Edward T. Welch “Depression – A Stubborn Darkness”
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Often we address issues by asking ‘how to’ questions, but Welch in this book is more concerned with starting with the question ‘why?’ Depression is a complex issue, there are many factors to the equation including physical issues that contribute, however we need to look at the root problem if we’re going to find any answers.
Welch describes the feeling of depression with a myriad of words; hell, nothingness, complete absence, mental pain, meaninglessness, inability to make decisions, no certainty except the misery, guilt, shame, worthlessness, flat, grey, cold, lack of interest, numb. He identifies two main definitions of depression; 1. Dysthymic disorder/situational depression which is akin to discontent and 2. Major disorder/clinical depression which is hopelessness.
There is a danger that we reduce depression purely to physical causes, which is our tendency today in the west. The problem with this approach is that it leaves no room to deal with our relationship with God, no room to learn from suffering. However, there is also a danger that we reduce the cause merely to sin. This raises immediate problems as we consider Jesus – as C. H. Spurgeon notes, he was ‘sorrowful, even to death’, yet there was no sin in him. We need to ‘listen’ when depression is trying to say something.

If we see depression in the category of suffering, which it undoubtedly is, then this opens up a wealth of Bible passages that can be of help. Depression no longer equals meaninglessness, it actually has a purpose (e.g. James 1:2-4).
Welch notes five causes of suffering; others, ourselves, our fallen bodies, Satan and God. The last one may appear the least obvious, but Welch puts in it in the strongest possible terms – God sends suffering.

There is a danger once more of trying to reduce suffering to one cause – it is rarely like that. For instance Joseph’s suffering was caused by his brothers, but also by God. Paul’s suffering which he relates in 2 Corinthians 12 was caused by his pride (himself), a messenger from Satan and God. And still other times the cause is simply unknown. But the reason for it is to point us back to God – he is the one who knows everything and he is…God (cf. Job).

Welch feels that it is important, when looking at the issue of suffering to consider who God is. We betray our lack of understanding and/or belief because so often we believe in God when things are good and question him when they are bad, or we don’t believe in God when things are good and still question him when things go wrong! But Job worships God even when he suffers.

There is also a problem when we functionally divorce Jesus from God the Father. Jesus reveals God. Jesus shared in our suffering and therefore God knows our suffering and participated in them. Interestingly he doesn’t take away our suffering, but shares in it. And if we follow Jesus we will share in his suffering. God is good, he shows that in the cross. God is generous – he promises us a great banquet.

The problem of sin is that we focus on ourselves rather than God. This is particularly acute in the case of depression. Thus it is vital that we refocus ourselves on God. Welch puts it to the reader that using liturgy when we don’t know what to say is a great way of doing that. The Psalms serve that purpose excellently. Even Jesus used them (Psalm 22) – it’s a statement of faith. We must be careful not to actually want God to be distant in our depression. We must speak to him.

Satan is so keen to deflect our attention away from God and since in depression the focus is already on self we are prime targets. Satan is subtle in his attacks. He lies to us; our feelings become ‘truth’, Satan is merely continuing what we have already begun to think. He lies about us, e.g. we’re ‘too bad’ to be forgiven. And he lies about God, e.g. Genesis 3:4. He focuses us on the temporal not spiritual realities. He may even emphasise when God is gracious in provision “all the bills are paid”, “we have a beautiful house” – God is good! The problem is because we start to identify God’s goodness purely with the temporal, when these things go we think that God is no longer good, or we can’t see the ‘evidence’ for it.
With Satan we need to be on our guard – we must assume that this warfare rages. We must not think that we are unique and that no one else understands. We need to know Christ – that is the remedy for the lies of the devil. Paradoxically to most modern psychology we need to humble ourselves before God. We feel low, but we must lower ourselves before God.

Welch notes a very subtle danger in depression – it can actually become a friend. We hate it, but it has been with us so long it becomes a comfort and in all truth we don’t actually want out of it…

One of the key things to battling depression is to remember; to remember God’s deliverance of us, to actually remember our sin. Seeing our sin is good as it reminds us that things are not right and that God is near as he illumines sin. And it is in the cross that we find hope. We need to force-feed ourselves with these truths. We must override feeling.
If we are going to deal with these issues our purposes need to be in line with God’s. Rather than being focussed on ourselves we need to fear God and keep his commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). This means that we will recognise God and God, and we will love him and love our neighbour. Our aim will be to glorify him, to be able to say that Christ crucified is of first importance and to become like him.

In becoming like Jesus we go against the very grain of depression; depression says ‘surrender’, God says ‘persevere’. This reflects his character, and suffering produces this perseverance (Romans 5:3). Jesus himself learned obedience and endurance through suffering – it is a glorious thing! But it is a battle – Luther called it ‘anfechtungen’ – ‘to be fought at’. It’s a journey of hope, purpose and perseverance, leading to a greater knowledge of God.

Welch goes on to talk about some of the other causes of depression. Other people are a significant factor, such as abusive parents, both physically and mentally. Through Adam the curse came, bringing physical illness, misery in work and death. And of course there is Satan. All these things are usually necessary to a depressive cycle, however none of them are ‘sufficient’, for instance we see that Paul had many of these things, yet was ‘not crushed’ (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

Our culture can also play a part – increased decisions in almost everything, and pressure. Also we face the problem of a culture of individualism. Community that we were made for is being eroded. And there is the culture of self-indulgence, ‘just one more’.
There is also a problem of the ‘self-esteem’ teaching that we have had for a number of years. We are told ‘you are great, you can achieve, you deserve it…’ but we soon realise that it is not true. We believe that happiness is the greatest good, and therefore we reject hardship.

We also have the problem of the heart. It may not be the cause of our suffering, but we will always find it there. We want to go our own way, we crave autonomy, we are proud, we think we do deserve the best, we want to indulge our desires. So we have a desire for love, which is good in itself, but when it is left unchecked, ‘I want more…’ and it becomes are main goal it is terrible. Jesus lived a life where he was not loved by people, yet his desire was for something greater.

Depression often reveals what is in our hearts. Testing in suffering and trials reveals our true knowledge of God. The Israelites were tested in the desert, but they failed. Jesus was tested in the desert and he trusted God.

Welch also examines the issue of fear. We may fear death, how will we die, we may fear the past recurring. It seems inverted but we are actually putting our trust in things that don’t last – we believe that happiness lies in our not dying, in the past not recurring; we are putting our hope in these things – it is the same problem of idolatry again – putting our hope in things other than God.
The answer is to repent of unbelief. We need to look to the Bible and see the faithfulness of the good shepherd.

Anger is another issue that so often arises. Yet again it is a problem of my world revolving around me – my laws have been violated. There is a righteous anger, God’s laws have been violated. But that’s the question – who are we imitating, God and concern for what he is concerned for, or the devil, turning away from God?

Anger is intimately linked to hopes. When are hopes are dashed we get angry. The problem is we don’t really believe that God is God, that he is good and loving. Thus we decide what our demands are and how they should be met (cf. Jonah). However our hopes can also be dashed by other people, we set up a standard and others do not meet it. We may set up people-gods, living under the tyranny of how they feel about us. But we are still choosing to live under that standard.

To topple these idols we need to 1. Trust God that he accepts us, 2. Confess those idols, 3. Obey – love God and others, focus not on self but others, have the attitude that says “my desire to love you will outweigh my desire to be loved [honoured, appreciated, respected] by you.”

Guilt is another problem that often plagues. We feel that we have not measured up to God’s standard, that God can see that and so we feel guilty. The answer is the gospel – free forgiveness in Jesus. We need to be careful not to answer guilt with legalism. Depression can reveal if our actions are actually where we are putting our trust.

Death is sometimes thought of as the only way out of depression. Its irrational but ‘logical’. The problem is it is still an expression of the desire for self-law, autonomy. We need to challenge our thinking, ask ‘who is God?’ and turn to trust him. He won’t give us more than we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). He gives us the ‘power to trust and obey when we feel powerless.’

Medication is something that can be helpful. However Welch gives a warning to be careful with it. For one thing the long term effects are not fully known. Secondly there is the danger of putting our hope in medicine and thinking that that will cure the problem. Depression is not purely physical. There is value in hardship. So be wise!

The key is to remember who God is – he is sovereign, he is in control, he is loving. Welch says to expect to be taught by God, expect God to use you as you obey him and love others. Depression will feel light and momentary when weighed against what God has for us in eternity.

Knowing the end of the story always helps in the middle. We know the end of the story as Christians – there is hope. But we need to make sure that we are listening to God’s story not our own. God’s story is one of rescuing wayward people through the death and resurrection of his Son. Death is not the last word, hope lies in the fact that Jesus rose again from the dead. We need to be careful not to insert our own chapters of ’needs’ into God’s big story. Our hope will be placed in these ’needs’ being fulfilled and will end in hopelessness. We must remember that sinlessness is far greater than painlessness. Welch also makes the point that we need the community because it is there that we are reminded of the story.

Welch ends his book by talking about joy. Joy includes thankfulness but is more than that. It is taking delight in the beauty of God. It is humbling as we have to take our eyes off ourselves and admit that there are things to take joy in. Joy doesn’t mean no suffering. It is joy in suffering (e.g. a Christian’s funeral). So look for joy, in creation, in the lord, in what is true… But it is something that needs to be practiced.

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