I work with many depressed teenagers who are often afflicted, on a regular basis, with thoughts of wanting to die, battling with unsafe behaviors such as promiscuity, cutting, substance use, AWOling and crime. There is a underlying, latent wish to die. At best, there is an indifference towards that death. The affliction of depression has a way of strangling the soul of a youth so as to give them a very believable impression that there is no life beyond the sun, everything is pointless, no body cares, not even God.
Benefits of Depression
One of the benefits of depression, however, is that it forces us to search for meaning in this life. If there is meaning, then we must know it. So, one of the things that the process of depression helps crystallize is how our search for meaning and purpose must lead us to something eternal, something solid, something beyond us, even beyond this world. I think the depressed person who is honest with themselves understands deep down that if we are to only to live for things on this side of heaven, then it may be better to die after all. Meaning, if God truly does not exists, then what it the point of living? Ecclesiastes helps us comes to terms with this reality in the diatribe of the meaningless of a life without God, and Paul puts the crown on the point: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). This is to say, even all of our good religious deeds mean nothing if Christ is not raised from the dead. But, Paul exclaims “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead…”(vs 20). Thanks be to God who does exist and offers hope in our despair. What is is more, reveals himself to us as a person to know, love and worship – that person is Jesus.
So, in our journey from the dark clouds of depression to the glorious light of Christ, we see that even the best things in this life are only a small tinge of what is offered to us by our heavenly Father in Jesus. The more we know come to know Christ, the more we long for the day we see him face to face.
So, in the meantime, what do we make of depression? How do we help our neighbor who struggles with thoughts of wanting to die, who cuts, who is engaging in any variety of unsafe behaviors? I think of something the Psalmist said in Psalm 88.
“From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair”Psalm 88:15 (NIV)
At first glance, this reminds me of our youth mentioned above, who struggle with despair and depression. In the foster care system I see this despair in the eyes and faces on a regular basis. But depression is a battle that nearly everyone faces at some point in their life, whether for long seasons or short episodes. Many know something of that feeling of a kind of indifference toward death because of the sheer difficulty of living on this side of Heaven.
Thank God, however, that not everyone of us is in a persistent stage of despair. There are people around us who are able to help intercede and lift us up to encourage, support and walk alongside the depressed and despairing soul.
3 ways to help a struggling soul battling depression
(1) Acknowledge the pain of the depression.
Even for a godly man like Heman in Psalm 88, it appears as if depression has been part of the background noise his entire life, even at the time of his adolescence (Vs. 15 above). Similar to the stature we’ve come to know Heman to be, (1 Chr 2:4,6; 25:5, 1 Ki 4:31), it should not be assumed that depression ‘goes away’ just because you’re a Christian. Even in the life of an adult, someone who knows God, depression can linger with us like a lame foot, like a thorn in our side. As the wise and loving neighbor, we ought to realize that this is possible because of the reality of sin in us and in the world. The world is cursed so the various afflictions that affect us in light of the Fall ought not surprise us. Therefore, we must acknowledge the pain of the depression.
(2) Keep pointing back to God who is our help
As hard as it may be to make connections to God in light of specific nuances and the various ways one’s depression plays out, we must be wise to never give up in pointing the depressed person back to God who is our help in our pain.
The best part part of Psalm 88 lies in verse one, “O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you.” The rest of the Psalm is built on this presupposition – that God exists, that he is worthy of our prayer and pleas for help, that we can go to him day or night and that he in fact has power to save.
Since God has power to save and since he is accessible literally at any moment, we must not shy away from appealing to him for his care in the midst of our need. This care will sometimes look like helping someone stay physically safe or sometimes it will be daily or weekly check-ins in some way. Other times, it will be assisting with some sort of medical intervention such medication management. Best of all, however, it will be to pray for the person right then and there, appealing to the God who saves, and even crying out if necessary.
There is a vast array of the kinds of ways depression will manifest – some more overt and acute and some more subtle and quiet. In light of verse 1, the psalmist’s exposition of his soul is a kind we must not be afraid to encounter in our neighbor because we can go to God who is our help.
(3) Be the light of Christ
I hope this doesn’t sound cliche. I think of the Psalmist final refrain in verse 18 – “…darkness is my closest friend.” What else does a friend who is in darkness need more than light? So, the wisdom we offer is a wisdom of Christ who is the light of the world. Being the light of Christ is simply being like Christ. One example of being like Christ is to carry each other’s burdens. In Galatians 6:2, Paul explains that as we do this, we fulfill the law of Christ.
The law of Christ is the law of love, of laying down our lives and interceding for our friend by doing for our friend what Christ did for us in bearing with us in our weakness. Thus, the greatest burden in this context is that burden of despair, that treacherous monster of depression, those idle thoughts of hopelessness. As you love your friend and bear the burden of their depression, you are replacing their friendship with darkness with a holy communion of the light of Christ.