I saw a quote the other day that made me laugh. It wasn’t intended to be funny, it was actually supposed to be inspirational but it still provided a chuckle.
“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”
I suppose the author of that quote is attempting to convey the idea that undesirable events such as broken arms or broken vows inevitably bring pain but that the degree of emotional and mental anguish we experience is directly correlated to our ability to process the events in a healthy manner. At first glance, this sounds right and even has a Christian ring to it.
The author of that quote might counsel the lonely widow to “think about all the good years you had together”. The parent of the terminally ill child is told to “celebrate the days you have remaining and remember that God is in control.” The person suffering from medically-related clinical depression is told to “think about all the wonderful gifts God has given you.” I can even picture a smiley TV preacher telling his people to “embrace the positive things in your life and don’t let negative energy drain your happiness.”
If you are offering this kind of counsel, please stop now. Nothing is more enslaving and self-defeating to a depressed person than having an author, pastor, or well-meaning friend proclaim that he or she should be cheerful when their soul is, in fact, shriveled by the suffocating wet blanket of depression. Your advice may produce a short-lived emotional boost but, in a twist of irony, will likely lead to deeper anxieties as the added burden of their own perceived weak willpower amplifies an already unbearable load.
If you’ve read my blog enough, you might think I’m about to expound on the panacea-like effects of a cross-centered mindset. You expect me to say that thoughts of the cross are the only way that a depressed person can escape the patterns of ceaseless sorrow. As Dwight Shrute from The Office would say “False”.
Some of the most godly women and men have been tormented by sustained periods of deep depression. The notion that faithful Christians shouldn’t experience depression is as senseless as claiming that true believers shouldn’t experience soreness when a door slams on their fingers. This fallen world is full of pain-inducing events, ranging from temporary physical pain to the almost never-ending emotional anguish that results from the untimely death of a parent, spouse, or child. Whether we like to admit it or not, our individual body chemistries probably have more to do with our ability to regain a cheerful demeanor than anything else.
For the grief-stricken mother weeping over an empty crib, her godliness is not predicated on how fast she gets past her loss. Rather, her godliness is based on how she responds when she discovers that she can’t get past it. The same is true for all Christians.
What to do when you can’t get over it
If the cross of Jesus was never intended to pull us out of our deepest depression, then what’s a Christian to do?
If you’ve ever attended a wedding, then you’ve heard 1 Corinthians 13 quoted either in a song or in an overly sentimental bridesmaid’s toast. It’s considered the greatest exposition on Christian love found within the pages of scripture. That famous chapter ends with these familiar words, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
The litmus test for any professing believer is the presence of an abiding faith in the person and work of Christ who offers hope in the midst of pain. Faith in Christ is evidenced in an ever-increasing love for the only source of hope, Jesus Christ. The very fact that God desires we live by faith in the hope that Christ offers tells us something important about depression. By definition, hope presupposes that the person has not reached the thing that is desired. For the depressed person, that desirable thing is relief from the inescapable prison of a downcast soul. If seasons of sadness or endless bouts with depression were not a reality in the Christian experience, then hope would be of no use. God’s purpose in producing Christian hope is that our ultimate longings would land on something that this broken world cannot offer.
The prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon, battled with long spells of depression which to his own admission had no traceable source. Spurgeon once said “I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for”. Rather than question the legitimacy of his faith or his qualifications as a mega church leader, Spurgeon saw his depression as something else entirely.
“Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer benison (blessing).”
Spurgeon recognized that his depression, though not caused by God, was being used by God to press him deeper into the hope of glory. If you suffer from depression, you must process it in the same way. So feel free to stop pretending that it’s not so bad and stop beating yourself up for not defeating depression on your own. Thanks to the cross of Christ, sin and death and even depression were defeated on the cross which means we are free to be weak.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. – 1 Corinthians 13:12
Thankfully, there will come a day when our present hope will be of no use to us. Hope will have transformed into reality. Those deepest yearnings for soul satisfaction will be found in the face of our Creator. Faith will fade away as we catch a glimpse of the Savior we only knew in part. But the greatest of these will remain and that is love. While faith and hope are temporary tools, love will abide forever.