Depression, Anxiety & Christian Spirituality
"my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death"
Over the last decade I've had seasons of real struggle with the wellbeing of my mind. Depression and anxiety have been very real, very dark realities for me on a regular basis during this time and I've learnt a huge amount about myself, the body and intimacy with God through it all. Only recently have I discovered there are genetic dietary roots to the issues I've faced in this area which has helped my mind hugely when they come in my present. But for almost 8 years I lived without that knowledge, deeply frustrated and confused to why I would go under the heavy weight for sometimes months at a time.
What I'm going to share with you in this post is what I learn't when I was utterly disoriented by a struggle that flew in the face of my faith, my love for Jesus and my own mind. Depression and anxiety can strike the most faithful christian and have no prejudice for character, strength or age. It's entirely possible to be intimate with Jesus through it all and they're not always manifestations of our inner selves or circumstances. Even when they are, they're still safely in the bounds of a healthy christian spirituality if we know how to navigate it well.
Jesus himself was called 'The Man of Sorrows' by Isaiah and suffered constant strain at the hands of the religious leaders of his day. We read in Matthew that he was depressed and anxious almost to death before his crucifixion. Paul experienced this same overwhelming fear and anxiety in Asia and even talked about his "daily anxiety for the church" in his discourse on how his suffering qualifies him to be an apostle. Just as the bible talks about not sinning in our anger, we can also be free from sin in our moments of depression and anxiety. Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart!I have overcome the world!" (John 16:33).
So, here are four ways I've learnt to "fear not" and to allow Jesus to overcome in the midst of my troubles.
1. Anxiety & depression do not equate to, nor are they necessarily the result of, seperation from god.
Jesus himself suffered from a bout of despairing depression at least once. In the garden of Gethsemane we find Jesus, desperate under the weight of sorrow in foreseeing his gruesome death actually asking God to make a way out for him. This is the incarnate Word we're talking about here who for this very reason came to the earth. If Jesus can be God, perfect and willing and still experience circumstantial depression and still be pleasing to God, then so can we, and if Christ himself can experience that then we know it's also not the result of God's presence leaving us. We can undoubtably make decisions that lead us into dark places, but even there we can find the beauty and tender grace of Jesus. Friend, you are not alone.
2. Anxiety & depression are not forever.
One of the most liberating things I ever heard someone teach on anxiety was to let it wash over you, don't fight it, just let it happen. Practicing that in my life began an empowering change. Often, fighting the onslaught of these emotions can be more exhausting than the emotions themselves. Remind yourself that it will pass, it has before and it will again. I am a personal testimony that even months and years of the darkest nights will pass eventually and if that's not enough, don't forget that Jesus rose from his grave and so will you.
3. Worshipping God in that place is not denial or escapism, its true freedom.
In the dark night of the mind one of the hardest things to do is worship God but it's the most powerful medicine in our spiritual cabinet. The Psalms are full of these moments and Jesus himself did the same in Gethsemane when he simply prayed "Not my will Father, but yours be done." What worship does is tell our circumstances who they have to submit to. Sometimes it changes the fabric of those very circumstances and sometimes it doesn't but in the least it sings with the poet Micah "Do not gloat over me O my enemies, though I fall I shall rise again, though I sit in darkness the Lord will be a light to me" (7:8). Many times, as I've forced myself to simply declare who God is I have had a peace flow through me. A simple way to start this is to say, "God, you are the God of my every breath and thought. You are the God of my anxiety, the God of my night, the God of my emotions. You are not limited by what I feel, I worship you as the Lord of all of it."
4. The presence of joy does not NECESSITATE the absence of anxiety.
The presence of the Holy Spirit within us is not in the absence of ourselves and the fruit of the Spirit is not in the absence of our natural human emotions. Just because you're experiencing grief, pain, depression or anxiety in your physical body doesn't mean you can't experience the fruits of the Spirit in your own spirit. Those fruits are a permanent promise which entered our reality through Pentecost. This was the biggest game changer for my anxiety attacks last year. I began to pause and seek inwardly the peace of his Spirit that was already there and amidst that anxiety I would refuse to talk or think about it as part of my identity. What is more true than my feelings is the promise of Christ that he is within me, and though he himself knows sorrow and grief, it was never in the absence of joy and peace. Strangely enough, and I am a testimony to this, it's entirely possible to live in the tension of both.
So, we don't have to fear our dark nights of the soul as some kind of mark against our spirituality. In fact, we could even see it as our "sharing with Christ in his suffering in order that we may share in his glory", our sorrow to the point of death connects us with Jesus and creates intimacy with him if we will allow it to. We can share with him that now we can understand even just a taste of what the cross must have been like for him and we can worship him through that moment. We should never seek or glorify these moments of darkness in our spiritual walks but we don't need to fear them as something strange or unexpected either.