This may be the first time that some of you will learn that I lived with severe, chronic depression for twelve years. Though the illness is now gone, at the time it was a desperate darkness that left me completely lost in every possible way. You see, before depression and for so many years, living my life to please God revolved around MY ability to self-control. I believed that anyone who had the raw grit and will-power to keep from sinning could please God with their holy living. So, I became addicted to spiritual performance because I mistakingly believed that God required that of me.
I spent years in this wilderness before God completely disassembled the crumbling foundations upon which I built my life. In their place, He rebuilt my life with Him as the Cornerstone, the Giver of all good things, and me as the undeserved recipient of His lavish mercies. Although a believer, it was quite uncommon to me for see God’s awesomeness rather than my own achievements. But in my depression, I finally came to realize that God wanted to use the incapacity of my illness (which I actually believe God Himself gave me) to teach me about Himself and HIS glory.
The following is probably the most important practical thing I learned (and the most practical advice I could share). If you live with chronic depression and are a child of God, I pray that God will use what I learned to help free you from the oppression of spiritual performance.
Don’t Bury It, Live In It!
One of the most helpful choices I made in my depression, wasn’t really a choice but more of a resignation. Depression leaves you feeling absolutely helpless: the lack of being in control of your faculties anymore; the loss of your normally healthy thoughts and behaviors which used to be your natural responses; the broken-heartedness of being a victim instead of being a victor; the never-ending confrontation of your sinfulness over and over; the heaviness of the grief for being not only a disappointment to yourself but to everyone else in your life (including God); the utter defeat of becoming the very epitome of what some have condemned you for; and the constant reminder that nothing you ever do or achieve in your depression will satisfy those high demands others feel you should satisfy, etc. (there are others….)
In depression, you are imprisoned by all these haunting, self-defeating accusations. If you try to ignore them, deny them, or put the bandaid of a forced smile or good behavior over the top of them, an overwhelming sense of contradiction and deception will eat at your soul. Deep within, you know the darkness that lurks in your heart and no amount of chanting positive mantras will make it go away.
If you choose to deny the reality of what you’re feeling, you will feel a sense of betrayal of all that is real and true. This will only serve to intensify your turmoil. The truth is you can only find inner peace when face the reality of your situation head on, wholeheartedly accepting it and owning it. While you may not like the feelings that churn around in your unsettled heart, authenticity is the framework by which you can find freedom to live in that horrible place in which God has called you to live.
Authenticity is the framework by which you can find freedom to live in that horrible place in which God has called you to live.
God Will Meet You There
Once you resign yourself to this uncomfortable place, I believe God will meet you there. Only when you say, “God, there is nothing good in me,” will you be able to hear God say, “but I still love you just as you are.” Only when you say, “I am not worth anything,” will you be able to hear Him say, “but you are worth something to Me.”
Only when you say, “I’m not worthy of forgiveness for something I constantly repeat,” will you hear Him say, “what you do is not (and will never be) greater than the complete forgiveness I gave you on the cross and that I continue to grant you every time you fall short of any of My commands.”
Only when you say, “I cannot justify all these things that I feel helpless to repeat and I know in the depths of my heart that they cannot be labeled righteous,” will you hear Him say, “silly child, you’ve always been incapable of meeting My holy standard of righteousness, even when you were well and thought you could please Me with your deeds.”
Only when you live in the feelings of disappointment when you fail to meet the Bible’s or anyone else’s standards or expectations, will you hear God assure you, “I already know your deepest thoughts. I know what you can control and what you can’t. Only I, and I alone, know what I have required of you in this life. You will never fail My expectations because I see your deeds far in advance of when you feel them and do them. Don’t fret. Whatever is not holy will one day get burned away, and the good things you have done for Me will remain. But there is nothing you can do today that I have not seen in eternal perspective. I am present today, yesterday and tomorrow.”
Once you resign yourself to this uncomfortable place, I believe God will meet you there.
He also reminds us, “One day, I will make you new. I will make you as white as snow when you finally shed this earthly body in heaven’s glory. I will make you to be perfect in the future, but I already see you on that day, clothed in the righteousness of the perfect spotless Lamb.”
Only when you embrace the guilt of your inability to be holy will you be surprised by the amazing grace of God delighting to have an intimate relationship with you. Only when you come face to face with the shame you carry for all the deeds you wish you didn’t continue to do, can you bask in the beauty of God’s mercy which takes away the shame and clothes you in His righteousness.
Only when you live in the destitute condition of your soul will you hear God remind you of your position as sons and daughters of the King, adopted into His family. Only then will you enjoy the richness of having God Almighty also be your dear Heavenly Father who only desires good for you.
Though God is both holy and just, He paid a great price to prove to you that both His holiness and His justice have already been satisfied. He longs for you to cling to that as your lifeline. His Son, the Lamb of God, paid the penalty for all your sins, those you meant to commit and those your sinful nature and depression symbiotically caused you to commit.
Only when you realize that had it not been for the salvation of your soul, you might indeed feel the wrath of God. But now, because of your salvation, God is no longer angry at you. His wrath was fully appeased when Jesus hung on the cross and you have now become a friend of God.
Only when you identify with the miserable bondage of being trapped in this mortal body of decay where our sinful nature is living on borrowed time, soon to be eradicated when God returns to take us home, can you sense the hope and joyful expectation that even this, however painful, is temporary. Like a woman in childbirth, the labor will one day be over.
Don’t Miss It
Do you see what you miss when you push through each episode and pretend to live victoriously when you know deep in your heart that you aren’t? You miss God’s sufficiency for your insufficiency! You exchange God’s perfect righteousness for your filthy, sinful nature’s imperfect attempts to be righteous. When you claim to still be righteous in your own goodness, you miss the treasure of God smothering out the power of your sin nature with His perfect righteousness.
You miss God’s extravagant one-directional love and compassion when you cling to your own worth and merit. You miss the incredible sense of gentleness and compassion that is so meaningful when you act as if you don’t need His mercy. You can only find comfort and peace in this place of darkness when you realize that you live and breathe only because of the incredible undeserved mercies of God.
The Church’s Self-Improvement Agenda
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard preachers tell people in the church to ‘push past’ all the misery. They say, “struggle to ‘climb over’ the hurdle. ‘Push past’ the blockade. ‘Go around it’ by denying its power in your life. Just ‘choose to’ live obediently and victoriously. ‘Forget’ the depression and ‘believe’ in this not-yet felt restoration. ‘Deny’ the sadness! Instead, embrace joy! ‘Fight’ for victory!”
They tell you that God is unhappy with you because of your negative feelings, so you should just transform them into good ones. They might even tell you your very depression is sin and that if you simply confess and repent of it, that your mood and outlook will change and you will finally feel freedom. They challenge you to use positive affirmation prayers to soak in the reality of complete healing in this life as if it were a token evidence you give God to prove your wholehearted faith and sincere desire to please Him.
They tell you to claim some verse in the Bible (usually completely out of context) and tell you to use it as God’s personal promise to you. They tell you that if you will simply meditate on good thoughts, it will transform your dreary thoughts into good ones.
They may challenge you to follow in the footsteps of a biblical character. What they conveniently forget to add is that between the identified problem and the resolution of that character’s struggles, there might have been days, months, or even years of struggle. Consider the 40 years Moses spent wandering where God taught him so much about Himself or Noah’s struggle over 100 years to continue to believe God in the face of adversity. You see, the Bible isn’t just a moral rule book; it is a complete story of God’s redeeming grace offered to mankind throughout history.
Consider Job in his extreme period of suffering. We see him struggle within the context of his pain and turmoil (and God specifically leaves him there in the struggle to wrestle it out), but then, in the Almighty’s perfect timing, God returns to address Job and reminds him who He is. Job later returns to bless the Lord and thanks Him for the struggle. But don’t miss this point: Job fully acknowledges that only by way of the suffering had he come to know God in a more personal, intimate way, saying,
“I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:5 NIV
Although we aren’t specifically told this in Scripture, have you ever wondered at the complete contrast of the desperateness in the beginnings of some of David’s Psalms and the glorious endings wherein David remembers God’s continued goodness and faithfulness? I believe a lot of his psalms were started IN the struggle and completed after he had lived for some time in that struggle, especially after he had come face to face with God, and after he had communed with Him. The struggle was where God revealed to him what He wanted David to learn. Only by living IN the tension of a lack of a positive resolution did God become his only hope and salvation.
When today’s preachers forget the importance of the valley, and in essence, tell their people to do whatever they can to escape the struggle and therein find God’s blessing and pleasure, I cringe and my heart is crushed. In my Spirit, I want to jump up and shout, “NOOOOO! Don’t do it!” Why? Because the healing comes from inside the struggle! It doesn’t come from minimizing the situation or hastening the struggle to come to a resolution. For without the struggle, you deprive yourself of the healing.
The healing comes from inside the struggle!
Sure, you might experience some temporary relief if you follow their advice but you’ll be right back there again, feeling lost and abandoned. Why? Because you need to experience that desperate place of brokenness in order for God to show you His heart in the matter. And you can’t put God in a box or give Him a deadline. It might take years of tension in a particular struggle to sense God’s heart about it and experience His peace in it.
The Beauty Is In The Ashes
The truth is that the beauty is truly found in the ashes of your life. You can’t come to own the mercies of God without realizing how much you need His mercy. You can’t come to cherish the love of God until you realize how much you don’t deserve His love. You can’t fully fathom the incredible grace of God until you fully embrace that there is nothing you can do to earn His grace.
You can’t stand confidently in the presence of Holy God until you realize that your guilt should deny you that right but instead God has removed your guilt thus removing any future punishment necessary to make you right with Him. You cannot be satisfied with His righteousness already granted to you until you realize that your own attempts to please God by your own efforts will always fall short and be completely unfulfilling. You will never be satisfied with God’s substitution on your behalf until you realize that all your own deeds, even those you attempt to do in holiness, are filthy rags.
The honest truth is that there is no life in itself that can fully please God. God says that if we fall short in one instance, we fall short of the entirety of His law and commands. By one man’s sin (Adam’s) we all became sinners guilty of all God’s laws, but by one Man’s righteousness (Jesus’), we all can become righteous. You can’t fully saturate your soul with the peace that you are now friends of God until you fully realize how much your sinful nature is at odds with God.
Lay Aside The Facade Of Victory And Live In The Glorious Ruin
You probably recognize Christian rhetoric that says, “I’m a child of the king. I choose not to allow Satan win. I beat my flesh into submission until it pleases God. By faith, I claim victory!” And then … you sin, or you suffer, or you experience sickness and defeat. You just kick yourself when the words you had attempted to utter in faith believing just ‘didn’t work’ like you’d hoped.
Friends, I bow my head with grief, if this is still you and you suffer depression. I implore you to set aside the facade of this victory rhetoric and resign yourself to live in the struggle of what your soul says is true about yourself and what you know to be true of God. Your soul is set free when you refuse to pretend, “I’m fine.” Rather than the defeat you are afraid of, you will find a strange surprising peace. You’ll find yourself longing for someone more than yourself. It is true that you may feel suffocated by the rawness and heaviness of this realization, but only then will you see that the hero of your story isn’t you after all.
Your story needs a Hero! His name is Jesus!
The hero in your story is Jesus. Your life is God’s story of redemption of the human race. He came to redeem you from the curse of the law. And I’m here to tell you, depression and sickness are part of that awful curse that we now experience because Adam initially broke God’s law.
Why settle for the cheapness of your endless striving? You aren’t enough to present yourself faultless before the Father. What your story really needs is the real deal, the perfect One, the propitiation, the settlement of a debt too great for you, and the justification by a Holy God for our pathetic, unholy lives.
Only Jesus is enough to do all that!
So, if you are struggling with what to do when you are brought low in depression, don’t be afraid to live in the struggle for a while. Don’t try to escape it too quickly. Don’t be afraid to wrestle it out. Be willing to wait in the silence. Be willing to live in the tension of the questions. God can handle it; He is waiting to interact with you. Don’t move until God releases you to do so.
Realize that there is One greater than you in there with you, constantly washing you clean. Let that give you comfort. He has so much beauty (outside of yourself) that He longs for you to experience and embrace. He is the ‘Great I Am,’ the Savior of your soul. While you are in darkness with nothing good to offer Him, cling to all that Christ has already done to make you right with Him, right here, right now.
Heidi Austel, Author
Here is a song to listen to for reflection. “I need a Hero” by Chris Rice.