than theirs. “There are a great many of you who appear to have a large stock of faith, but it is only because you are in very good health and your business is prospering. If you happened to get a disordered liver, or your business should fail, I should not be surprised if nine parts out of ten of your wonderful faith should evaporate.” Jesus teaches us about those who lay up heavy burdens on others but do not lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4).
“2. We still think that trite sayings or a raised voice can heal deep wounds. A person “may have a great spiritual sorrow, and someone who does not at all understand his grief, may proffer to him a consolation which is far too slight.” Like a physician who offers a common ointment for a deep wound, we “say to a person in deep distress things which have really aggravated him and his malady too.” In this regard, Charles teaches us the Scriptures, “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Prov. 25:20).
“3. We try to control what should be rather than surrender to what is. We must not “judge harshly, as if things were as we would theoretically arrange them, but we must deal with things as they are, and it cannot be questioned that some of the best believers are at times sorely put to it,” even “to know whether they are believers at all.” The Scriptures teach us about Job’s friends who struggled at this very point.
“4. We resist humility regarding our own lack of experience. “There are some people who cannot comfort others, even though they try to do so, because they never had any troubles themselves. It is a difficult thing for a man who has had a life of uninterrupted prosperity to sympathize with another whose path has been exceedingly rough.” The Apostle Paul teaches us to comfort others out of the comfort that we ourselves have needed and received (2 Cor. 1:4).
“According to the Bible, when we encounter someone who weeps, we too are meant to weep (Rom. 12:15). When someone encounters adversity they are meant to reflect and meditate, and we with them (Eccles. 7:14). Without this together-sympathy our attempts to help others can lose the sound of reality. The loss of this sound of reality forges the larger reason for our harshness.”
I wrap up with the author’s review of how our Savior relates to us. The common passage, Hebrews 4:14-16 (Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.) emphatically tells us that Jesus has suffered temptation and is able to sympathize with us – and He bids us come to Him! He is the cure what ails our souls and minds. This is not, as we are told, only in the here-after – the Lord is our comfort in this age. For in this age we are hated by the world, attacked by our flesh, and wearied by all the effects of sin that inhabit us and our environment. Jesus is our ever present helper and that’s where I want to end.