Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lent and Depression

Lent is an excellent period in which to renew one’s relationship with God...but if you're prone to depression (as I've been off and on all my life) the penitential aspects of the season could possibly make a person sadder than before.

This occurred to me as I was reading a book about God's nature. The book---somewhat stern and conservative in its reminder of God's majesty and authority---called attention to the vastness of God's mercy compared to the underlying selfishness of many of our prayers. So many of our prayers are, after all, "quid pro quo" prayers: God, if I do X, please do Y for me. God "sees through" our motives, however, and loves us anyway.

I actually got a little blue reading this chapter of the book, even though the main point was the mercy of God! That's because I felt compassion for people who are blue: when we're in the depths of sadness, our prayers can't help but have that "quid pro quo" quality--God, please help me to be happier, please show me ways to take away this sadness. We also beat up on ourselves even more than usual when we're depressed, and our prayers can feel self-focused because of our pain.

But a time of temporary or chronic sadness might be a powerful time to be reminded of God's vast love, including Lenten times. The psalms, of course, are wonderful prayers because many of them are quite forthright about the psalmists' distress! Psalms 42 and its companion 43 are examples. "For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?" (Ps. 42:2). What a terrible concern, that God is not only silent but has rejected the psalmist! Fortunately that isn't the last word, for the psalmist knows to "hang on": "Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God" (vs. 5). The psalmist isn't feeling praiseful now, but will eventually. During Lent, a depressed person might include psalms among devotional reading.

Lent might be a good time to prayerfully focus upon scriptures that depict God as a "place" of help. God is our machseh, which means "refuge" (Deut. 33:27, KJV and NIV) or “dwelling place” (RSV). Psalm 46:1 affirms that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Imagine God as a welcoming "place" to go when you're downhearted.

A wonderful thing, which we don't always think about, is that because of the Holy Spirit, we're even closer to God than the psalmists! Jesus opened up for us the Spirit (John 7:39), and now the Spirit functions as a guarantee of God's eternal love (2 Corinthians 5:5). By all means, don't think that your sadness is a sign that God has withdrawn the Spirit. God hears our voices where we are now (Gen. 21:17), and God is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:19-20). Paul assures us that the Spirit intercedes for us when our prayers are inadequate or difficult to verbally express; the Spirit certainly isn't "put off" when we're weak, for those are the times when the Spirit steps in and takes our side (Rom. 8:26).

The church might (or might not) be a place where we can "come as we are," including times when we're tremendously sad. It depends upon the congregation: church folks might simplistically urge us to cheer up, to have more faith, to pray more, and other things that don't help at all when we're depressed, while other congregations might be places where folks uphold us amid our strong, sad emotions.

Lent can also be a time of getting things back into balance and in perspective. Speaking only for myself, my own blues are often attributable to something out of balance: I've been too busy and haven't taken time for exercise, for instance, or I've fallen into the trap of "what if" thinking, or whatever.

If you feel depressed during Lent (or any time), figure out things within your own circumstance and talk to people you know about your feelings; my thoughts here are simply to provide encouragement. Even in the best situations, we don't always give God "credit" for being as unfailingly, tenaciously loving as God is. In the midst of our difficult feelings, we perceive God as that uncomplimentary parent, that childhood bully, that difficult significant other, that fussy boss, or whoever created those "tapes" that we play over and over in our minds. But God is SO MUCH greater and better than that! I've drawn strength from this quote by Desmond Tutu: “There is nothing you can do that will make God love you less. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. God’s love for you is infinite, perfect, and eternal.”(1)


1. Lorraine Kisly (ed.), Ordinary Graces: Christian Teachings on the Interior Life (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), p. 192.