READ : Psalm 42:11
Feeling down and discouraged is something many of us have experienced. Let’s hear what the Bible says to us when we’re depressed.
Most of us know what it is to struggle with discouragement. We’ve found ourselves at times in that “slough of despond” which Bunyan talks about in Pilgrim’s Progress. We’ve had to face that grim enemy, Giant Despair.
How does it feel to be discouraged? None of us, I suppose, can adequately describe it. But when we try, we almost always picture it as an emotional dip, as a psychic loss of altitude. You know – we’re cast down. We’re feeling low, maybe lower than this or lower than that. We’re in the depths. Or in today’s style, discouraged people are “in the pits.”
Sometimes it’s the collapse of a beautiful dream that gets us down, the fading of some bright hope. That position, that attainment we had long coveted is put beyond our reach. We see now that we’ll never make it. That attractive person we had secretly admired for years has just closed a door by marrying someone else.
Maybe you’ve worked for a long time on a special project, poured a lot of yourself into it. Now you know that it simply won’t fly. All that time and effort, toil and trouble – wasted!
Maybe you’ve experienced the painful loss of a job, a pet, a good friend, a parent, a dear spouse. It’s taken all the fight out of you. The old zest for living just isn’t there. You’re struggling. You’re discouraged.
For you, the downer may come with a sense of personal failure or inadequacy. You’ve made rather a mess of things, and your self-respect is badly damaged. You feel like a nobody, and life doesn’t seem significant any more.
Sometimes we can’t put our finger on the exact cause, can’t figure out what is making us sad. Maybe it’s a physical condition, our age, the season, the weather. Who knows? There’s no accounting for it; we’re just down.
Does the Bible have anything to say to us at times like that? Does God have a word for the downcast? Yes, he does. Let me share with you something from the Scriptures that on bleak days has been genuinely helpful to me.
Sometimes the words people give us in our down times are not very helpful, are they? Someone tells us to “be happy,” to “cheer up” when that’s the very thing we find impossible. I know of a wealthy businessman who insists that when he asks his employees how they are each morning, they must always say, “Great!” no matter how they really feel. There’s a father who makes his children parrot a bright little song when their eyes are brimming with tears. But God doesn’t deal with us in that way. He seems to know how painful it can be when others try to force merriment upon us. Listen to this proverb from his book: “He who sings songs to a heavy heart is like one what takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on a wound” (Prov. 25:20).
Sometimes people ask probing questions about why we’re depressed, seeming to imply that we have no good reasons for feeling that way. They tell us that we shouldn’t feel down, especially when we have so many blessings and when so many others are worse off than we are. We know they are right, but somehow these advice-givers don’t make things better. Be sure of this: God’s not one of them. Nowhere in his Word does he chide or blame people because they’re downhearted.
What we sorely need at a time like that is not a cheerleader or a moralizer but someone who can understand, at least a little bit, what we’re going through -someone who’s “been there.” That’s what I find in the Bible, especially in the Psalms. Listen to these words from Psalm 42:
My tears have been my food day and night. . . . My soul is downcast within me. . . . I say to God, my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
(vv. 3,6,9, niv)
Here’s a man saying, “I’m hurting all the time. I’m down in the dumps. I feel like I’m going under for the last time. Why, God? Why am I feeling so forsaken and depressed?” We can identify with that, can’t we? But this same man later comes out with this:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
(v. 11, rsv)
Here’s a man inspired by God’s Spirit who has something to share with me. He’s not urging me to feel differently or burdening me with more guilt. He’s opening up about his own struggle and how he found a way out of it. We can learn from someone like that, can’t we?
TELL OUT YOUR WOES
Here’s one thing worth learning from him: When you’re feeling down, tell out your woes. Put those vague feelings of depression into words. This psalm singer did that. Part of his low mood was a kind of grief over felt loss. Rich, fulfilling experiences in his past were now only haunting memories. He saw no way to recapture them.
These things I remember . . . how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God . . . My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
(vv. 4, 2, rsv)
Life had been so full and satisfying once for him, but now all was changed. He felt deprived of what once had been the joy of his heart.
And then there were the taunts and jeers of his enemies. “Men say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” In other words, he was a laughing-stock. Or, worse still, people looked on him as someone whom God had forgotten. For them, he was the fool who had thought he could count on the Lord but now found himself abandoned.
If you are feeling keenly the loss of something or someone precious, or if the ridicule of others has cut you to the heart, talk that out with someone you trust, someone who cares about you. Write it in a diary, put it in a letter, and whatever else you do, speak it into God’s ear. Pour out your heart before him.
The man who wrote this psalm talked about a sea of troubles, “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.” He’s like a swimmer pounded by the surf. One towering wave after another crashes down on him, sweeps him off his feet, clogs his hair with sand. Just as he struggles up again, another billow sends him head over heels. Maybe you’ve felt like that. I can remember a time years ago when our house was robbed, our furnace exploded, and the plaster fell from our living room ceiling all within two weeks. The troubles were coming in waves!
Whatever may be wrong, whatever woes have overtaken you, don’t hesitate to talk about them to your friends and to your Lord. We don’t need to rehearse them all the time, but we all need to verbalize what gets us down. And oh, what a relief it is when we can spill it all and know that someone listens, someone understands!
QUESTION YOUR LOW MOODS
Here’s another thing I’ve learned. You can question your low moods. “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” This isn’t someone else’s inquisition now. It’s a kind of inner conversation. “Look here, self,” we say, “what’s getting you down?” We’re the ones that have a right to ask that. We can challenge our own depression. We can summon those sorrows of ours to give account of themselves.
Now that’s very different from blaming yourself. We can quite easily do that. You know the cycle; we get discouraged and then annoyed with ourselves for being that way. We begin to feel guilty about our depression, which can end up making us even more despondent.
It’s much more promising to ask myself the friendly question: Why am I feeling down? “But haven’t I already answered that?” someone objects. “I’ve told about what I’ve lost, what people are saying about me, about the waves of trouble. What do you mean – why am I feeling down? Who wouldn’t be if they had to face all that?” But let the question probe more deeply. Sometimes the problem lies not only in what’s been happening in my life but in how I look at it, how I take it. I can’t control my circumstances, but I do have something to say about how I’ll think about them. And how we feel, remember, is linked in the closest way to what we think.
That fact is sometimes hard for us to face. We would like to tell ourselves that our losses, or our problems, or our enemies get us down, but actually they don’t. No, it’s the thoughts we entertain about those things that bring us low.
Let’s say we are friends and you seem to ignore me when we meet in a public place. My feelings are hurt. Now it isn’t your failure to speak to me that makes me upset, but what I tell myself about that. If I say to myself, Oh, he was preoccupied, or He simply didn’t recognize me in that setting, then I can forget the whole thing with a light heart, right? But if I tell myself, He deliberately snubbed me, or He thinks he’s too big to notice me now, then I’ll really feel down on myself and angry at you.
So the question, “Why are you cast down and why are you disquieted within me?” is a good one to ask of your own heart. But ask it not as a critic or a prosecuting attorney but as a caring friend. That’s always a wise way to deal with yourself. You know you ought to treat other people kindly. What about yourself? So you’re a golfer and you’ve developed a bad slice. Everything you hit keeps veering off to the right. You could say to yourself, You idiot! What’s the matter with you? Why do you keep hitting the ball that way? Or you could ask it in a more brotherly, supportive way, Let’s see, what do you think you’re doing in your swing that puts that kind of spin on the ball? That second inquiry might be helpful, especially if you explored it with others. But the first can only lead to a worse slice!
CALL YOURSELF TO HOPE IN GOD
The third thing I’ve learned from this fellow-struggler in the psalm is most important. After you tell out your troubles and question your low moods, call yourself to hope in God. That’s exactly what the psalmist did. “Hope in God,” he tells himself, “for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” It’s true that we can sometimes add to our misery by the way we look at life. Is there any way to change that perspective? This man thought there was. Suppose we get the Lord into the picture? Suppose we take him into account? Will things look different for us then?
This is a man who has known God for some time. He has trusted in him and delighted to go to his house for worship. He has experienced what it is to praise God with a glad heart. He’s not there now. He can but dimly remember that happy state. Somehow he believes that it can come again.
This is memory in the service of faith. God’s people are led to hope by remembering what God has done in the past. This psalmist had known other down times. He had groaned in sadness on other days when there seemed to be no way out. But mysteriously, wonderfully, things had changed markedly for the better. Quite unaccountably, everything had begun to look brighter. God had come through for him after all. And now he was remembering that.
That’s what getting God in the picture will do for you, especially if you know him as he really is. The Creator of the universe, the true and living God, the Father made known in Jesus Christ, is the Lord who binds up the brokenhearted and lifts the fallen. He’s the one who offers beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. He’s the one who gave his own dear Son that we might have true life. To trust him, to commit ourselves to him for the first time is to be on the road to gladness. And, in every low mood, when we simply bring him to mind again, we sense our joy beginning to revive. The hymn writer put it beautifully: “But let me only think of Thee, and then new heart springs up in me.”
Call yourself today to hope in this God, this Savior, Jesus Christ! Remember what he’s done in the past and try to focus your attention expectantly on him. Then, gradually perhaps, but genuinely, you begin to anticipate a brighter future. You say, along with the psalmist, “I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” I’m struggling with my feelings now. I’m not altogether out of this low mood, but I’m on the way. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” That night of weeping may seem very long for you. It may last for months, for years, but take heart. God’s comfort, God’s coming through for his people, is as certain as the dawn!