During the last three years, I was engaged in the fight of my life—concerning depression—and I failed in significant ways. I had endured an extended depressive episode earlier in life, but in retrospect, had not learned the lessons from that episode that I should have learned. Thus, in my more recent episode, I was not prepared.
As I have noted in other places, my latest depressive episode (“On Not Wanting to Live but Not Wanting to Die”) involved some complicating factors some of which I could not control (PTSD) and some of which I should have (alcohol abuse, disconnection from God, and relationships with family and friends). In the face of those complicating factors, God offered to me all of the resources I needed to respond properly spiritually. And yet, in significant ways, increasingly over the two-year period, I did not.
In the hopes that a brief chronicle of my own failures might help other depressed persons in the midst of their own struggles, I will: (1) set the stage by explaining the greatest challenge I faced and how I failed to meet the challenge; and subsequently (2) provide three suggestions that might help other depressed persons meet their challenges better than I did.
An Indomitable Opponent
During my most recent depressive episode, I faced my long-time opponent in a way I had never experienced. During the course of my life, he had stalked me and taken advantage of my weaknesses. I thought I had seen all of his weapons and was relatively unafraid of his tactics. But I was wrong, fatally wrong, to underestimate him.
Today, I realize to a much fuller extent what Scripture means when it declares that the Evil One is like a predator lying await in the tall grass, ready to pounce (1 Pet 5:8). He is never more in pursuit than when we are wounded and suffering. That is because he knows that a Christian’s experience of suffering is the single greatest opportunity for him or her to declare that Christ is a greater treasure than any other thing that life could give or that suffering could take away.
The Evil One is not only like a patient and powerful predator, but also like a con man. He masquerades as somebody good (2 Cor 11:14). He is the most cunning liar the world has ever known (Jn 8:44). His lies have many variations—white lies, big lies, rationalizations, exaggerations, minimizing, changing the topic, etc. But his lies always have one theme: God cannot be trusted and he cannot deliver on his promises.
Thus, given the formidable nature of my foe—the world’s greatest predator and conman whose intent is to murder—I failed precisely because I resorted increasingly to my own means. In the face of difficult challenges, and without my prayers being answered the way I demanded, I slowly and unconsciously gave up the fight. I lived as if I did not trust God and as if he could not or would not deliver on his promises.
Instead, I should have wielded the weapons at my disposal—weapons given by God and detailed in Scripture. Among those weapons that I did not wield sufficiently or well are three: Remembrance, Daily Ritual, and Perseverance.
The Weapon of Remembrance
As a depressed person, I allowed myself to forget many truths about the God I serve and the world in which I live because I allowed depression to “curve me” in on myself. Yet, everywhere in Scripture, God instructs his people to remember his mighty acts, his unsurpassable love, his impeccable wisdom, and his longsuffering patience. If we will remember God’s deeds of the past, we will be better prepared when trials arise. This command to “remember” is inescapably connected to another oft-repeated divine instruction: Listen to the word of the Lord. Indeed, one of the most significant ways to remember God’s goodness is to attend to the story of God told in Scripture.
How does this help us during trials and temptation? Consider an analogy:
Theologian N.T. Wright is famous for suggesting that the Christian mission can be compared to a theater improvisation. Suppose a lost Shakespearean play were to be unearthed, containing a five-act structure but missing the fifth act. In this hypothetical scenario, the first four acts provide well-defined movements, rich character development, and a clear narrative trajectory.
Thus, with the fifth act lost, how can the play be staged in a theater? It would seem inappropriate to write a definitive fifth act that would freeze the play into a form that Shakespeare might not have intended or could have written more superbly. Instead, it seems more appropriate to give the key parts of the play to highly-trained, deeply-committed, and well-seasoned Shakespearian actors, who could immerse themselves in the first four acts of the play and then—to the best of their abilities—work out a fifth act for themselves.
This analogy, Wright argues, illumines the Christian task. In Scripture, God has given his people a dramatic narrative of God’s interaction with his good world. He has detailed his actions in Creation, the Fall, Israel, Jesus, and the Early Church. And he has prophesied the future action in which his Son, Jesus will return to set the world to rights. What is missing is a written revelation of his actions during our era—this time between the times of Christ’s first and second comings.
Thus, the mission of God’s people is to saturate ourselves in the biblical narrative, remembering God’s actions and his words. As we remember, repeatedly, God’s actions on behalf of his people, we become skillful “actors” in the unfolding narrative of God and the world. We are called to “act” as ambassadors of the king, to represent God and his ways to the societies in which we live.
More to the point, I—Bruce—have been called by God to remember his goodness, his wisdom, and his unsurpassed excellence. I have been called to learn from the saints of olden days, to be trained in the art of spiritual warfare from the warriors of times past. In so doing, God equips me to wage warfare in the here and now.
At mid-life, I am just now beginning to learn this lesson with the depth and gravity God had intended all along. During the early parts of my season of depression, my remembrance of God’s goodness and his calling on my life gave me a sense of meaning and purpose that I desperately needed. But as time progressed, I forgot. I ceased to remember. Thus, disconnected from God and the grand story of Scripture, I became increasingly focused on the micro-story of my life and the misery I was experiencing.
The Weapon of Daily Ritual
I experienced depression as a thick wall separating me from other people, including God. I had a difficult time feeling even a tinge of happiness when spending time with the people I loved most. It was difficult to be interested in conversation even when it revolved around topics I normally enjoyed. I felt numb and isolated.
During the first year or so my recent depressive episode, I did something profoundly good: I tried to maintain the habits and rituals that would nourish my soul and body. Basic things. I ate three times a day, worked out several times per week, spent time journaling and praying every day, and did my best to spend time in corporate worship (this was challenging because it was during the COVID quarantine). These habits and rituals framed my days and helped me be my best “self.”
Yet, eventually, I allowed my physical and medical symptoms (PTSD, depression) to take over. I began to isolate. I curved in on myself. I stopped fighting and chose merely to survive each day. And when I stopped fighting, the Evil One sunk his claws in deeply, all the way to the quick.
Gratefully, as I spiraled downward, God had mercy on me.
Circumstances led to me being diagnosed with PTSD and undergoing EMDR and cranio-sacral treatment. I quit alcohol, which had quickly become my “best” friend and counselor. My brain and body began to heal, and my mind began to clear.
Circumstances also led me to a circle of friends whom I had known for a while, but to whom I had not opened up to. Significantly, most of them have experienced devastation and depression in the past. Each of them is a person of deep faith. I began getting together with them regularly, enjoying their company, listening to their life stories, and piggybacking on their experience, strength, and hope (when I had very little of my own).
In a nutshell, this is what liturgical worship and daily habits do for us. They give positive structure to our hours, days, and weeks. They cause us to “remember” the basic profound truths that every depressive person should remember: That God—rather than Bruce—is at the center of the universe, that God’s way is better than Bruce’s way, that I should cry out to God regularly, that there is much for which to be grateful, that recovery takes time, that there are better days ahead. And so forth.
The Weapon of Perseverance
During my depression, I felt as if God had left me. The more I prayed, the worse things got. Or so it seemed to me. I felt worthless, hopeless, lonely, and afraid. The Evil One preyed upon those feelings and convinced me to call it quits. He is relentless in this message.
But there is a detailed collection of life stories that encourages me not to call it quits. Many of those stories are narrated in the ancient Scriptures. They are stories of people just like me who experienced great trials and tribulations, and who—even if not immediately, even if not perfectly—decided to persevere.
We might as well persevere; all paths lead to God anyway. After all, if we flout his love and his moral law, we will experience the natural (negative) consequences. Furthermore, God actively loves us even when we have given up on ourselves, even when we have become “prodigal sons.”
In the natural world, there are many good analogies. A fighter must persevere or he will surely be defeated. A marathon runner must persevere or she will surely fail. A farmer must persevere to see the fruit of his crops. A musician must persevere in practicing in order to gain for herself a level of excellence. Thus, we must be patient (Jms 5:7).
When we are depressed, we find it especially hard to persevere. But our faithfulness in suffering will produce perseverance (Rom 5:3). We must run the race with perseverance (Heb 12:1). When our faith is tested, we should develop perseverance (Jms 1:3).
Perseverance may not be flashy, but its fruition is majestic. Consider a person who has struggled through deep depression that never really lifts. And yet he or she perseveres. That is a glorious testimony.
Reentering the Fight
I am no longer in the throes of depression. As I have emerged, I realize more clearly and with greater depth, the evil intent and overwhelming power of my opponent. By God’s grace, I will regularly wield the weapons of remembrance, ritual, and perseverance.
If you are experiencing depression the way I did, you perhaps feel defeated because you thought life was like a clearly-marked highway but now you find it is a path fraught with ambushes and littered with struggle. Perhaps you have let down your guard, forgotten God (to some extent), forsaken the daily and weekly habits that will nourish you, and lost the determination to persevere. If so, my hope and prayer for you is that you will find a way to once again put on the full armor of God (Eph 6:10-18).
Yet, let us be clear: if we gain victory over temptation on any given day or during any given season, the Evil One is perfectly happy to bide his time and take us down on another day or during another season. Thus, we must endure hardship “like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:3).
In other words, we cannot be content with listening to our depressive feelings. We must talk back to them, fight them with words and actions. The good news is that hope and joy are the companion of perseverance; those three fellows travel together.
Our great hope is certain; Christ will return to set the world to rights, such that there will be no more suffering. Our great joy is ever at hand; this same Christ offers to walk the path of suffering with us in the here-and-now, empathizing and fighting on our behalf. Thus, let us remember God, shape our lives with the habits of remembrance, and persevere in so doing.
For further reading on reconnecting with God during depressive periods, try these articles: