“When darkness hides his lovely face” it hurts. And sometimes, as for the psalmist, it hurts like hell (Psalms 16:10; 18:5; 86:13; 116:3). Hell, or Sheol, is a place of hopelessness, a dark place of abandonment. This is how depression feels to one who comes under its dark cloud. When such darkness descends, the feeling is, for many—well—indescribable. In the words of Ed Welch, it is like a “darkness that will not lift.”
For those who know me, it’s no surprise when I admit that I suffer from such bouts of darkness. I battle with what is described by medical professionals as depression. At these times I struggle to believe the truths of God’s word as my mind is bombarded with a sense of foreboding hopelessness. At such times, it as though God has hidden his lovey face and the last thing I can do is to “trust in his unchanging grace.” I concur intellectually with those words of the hymn (“The Solid Rock”), yet my feelings are so far behind that my intellectual capacities struggle for equilibrium like a man who has fallen into quicksand. Panic sometimes arises as dread and fear rush in. I had one of those times earlier today.
I am writing this article because I know that I am not alone in this particular manifestation of living in a fallen world and a fallen body. My hope (yes, those who struggle with depression have times of hope!) is that what I have been learning over the years will be help others who also struggle with the descent of darkness.
I don’t have any explanation for why I face such times. Many years ago I did some research on my first name and discovered that “Doug” derives from a Scottish word meaning “darkness.” I guess I can blame my mom and dad. After all, why didn’t they name me “light” or “happy” or even “yippee!”? All kidding aside, my problem is deeper than the name on my birth certificate. My problem fundamentally goes back to Eden when I sinned in Adam (Genesis 3:1–7; Romans 5:12).
When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, every part of creation was affected, including the human psyche and body. Humanity has been groaning ever since. Some groaning is because we are a part of a fallen world (Romans 8:18–22); some groaning is because of grace and what we look forward to (Romans 8:23); while other groaning is because of unbelief. I have found that depression will sometimes act upon all three of these. That is, I will groan longing for freedom from sin while also groaning because of a struggle to believe that that day will come. Like Adam and Eve, I find myself believing the lies from the prince of darkness rather than believing God’s always good and faithful word. No wonder darkness descends at such times. When I give in to the lies, darkness hides God’s lovely face and the sense of being alone is dreadful. So, what do I do?
First, I examine my life, to the best of my ability, to see if there is unrepentant sin lurking. I avoid being overly introspective (what Martyn Lloyd-Jones referred to as always “examining one’s navel,” which rarely helpful and certainly not hopeful). If there is sin contributing to my sense of despair, I deal with it. I confess it and make amends if I have wronged someone. But to be frank, that is usually not the reason for the patches of darkness that often tempt me. Sometimes there is no rational explanation. What then?
At these times I have found it necessary to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Perhaps, subconsciously, this is why I have been a long-distance runner for 45 years. If I keep moving, the darkness will eventually drop off because it can’t keep up.
Despite the descent of darkness I have responsibilities as a husband, father, and grandfather and I dare not curl up and neglect these. I have a house to take care of: leaks to fix, walls to paint, rats to kill! I also have a vocation—a job. I need to fulfil my calling. I have responsibilities and I need to fulfil them. There are people to visit, lessons to teach, sermons to prepare, people to disciple, services to plan, meetings to attend, pastors to encourage, etc.
It’s ironic, but often I find myself doing a lot of counselling when I am facing the darkness. And I have found this to be God’s kindness to me. As I fill the role of being a physician of the soul, I end up self-medicating along the way.
This week, as I was feeling the dark clouds pressing on my soul, I visited some people who are undergoing a greater challenge than mine. As I read Psalm 42 with them, I felt somewhat guilty as I drank the medicine I was administering to them. I left hanging on to truth a little tighter than when I first pulled into their driveway. And hopefully I left them in a better place as well.
I have found it helpful to occasionally speak to a friend and simply ask for their prayers. Like today. I spoke with a friend, who knows my struggles, and simply said, “Please pray for me; I am experiencing darkness.” His kind assurance of his prayers opened the path for a shaft of light.
Reading Scripture is helpful. Sometimes. That may sound strange, especially coming from a pastor, so let me explain.
I do read my Bible during these bouts of depression. But less is more. As I focus on one truth, which is sometimes all I can handle, it can provide a library’s worth of insight.
Further, I pray. I have learned to pray honestly, transparently while reverently, complaining to an all-loving, all-knowing, all-wise, all-caring and all-powerful heavenly Father. The psalms are a hymnal of such prayers. I take my cue from them and will often pray them. But let me caution you: When you pray in your darkness, be careful to move beyond praying for yourself. Pray for others.
I need to pray for others because I am a covenantally committed member of a local church. I need to pray for others because I am an elder and this is my privileged duty. You see, I am not the only one facing difficulties. So I pray. What I often experience is that such praying is therapeutic; it can help my own soul. That is a wonderful consequence of it. It is not the main reason I pray, but God in his kindness will often use it as medicine to my own heart.
A few hours ago, I was under such a cloud that I wondered how I would be able to fulfil my duties for the day. Darkness seemed to hide God’s lovely face. But because I have been there before I was able to get on with it. And, by God’s grace, I can say with joy, “I trust on his unchanging grace.” I hope you will too. And if I can help, please, let me know.