“God and Depression”

Psalm 88
Matt Goodale
October 24, 2021

We begin our sermon series today, lifting up some stories that don’t receive enough attention in public, and especially not in church. We begin with our scripture passage; it is another Psalm of lament, like we saw last week: read Psalm 88.

Yikes. This is not your regular Sunday morning Psalm.

Scholars refer to this psalm as the darkest psalm in the psalter, because it is one of the only psalms that does not explicitly move towards hope or praise by its conclusion; it ends with the line: “darkness is my only companion.” It’s incredibly uncomfortable for those of us who have been trained by our Christian upbringing to always find the silver lining and to always find the reason to praise. 

Today I am going to introduce you to three people – Rob, Jen and Sharee. Psalm 88 is their prayer.

Rob was diagnosed with clinical depression 3 years ago. The diagnosis comes as a surprise to him as there is no history of mental illness in his family; after his diagnosis he wonders how can he ever tell anyone? How could he, a self-made man of 28 who had started his own business that had made his parents so proud, how could he ever tell them that he suffers from an illness they don’t believe in and think is the lazy-man’s excuse. He is determined to overcome the illness before anyone can find out about it. 

Over the next few months after his diagnosis Rob tries to carry on with life as normal, trying to convince himself that if he never speaks about his diagnosis and never gives it any serious thought, that it will just go away over time. But then things quickly get worse. His interests are the first to go. Building model cars no longer hold any appeal; he is too exhausted to go on runs anymore; a self-declared extrovert and people-lover, he no longer finds joy in conversations with strangers or family. Everything begins to feel numb. His mind has turned on him and is now held imprisoned by a dark and terrible beast; a beast that suffocates his thoughts, blotting out all traces of pleasure and joy. It is psychological torment; his soul feels dead. 

Dragging himself from bed every morning is probably the worst part of each day; sometimes he sleeps in his clothes because it’s less effort. When he comes home from work, if he even goes to work, he just sits in his parked car, staring at his front door for hours, trying to work up the will to go inside.

Rob’s friends and family notice that he is not the same person he used to be; he seems but a shell of himself. At first people tried to help, but Rob never wanted to share his secret. He was too afraid of what they would think of him. Over time they stopped trying to help though; they became weary of Rob’s constantly depressed moods and eventually he was mostly left alone – but he likes it better that way. It means less questions. Less people to judge him. Less people to tell him to just snap out of it and feel better. Oh what he would give to be able to just snap his fingers like they thought he could, and remove his mind from its prison. He would do anything to be free from this beast.

Jen, a mom of two, has come to expect her mood to shift each winter. Around January or so every year, when the sky has been gray for months, and once the joys of Christmas and family visits are over, Jen greets her depression like an old friend. But even though she has come to expect her life to slowly fade into a monotony of gray and black each winter, she is still never prepared for the havoc it wreaks on her life and her faith. Her husband and kids are supportive enough, but she dreads these winter months because she knows of the burden that will inevitably come to land on their shoulders. She doesn’t think it’s right for her kids of age 11 and 16 to have to care for her and cheer her up; it’s not supposed to be like that – she’s supposed to be the one cheering them up after a bad day! 

Jen wonders why God subjects her to such torture year after year. The women in her small group at church encourage her that if she prays more about it that it will go away. But she has been praying! Every year she prays that this is the last year she has to endure the prison her mind seems to subject itself to. Why does God allow this to continue? Why won’t God answer her prayers? Is she praying hard enough?

Sharee, a sophomore in college, suffers from bi-polar disorder. She has been in and out of in-patient psychiatric hospitals since she was in high school. Her periods of mania aren’t so bad – her life always feels grander and more exciting during these times, like she is a more interesting version of herself – but the highs of mania are always quickly wiped away and all memory of them shattered with the inevitable crash into depression – the feeling of utter hopelessness and despair. Complete darkness. If there is a hell, she is living in it.

Sharee never knows how long her depressions will last. Sometimes if she is lucky it will only be a month, but sometimes it will last 6 months or a year. These periods of depression that never seem to end numb her heart and her brain; food tastes like ash, happiness is an emotion that feels like a far-off dream. Her mind has turned on her, and the frustratingly slow process of trial and error with her medication never seems like it will lead to healing.

Her mind always seems to turn her thoughts over and over again to the only thing that fascinates her anymore – death. Her mind constantly presses her to thoughts of death, just like someone might be pressed to stare at a car accident that is so horrible you can’t look away. Death, dying, decaying, the thought that everything was born but to die, what is the point anyway? Might as well just die now and save the pain and frustration. 

Most days she wanders into the cemetery by her house to sit by the graves and contemplate how long the deceased bodies have been dead. “The lucky souls” she thinks to herself. At least they are able to experience the peace and tranquility that her illness has robbed her of and taunted her with every day. Her life has become “living death”; most days she wishes that she was buried in that cemetery, at peace finally, and all alone in the darkness.

These are three stories that are rarely told in church; they describe the suffering and havoc wrought by depression and mood disorders. Their stories bear witness to an illness that turns life into a monotony of black and gray, blotting out pleasure and joy, imposing psychological torment and evaporating any hope that it might change. Many of us share similar stories as we or our loved ones battle this beast called depression.

In the midst of these and perhaps many of our own stories of depression, God, conspicuously, seems nowhere to be found. The only place we get a glimpse of God is in the addresses of the desperate and frantic prayers of the people who suffer. Prayers spill over the lips of Rob, Jen and Sharee like vinegar – some are whispered in isolation and some are screamed out of desperation – these prayers flow out of them, not from a pious desire to pray, but out of an eleventh hour plea for God to intervene. These are soul-bearing prayers.

Their prayers, though they are addressed to God, seem to question the very presence and faithfulness of the God they address. Rob, Jen and Sharee all contemplate whether the God addressed in these prayers is really worthy of the trust that the act of praying seems to assume about God. Can they really put their hope and trust in a God who doesn’t seem to show up and answer such desperate pleas for help? Their prayers echo and embody the prayer that we find in the 88th Psalm; this is their prayer.

Rob sits in his parked car after another long, monotonous day of work. He tries to muster the strength to start his car to head home, but what’s the point? There is nothing waiting for him at home; there’s nobody waiting for him at home. His friends and family mostly avoid him now because they say he’s too burdensome to be around and “he always kills the mood.” Life has become little more than a constant numbness and monotony; cold, friendless monotony. As he sits in his car and rests his head on the steering wheel, he whispers a prayer under his breath – a whisper is all he can muster:

“God, you’re my last chance of the day.

I’ve had my fill of trouble; I’m camped on the edge of hell.

I’m written off as a lost cause, one more statistic, a hopeless case.

Abandoned as already dead…

You’ve dropped me into a bottomless pit, sunk me in a pitch-black abyss.”

Jen lies alone in her bed; her kids and husband have been at school and work for hours now, but she has no reason to get out of bed. She lost her part-time job because the depression was worse than normal this winter.

She questions her worth – unable to do anything productive or worthwhile, unable even to care for her own kids – and this breaks her heart.

Then, as she lies partly under the covers, that same old worn thought flashes across her mind once again, whispering to her that maybe she is better off just ending it all now; that time-worn thought was never welcome, and yet she greets it like an old friend. She wonders how an idea can seem at the same time to be so atrocious and yet so comforting. Tears roll down her face as she chokes out a prayer, partly out of resignation, and partly out of anger towards God:

“I call to you, God; all day I call.

I wring my hands, I plead for help.

Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear to me?

For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting;

I’ve taken the worst you can hand out, and I’ve had it.”

Sharee sits against a tombstone in her favorite cemetery, slumped with her head in between knees. She feels like a monster; she hardly recognizes herself or knows who the real version of herself is. The first couple weeks after the crash into depression from the high-flown fancies of mania are always the darkest. She is subject to her mind and the torments that it wills upon her. She is stuck in a prison and the warden has thrown away the key. What she would give to be a normal teenager, with a normal high school experience. How is any of this fair? She tosses her head back and screams a prayer up at the sky:

“O Lord, I cry to you;

I cry out all day long.          

Why do you make yourself scarce?

I’m bleeding, black-and-blue.

It feels as if you’ve attacked me fiercely from every side, raining down blows till I’m nearly dead.

You made my friends and lover alike dump me;

Darkness is my only companion.”

These desperate, soul-bearing prayers from the mouths of Rob, Jen and Sharee do not go unheard by God. This God, who conspicuously seems nowhere to be found in the midst of mental illness, is closer than they realize.

Their cries for help in the eleventh-hour, filled with tones of resignation, anger and fear, are the same cries for help that we find on the lips of Jesus in the eleventh-hour of his life.

Jesus’ prayer in the garden for God to remove the cup of his suffering goes unanswered. Jesus suffers abandonment by his closest friends and disciples, because he is a thing of horror to stare at, nailed brutally and helplessly to a tree. Jesus’ final cry for help is eerily similar to the cries of Rob, Jen and Sharee: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me??” Jesus, the Son of God, died as a thing of horror, shunned and abandoned by his friends, left in isolation to die, nailed to a tree – darkness as his only companion.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the gods cared little for humanity. Humans were their chess pieces to be moved around the board and sacrificed when they were no longer worth anything. The gods were too concerned with their own affairs to care much about us.

How stunning do you think it would be for a people who are used to gods who fight and care little for humanity, to see and hear stories about a God who cared so much for humans, that he wanted to try on a human body and come walk around in it for 30 years? The New Testament completely overturns our expectations about who God is and how the universe works. Is the universe cold, meaningless, and God distant and uncaring? Or is God intimately involved in our lives, rejoicing and suffering alongside us, and is the universe actually full of meaning, set on a trajectory towards redemption and life?

The good news of the Christian gospel is that we do not worship a God who is unable to understand the depths of our suffering. The very fact that we have a God to address in our suffering, a God who was willing to subject himself to suffering on our behalf and ultimately promise redemption, this is hope; we are not as alone in darkness as we may feel.

“You are not alone.” Scripture reminds us of our faith ancestors who have experienced depression and despair: stories about Elijah, Tamar, Hagar, the psalmists and Jesus.

“You are not alone.” God himself became human to suffer alongside us, so that we are not alone in the darkness of despair. And God has promised that this despair will not get the final word.

“You are not alone.” We are surrounded by a community of people right now who care deeply for each other. Sometimes when we feel hope is slipping through our fingers, we can lean on others who will hope with us and for us. Sometimes the closest we get to hope is standing next to someone who has the hope.

I have found over the course of my time as a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital, that those who suffer acutely and frequently, whether it’s from mental illness or something else, tend to be more in touch with what it truly means to be human – the way Jesus taught us to be human. Jesus, on the night of his arrest, in Gethsemane feared God’s providence. He feared suffering and death. He was hurt by the abandonment of his friends; Jesus’ prayer was not answered. Because Jesus was afraid, we can be too. Because Jesus embraced his weakness rather than running away from it, we can too. Because Jesus didn’t put on a good face and pretend to be a joyful, praising Christian in the midst of suffering, neither do we have to. Because of Jesus, we can have the courage to be truly human. Because of Jesus, we can look fully in the face of our weaknesses and limitations and illnesses, and we can allow ourselves to be held by God in spite of all these things.

As a church, we would do well to listen to the stories of those who suffer and learn from them, because they understand what it means to be truly human the way Jesus taught us to be. They are close to the Father’s heart and we have much to learn from them. Amen.