This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Overcoming Depression-Anxiety: A Suffering Paradigm” seminar. This portion is one element from “Step 4: LEARN MY SUFFERING STORY which I use to make sense of my experience.” To RSVP for this and other Summit counseling seminars visit bradhambrick.com/events.
This awkward question forces us to examine the message we are embracing in the midst of our emotional experience. As you read through the list below, you are trying to identify which messages best capture your experience. Do not feel compelled to think that your emotions are saying all of these things.
At the end of each theme a passage of Scripture will be provided with a devotional guide. These are not meant to be “the answer” which erases your experience of depression-anxiety or dominates the suffering story into remission. They are meant to offer hope and prevent this chapter from seeming as dark as it would otherwise.
Nine of the ten themes / statements are taken from Ed Welch’s article “Words of Hope for Those Who Struggle with Depression” (The Journal of Biblical Counseling; Winter 2000, p. 43-44; bold text only). As you read this section, simply be asking yourself the question, “Which of these sounds like me?”
1. “I am guilty or ashamed.” The theme of guilt would view depression-anxiety as sin and say, “This is my fault.”While the theme of shame would view depression-anxiety as suffering and say, “Something is wrong with me.” Either way, the emotions of depression-anxiety would become the defining quality in your sense of identity.
The tempting part of guilt for these emotions is that it provides a façade of immediate emotional control. If this were true, then repentance would provide relief. It would be a great trade to “own” our emotions and be delivered. But even when depression-anxiety does reveal sin, the emotions themselves are not what is sinful; only the values and lifestyle that produce them. So this “deal with God” mentality is not the answer.
The tempting part of shame for these emotions is that it means we can quit looking for an explanation. Often shame is the result of exhaustion. We can’t think of anything else to do and no longer have the energy to do it if we did, so we give up and embrace shame as a form of painful-rest. But the result is passivity and isolation; both of which only stoke the fire of anxiety-depression.
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “I am guilty or ashamed”?
Read Ezekiel 36:25-31. Notice that when God promises to wash his people clean he says he will wash them of their idolatry and uncleanness. This removes both guilt and shame. Idolatry creates guilt because it relies on something other than God for the things only God can do. Uncleanness is different. Under Old Testament law you could become unclean by having a skin disease, touching or eating the wrong animal, or violating some other ceremonial law. These were not “wrong” (many were unhealthy and needed to be discouraged) but they became sources of shame. God offers a full cleansing from both guilt and shame. Notice the extent to which God goes to ensure his people that he will restore them to full, right relationship with him.
2. “I am afraid.” Fear is initially invigorating and then draining; it spikes, then crashes. This helps explain why depression-anxiety are almost inevitably correlated. Whichever comes first, it is physically and emotionally probable the other will follow. If we are anxious first, we cannot sustain this emotionally heightened state and will physically crash into depression. If we are depressed first, things will be neglected and occasionally be jolted into fear-action by the crisis of things that must be done.
Understanding this dynamic still misses the question, “Of what are you afraid?” Is it a physical threat of safety, an emotional threat of security, a hypothetical threat of the unknown, or a perceived threat of the imagined? Each of these calls for a different response to counter or remove the story line. Articulating the thing(s) that you fear allows you to identify the aspects of God’s character you need to trust more or the areas of God’s guidance you need to follow.
Imagine the “unsafe music” that plays behind a scary movie scene; the music that plays when a shark is approaching in the movie Jaws or an axe murderer is stalking someone in a horror film. Allowing the theme of danger to dominate your life, is like constantly playing emotional music in your day-to-day life. Even a comedy or romance movie would be disturbing with that music. You wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, even if the content were funny or heart-warming. The same is true of pleasant events in our life set against a background theme of danger.
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “I am in danger”?
Read Psalm 91. Notice that the psalmist does not dismiss the dangers around him. It is not as if these elements of the story disappear. There are still snares (v. 3), deadly pestilence (v. 3), the terror of night (v. 5), pressures of the day (v. 6), perishing of people (v. 7), wicked people in the world (v. 8) and natural dangers (v. 13). Faith does not require the psalmist to be blind to these realities. Instead, as you read the psalm, you will simply notice that God’s presence and care have become larger themes in his story than these dangers.
3. “I need something.” Often depression is not about what is pending (i.e., fear or dread) but what is missing (i.e., loneliness or emptiness). The blessing of living in a first-world country is that we have the opportunity (i.e., freedom, time, and resources) to pursue fulfillment. The danger is that when we do, be, or have anything, nothing ever feels like “enough.” Endless possibilities make reality seem sub-optimal.
In a “land of opportunity,” contentment begins to feel like “settling;” being dominated by longing becomes a virtue. Whether the sub-theme is romance or achievement, a sense of need blinds us to the goodness of God in this moment because of the ways God has been good to others in different ways. We are often like children who cannot enjoy our Happy Meal toy because our sibling got a different one, and (as we tell the story to ourselves) “different” means “more awesome than mine.”
What is it that you believe you need to be at peace or to have hope? The wording of this question is not meant to provoke guilt but to slow down our emotional logic which tends to validate itself very quickly. As you compile this list, look for examples of people who live fulfilled lives in comparable circumstances to your own. Allow this to reframe your pursuit of the blessings you desire.
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “I am lacking something essential or unwanted”?
Read I Corinthians 12:4-26. Do not apply what is about to be said about this text to dangerous situations. But notice that God intentionally blesses his people differently. One implication of this passage is that God gives many things we need to other people to force us to live in community and overcome the sense that we must “own” everything that makes us feel safe, wanted, and fulfilled. Part of living at peace in God’s story is realizing the relationship this facilitates is better than the isolation self-autonomy would produce.
4. “I must avoid something.” On the other side of need is avoidance; this is the opposite of the previous theme. We can crave acceptance or live to avoid rejection; crave success or live to avoid failure. Often these dualities exist within the same person. But either theme, craving or avoiding, are equally effective at producing a life marked by depression-anxiety.
When you live to avoid something, you can only know failure or suspense but never success or rest. A better recipe for anxiety-depression could not be written. When your goal is to avoid something, you only have a measure for failure; success is vague-undefined-idealistic. Your best moments are tainted as you brace against the possibility of your worst moments.
The result of this theme is that all of life becomes dangerous. We live guessing where our feared-danger is going to pop up next; like a not-fun version of the Whack-a-Mole arcade game. Hyper-vigilance is the name for this style of thinking. “Vigilant” means to be watchful or alert. “Hyper” means this tendency has become heightened. This pattern of thinking is one way we reinforce narrative that our life is unsafe
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “I am must avoid something”?
Read Psalm 23. This psalm can be so familiar that we miss the story it contains. God, as the Good Shepherd, is walking with the author through many things he would prefer to avoid. Green pastures and still waters may sound nice, but they are exposed places where predators would be stalking (v. 2). The valley of the shadow of death is an obvious place we would want to avoid (v. 4). Being in the presence of enemies is also something we tend to avoid (v. 6). Notice how God re-stories these experiences with his presence in this psalm.
5. “I lost something.” This is a third facet of painful longing. We’ve discussed craving and avoiding; now we’ll look at how both grief and regret create a hospitable storyline for anxiety-depression. In this situation, we’ve had what we are desiring, but now it is gone. Whether we believe we are responsible for the loss (regret) or not (grief), the end result is that we believe our past is better than our future.
In this story, “the good life” is what we had. “Good” has become frozen in time. Nostalgia has become the counterfeit for dreaming of a satisfying future. The result is that every blessing in the moment is emotionally measured as being “less than” what was lost.
Often this can occur after a very satisfying season of life; parents who enjoy when the “kids were little,” the athlete who misses his “playing days,” or missing a circle of friends when the next season of life changes one’s relationships. Life is filled with these transitions even without the contributions of death or sin.
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “I am grieving the absence of someone or something”?
Read Philippians 1:7-8. Notice that Paul deeply yearned for his friends (v. 8). While he was happy for them (v. 3-4), this had to create a sense of stress and sadness (II Corinthians 11:28). Notice what Paul says about these emotions, “It is right for me to feel this way (v. 7).” Paul was able to miss his friends and the season of life they shared together without giving way to persistent depression-anxiety because this experience of longing was within the larger redemptive narrative of the gospel (Philippians 4:10-13).
OVERCOMING DEPRESSION-ANXIETY: A SUFFERING PARADIGM
Date: Saturday September 27
Time: 4:00 to 7:30 pm
Location: The Summit Church, Brier Creek South Venue
Address: 2415-107 Presidential Drive; Durham, NC 27703
For the various counseling options available from this material visit www.summitrdu.com/counseling.