So what is the Christian response to depression, anxiety or for that matter any mental health problem?
I believe that there are various responses to this question. The apostle Paul, praying for the Christians in Ephesus asked for “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.” (Ephesians 1:18, NKJV). In subsequent articles I have invited you to come along with me as we take a look at some of these resources that God has provided for Christians, but first of all I want to share with you my own personal account.
A personal account
In the early years of 2000 I came to a major crossroad in my life. I was torn between a decision to put my career on hold and invest a little more in my marriage or carry on with my professional career. There were a few considerations that led me to this point which I cannot go into here for lack of space, but suffice to say that the prime motivation was that to put my career on hold would afford my wife the opportunity to also develop her education and career so that in the future we were not worlds apart in our world views. I was confronted with having to make a major life transition and this was not without much agonizing and heart-wrenching over the decision. The result was that I switched from a career in development planning, with all that it represented to me and began a new career in mental health nursing. This decision had a major impact on my general psyche.
At this time, my identity and social status were largely defined by my profession as a budding Development Planner, a career which I had been building over ten years or so and as you may imagine became very dear to my heart. I had invested time and money into it. I took pride in it and it gave me a sense of purpose. It had taken me to a few places in the world and it held great promise for the future. Having acquired several years of experience in the field, I had taken the last major step toward completing my goal by completing a masters’ course in Urban Development Planning in the United Kingdom. This meant I was near the pinnacle of my life dream. It was at this very point that I came to my crossroad.
The closest metaphor that etched on my mind during this period was the mental picture of a man who was building a house and came close to putting up the roof but left it incomplete. The result was that for the first time in my life I experienced the signs of what could be considered as a depressive episode which lasted the best part of at least three years. During this time, I was able to complete the professional course in Mental Health Nursing but not without much anguish of soul. I remember praying several times in the middle of the night while I endured sleepless nights wondering whether I had missed God and His purpose for me. These were times when I looked into the future but without any sense of expectation, purpose or hope.
My thoughts were mostly focused on the past life I had before taking this decision and the fear that I had lost my meaning in life forever. While all this was happening, I was drawing further away from my wife and our marriage went through some rocky times with the risk of divorce except for the grace of God. My self-esteem and personal confidence were shattered and I had lost all hope of living. My posture became one of self defeat and my shoulders were almost always dropped down. I remember a particular scripture in Job that echoed in my heart many times in those days: “For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not be cease. If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14:7, 14a, KJV). In those days, I hardly looked forward to the day and it took much effort to wake up in the mornings and face the day. The joy of living was gone from me. Before this time, as a Christian, I used to wake up in the mornings with songs in my heart but for years after this decision, I did not receive any song in the morning. Living through the day was only a motion. I could not even enjoy laughter.
I had lost interest in the things around me and could not enjoy life. I made a conscious attempt to cut off any contacts I had with anything or persons from my past because it was too painful to call to memory “the glorious times”.
A personal healing process
Tracing my steps back to those days, I can now see how God used different resources to bring me along, one day at a time through much soul searching to my present station on this journey of life.
A prophetic word of comfort/assurance (1 Corinthians 14:3)
My wife and I came to our present local church in 2002. I entered as a broken man. The sincerity of the first message from the servant of God caught our attention and from that moment we kept coming. One day my pastor sent us an invitation to a women’s conference held by another church. At that conference, gifts were presented and I was surprised when my name was mentioned to receive a gift (apparently nominated by my pastor). As the servant of God gave the book to me she said, “The Lord says you have been through a lot but to tell you to keep going forward.” To others, this meant nothing but to me it was a word of assurance and hope – to know that after all God was in touch with my deepest longings and that even though I may have made a mistake, He was in effect telling me that all will be well.
One of the deceptions that one can come under in depression is the thought that no one understands. Effectively that word of God came to disarm the hold of that thought on me and provide me with assurance in a personal way that God understands. We are made to understand in 1 Corinthians 14:3, that the purpose of prophecy is to edify, exhort and comfort. That timely prophetic word has since kept re-sounding and coming back to me at several key junctions that followed this moment in my life. I wish to encourage you at this point not to grow weary in doing good as the scripture says. If my pastor had not heeded to the voice of the Holy Spirit to send us that invitation to the conference, I probably would not have experienced that life-changing moment. Do not be weary in well doing, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13, NKJV)
Hope from identification – you are not alone
In my second year in university, during my nursing training, I happened to be in a placement where I met a man from my country who several years before me, had also read the same course in urban development planning as I did and from the same department and university as I had attended. Furthermore, just like me, he had gone on to read mental health nursing as a profession. There were too many parallels here for me to just dismiss as mere coincidence. Over time, as we got to know each other closer, I drew much encouragement, inspiration and hope from him. After all he trod the same path as I was treading. I believe God allowed our life courses to cross into each other and used his life as an encouragement for me to know that there is hope to live again and that it was not all that bad as I always thought.
You see, in life one of the best sources of comfort and even for mentoring is to meet people who can relate to you at the core of your being. To meet those who have walked before the path that you now walk. This is what Christ did for us. In the book of Hebrews the bible says “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17-18, NKJV). What a beautiful statement: In His suffering as a human being, Jesus Christ becomes the fitting High Priest who is in touch with every suffering or pain that we may ever go through in our humanity. There is something powerful about ministering from the depths of one’s own personal experiences. God effectively used this encounter to begin to change my perception of the future. Whereas before I used to see the future as bleak, now I began to see the possibility of hope by this one encounter on my practice placement – oh the unsearchable depths of the manifold wisdom of God!
The word of God, an anchor of hope
The word of God from the pulpit of God is divinely inspired and can accomplish anything He pleases. In Hebrews 4:12 (KJV), the bible tells us that “For the word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” I believe it was in 2005, after completing my nursing training. God had begun changing my perspective of the future but I was still dwelling on the past with much of my predominant thoughts stuck in the past and struggling with emotions of guilt.
My pastor had invited a guest preacher to our church, a Welshman by the name of Pastor Wynne Lewis (who has gone home to be with the Lord). He preached from Isaiah 43: 18-19a (KJV), “Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth…” As the word of God came forth that afternoon it was as if God had sent his servant to speak that word to me personally. One of the hallmarks of the thinking process in depression is “perceived loss”. This perception of loss can make the mind to dwell on the past. God used that word to challenge and begin to break the tendency for my thought pattern to focus on the past. In effect He used that word to begin healing me from the past so that my past was no longer a distraction from looking to the future. From that time on, instead of looking back with regret and pain, these emotions began to lose hold on my thoughts. I began to know God as the God who gives second chances.
I was strengthened to look forward with trust and hope in God, knowing that he held my future in his hands. His word says to His people, “For I know the thought that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you an expected end.” (Jeremiah 29:11, KJV)
A word of empathy
The bible records in Proverbs 25:11 (KJV), “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” In those dark and confused days of my life, I did not suffer alone but my wife as well. She could not understand nor come to terms with why only a change in career had affected me so much. However one day it all changed. We were on our way from the graduation ceremony and there at the bus stop, on our way home, she uttered those few empathic and timely words that only God could have placed in her heart. She said to me “now I understand – it is like a woman who lost her baby.” You may say but it’s not so extreme. Yes, it was not the same type of loss, but you see one of the things that take place when people come into depression is the sense of “perceived loss”. This is so real to the person that as with any event of loss, the person goes through a process of grief and bereavement for the lost object – whether of a person, career, status, relationship, pet, health, etc. The important consideration here is not so much the “object of loss” but the meaning this has in the life of the individual.
The power of fellowship
Another area that God used greatly to provide me with strength and comfort during the time of my distress and weakness was the fellowship of the brethren. The bible says “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together…” (Heb 10: 24-25a, KJV). During those dark times, early on Saturday mornings, I looked forward to attending those men’s fellowship meetings organised by one of the older men in our church. Through these meetings and others that I attended in the main sanctuary, I received strength from God’s word and prayer and from other believers to find strength for the journey ahead. Steadily God began to edify me and provide me with strength to build my own personal relationship with Him in the coming years. I recall in particular a message that was preached by my pastor in 2007 titled ‘From your father’s house to God’s house – and Enoch walked with God’. This marked a watershed for me from where I began to steadily cultivate my personal walk with God.
I can go on recalling the processes of how God brought me from the place of hurting through the process of healing, from despair to hope but I literally have to stop myself here for lack of space.
The God who heals
Today the story is different. The bible describes our God as the Healer. I can only be grateful to Him for bringing me this far and continue to place my little hands into His (in trust) to take me along into the future that He has for me. I am not by any means suggesting that my experience is a panacea for everyone experiencing depression, but at least I hope it points to the God who heals. He has promised that those who look to him, their faces shall be radiant. I can relate to the Psalmist as he writes in Psalm 40, “I waited patiently for the Lord; And He inclined unto me, And heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, Out of the miry clay, And set my feet upon a rock, And established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth – Praise be to our God; Many will see it and fear, And will put their trust In the Lord.” (Psalm 40 1-3, NKJV).