By Angel Turbeville, Director of Small Groups @MBCBethesda
As I look around at the world we live in, some days it feels like it is totally falling apart. One of the most devastating losses is death due to suicide. Can there be enough hope to break through to those souls struggling to hold onto life itself? I believe there is. I think the church needs to understand a little more, and I hope taking my mask off might help. Depression and the overwhelming darkness and despair that it brings strikes those who claim their salvation in God, just as hard, maybe even harder, as those who do not profess faith in Christ. I know that many in the church want to help, but they do not understand the complexity of how to be in transformational community with those who battle depression. Here’s my take from a heart that knows.
In many ways, I believe the battlefield of the physical darkness of the mind, is compounded for the Christian. Satan knows that if he can make us lose hope, we are rendered powerless from God’s kingdom. Depression is not foreign to me. I have watched many I love battle and even more devastating, stop fighting. I battle. I am a believer. I KNOW Christ. I know His love. I know the power of the cross. I minister to others. I share His hope. I speak truth even on the days when my heart is dark with despair. In the past, I’ve battled waves of anxiety and panic attacks. Thankfully, those have lessened. Because of the devastating depth of how broken my heart is, my past has even included begging God to take me to heaven. I’ve let a few close to me know the level of my pain, but for the most part, I’ve painted on the face I know I’m supposed to have and soldier on. Healing has occurred, but I still have days/weeks of struggles. In those times, eventually God’s light does break through. I’ll go from a heavy cloud of oppression to a realization of the hope that is at work within me. However, despite my constant prayer, God has not totally healed me.
God, in His gentle sovereign way, has taught me how to fight this darkness. I have taken practical steps—I have been in counseling for six years. I have tried medication, but unfortunately for me, aside from helping me through crisis points, this has not been a good ongoing solution. I know the battle is easier if I manage my diet, exercise and sleep. I try to do that.
Spiritual transformation has happened in the light of community. The few who know my battle are the dear friends who consistently love me through the dark. In the past couple of years the most healing has happened because of those within the church that I have been able to trust. They are the ones who persist. They know my patterns. They recognize when I am going into hiding or not being honest about my heart. They call me out. They sit in the despair with me and pray. They check in with me, text me verses, email me and are not afraid of my dark. Some of them have their own struggle and those who know deep pain have been able to penetrate to places that others can’t. However, the friends that most amaze me are those who don’t share this or a similar battle, but still schlep into the dark completely relying on God to navigate the right words or actions.
What are some practical actions you can take if you have people in your life who are battling depression, or for that matter, any pain that you have no idea how to relate to?
1. Be there
Be a consistent presence in their lives. This does not mean lecturing them on how to change their thoughts or refocusing them on “positive” thinking. It does mean pointing them to Scripture that affirms the despair of their hearts. Wrestling through where they are with God and praying with them and for them. My deepest “knowing God” moments have been the times when I have been able to apply the truth of His character to the depravity of my heart.
In the worst times of despair, we disconnect. The pain drives us into hiding because “no one understands.” We believe many lies including that we are “totally alone” and “no one cares.” Even as believers, these thought patterns creep in. Outside of crisis points, have honest conversations to find out what is helpful when this level of despair hits. Open yourself up to be available via text or phone—anytime day or night. Does this level of care scare you? It shouldn’t. For the believer who is truly battling and seeking God’s work of redemption in their lives, this will not turn into co-dependence. It will be a mark of authentic community and the bearing up of one another’s burdens.
3. Be willing to ask the hard questions
Understand specifically the trigger points that ignite moments of despair. For those you are in close community with, make sure they are keeping safeguards in place to manage their reactions.
4. Affirm and love
At our deepest levels, God created us for intimate relationship. We need to be free to let go of shame and be embraced by love. Shame comes with this struggle. Satan is whispering the lies of “where is your God right now?”, “you are serving Him and ministering to others, look at the fraud you are right now” and any other lie he can think of in attempt to disable God’s redemptive work. Do not add to the shame with a spirit of condemnation. Identify the lies and answer them with Truth from God’s Word.
5. Pray and rely on the Holy Spirit
Those who deeply struggle with depression and mental illness have needs and thirsts that are insatiable. We can only be redeemed through His Living Water. Our community must be built with those who will not retreat in hurt, but will strive to understand and love through the power of the cross.
6. Recognize when practical help is needed in addition to spiritual
For those who battle this deeply, there is a need for professional counseling and other resources. However, even in those cases, the five points above STILL apply. A counselor is not community for the Christian.
The body of Christ MUST take steps to understand how to engage with one another so that we are living the Gospel victoriously. 1 Thessalonians 5 is a beautiful picture of what the church should be doing. We need to realize that we have not been lost in the darkness of this world, and we need to encourage each other to live as children of light. In vs. 14 the command is given to comfort the “feebleminded”. The word actually means “small-souled” and in context indicates one who is despondent. Are we in close enough community with each other to know the size of our souls? Are our lives prioritized around our agendas or knowing and loving others in a way that is transformational and exhibits a taste of the love we have received through Christ on the cross. Let’s get there. Let’s be patient, know each other at the soul-level, and love deeply as Christ has loved us. Simple statements that call for bold living.