Disclaimer: There are many forms of depression, some are “clinical,” and some are “situational.” This sermon is primarily about situational depression. Depression affects all that we do. It affects our work habits, and our sleep habits, and our eating habits, and our general sense of well-being. One authority described it as the equivalent of experiencing a major grief while also dealing with jet-lag. If that description fits your life, don’t delay, go and see your regular doctor. That visit can be a first step toward recovery. WNG
On any given day, c. 20 million Americans are dealing with depression. 1 in five of us will have an episode in our lifetime. Depression is all around us, and, with apologies to Toys-R-Us on Super Bowl Sunday, sometimes “Depression-Are-US.”
Depression varies in intensity. A minor depression haunts us, and is hard to define. It simply plays games with our sense of well-being. A major depression weighs us down, and prevents the full functioning of all of our powers. It often keeps us from being our own best selves.
There is a good description of both kinds of depression in “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” by J.R.R. Tolkien.
At the beginning of 1st volume, before going to join the elves, Bilbo Baggins leaves the Ring of Power to his nephew Frodo. He tells Gandalf the Wizard that he feels “thin, like butter spread over too much bread.” He does not know that it is the ring that has sapped his strength.
It then becomes Frodo’s task to carry the ring of Power into the darkness of Mordor, the very home of the Enemy (with a capital “E”). He has to throw it into Mt. Doom, before the Enemy could get it back, and increase his power beyond the power of the world to resist him. As Frodo nears the completion of his task, and starts to climb the mountain, the ring became too heavy for him. He has to be carried part of the way by his dear, though very ordinary friend, Sam. Sam can carry Frodo and the ring easier than Frodo can carry the ring.
If you think that The Lord of the Rings is a silly little story, you ought to know that Tolkien, an Oxford Scholar, was a Christian. He said that the trilogy was not an allegory in the sense that Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory. He said that he did lift some of the situations in the trilogy right out of scripture. If you can’t appreciate Frodo’s burden, just think about Jesus, too weak to carry the weight of his own cross, as most who were condemned to crucifixion had to do. I am quite sure that Jesus thanked his heavenly father for the help of Simon of Cyrene in carrying his cross up his own Mt. Doom, Golgotha.
In the same way depressed people often stop to thank those members of their family, and those friends who help them to carry the burden that is often impossible to carry alone.
St. Paul said, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” and people, who help other people, who are depressed, have done that.
What can we do about depression when it affects us, or the people we love? We can fight it. And hopefully, we can whip it. Here is how:
1. First, it is hopeful to note that some depression takes care of itself. “Time heals all wounds,” even mental ones.
I have told you before about the Oriental Potentate who assembled all his sages, and wise men by the score, and said, “I want you to meet until you can give me the best possible advice about any and every situation, and I want you to put it into a single phrase.”
After three days of deliberation a delegation presented the following solution to the Potentate: “This too shall pass!”
Many times in the course of life you are going to outlast and outlive your problems. God will not always deliver you from your problems, but God will deliver you from, or through, a great many of them until you come to “that last cloudy day after which the sun will not shine.” (See Ecclesiastes 11)
It doesn’t matter how dark things are, for most of us the dawn is coming. In fact, it is always darkest just before the dawn. As the Psalmist says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)
One strategy for beating situational induced depression is to outlast it. And we can make the time pass more quickly by filling it. We can fight depression. Many authorities say that is impossible to be depressed while exercising. I know that when I had depression due to undetected hypothyroidism my run was the most important part of my day. Some morning I did not want to get out of bed—but if I got out of bed, and ran, things got better. Likewise, I was told just this morning that, in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie points out that is is impossible to be depressed while serving another.
That is thoroughly biblical. Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save his life will loose it, but whoever looses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The gospel is never a private affair. Jesus is not just talking about “eternal life,” he is talking about life, here and now.
When asked the secret of happiness, B.F. Skinner, the father of Behaviorism, quoted Jesus, “Whoever saves his life will loose it, who ever loses his life—in serving something larger than himself, will save it.”
2. The second thing we can do to fight depression is to name the cause of it. “Diagnosis is the first step toward cure.”
I have a friend with a mild form of recurring depression (Dysthymia). He told me that his depression, though caused by a physical condition, is often aggravated by certain events. He told me that if he can identify those events as the immediate cause of his depression, he begins to feel better at once.
Much depression is caused by some kind of change. And change is constant. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 475 BC) said, “The only thing that is permanent is change.”
Years ago researchers at the University of Washington put together a “test” to help people evaluate how well we are coping with change. They have assigned a number of Life Change Units (LCU’s) to the major crises that we must all face, sooner or later. Let me share a few examples.
- If a person looses a spouse to death they get 100 LCU’s. If they loose another close member of their family they get 63 LCU’s. If you loose a close friend to death, they get 37 LCU’s. And, of course, “there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.” We get 63 LCU’s when we loose him or her.
- If a person looses a spouse to divorce they get 73 LCU’s. That is the second highest number of LCU’s we can get. People can’t help death. People can help divorce. Divorce causes much pain, spread all around. That is why the Bible takes it so seriously, and why it is always a difficult option, especially for Christians.
- If one suffers a major injury or illness one receives 53 LCU’s. No argument here. Nothing is scarier than learning we have cancer, or heart failure. Nothing is more difficult to live with, at first, than the loss of one’s sight, or mobility, or ability to care for one’s self.
- And what about work, or lack of it? If you get promoted, you get 29 LCU’s. If you change jobs, you get 36 LCU’s. If we get fired, or downsized, or laid off, we get 47 LCU’s.
- During a recession, or a depression, the number of LCU’s that individuals accumulate in the society at large turns an economic crisis into an emotional one. One of the great things that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did to lead this country out of the Great Depression was to put hope back into our hearts. “The Only thing we have to fear,” he said, “is fear itself.”
- We have talked about getting LCU’s for the bad things that happen to us. You may be surprised to learn that we get LCU’s for some of the good stuff, too.
- If you go on vacation, or take a long trip for business reasons, give yourself 15 LCU’s.
- If you get married, you get 50 LCU’s. I suspect bigger weddings, that cost thousands and thousands of dollars can add to that total.
- If you buy a new house with a mortgage of at least $10,000—this is an old test, you get 35 LCU’s. I suspect that mortgages are like weddings, the bigger the mortgage, the more LCU’s you earn.
- Are you pregnant? That is worth 40 LCU’s, and when the baby is born, you get another 39 LCU’s. If you have a son or daughter move out of the house, and spread their wings, and fly right off your payroll, you get 29 LCU’s. If a son or daughter moves back home, or if you adopt a child, or you move an aging parent into your home. You get 39 LCU’s.
What am I saying? We are creatures of habit. Virtually all Life Change’s bring some degree of stress and anxiety and depression, and all of the stuff that races at us at 70 miles an hour is cumulative.
The researchers at the University of Washington say that if we accumulate 150-199 LCU’s we are in for a Minor Life Crisis. If we accumulate 200-299 LCU’s we are in for a Moderate Life Crisis. If we accumulate more than 300 LCU’s we are in for a Major Life Crisis with Emotional and Physical dimensions.
Some people will say, “I am a Christian. I don’t have to worry about that. The scripture says that God will not give me a burden to big to bear.” Actually, the scripture that most people think says that does not say that at all. In 1st Cor. 10:13 we read:
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
God does help us bear our burdens. The whole of scripture witnesses to that, but Christians cannot always escape depression. It is as common among us as among the members of any population.
Let’s get back to those life change units. I suspect these numbers affect families, and churches, and schools, and the places we work, just as they affect individuals.
They are cumulative. That means that the students and children at Sandy Hook. Elementary accumulated more than 800 LCU’s because of the fellow students and teachers that they lost. That means that some of us here at New Philly accumulated a huge number of LCU’s because we were close to more than a few of the 19 members that we lost to death last year. The bigger the family, the bigger the grief.
All this sounds pretty hard. But remember, “Diagnosis is the first step toward cure.” Once we name the cause of our depression, things start getting better.
In his book, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck says, “Life is hard! But the moment we know that life is hard, life is less hard, because we know that life is hard.”
That is profound. Much depression is caused by the gap between our expectations for any given situation, and what we actually get out of any given situation. If we know that life is hard, we expect less, and that helps us cope.
What I am telling you is absolutely in harmony with the collective wisdom of the New Testament. As we read in 1st Peter 4:12:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you.
He goes on to say that it is happening to our brothers and sisters everywhere. And else where he says, “Christ suffered in the flesh, therefore arm yourselves with the same thought.” (1st Peter 4:1)
Let me say it one more time: “Life is hard! But the moment we know that life is hard, life is less hard, because we know that life is hard.” The bottom line is that life is a series of crises that must be managed, and the happiest people are those who learn to deal with those crises as realistically as possible.
3. There is a third step to whipping depression. Introduce a little hope.
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
Now notice what is going on here.
“We are justified by faith in Christ.” Through him we have obtained access to the marvelous grace and unmerited favor of God. “Forgiveness is the most therapeutic idea in the world and we have it.” More importantly, “forgiveness is primarily about the restoration of the relationship between us and God.”
“We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Even facing death, we have something to look forward to, what Christ has already achieved at the right hand of the Father is our future, too.
“More than that…we rejoice in our sufferings?” What? Why? Because suffering produces endurance. When we suffer, and come through it, or rise above it, we become stronger, more able to endure.
“And endurance produces character.” At the very least it reveals character. Think about those people you admire. They are not those who have achieved through no effort—but those who have endured, and achieved through great effort. A hero is an overcomer.
“And character produces hope.” That is it! If we have hope, we can whip depression. We can take on life, and death, and we can whip them both!
“And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” That is it. We never walk alone. God is with us, in our suffering and sorrow, and in our joy, in life and in death.
After I preached the first sermon on depression, a physician came up to me and said, “I wish you would say something about depression and end of life issues.” Five minutes later, Pat _________ said to me, “I thought you might mention Cecil.” I told her that I would not without her permission, and she immediately gave it.
Let me tell you about Cecil. He was a wonderful friend and a great guy. He worked with the legendary “Field Engineers” of Western Electric, and AT&T. He went to sea with the Navy. He laid cable. He tested equipment. He was also an avid car collector, and absolutely faithful to the worship of this church.
Cecil had stomach cancer. It was a blow. His father had died of it, as had his brother. He had asked his doctor to watch him for it, but his doctor had told him that he had nothing to fear. Then he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and they took out most of his stomach. It was a doubly cruel blow. He became depressed. When I went to see him at Forsyth Hospital, the depression in the room was so thick you could cut it with a knife. This went on for several weeks. Then Cecil said to me, “Worth, I can live with dying. I am a Christian, I am not afraid of death. What I can’t life with is this terrible depression. Let’s pray that God will lift it.” We did. I am sure that other people took other measures, especially his doctor whom he trusted. Other people prayed. By the end of the month, the depression had lifted. I don’t think Cecil ever ate another full meal in the 15 months or so that he lived after that, but I do know that he never again dropped down into that deep depression. He was able to enjoy his dear wife, Pat, and his family, and his friends. He even busied himself with preparing for a car show. I do know that he was surrounded with love, and with hope, and I gained spiritual strength during my visits with him.
I shall never forget a visit I made to him very near then end of his life. He had wasted away to skin and bone. He was very weak. He was in a bed on his back porch. When he saw me, he stood up, and took a few steps, and opened his arms wide, and embraced me. I hugged him right back. I was not ashamed. I felt the love, and the hope, and the faith. Immediately I was reminded of a word by the great Catholic theologian, Henry Nouen, “the dying are a sacrament in the world.” They communicate God to us. And Cecil did communicate God to me.
This all puts me in mind of Romans 81-39. I encourage you to click the link in the last sentence and read it all, but the final words of the chapter are particularly meaningful.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.