Delighting in Christ Through Depression

kathleen johnson (1)Born to delight in Christ

According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. I was presented with this idea, primarily through the writing of John Piper, about 10 years ago and was profoundly changed. I was sold. All in.

Firstly, it was life changing to put God and his glory at the center of the purpose of the universe. There is something deeply right about that. “All things were created for him [Christ].” (Col 1:16) This universe was created and purposed to show all of God’s glory. Mankind, like everything else, was created to reflect and display that glory.

Secondly, God is glorified when we enjoy him. Here, of course, I am leaning heavily on Piper’s thesis. We are designed to enjoy God, and by enjoying Him we glorify Him. What wonderful truth! My mind is designed to be satisfied with nothing less than the wonder of God. My heart is designed to be satisfied with nothing less than God’s personal, intimate, deep pursuing love for us. And I began to mine the depths of God’s glory, delighting anew over and over every day.

But all of this joy filled delight in Jesus came to a screeching halt for me when I lost my joy all together.


The end of joy

Looking back, anxiety was present most of my life. But about four years ago, it came on in a way like never before. And it didn’t go away. I began to experience extended periods dominated and controlled by anxiety. My mind would just keep spinning with worry, endlessly. At the worst of it I was having frequent panic attacks.

Like the other side of the same coin, the anxiety was followed by extended periods of depression. Darkness would fall over me like someone turning off the lights in my head. I was covered with deep sadness, despair, and hopelessness.

When the darkness of depression overtook me, it short-circuited this wonderful delight in Jesus. What was I to do? How can I live my purpose of glorifying God by enjoying Him if I cannot take joy? In such circumstances what does it look like to walk with and cling to Jesus?

When I look back on this time, I don’t think I was a shining example of following Christ. I would describe my experience as more of a stumbling and reaching out in the dark. However, I see threads of grace that the Lord taught me. I’d love to share a few of these threads here.


Resting on truth

The darkness of depression is oppressive, and with it comes so many dark thoughts. Everything begins to feel hopeless and purposeless. Some of the time, when things were the hardest, the darkness was so great, the purposeless was so strong, the sadness was so present, I rested on something in a way more foundational than joy. I rested on Jesus as true. All I had was what I knew to be true, and I held on to these things.

I knew that Jesus was King. I knew that He loved me deeply. I knew that I would spend eternity with Him. I knew that God is working everything for my good and His glory. I knew He had a great purpose in it all. I could not conjure up the ability to emotionally enjoy Him, but I just maintained that Jesus was truth. That He was there. That He loved me. And that life was not meaningless, but full of meaning.

My hope was that all this truth would soon lead to an experience of peace, or hope or relief. It did not. So I chose to just cling to it being true through the lack of peace, hope, and relief. Experience of joy was out of reach, but I could know Jesus to be true.


Looking to a future hope

I didn’t find it super helpful to see the command in scripture to not be anxious. My anxiety was not something I could just stop. I didn’t find it super helpful to be told to take joy in the Lord. Joy wasn’t something I could feel. But I was encouraged by a friend who had gone through similar trials to look to biblical hope.

One day God will make things right again. Those who are in Christ will one day be with God forever. He will wipe away every tear. He will give us new bodies. His kingdom will come completely. When I found no hope in today, I could look to a future hope when God would take away my emotional struggles.

Now again, this was not an experience of hope. There was little or no actual emotional relief immediately found here. But it was a choice that in the face of hopelessness I would cling to the objective reality of biblical hope.


Taking joy without joy

There must be something paradoxical about the biblical doctrine of joy when the Word can say “count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” (James 1:2) And “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings.” (Romans 5:3) There is something about this kind of joy that is rooted in something deeper than experiential joy. Something based on the Word, not experience. Something so deeply committed to Christ’s exultation that circumstances are not primary, He is.

I spent a summer a few years ago with a friend. She had been suffering with a deeper and longer depression than I had. Yet when I saw her with friends she was laughing and looking like she was truly enjoying herself. I asked her if she really was experiencing the joy that it looked like she was. She said that she was usually not, but that she had made a decision: she wasn’t going to let the depression take those times from her. She was going to still laugh, and have fun, even if she couldn’t feel it. I’d call this choosing to partake to the greatest extent you are able.

Later that summer I led a training time. In the training I talked about living the Christian life by basking on the cross of Jesus – by just taking in, reflecting on, and enjoying Christ for who He is and all that He has done for us. My friend came to me frustrated. She said that it was so hard for her to hear me talking about basking in Christ, when we both knew this wasn’t something we could really do. But I realized it was the same as her times with friends. It was a choice to take joy without joy. It was a decision to bask. A decision to partake to the greatest extent we are able.

Now, again, this is not very comforting experientially because it offers no symptomatic relief! But it is a choice to rejoice without experience. It is a choice to say I will live to bask on the wonder of Jesus and glorify Him. I will take time to acknowledge, point my attention to, and declare the wonders of God. And if it comes with no experience of joy and wonder, I’ll still do it. If all I have to give is a conscience choice to point my attention to Christ’s wonders, I’ll still do it. Every day.


A deeper relationship

There is great intimacy of relationship to be found in the Lord. Many people can attest the wonders of a deep relationship with God: the daily walking together, the quite moments together. And certainly without a doubt I leaned deeply on the Lord and His closeness during these times.

However, as I’ve said repeatedly, there was very little to no experiential comfort provided. I believe this is when a deeper intimacy is reached. There is something profoundly powerful about walking with the Lord without any of the externals. He sustained me on faith in truth and hope alone. He sustained me on joy based on His Word, not my experience.

This is really the central theme of everything I’ve said here. Truth, hope and joy can be held onto apart from emotional experience. And isn’t this only possible in a deeper relationship? What a priceless gift. To get to walk with Jesus through such a time. To know that God’s word, and promises, and objective presence is fuel enough for the hardest seasons. To know from experience that my reality is not defined by my emotions but by the word of God.

Finally, if you are hurting emotionally, please talk with someone and seek help. There is a very unfortunate stigma around seeking help for emotional needs and that is a travesty. We live in a world that is broken in every way by sin – affecting us in every category. Why would we not respond to these problems from every option and category we have available: counseling, medication, spiritual health, etc? It is totally normal and okay to seek such help. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to overcome my nervousness and depression, but with help, over time, I’ve seen giant life altering change. Change and solutions are possible. If you are struggling emotionally please seek help. There is hope and there are answers.

Doug Olexa, University of Illinois Cru Staff