When Night Is at Its Darkest

On one of my trips to Uganda, our mission team stayed at a place where the electricity was rationed. There were days and nights we did not have electricity. At night, because there was no streetlights or lamps, it was unbelievably—even unnervingly—dark. I was glad someone in the village was able to give me a couple of candles. They were small, but they were comforting enough to help me fall asleep. I woke up to be greeted by sunlight. The sun had not abandoned Earth.

There are times the “dark nights of the soul” can be extremely—despairingly—dark. There are nights of depression when the blackness can seem to swallow up the light, and like water fills every corner and gap. A person can feel as though he is literally drowning in his loneliness and despair.

In life, when night is at its darkest, when loneliness is at its most painful, when sadness is at its deepest, when despondency comes rushing in waves like a devastating tsunami, then one can find himself in an extremely vulnerable position.

That ancient serpent, the devil, comes with malicious deceit, whispering lies into the mind that seem to have impeccable logic. “If God is faithful, where is He? Nobody loves or wants you, why else is your mailbox void of letters and invitations? Why else does your phone remain silent? Those around you are successful, but what have you done? You haven’t accomplished anything! You’re just a blemish, a failure! If you were dead, your family would be better off and the world wouldn’t be at any loss. There are some razor blades in the garage or some pill bottles in the medicine cabinet.” The darkness  becomes seemingly unbearable.

Many have not experienced such a dark night of the soul or suffered such mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish. Give glory to God! But many know full well what I am talking about. Sadly, many get to the point where they can no longer endure the inner torment.

The promises of God can be like little candles in such darkness, but they can give a soft glow bringing some comfort to allow you to get some rest before the coming dawn—the dawn will come. The darkness will not extinguish the light:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ~ John 1:5

For he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” ~ Hebrews 13:5

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?… What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. ~ Romans 8:1, 23-24, 31-39

but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ~ Romans 5:8

The lies of the evil one come like the fury of a hurricane, trying to blow out the flames of God’s promises, but one needs not fear, though hopeless he might feel. In the midst of the raging waters and violent winds, we are told:

It is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. ~ Hebrews 6:18-20

When night is at its darkest, keep close to you the light of God’s promises. Although you might feel despondent, God is faithful. Look to Christ, pray to Christ, cry out to Christ, cling to Christ, and trust in Christ. He will bring you safely to the coming dawn.

A Word of Encouragement for Someone Who Needs It

I do not know who this is for, but I feel the need to write this for you. Darkness feels like it is prevailing and the flame of hope seems close to flickering out. I do not know what you are going through—loneliness, bullying, guilt (false or real), financial ruin, a break-up, job loss, excommunication, or something else. Whatever you are going through, you might be toying with the idea of taking your life. While it might not seem like it now, please know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Your life is worth the living and you have so much to offer a world that is also hurting.

I am not going to tell you I know how you feel. I can only say that you are not alone in feeling such hurting. A couple of years ago I was in a pit of darkness that I could not get out of. Although I am a Christian minister, God seemed to be a million miles away, leaving me to wither in the darkness alone. I felt friendless and forsaken. It seemed anything I touched was damaged. Guilt, shame, regret, and a sense of failure rumbled like thunder within my mind and soul. I longed to die. I found out later that I was beginning to have a plan in place (to take my life) without realizing it. I came very close to being hospitalized due to severe depression.

In time, light did begin piercing the darkness and God displayed His faithfulness. While all the pain did not go away, I have found there are so many who are hurting too. My friend, whoever you are, please know that you are not truly alone. I hope you will hold on. Light will shine again. All this shall pass. Your life is worth the living. Most importantly, there is hope in the Lord. Look to Him with trust. He will get you through. Also, what you are feeling is not a sign that you are weak; rather, it signifies you are human. Hang in there, friend, you are worth it.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

The Reality and Severity of Teen Depression and Suicide

Recently I was reading some articles about depression and suicide amongst teenagers. I was saddened to read of present statistics revealing suicide as the second leading cause of death of persons ages 10 through 24. According to a study done by the Jason Foundation, “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.” [1]

There are those who will snidely ask, “What do young people have to be depressed about?” The world has changed a lot since the 1980’s and early 90’s (when I was a teenager), just as much had changed then as compared to the generation(s) before mine. There have been significant paradigm shifts attacking the very foundations of truth, family, morality, etc. These shifts have created a lot of unrest and uncertainty. As technology has increased, making the world seemingly smaller, many young people are also feeling more isolated. Added to this is the problem of “cyber bullying.”

Since the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, there has been a rise in shootings in schools, churches, and public venues. Then later, after the Twin Towers catastrophe (what is referred to as “9/11”) in 2001, there has been a heightened concern of bombings and terrorism. The uneasiness many youth feel is warranted.

Our educational system insists on teaching evolution (despite the fact science does not support this), denying there is a God, and essentially teaching we are all but cosmic accidents. All the while we are told that we matter. Adding to their (teenagers) confusion is the plurality of contradictory religions and ideologies, as well as the relativizing truth (i.e., placing feelings and emotions over logic and facts; “What is true for one might not be true for another”), but life does not work this way. What a disservice to our young people!

Many homes are no better, as many children are raised in single parent homes, or with parents (or boy/girl-friends) who are abusive (verbally, psychologically, physically, and/or sexually). Many youth are traumatized by the divorce of their parents or the loss of loved ones. Still, many children are then harassed, bullied, or isolated at their schools. Many are ridiculed—even ostracized—by students and teachers, alike, for their faith (if they have such). Added to this are the temptations of peer pressure, sex (of various kinds), alcohol, drugs, etc.

Sometimes adults minimize the stress young people are experiencing, but many of these things mentioned are major stressors even for adults, let alone young people who are still in developmental stages of life and trying to begin to figure life out! Such pressure can lead to depression. If depression is not dealt with it can lead to suicide. According to the study mentioned earlier, done by the Jason Foundation, each day in America alone 3,069 high school aged persons attempt suicide (this amounts to 1,120,185 persons per year)! These numbers do not include middle school aged persons.

There is not a single element to blame for suicide, but by and large depression is a major factor. Jason D. Thomson notes some of the common variables that contribute to the rise of depression and suicide amongst teens: “These precursors include drug and alcohol use, broken homes, economic status, race, suicidal ideation, poor self-esteem, distress, poor coping mechanisms, sexual orientation, victimization, as well as a lack of social connection and support.” [2]

Later Thomson notes one study had found “Among teens, approximately 9 in 10 teens who are suicidal display clues or warning signs to others.” [3]

Katherine Murphy gives a list of red flags to watch for: “Expressions of hopelessness or sadness, slipping school work, loss of interest in sports or other activities, weight change, and sleep disturbances (insomnia or sleeping too much) are the most common warning signs.” Murphy then adds, “Pay attention also to less clear-cut signs of depression. These include somatic complaints (such as abdominal pain or headaches), preoccupation with death (such as always dressing in black and writing about nihilistic themes), running away, truancy, sudden rages or social withdrawal.” [4]

Jason Thomson notes that there is an increased risk of suicide whenever a teen feels frustrated, helpless, and hopeless in their ability to problem solve. He gives a similar list of warning signs to that of Murphy’s, but he observes, “Depression can distort an individual’s reality and the individual then fixates on their shortcomings, failures, and disappointments.”

While the outlook initially appears bleak, there is hope in helping teens get through their depression and overcoming thoughts of suicide. In their research on teen suicide in Canada, Barbara L. Paulson and Robin D. Everall found that three factors appear to be of immense help to teens. First, the development of self-efficacy and personal worth through increased coping and problem-solving skills. Second, an increase in social support and having someone they can confide in and who will genuinely listen. And finally, feeling accepted regardless of their difficulties. The writers note that educators have a tremendous impact, for better or for worse, on teens’ psychological functioning regardless of the difficult situations they are going through. [5]

How can we begin to help our troubled youth? I used to be a youth pastor, and I can attest to the fact times have changed. Ours was not a big group, but I was surprised how many had lost friends due to senseless violence. Some students were quite concerned about potential bombings where their parents worked or shootings at their schools. Others essentially had free reign as to their wanderings, having no real stability at home.

Young people need to know they are loved and their lives have genuine significance. One of the great problems with our secular humanistic education system is its hostility toward any references to God and creation, and its firm grip on the theory of evolution (again, true science does not support this theory). The importance of this matter has to do with human significance. If, indeed, secular humanism were true, if people were but by products of this process called evolution, then we would not have real significance. Regardless what our institutions tell us. Secular humanism basically teaches humans are so great, yet here today and gone tomorrow. Honestly, where is there any significance in this?

But the Bible tells us something wonderfully different about people:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27 (ESV)

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. ~ Psalm 139:13-14

Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. ~ Jeremiah 1:4-5

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us. ~ Acts 17:26-27

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ~ Romans 5:8

Our children and teenagers have significance because they were intentionally designed, “woven,” and are loved by a Creator who has made each of us in His image. Young people are not cosmic accidents or “mistakes” of their parents. Young people need to know this.

We must also help our youth through their coping and problem-solving skills. Our society is doing a grave disservice to young people by catering to their every whim and feeling. The theologian Martin Luther said it well: “Feelings come and feelings go, and feelings are deceiving.” Feelings are not one’s identity. Who among us knew and understood who we were during our elementary years? One of the areas that makes our teenage years difficult is the process of beginning to understand ourselves. Truly, for many this is a life long journey. How ridiculous that parents and teachers are pushing agendas as if young people “know” who they are based on feelings. Let time and growth develop them. However, irreparable damage can be done if we try to rush the process and “put the cart before the horse.”

Next, we need to listen. The skill of listening is underdeveloped in many of us. Ours is a society that likes to talk, to lecture, to spout out opinions—even if void of logic or sense. Sometimes, especially when youth are needing a “safe place” to confide, we need the skill to listen and the wisdom to know when—and when not—to speak. This can be extremely difficult if you are a teacher or caregiver, because such persons desire to teach and fix. However, there are times our best teaching and fixing come when we are simply listening and being present for another.

Finally, young people need to know they are accepted, valued, and loved. This does not mean we must condone their behavior, views, or beliefs. However, they need to know that they are not castaways or disposable. They need to know their lives are of value and have purpose, that they are worth protecting and investing our lives into.

Sadly, doing these things will not end the tragic reality of depression and suicide of children and teenagers. However, if we can improve on helping young people to feel loved, accepted, and of significance, then hopefully we can see the numbers of the statistics of youth suicides drastically decrease.

Notes:

[1] Youth Suicide Statistics – Parent Resource Program. (2017). Retrieved from http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/

[2] Thomson, J. D. (2018). Discussion Around Depression and Suicide in Teens Today. Vanguard Practices from Practitioners, winter/spring special edition, 37-42.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Murphy, K. (2005). What Can You Do to Prevent Teen Suicide? Nursing, 35, 43-45.

[5] Paulson, B. L., & Everall, R. D. (2001). The Teen Suicide Research Project. The Alberta Journal of Educational Research. 1, 91-94.

Understanding a Loved One Battling Depression

Depression. It is not simply sadness (“What do you have to be sad about?” one naively asks), nor is it a hurdle or a mesmerization (“Get over it!” “Just snap out of it!”). Furthermore, depression is not a single element stemming from a single cause. Rather, it often consists of multiple factors weaving from numerous sources.

Depression can stem from painful events, grief/loss, anger, guilt, shame, loneliness, failure, disappointment, anxiety, fear, stress, chemical imbalance, or a number of other things—sometimes built up over time. Often it is a combination of these things creating the perfect internal storm. Thus, to state aforementioned comments to a person struggling with depression is not only naive, it is also callous—inflicting further injury onto someone who is already hurting.

Depression varies from person to person, and is on a sliding scale from mild to severe. It can feel as a gray sky, a swamp, a pit, or an abyss. It can feel as a light mist to a raging hurricane. It can range from a feeling of sadness to utter despair.

Perhaps you are living with a person who suffers from depression. Admittedly, such a person can be difficult to be around. For sure, he is not the life of a party; indeed, she can be a “Debbie Downer.” But please be patient and sympathetic with such persons. As much as you might not enjoy being around them, he or she does not like feeling the way they feel either. Mind you, this does not mean to tolerate outbursts of anger, but it does mean more is going on inside of a depressed person than what you see externally.

To you, their depression might seem inconceivable. Overall, their world and reality might appear good (and, indeed, might very well be); however, their hurts, fears, feelings of failure and shame are just as real. What you say to them might be true and logical, but the lies and accusations rambling through their minds seem just as true and logical.  Inside of them storms are brewing, as thoughts and feelings mingle together, forming internal tornadoes. Bombarding his mind are accusations of his failures, highlights of every blemish and flaw, screaming echoes of regrets, and any number of lies that will make her feel unloved, unwanted, worthless, and ever increasingly isolated.

In addition to all the bewilderment (for the person who is depressed, as well as their family and friends) is when thoughts of suicide begin aiding feelings of despair. Some, who have never tasted the bitter waters from the well of despair, will accuse those struggling with suicidal thoughts as being self-centered—thinking only of themselves. Before I address such accusations, let me say this first: Thank God if you have never experienced such darkness, such aloneness, such despair! Such lofty condescending judgments reveal an ignorance, because persons speak with such certainty concerning matters they know nothing about. Like a person wanting physical pain to be taken away, persons struggling with suicidal thoughts simply desire an end to the internal anguish that can seem perpetual.

“Well, they’re not even thinking about the effects such an action will have on their family and friends!” someone will snidely say. This, by and large, is not true. Within the depressed person’s thoughts, as distorted as they might be, he truly believes he is doing his family a favor. She truly believes she will not be missed, as though the world would be a better place without her.

Please understand, I am certainly not advocating suicide or saying it is a legitimate action. One of the great aims for my blogging is to extend some hope to persons who might have otherwise lost it—to hopefully steer them away from taking their precious lives! Yet, I also want to help those who have a loved one struggling with depression to validate the deep anguish their loved one is feeling—without preaching, lecturing, criticizing, or judging them.

I have shared in previous posts about my own struggles with depression, and I plan to share more aspects of it in posts to come, as well of things that help. I wish I could say that I am now completely free of all depression, but this would not be honest. What I can say is what I experienced when my depression was at its darkest (at least, what I have experienced to this point), I would not wish upon anyone. I hope to share more in the near future about the darkness and confusion, the “diabolical logic,” and the despair that I felt. Suffice to say, for now, is I felt extremely abandoned, and that my family would be better off without me.

I admit, I still question at times what difference would it make if I were not here? Genuine, close friends are scarce. I know God loves me, but I  question that He actually delights in me (I have my reasons). I bear within me a broken, wounded, battered, and perplexed heart. U2 says it well: “And in our world a heart of darkness, a firezone where poets speak their hearts, then bleed for it.” [1] While I can pour my heart out, you could not truly understand—unless you have experienced this too. My point is this, my depression did not just happen one day. I did not just decide one day to not enjoy life. There have been constant chips and wounds spanning many years. I have been lied to, betrayed, rejected, and forsaken by some I had trusted. There are reasons for my withdrawing, skepticism, and pessimism.

I am not saying the attitudes, thinking, or responses of the persons who are battling depression are good or right. What I am saying is there are reasons—even legitimate ones—for these. The depressed person is feeling a deep inner pain—one they cannot simply go to to the doctor, take a pill, and have the infection go away in a week or two. No, it is far deeper, and much more complex, than this.

People tend to feel uncomfortable around the depressed. To be fair, it can be like walking around on eggshells. No doubt, depressed persons have a tendency to push others away—this serves more as a defense/protective mechanism. The irony of it all is this is when the depressed one needs others more than ever.

The person struggling with depression does not need you to preach to, lecture, criticize, or judge them. What they need is for you to be there, and to validate (this does not mean you have to agree with) their feelings.

In the book of Job, we read:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. ~ Job 2:11-13 (ESV)

Job’s friends were of great comfort to him for a week—and then they started opening their mouths, thinking they were qualified pastors, psychologists, and theologians. After this Job finally bellows, “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all” (16:2).

Sometimes your love can speak volumes when you simply validate your loved one’s feelings, are present, and say nothing at all—until he or she is ready to talk.

Notes:

[1] U2 (words by Bono), “One Tree Hill,” from the album The Joshua Tree, 1987.

Lord, Take Me Out of the Game! I Don’t Want to Play Anymore!

There are times when a person can feel so exhausted physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically that he just wants to give up. Hope seems to have abandoned him, faith seems to have left him stranded, and joy evaporated like a mist. Apathy befriends him, and he ceases to care about pleasure, fame, fortune, or even life itself. The only thing he really wants is to be pulled out of the game—for the boney hand of death to knock on his door.

Typically, I suppose, these feelings of utter depletion are a result of the constant hits in life (quarrels, stress, fear, rejection, loneliness, sense of meaninglessness, devalued, etc), and the feeling of having nothing else worthwhile to give. Sometimes such feelings can come from a chemical imbalance within the brain. There are a number of factors that can contribute to a person’s depression, death wish, and suicidal contemplations.

Such feelings affect persons from every walk of life. Like cancer, depression is no respecter of persons. It does not care about gender, color, religion, class, nationality, sexual orientation, age, etc. Perhaps as you are reading this depression has you entangled in its web. Please know that your feelings are not unique; there is nothing strange or devaluing if you are struggling. You are actually in good company with those who either feel, or have felt, the suffocation of depression.

It might surprise you to learn that one of God’s own prophets, one whom God used in incredible ways, fell into a major depression and prayed that God would take his life. After an astonishing victory and breathtaking display of God’s power, this prophet felt like a complete failure.

[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” ~ 1 Kings 19:4

No doubt Elijah had come down from an adrenaline rush—he had witnessed one of the most spectacular miracles recorded in the Scriptures. Added to this, he was tired from running, he was hungry, and he feared for his life. His was a fail-proof concoction for depression.

As the chapter continues, God begins gently speaking to His prophet. Elijah is not rebuked for his depression, he is not accused of having lack of faith. Before the Lord addresses the deeper issues, He makes sure Elijah eats and rests. The physical needs were addressed before the emotional and spiritual. After eating and resting, Elijah was in a better position to hear the Lord. Note, he heard God within the quietness, not in the noise and clamor.

In a person’s depression, the voices in their head scream accusations and criticisms. The voices taunt and mock, seeking to deepen one’s sense of despair.

O Lord, how many are my foes!Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, “There is no salvation for him in God.” ~ Psalm 3:1-2

There may or may not be elements of truth to what is being screamed in one’s mind; that is, an individual might have failed, made a mess of things, etc. However, a person never fails so badly that God’s love, mercy, and grace cannot get him safely through. As Corrie ten Boom would say, “There is no pit so deep God’s love is not deeper still.” In the midst of the screams, the voice of the Lord will be as a “soft whisper,” bidding us to draw near to Him. Although He might bring to our attention where we have sinned or erred, His purpose is always redemptive. God’s voice will never be the one calling us a failure, disgrace, trash, etc. God’s voice will never urge a person to harm themself.

The Bible says God is our Abba [daddy], Father. A loving parent will correct—even discipline—but it is always for the ultimate wellbeing of their child. This is how God loves us.

Jesus tells us,

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” ~ John 3:16-17

I do not know who might read this. You might be a loner or the popular person; rich or poor; a worn out spouse and/or parent; a student; etc. You might feel pressed on all sides, and confused to the point of despair. Maybe you know exactly what it feels like to want to be “taken out of the game.” If possible, take some time to eat and rest. In the midst of all the voices assailing your mind with crushing thoughts, listen for His still small voice bidding you to look to Him, gently whispering His love and care for you. You are loved, you are needed, and you are of great value. If necessary, rest on the bench, but stay in the game!