Did you know that one in ten Americans struggle with depression? Many suffer from depression, or the blues, arising from various things: disappointment or unanswered prayer, financial burden or stress, fluctuating moods, disordered thoughts, life change, grief, or a vast number of other factors. After a severe bout with post-partum depression after the birth of my eight-month old baby girl, I turned to several things to quell the rising sadness, not just threatening to unwind me. It is important to get treated for depression. I’m a strong candidate for promotion of therapy and medication. I’ve sought both in the past months. But two books, kept close by for easy reference, also helped me wade my way through the storms.
A great spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales, helped and continues to help me with depression. It is about the idea that, to worldlings, inward devotion is full of unpleasantness. But St. Francis begs to differ. He says it is very sweet to be close to God. Similar to bees, who first suck the bitter juice from a flower, so saints turn the bitterness of life into the sweetest honey that nourishes their souls. After some moments of pain or hardship, usually the devoted person is rewarded with a great peace of soul, grace unmeasured, joy from Christ, and fellowship with others that is incomparable.
In the Bible, Hannah struggles with infertility. In the midst of this crisis of faith, she cries out to God, and her cries are met with his loving mercy, but only after she faces a deep sadness~ Scripture says she that her rival “provoked her severely,” she “wept in anguish,” and she was accused of being a drunkard and hypocrite. Eli said, “How long will you be drunk? Put your wine away from you!” She was mocked, and if she had been living in the 21st century like us, she probably would have been diagnosed with depression or bi-polar disorder.
“Then Elkanah her husband said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved?’”
For Hannah, this was true hardship, perhaps mingled with a feeling of abandonment. Like St. Francis de Sales and Hannah, we can feel abandoned at one minute, and the next minute, restless and seeking after anything or anyone on whom we can dump an empty-feeling spirit.
However, after experiencing the crushing cross of provocation, Hannah’s crown was a son, whom she could dedicate to the Lord’s work.
Recently, I have also been encouraged reading the work of Ann Voskamp. She wrote the bestselling book One Thousand Gifts, after a child in her family passed away. In spite of her severe grief, she calls her readers to a radical cognizance of all the beauty that God has given us. These glorious gems are the gracious gifts lavished on us by God.
It is especially timely to consider his gifts at this time of year, when we can focus too much attention on our grief. Some joys that have lately grabbed my attention, bestowing on my heart thankfulness, which rescues me from my own self-pity:
Worship of our Creator by singing Christmas carols
Fresh, cold air and the beauty of nature on a hike through the woods
Babies’ cries, babbling and speaking
The light of candles brightening a room
Fresh milk from a cow on a farm
The thought of the baby in the manger
Rather than coming from self-gratification, this gratitude comes from spiritual joy.
To grapple with her grief, Voskamp turned to God, who gave her the gift of thanks. To grasp and understand fully all of these little things around us, such as, as she says, “jam piled high on the toast,” they must be received as blessings and gifts. We can seek his kingdom and a spiritual life, and this will enrich our faith. When our emotions do not, something must hold fast. In the midst of spiritual tempests, something must give us meaning.
De Sales’ book is divided into five parts, all giving guidance to seek Christ more. He longs to fear God at all times. He says we must “Turn desire into a resolution, and make a choice.” We can resolve to walk in his ways.
Scripture says, “17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?” Romans 2:17-21
“Some people live at peace with themselves and with their fellow men, but others are never at peace with themselves, nor do they bring it to anyone else,” says St. Thomas a Kempis.
Hannah’s weeping was finally met by God’s compassion, and the answer to her prayer: A son. Her son was named Samuel, and she dedicated him to the Lord.
In the midst of this struggle for meaning and acceptance, in this search for the peace of finally not wanting what is around the next bend in the journey of life, in the desire to finally be happy with ourselves~ the family or house or appearance we’ve been given~ seeking after pleasure and happiness is idolatry, but joy is a spiritual gift. Gratitude is the antidote to self-gratification.
Whether or not our prayers are answered as Hannah’s, freedom comes from when we acknowledge that joy does not come from good circumstances! I have a friend named Joy, and she lives out this aspect of her faith despite a lifelong struggle with cystic fibrosis! Life doesn’t have to be lived waiting for the next thing- even heaven, or some kind of instantaneous freedom from our earthly struggle- in the sense that we are without any joy in the present.
Job cried out, “O that I had never been born.” He was tempted to “curse God and die.”
Suffering is universal. But for some, it leads to crushing despair. Should we give up and ask God to take us, that we might not face the sufferings of this earthly life? Perhaps as a byproduct of our faith in God, we can find peace and meaning right now, despite disappointments, failures, unanswered prayer, or sickness. He is going to give your life meaning, a goal, and a purpose. The thanks expressed by Ann Voskamp, the desire to become devout even as laypeople- all of these are arise from and are fruits of the fear of God. Would you not agree that they are much preferable to despair, or disappointment in ourselves?
Partly in response to the question of despair and finding peace, St. Francis de Sales suffered intense emotional agony for a period over the question of eternal torment. His writings have encouraged and shaped me, and reminded me that respect for Christ and respect for others is something we are called to.
And gratitude? It makes a difference.
Copyright 2013 Tacy Beck