There is still a stigma around depression that silences many Christian voices and prevents them from letting anyone know about their painful, personal struggles. A stigma that destroys people by making them suffer alone.
In his presidential speech at Wheaton College’s convocation ceremony this year, Dr. Phil Ryken pushed back. And he did so by sharing honestly and transparently about his own struggles with depression last spring, struggles serious enough that he said at one point that he thought he was “losing the will to live.
He focused most of the talk on sharing some of the things that helped him through the struggle, which I’ll mention below. But there wasn’t anything ground-breaking. He relied on friends, family, church, everyday routines, and of course, God. The power of his talk wasn’t in anything radical that he said, it was in the radical fact that he spoke at all.
I hear more and more Christian leaders talking about depression, which is a good thing. When they do so, however, it’s usually about depression as an abstract concept (people often get depressed), the struggles of some other Christian (Luther was depressed), or at best some personal struggle with depression in their own distant past (I was depressed a long time ago). But it’s rare in my experience for a Christian leader to bare themselves openly about a current or very recent bout with depression. And that’s precisely what Dr. Ryken did, modeling for us the kind of humble and honest dependence that should characterize the body of Christ as a whole.
You should watch the entire talk, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” But I’ve highlighted some of the main points below.
As Dr. Ryken shared, “Things were moving in a bad direction, and at the rate things were going, who knew how long it would be before I was in real danger.” But he quickly focused attention on the real point of his message: “God did not abandon me, but rescued me.” Even though he knows that the feelings of despair may return, he can say confidently with David that “The Lord is my shepherd in times of trouble.” And here are the things he highlighted that helped him through.
Gifts from God for Times of Trouble
1. Know That Depression Is Completely Normal
The important thing that Ryken emphasized here is that “doubt and discouragement and depression are a normal part of life in a fallen world.” So Ryken recognized that even his painful experiences was just a taste of “something that most Christians go through sooner or later and some go through for a lifetime.”
And here he turned to Spurgeon for some insight on how other Christians respond to depression:
“If those who blame quite so furiously could once know what depression is, they would think it cruel to scatter blame where comfort is needed. There are experiences of the children of God which are full of spiritual darkness that I am almost persuaded that those of god’s servants who have been most highly favored have nevertheless experienced more times of darkness than others.”
Depression is part of the human condition in a broken world.
2. Try to Live a Normal Everyday Life
Here Ryken focused on the importance of eating well, exercising even when he didn’t feel like it, being present with and for his family, worshipping with his church, and just plain old work. He acknowledged that there were days when this was extremely difficult, but he didn’t give up on the routines of everyday life.
More importantly, though, he didn’t focus on these as just routines, as though any old set of routines would get the job done. The key was that each of these are a gift from God. So sticking to them even (especially!) when life hurts is part of trusting that God knew what he was doing when he gave them to us.
3. Share the Burden
Probably my favorite part of the talk came when Ryken shared how the people closest to him reached out to support him. Prayer, notes of encouragement, a simple “I love you.” The power of relationships.
Most importantly, Ryken pointed out that none of this would have happened if he hadn’t shared what was going on in his life. People can’t help if they don’t know what’s happening. “The point is that burdens are never meant to be carried alone.” And as I mentioned in the beginning, the real power of this talk comes from a Christian leader modeling this for us all.
It sounds simple and obvious that prayer is important when life gets tough, but it needs to be said anyway. There’s power in “praying and knowing that people are praying for you.”
Praying when you’re depressed, though, is tough. Ryken commented on the fact that often times his prayers were nothing more than “Jesus help me” or even just the groans of his anguished soul.
That’s okay. “The Holy Spirit understands our inner struggles so well that he can turn even our groaning into prayer….Sometimes I wondered what sense the Holy Spirit could make of my anguished soul. I only knew that when trouble came, the Holy Spirit was turning groaning into prayer at the throne of my Father’s grace.”
5. Hear the Words of God
Finally, Ryken turned our attention to Scripture as God’s words of truth that can quiet our anxious spirits. “One of the main ways that God becomes an ever present help to us in times of trouble is by speaking truth in times of trouble.”
What will you do when trouble comes? At the very least I hope you will follow Dr. Ryken’s model and speak. Reach out and let others help. The church could use more of this kind of brave honesty and transparency.