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Confessions of a Pastor: Valley of Depression

I still remember the heaviness that seemed to be weighing down my soul as I walked into our bedroom and just started to cry.

Every winter I struggle more than usual to maintain a positive outlook. I have not been officially diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) but I seem to experience some sort of symptoms throughout the winter months. My inner thoughts seem to reflect the darkness and gloominess that pervades the outside world. It stays darker longer and gets darker earlier in the winter. Many of the days are just gray with overcast forecasts and bitter cold temperatures.

Last winter was particularly hard. I have no logical explanation as to why. After the festivities of the holidays I took some vacation time at the beginning of the year. We had plans to do some fun stuff as a family, but our plans were disrupted as I came down with a severe fever. Normally I am sick for maybe 48 hours, but not this time. I had a fever for days. I tend to have weird dreams when I have severe fevers, and in the midst of my exhaustion, I also get irrationally emotional. Since I wasn’t getting better, I also became a bit fearful that something was really wrong. So, in the wake of the disappointment of ruined plans and the fear of being very sick, my winter depression took a hard downward spiral.

Fortunately, the following week we were going to a conference for Wesleyan pastors in Orlando, FL. I remember feeling like a completely different person as my body absorbed the sunlight each day we were in Florida. It became apparent to me that I was actually experiencing some sort of depression because I could feel a stark contrast between how I felt in Florida from how I felt back home. This was again highlighted by the fact that when we got home, I found myself hiding in rooms just to cry for no apparent reason.

Several times last winter I felt like my emotional state was being antagonized by spiritual realities as well. I felt a heaviness that felt dark and evil at times. Several times last year I sent a text to a few trusted friends and family members asking for prayer.

You’re Not Alone

Why do I share this? Partially because there is often a stigma surrounding depression within the church. I think that stigma needs to go. I think people need to know that struggling with depression doesn’t mean you are a bad Christian, that you have little faith, or that you are doing something wrong since the “joy of the Lord” seems elusive.

I find a lot of hope in a little scene from the life of Elijah in 1 Kings 18-19. Elijah was a prophet of the one true God, Israel’s God, during  a time in Israel’s history when she was chasing after the gods of the neighboring nations. Elijah initiates a competition of sorts between himself and the prophets of the false god Baal. The premise was simple: they would each build an altar to offer a sacrifice to their respective God/god. Whichever God/god responded to their act of worship by consuming the sacrifice with fire from heaven would prove to be the true or at least the superior God.

Long story short, a blast of fire from heaven consumed Elijah’s sacrifice thereby setting Yahweh apart as the one true God deserving of Israel’s worship. Pretty crazy story. The queen of Israel was the daughter of a foreign king who married King Ahab of Israel. Her pagan influence played a part in Israel’s idolatry. When word got to her that Elijah had made a fool of the prophets of Baal and had also put them to death, she was furious and put a bounty on his head.

First Kings 19 has Elijah fleeing for his life to Mt. Horeb. What I have always found peculiar was how he could be so afraid of this queen’s threat when he had just witnessed fire fall from heaven. Here’s the thing: he was human too. We all have tendencies to forget the ways God has shown up in our lives when we are facing a threat or trial in the present. No matter how faithful God has been in the past, a present threat always seems more real for we are creatures bound to the present.

Anyhow, Elijah flees the land and finds himself exhausted at Mt. Horeb. First Kings 19: 4-5 reads,

He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

This might be a little extreme, but it would seem that Elijah had some suicidal thoughts. He was ready to give up. The text goes on to describe how God provided food and drink for while he rested. God also spoke to him in a profound way challenging and correcting his perspective.

What I find encouraging about this narrative is that Elijah was a mighty man of God who struggled with feelings of discouragement, and dare I say, even depression? The other thing I find insightful is that he was tired. He was exhausted. He needed to rest. He needed to eat. He also needed a fresh perspective. In the wake of my own depressive feelings, it is amazing how simple practices that contribute to healthy rhythms can remedy my depression.

Now, I want to be clear. I am a fan of counseling. I believe in modern medicine. I don’t want to diminish the importance of addressing depression from all angles. I don’t want to reduce the issue to a few simple cliché platitudes. But, I would like to share a couple of things that have been helpful for me as I wrestle with feelings of discouragement that at times spiral into a low grade depression.

Rest

Like in Elijah’s story, I have found that there are times when my emotional energies parallel my physical energy. In other words, when I am exhausted and tired I am not just exhausted and tired physically. We are embodied souls. When I am tired, my emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing are impacted. Sometimes the best thing I can do to be healthy is rest.

Exercise

Exercise releases endorphins which help you feel good and energized. For me I like to run. Running allows me to process thoughts and even pray while I run. Running is a form of solitude for me. When it gets colder, I try to go to the gym and lift. I have found that I am energized by exercising and my overall health is in a better place.

Community

We are made for relationships. I sometimes have introverted tendencies, but I have found that I need healthy friendships. I intentionally spend time with people that build me up. We are part of a small group at our church. Our small group is a little extension of our family. The trite saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has some validity. Sometimes our focus on productivity robs us of the simple blessing of just having fun with people. One of the things I did recently that was strangely life-giving was hang out with the guys in our small group playing video games, snacking on Doritos and pizza, and just having a blast pretending we were in high school again.  Sometimes I just need to have fun with people.

Spiritual Practices

Reading Scripture, journaling, praying, listening to music, meditating, and reading inspiring works about God all help me to reorient my perspective. In Elijah’s story, his perspective on reality was distorted. He lost sight of how God was working in his life and in his nation. God had to remind him of the truth. Sometimes we need our perspective adjusted, and I have found that spiritual practices are a great way to create space for God to recalibrate our focus.

Professional Help

I go to counseling. I do not take medication, but I am not against it. I don’t believe medication should be the only answer. Further, I do not believe medication can solve underlying spiritual issues. It can and does address physiological issues, but we are embodied souls. Rarely anything we experience in life is only a physical, emotional or spiritual issue. We experience life in some way in all of those dimensions. I am for getting professional help. I am for counseling. I am able to process things I experience in ministry with someone who is able to be a neutral party and with someone who is not connected to the community I am a part of. I believe there is a lot that professional help can offer.

Maybe like me, winter brings with it feelings of depression for you. You are not alone. You are not a bad Christian. Maybe like me, there are things you can do to respond to your emotions in healthy ways. I intentionally plan to cultivate healthy habits in my life because I know I need them. Maybe you do to.

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