Psalm 108 begins with a glorious confession of confidence and a joyous call to worship:
“My heart is steadfast, O God, My heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody! Awake, my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to Thee, I Lord, among the peoples, I will sing praises to Thee among the nations,
For Thy steadfast love is great above the heavens, Thy faithfulness reaches to the clouds.”
To the believer, resting in God, and able to walk about Zion and count her bulwarks well, this is a balm to the soul. We can gladly surrender our “Amen!” in Jesus our Saviour, our Elder Brother, our King and Lord. To the believer, drowning in depression’s darkness, these words are more like fingernails on a chalkboard, discordant with our broken soul. We feel alienated – from family and friends, from church and most keenly from God. In our perplexity and our deep sorrow, we are unreachable because we are resting in the lie that no one knows our suffering and so no one can ever really sympathise with us. Or, even more dangerously, no one really cares to know our suffering.
So, we read words like those that David wrote in Psalm 108 and, far from a joyful surrender of “Yes! Let it be just like that!” our every fibre and impulse contracts in self-defence.
“Seriously? Yeah, right!”
My heart is far from steadfast. It is as far from resting as I can possibly imagine. It’s racing. It’s threatening to claw its way out of my rib-cage. And the very last thing that it wants is platitudes. I don’t need to be told how I should feel. I don’t want to feel; I need to be numbed! I don’t need to be told I should wake up with the crack of dawn and sing. What in God’s Name do I have to sing about? I can barely scrape together enough energy to open my eyes again to the sight of my carelessly discarded clothes and the ever-encroaching tide of neglected dust. Make melody? Even the softened sound of tyres swishing over wet tarmac beyond my still darkened windows makes my eardrums bleed. Wake the dawn? The all-too-quickly retreating darkness is my friend; I do not want the day. Dawn, be damned!
Thank God? Really? For what?
Reality bites, and sinks its teeth far deeper than we might want.
But, is it reality?
Depression, by its very nature, eats away at our confidence, calls into question all of our relationships and makes us unwilling to trust anyone – even, and perhaps especially, God. How can we trust God, into Whose hands we have placed all of our cares, when God has placed us and left us in such a terrible condition? Depression erodes our faith.
When I was sixteen years old, a friend and I cycled to South Devon to meet up with church friends for a holiday. I was young and reasonably fit. I was full of enthusiasm (or bull-headed arrogance). Yes, I’d been warned about how difficult it might be but at sixteen who really listens? I didn’t. The trip down was hard. At one point, I cried. But it’s amazing how our minds can trick us into believing that things aren’t really that bad.
So, by the end of the holiday, I was just as full of blind enthusiasm as I had been before we started. And the return journey, I remember, was dreadful. The final stage, from the Severn Bridge home, seemed like a never-ending agony of pain. And in that pain, I looked anywhere and everywhere to lay the blame. Especially, oddly enough, my mother.
My mother, who had been a keen cyclist when she was younger, but who had let me come on this trip so unprepared. My mother, who had warned me how bad it would be but who nonetheless still let me ride. My mother, who had forced me into choosing the door marked “X” by telling me that the only way that she could afford to pay for the holiday was if I found my own way there.
I hated my mother for most of that last leg of the journey. And yet, at the same time, I knew that if only I could reach home, and see her face and be held by her (I know, big, tough sixteen-year-old!), all would be well. And in the pain of those last miles, the conflict in my mind was very real. On the one hand, blame and bitterness. On the other, longing and peace. And I knew what would resolve the pain – to feel the very real comfort and safety of my mother’s embrace.
To put it as simply as possible, I just wanted a hug to remind me that she still loved me, despite my stupidity.
I needed to remember the right things.
When we doubt most, we must know best.
When our depression would have us believe that God is not worthy of our trust, He cannot be trusted, He must not be trusted: it’s precisely then that we are to call to mind the character of God. We must know Him best when we doubt Him most. And the only way that we can be sure to know Him is by studying His Word. We have to disciple.
The problem is that depression makes discipleship harder than ever. Depression robs us of our concentration and our endurance. When once we might have been able to spend an hour reading and reflecting on God’s Word, now, sometimes, we can barely manage minutes. When once we could call to mind verse upon verse, even entire chapters, now we struggle to hold even a few words in our minds. And those words that we do remember, we can all too easily despise. The very words that we need to encourage us are often the words that threaten to destroy us.
So it is with David’s words, in Psalm 108. And yet…. I know, somewhere deep down, that the psalmist is my friend. I know that he knows me better than I know myself. And some small, wounded, bitter and perplexed part of my soul still recalls the times when I would have read Psalm 108 with “exceedingly great joy”. And as much as I resent the discipline, I know I that need to read it again, now. Slowly. Line by line. Word by word, if I have to. Crying out to God for help even in this smallest of steps. And allow Him, line by line, word by word, if He has to, to realign my soul.
Trusting that in this discipline He might relax my desperate hold on my sense of self, and help me to surrender, with the saints, my own “Amen!”
8 December 2019, SDG