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?”
6. “I am angry.” Injustice or perceived injustice often fuel anxiety-depression. Anger says two things, “This is wrong and it matters.” A healthy response to these situations is to assess whether the injustice is real and, if so, allow the energy of anger to motivate us towards a healthy solution. However, for various reasons, we become passive towards the injustice and the energy of anger either sends us spinning (anxiety) or implodes (depression).
In either case, the story of this kind of depression-anxiety becomes, “I am powerless about something that is wrong and important.” Passive anger creates an emotional black hole; there is a great deal of emotional energy being sucked into nothingness. Instead of fueling action, the anger begins to fuel hopelessness.
Many times Christians get caught in this pattern because they believe anger is inherently wrong. Victims of abuse or neglect often get caught in this pattern because they’ve been conditioned to believe that injustice always wins and/or intimidated out of taking appropriate actions. Either way, talking to someone you trust is an important step in letting go of this toxic passive-anger.
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “I have been wronged and I can’t find justice”?
Read James 5:1-6. This may seem like an odd passage; likely you double-checked the reference. Realize that the offenders James was referring to were not a part of the church. James was writing to the oppressed, refugees Christians displaced by persecution in Jerusalem (James 1:1) who were seeking employment in this system. James was pastoring them in how to be healthily angry so that they would not become despairing. Consider how much of the Bible is written to God’s people suffering persecution. God knows we must put these experiences into words and incorporate them into a redemptive narrative or the result will be emotional turmoil.
7. “Woe is me.” Feeling forsaken is different from passive anger. This is the suffering story of self-pity. In this story, our difficulty becomes the grand narrative. It is hard to release ourselves from this narrative long enough to listen to someone else’s story without wanting our difficulty to become central to their lives as well.
“Satan exploits pain by making it the central focus of the man’s (or woman’s) thoughts and attitudes.” Erwin W. Lutzer in When You’ve Been Wronged
This may be “the story” to which Satan would most love to see all depression-anxiety devolve. In this story we are not just miserable; we begin to believe we are rejected by our only source of hope – God himself. Our emotional instincts become so distorted that North literally feels like South. Our emotions are so strong-loud in our mind that it becomes increasingly difficult to doubt them even when they’re clearly inaccurate.
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “I am forsaken by God and anyone else who would care”?
Read Psalm 13. Notice the competing story lines in this psalm: feeling forsaken (v. 1-4) and knowing of God’s love (v. 5-6). Both themes existed in the same person. Both themes are common enough to human experience that God included this in the hymnbook of Israel. Often it is the condemnation we feel over the first theme that causes us to shrink back from embracing the second. Use this psalm as a model for how to pray with both honesty about how you feel and a level of hope that does not give your feelings the final word.
8. “I have no hope.” At this point life is becoming a non-story. You are existing from event to event, but any sense of meaning to life has faded away. Numbness has likely replaced anxiety-depression as the primary descriptor of your experience. In this story, people can almost long to feel depressed-anxious again because it would be a sign of life. This is in this kind of story in which thoughts of suicide can begin to make sense in an illogical way.
Often it is the inability to articulate these other story-themes results in people arriving in this eighth theme of hopelessness. If you are in this story, hopefully you can now begin to say, “I understand my emotions better and even if they are still painful, this understanding gives me hope.”
If you find yourself in this story, it is vital that you talk to someone. This story makes much more sense when you are alone with it. Like angry arguments you have in your head often fall apart when you try to talk them out with another person, hopeless thinking is less convincing when we share those thoughts with someone who cares.
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “I have no hope”?
Read I Kings 19:1-8. Notice the even the great prophet Elijah came to the point of despairing of life (v. 4). So did the apostle Paul and his missionary companions (II Corinthians 1:8-9). The story of hopelessness is very tempting and contagious in hard times, even for those that we consider “heroes of the faith.” Notice how God responds to Elijah. He gives him rest which was necessary because the next stage in Elijah’s journey was too much for him without it (v. 7). Allow this compassionate side of God’s character to give you the freedom to be honest with him and trusted friends about your thoughts.
9. “I need to fit a stereotype to find a quick-fix.” It may seem odd to think of quick-fix options as a story line, but they can be the therapeutic-emotional version of financial “get rich quick” schemes. The story results in a rapid succession of failures as try one fad solution after another but our emotions don’t change… at least not for long.
First, legitimate approaches to overcoming your depression-anxiety can be short-circuited and “disproven” because of the short-term mindset this storyline promotes. In this story we are prone to want our emotions to respond immediately; like the person who is disappointed they haven’t lost weight after their first day at the gym.
Second, you begin to implement questionable remedies or read Fix-Your-Emotions-By-Friday style books. The more we explore these options, the more it makes the work of emotional hygiene seem like they are “going the extra mile” instead of the basics of life. Anything that discourages perseverance in our battle with depression-anxiety should be guarded against closely.
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “There must be a quick fix”?
Read Isaiah 40:27-31. Notice that it is those who “wait for the Lord” who will “renew their strength” (v. 31). God does not grow weary (v. 28), but we do even in our prime (v. 30). This is not permission to be passive in the process of change – but if you’re in step four of this material, your passivity is a minimal concern. Rather it is a passage that manages our expectations about the duration or time change requires. When we change in healthy, holistic, God-dependent ways we can usually expect the change to provide enduring and lasting results (v. 31).
10. “I know my Redeemer is with me, and I will humbly wait for his deliverance.” This list would be woefully incomplete without this story line. There are many people who battle with depression-anxiety with great faith and faithfulness for years. They hurt for reasons beyond their control, manage the things under their control well, and maintain a healthy relationship with God in the process.
Doubtless, they wish they could move on to “the next chapter of their life” without depression-anxiety and likely pray repeatedly for relief from their suffering. Their faith is marked by their struggle like a football player’s helmet is marked by the battle of a game, and that is what makes it precious. A helmet that’s never been worn on a field of play by a real player may be in better condition but is less valuable than one that has.
This is not meant to glorify the experience of depression-anxiety. No one who has experienced these emotions in their chronic form would ever say that. But we do want you to see that faithfulness in the midst of the experience of depression-anxiety is both possible (i.e., faith and depression-anxiety are not antonyms) and highly valued (i.e., precious to God and a needed testimony in the church).
- How or when has your depression-anxiety said, “I trust God, but this is hard”?
Read II Corinthians 12:1-10. We see that Paul had an affliction which was troublesome enough that he begged God many times to remove it (v. 8; e.g., “three times” likely means three seasons of earnest request, not merely three individual petitions). In Paul’s case it was given to keep him humble (v. 7), but this need not to be the case in every instance of persistent suffering. However, the opportunity for us to display God’s grace as sufficient in our weakness (v. 9) is something that is possible in every instance of suffering. Our goal should be to use our moments of weakness to discover new ways to rest in God’s strength (v. 10). This should remove the shame we often feel about these emotions and replace it with a sense of God’s honor (I Corinthians 12:22-26).
These are not the only ten destructive themes of suffering that can be used to make sense of your emotions. Hopefully, they are representative of the kinds of thinking that take the pain of depression-anxiety and make suffering the main theme of your life story.
More than this, it is hoped that this section gives you a pattern (1) to articulate the destructive messages of your suffering, (2) to honestly acknowledge the pain, and (3) to counter them with Scripture even before you see (4) how they are replaced with the gospel (chapter six).
Articulate: What other destructive themes do you use to make sense of your depression-anxiety?
Acknowledge: How do these messages contribute to or intensify the pain that you feel?
Counter: How does Scripture counter the core beliefs or perspective of your suffering story? Which passages?
Replace: Knowing truth is different from having that truth become the dominant theme of your life. You may be discouraged as you’ve read counters to your suffering story, which haven’t yet seemed to overpower the depression-anxiety you feel. Begin now by praying a simple honest prayer to God about where you are. Use the simply, desperate prayer of the father who feared for life of his child as an outline, “I believe; help my unbelief (Mark 9:24)!”
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.