Psalm 31 and Depression.

I have been writing daily reflections on Psalms for our church family.  Today Psalm 31 raises key questions about depression and prayer.  [I am no expert on depression, but offer this in the hope it might help some.]

Psalm 31

(1-2) I trust you GOD; I run for dear life to you my hiding place.
Don’t let me down!
Don’t let my enemies bring me to shame.
Get down on my level and listen, and please—no procrastination!
Your shelter my hiding place, your high cliff a place of safety.
Pull me into victory and breakthrough.

(3-5) You’re my cave to hide in, my cliff to climb.
Be my safe leader, be my true mountain guide.
Free me from hidden traps; I want to hide in you.
Into your hands I now entrust my spirit.
You won’t drop me, you’ll never let me down.

(6-8) I hate all this silly religion, these deceptive illusions,
All this pretence and nonsense,
but you, GOD, I trust.
I’m leaping and singing in the circle of your love;
you saw my pain, you disarmed my tormentors,
You didn’t leave me in their clutches but gave me room to breathe.

(9-13) Be kind to me, GOD— I’m in deep, deep trouble again.
I’ve cried my eyes out; I feel hollow inside.
My life leaks away, groan by groan;
my years fade out in sighs.
My troubles have worn me out, turned my bones to powder.
To my enemies I’m a monster; I’m ridiculed by the neighbours.
My friends are horrified; they cross the street to avoid me.
They want to blot me from memory,
forget me like a corpse in a grave,
discard me like a broken dish in the trash.
The street-talk gossip has me “criminally insane”!
Behind locked doors they plot how to ruin me for good.

(14-17a) Desperate, I throw myself on you: you are my God!
Hour by hour I place my days in your hand,
safe from the hands out to get me.
Warm me, your servant, with a smile;
save me because you love me.
Don’t embarrass me by not showing up;
I’ve given you plenty of notice.

(17b-18) Embarrass the wicked, stand them up,
leave them stupidly shaking their heads as they drift down to hell.
Gag those loudmouthed liars who heckle me, your follower, with jeers and catcalls.

(19-20) What a stack of blessing you have piled up for those who worship you,
Ready and waiting for all who run to you to escape an unkind world.
You hide them safely away from the opposition.
As you slam the door on those oily, mocking faces,
you silence the poisonous gossip.

(21-22) Blessed GOD! His love is the wonder of the world.
Trapped by a siege, I panicked.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” I said.
But you heard me say it, you heard and listened.

(23-24) Love GOD, all you saints;
GOD takes care of all who stay close to him,
But he pays back in full those arrogant enough to go it alone.
Be brave. Be strong. Don’t give up. Expect GOD to get here soon.
One of the positive progressions in our tolerant inclusive society in recent years has been the gradual demolition of the stigma surrounding depression. We now recognise that depression is a medical condition, caused by chemical imbalance and that being depressed is not something to be ashamed of. This has helped countless people find valuable help through this horrid illness.

I’ve never suffered from fully diagnosed depression, I have experienced burnout and the early symptoms of depression, to the extent that I can relate to the powerful words of the middle section of this Psalm. Verses 9-13 give an amazing description of the symptoms of depression in poetic language: hollow inside, spent out, worn down, isolated, feeling scorned and paranoid, feeling worthless and forgotten.

When the Bible was written, there was no medical diagnosis of depression, the old covenant theology of suffering caused by sin meant that deep pain was often felt to be a sign of failure, (see Job’s ‘friends’ response to his suffering). What a gift then that even in that context, the Psalms honestly tackle this and are able to articulate, in prayer, the raw honesty of these symptoms.

I know some who have walked through depression slowly, in agony, for years. I know others, including my Grandmother, who have been healed miraculously in an instant (after a lengthy battle). Because depression causes a sense of desperation, (captured here in v14) the whole area of how to pray, whether to pray and what to pray when depressed is an emotionally fraught one.

Is depression medical? – I believe it is; Is depression spiritual? – I believe it is and it certainly impacts our spiritual life.
So should we pray or take medication? … Wait, no, hang on…. it doesn’t have to be either or, do both!
My views on depression as a young zealous Christian were changed dramatically by my Dad. He was a GP, he was a man of faith who regularly prayed for his patients, (& would have been heart broken by the secular rules which inhibit Doctors now) he prescribed both Psalms and anti-depressants. He saw no shame in using both, he explained the chemical imbalances, the stability anti-depressants can give on a temporary basis and how they can help those battling depression to reconnect with God.

So I believe Psalms like this one can be part of the healing process for those with depression. Let’s look at how the Psalm tackles the desperation and loss of hope.

The first section is a choice to turn to God and trust him. This happens again at the start of the third section (v14), after the powerful cathartic outpouring of desperation. It’s hard to trust God when our inner world collapses, sometimes with our reason, but it’s a choice we can make, (helped by others) which invites him to rebuild it with us.

Secondly, the Psalm does tackle the wicked and his enemies, this is a Psalm of David, about a King facing military battles in a very unstable world. We are invited to see his emotional & spiritual response to that. Part of God’s help in battling depression is recognising those things which are our enemies. We can use different language or spiritual understanding of these, but as we turn to God, we can start to recognise the belief patterns, which drag us down. These are often thoughts that seem to offer comfort, but actually damage us and pull us from God, recognising them as enemies not ‘part of me’, can be a key step forwards.

depressionHonesty (v6) ‘I hate all this silly religion’!
– superficial answers, other people’s soundbites, pressurising legalism, none of these help. One of the most significant calls for church in our day is to be a safe place for raw honesty, a place where questions can be heard, pain can be expressed and those who are struggling can be supported not judged.

Gratitude. (v19) ‘what a stack of blessing you have piled up for those who worship you’. Sometimes it’s hard to feel those blessings in the midst of depression, it can be hard to be told ‘be grateful’ too, when all seems bleak. But David makes the choice to believe that the blessings are there, even though he isn’t experiencing them.

Finally, find a way to express a love for God. (v23)
Just as we might not feel blessed or grateful, when I’ve hit burn out, those emotions have gone to my core of my relationship with God. We hit anger, disappointment and doubt about God. I caught myself praying one day. “Father I need to pray about how I don’t think I believe in you anymore!’.

I do believe that underneath are the everlasting arms, behind the clouds the sun continues to shine. God is there and He is with us. Encourage those with burn out of depression to find a way to very simply tell him that we do love him, even in the midst of the storm that’s going on inside us. The simplicity of telling him that, invites him closer.

Many of you will have seen this simple cartoon about supporting and drawing alongside those with depression, I think it’s really powerful.  Can you look at it again and see the person on the right as God, who comes alongside us in our darkest times?

One quarter of people in Britain experience some form of mental health issue each year, from mixed anxiety to crippling depression. It’s highly likely that someone you care about is battling it right now. Take some time to pray for them today.