When Darkness Persists
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” -1 Peter 1:3-6
As I write this to you, my heart is heavy from hearing news reports of two more Hollywood suicides. Two people seemingly at the height of successful careers chose to end their lives. Such stories are shocking. Such tragic reports only represent a small fraction of similar events suffered by many others of less notoriety. In the wake of such reports- of people who have given up and turned to either suicide, or homicide, as in the case of the school shooters,- the validity of the struggles of depression and mental illness are raised, and posts to suicide prevention resources permeate the culture for a few days. There are always articles, news bursts and eulogies that strive to “make sense” of such a seemingly senseless event. People turn to those they know- or think they know- and try to offer words of comfort- for anyone who might be struggling secretly with similar darkness. But often those words of comfort end up trying to encapsulate a very complex and diverse problem into a neat and tidy box, offering platitudes and simple solutions.
Indeed, how can we make sense of such darkness? And what comfort can we share? Especially when it seems that darkness has won- at least in the lives of those who have chosen to end it? The irony is, Jesus has given us victory over death. Jesus is the answer. But that reality is often misunderstood and mis-delivered. The issues that surround and lead up to thoughts of suicide are varied and complex. There can be thousands of reasons as to why a person considers giving up. For some, the causes are directly administered to by the truth of the Good news of the Gospel. When the causal issues of oppressive depression are spiritual emptiness, a lack of purpose or hope, then certainly, the Gospel of Christ can instantly fill that void and remedy the dynamic of depression. But often folks struggle with depression for more complex reasons. Brain and body chemistry can play a factor in depression and have nothing to do with circumstance, knowledge, reason, or a lack of hope. Even some personality types can be more pre-disposed toward chronic depression. Many famous and influential leaders in the Christian faith struggled with profound depression.
Martin Luther wrote the best-known hymn of the Reformation as part of an effort to battle depression and anxiety. Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, had a lifelong battle with depression. John Calvin, William Wilberforce, Gospel singer Tina Campbell, and many, MANY more, faithful, influential Christian men and women struggled their entire lives with depression. the problem for these people, and many like them was not a matter of an absence of faith, and so the answer for them was not just, “have faith” or “look on the bright side of life.” In fact, in many cases, there may not be an “answer.” At least not in the sense that if you do this one thing the problem goes away. It is frequently the case that depression and other forms of persisting, oppressive thoughts and feelings require equal measures of endurance and perseverance. I want to share a few responses and offer encouragement on several levels for folks who struggle with depression and other persistent, oppressive thoughts and/or feelings.
I: Jesus IS the answer. 1 Peter 1:3-4 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade”. Folks, faith in who Jesus is, and what He has done for us is our only hope. He provides us with the only solution to the problem of universal sin and human brokenness- in His death and resurrection. That act provided atonement for sin. Another way of putting that is, Jesus’ death and resurrection is the CURE to the broken human nature. That cure is applied through faith in Jesus. Not only is the death and resurrection of Jesus an objective fix to the brokenness of humankind, the product of that fix is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Through faith in Jesus, we not only have something to hope for (our inheritance of heaven), but we have fellowship with God now in the Holy Spirit (we are not alone).
II: Having the CURE still requires work on our part. The fight with our brokenness (in whatever form it manifests) is not over once we sign on with Jesus. In fact, you could say the battle just begins. Before we have God’s Spirit, we have no tools to combat the darkness in any way that will end in lasting victory. But with the Spirit of God with us, our ultimate victory is assured, and we have a resource that can empower us in our daily struggle. We have “arms and armor” of a spiritual nature that we can use to aid us in the conflict of life. Prayer, Scripture, worship the fellowship, all play a role in our daily endurance. In fact, if Jesus is the cure to human brokenness, then living accordingly is like taking that medicine each day. If we expect Jesus and His work to impact our daily lives (and not just our eternal itinerary) then we should expect to “Take Him” each day as prescribed. Here are some ways we do just that:
III: God provides essential tools for our DEFENSIVE fight for victory over oppression. The scriptures mention endurance and related concepts many times as practical aspects of living in the faith. Enduring (Col. 1:11), persevering (Heb. 10:36), fighting the good fight (1 Tim. 6:12), resisting the devil (James 4:7), running as if to win (1 Cor. 9:24), putting on the armor of God (Eph. 6:11). These are all defensive stances. Dig in, and hold tight. Calling out to God, remembering His promises, trusting in His ability to provide and protect. Paul comments on the importance of endurance when he uses armor as a metaphor in Ephesians 6:10-17. Look at the elements of Christian Endurance at our disposal:
The Belt of Truth: KNOWING the truth connects us to reality. Regardless of how we feel, the TRUTH keeps our emotional pants up. Keeps us from falling apart. The TRUTH is: Jesus has secured an inheritance for us. He is with us and will never leave us or forsake us. The Truth provides us with an anchor that we can hold tightly to in the midst of the storm.
The Breastplate of Righteousness: Righteousness becomes a protective defense for us because the Breastplate of Righteousness is Jesus Christ. HE is our righteousness. So, when we are confronted and potentially consumed with our own weakness, imperfections, wickedness, suffering, we trust in Jesus, not ourselves. It’s ok to be broken, weak, wicked and imperfect, because God has given us Jesus’ righteousness as a gift. And He keeps it safe for us in heaven- just so we can’t mess it up.
Feet fitted with readiness: we are told that an aspect of our ability to endure is “readiness.” We are prepared to move and respond to our circumstances because of the peace that is ours with God through Jesus. We have forgiveness from God. We are completely forgiven. Keeping that truth close at hand- in mind and heart- helps us to be prepared. This peace is an objective reality. We are not in opposition or conflict with God. That objective truth can be a great asset to our daily practical sense of peace as well. For if we have peace with God, we have the ability to be at peace in all circumstances. And even if we are in turmoil, we can on some level rest assured that our peace with God is secure.
Shield of faith: The Shield of faith can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one (we experience the flaming arrows through the painful accusations and persecutions we face) from outside and sometimes from within- that cut us down, insist we are no good, we have no hope, and accuse and remind us of our worthlessness. The reason faith is a shield that extinguishes these arrows is because Jesus is the substance of that shield. Our faith is in Him. He is our righteousness. So, when the evil ones tries to cut us down for our own wretchedness, we hold up Jesus. He is our righteousness and our shield. We do not even need to argue our case- we don’t have one. We ARE guilty of weakness, wickedness, inadequacy. And That’s exactly why Jesus died for us- so that HIS perfection could be accounted to us. So when the enemy throws those arrows- we just say, “yep… Jesus.”
The Helmet of Salvation: The helmet is our brain bucket. It is the knowledge- the assurance that we ARE saved. The work of salvation is complete in Jesus Christ. Salvation rests as our helmet because it is both a crucial defender of our thinking process, AND it marks our head as belonging to God. Often a helmet will have both shape and insignia indicating what army the soldier belongs to. So it is with faith- our Salvation marks us as belonging to God. We are saved (protected from condemnation) and we bear the insignia of God’s kingdom.
The Sword of the Spirit: We are told the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. The Word provides us with protection in guidance and promise. It provides clarity between falsehood and truth. It can intercept and deflect falsehood.
Victory in Jesus is enduring the battle of life, and much of that is internal- with the tools God has given us to stand strong. In the face of depression, of inner oppression and even a sense of darkness, these tools are ours that we might endure. But a strong defense is only half of the battle.
IV: God provides weapons for our OFFENSIVE fight for victory over oppression. Just as a strong defense is critical in living out our faith, so is a strong offense. Usually when we think of the offensive tools of the faith, we think in terms of ministry- of sharing the gospel. And while that is true, it is equally true that there are tools that call us to take initiative- to go on the offensive in our struggle with mental, emotional and spiritual health. Each one of these is a positive action we take to combat darkness in the world and in our minds:
Prayer: While prayer can be defensive (calling to God for help, asking for strength, insight and will, waiting on the Lord) it can also be offensive (seeking after God diligently). Paul mentions a kind of internal offensive that is a form of prayer... he calls it “taking every thought captive to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 5:10. This is seeing prayer as an active tool to combat oppression both in the world and in ourselves! Paul is stating he has learned that we can become strong in how we think- battling, defeating and taking prisoner, thoughts that set themselves up against Christ. While Paul is applying this to worldly arguments against the Gospel, it can also apply to our inner battles as well.
The Word: God’s Word is described as the “sword of the Spirit” Ephesians 6:17. A sword is both a defensive and an offensive tool in the spiritual battle and of extreme power in our battle against emotional oppression. We are told that the Word of God is “… living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it pierces even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12. That means that God’s Word has the power to intercept the deepest and most profound secrets and struggles within us. They are exposed to God’s eyes, and His Word can pierce them, reveal them, and cut them out. Often deep sickness, disorders, and suppressed pains have power because of their hidden nature. When revealed they are more easily treated.
Worship/Fellowship: Worship and Fellowship are key tools in our arsenal of Spiritual health. One of the great powers of depression and oppression is isolation. Depression seeks to keep you alone and in the dark. One of the most significant steps a Christian can make in the battle against depression and oppression is to actively seek out others in the Christian faith. Participating in the fellowship breaks the isolation power of the enemy. Worship is turning from self and toward God with the intention of glorifying Him. Worship together is a powerful explosive that destroys darkness, the hold of depression and isolation. This fellowship component is also where receiving professional help comes in. It is critical that we seek the support of equipped believers when we find ourselves oppressed. DO NOT buy the lie that you can go it alone. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, “though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” We are not made to function in isolation- especially when we are hurting. Much healing and strength comes through fellowship and professional, equipped counseling is a critical component to that healing and strength. In fact, 2 Cor. 1:4 says, “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.” As you receive care, you are also equipped to care for others. As you receive healing, you are also equipped to be ministers of healing later to those going through similar struggles.
Service: nothing gets us out of our own head like caring for others. I’ve been taught that you can’t care for others unless you first care for yourself. You can’t love unless you love yourself. Be careful with that. There is a kernel of practical wisdom to that- certainly it is good to watch your own needs to make sure you do not get into an unhealthy pattern of giving until you just burn out. But the idea that you need to first be completely whole and healthy before you can care for others can keep you locked in a dark place. Often, giving can be a fresh breeze in a musty room. Certainly, to provide in-depth long-term care for others, or service on a level that requires you to be in a place of relative spiritual, emotional and physical health should not be engaged in until that stability is reached, but there are many ways to care for others even while you need care. Pray, share a kind word, share what you have with others. Tithe (that’s giving 10% of your income to the church). Offer encouragement whenever you have opportunity. These are all practical ways you can both bless others and redirect your thoughts from our own struggles with darkness and step right into a bright place, at least for a time.
V: God Secures us beyond our ability to get lost.
We are told in 1 Peter 1:4,5 that “This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” Faith in Jesus secures us in heaven. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit. “And in [Jesus] you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, having heard and believed the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. The Spirit is the pledge of our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession, to the praise of His glory” Ephesians 1:13,14. This means a simple but profound truth: Your standing with God, His promised heaven, is yours whether you “feel” it now or not. God blesses you with salvation- and that good news is for your blessing now and forever. But the truth and reality of your inheritance of heaven is not dependent upon you feeling joy, peace and hope now. Hope, joy and peace are blessings from communion with God, and yet there are many things that can blind and numb us to enjoying those. The reality – or the reason behind the hope, joy and sense of peace, though are not impacted at all if we do not feel hope, joy and peace. You can enjoy hope at the promise of heaven, or you can feel hopeless because of circumstances, or for even unknown reasons- the truth of God’s promise for you remains whether you feel happy or not. Joy is the delight in the presence of God. Again, you can have joy in the truth and even presence of God without FEELING joyful. You can believe in and intellectually rejoice in the victory of Jesus over sin and death for you- and still feel empty and sad, and anxious. The feeling does not impact the reality. Though the reality can and hopefully will impact your feelings.
I believe Paul is getting at this in Romans when he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…” Romans 8:18. In other words, in this world we will struggle with all kinds of suffering- external and internal. In the midst of our suffering, it is important to keep the truth of God’s promise in mind. That by comparison, the darkest moments of this world can not compare to the glory that is coming. That future glory is a fixed point- fixed and reserved for you by God in the Holy Spirit. So keep going. As Winston Churchill famously stated during the dark days of WWII, “If you are going through Hell, keep going!”
VI: What About Medication? In the context of discussing mental illness or pervasive and oppressive internal experiences, the issue of medication always arises. And in Christian circles, often the answers are cliché, out of touch or even abusive. Friends, medicine is not a failure of faith. Or at least it is not necessarily a failure of faith. God is the Lord of all creation. In His omniscience, He has infused into the created order so much that benefits his creatures- including us. Paul instructs his disciple Timothy, “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” 1 Timothy 5:23. As we have grown in our understanding of Gods created order, we have also discovered many ways where we can experience miraculous healing in common. In other words, what would have once required a supernatural intervention, now requires a pill, or a treatment. This is not a rejection of God but evidence of God’s love for us. At least much of the time. Certainly, medication can be misused. It can be used as a cover for deeper emotional, physical or spiritual needs that are not being addressed. Medicine can be mis-applied and end up causing more harm than good. But there are may times when the right medicine is a huge blessing. In those cases, I affirm that relying on medical support does not have to be a rejection of God’s sovereignty but a reliance on exactly that. God has provided for us, through medical science, these great resources so you can overcome aspects of your personal brokenness. Please, if you struggle with pervasive emotional struggles, talk to a Christian counselor and a medical professional. Prayerfully discern the best course of action in partnership with your doctor, your pastor and your loved ones. I will unashamedly share with you that I rely on medication. I have asthma and rely on both a rescue inhaler and preventative medications. When I was going through a very difficult time in my life, I found myself having panic attacks, chest pains that my doctor determined were stress-related. I was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication which I took for over five years. What a difference that made! I thank God profoundly that such a resource was available. If I find myself struggling in a similar way in the future, I will not hesitate to consider a similar medication. Even if it means I take it for the rest of my life. God’s providence is not limited by our inability to understand His sovereignty.
These are by no means exhaustive comments on the resources available to us as we struggle with oppression, but I hope they both acknowledge that the darkness of the mind and soul can have a thousand causes. And what works for one person may not work for another in treating depression or oppressive experience, but God also recognizes that reality. He has given us both the cure for all human brokenness and the tools needed to fight the good fight in this life- both on offense and defense. And even in the midst of that fight- He stands for us and with us. You are not alone. And whatever darkness oppresses you, He has promised victory and deliverance into a joy of which we can now only image in part.
May the peace of God comfort you in Christ our Lord,