When Feeling Down



Psalm 42

            Psalm 42 describes a believer’s struggle with heartache and depression. Three times the writer refers to himself as downcast: verses 5, 6, and 11. To be even more precise, the Hebrew word for “downcast,” שָׁחַח (SHA-CHACH), is actually a verb—to cast down; to stoop down; to bow down. Within the context of Psalm 42, the meaning is much the same as our expressions “I feel so down, so low, so depressed.”

In many respects, reading Psalm 42 is like reading a medical handbook on depression. Notice all the symptoms the psalmist experienced: sadness and weeping, sleeplessness and loss of appetite, brokenness and isolation, inner turmoil and physical pain, even waves of emotion. One moment the psalmist is hopeful, and the next he is despondent. In one verse he praises God, and in the next he pleads with God. First he lauds God’s faithfulness, and then he accuses God of forgetfulness. And all this within eleven verses. And yet, is the psalmist so different from us? In our darkest hours of heartbreak and depression, have we not done the same—praised and pleaded, lauded God and forgotten God?

And judging from the description in Psalm 42, this godly man’s depression was not mild or temporary; it was severe and lengthy. In verse 3 he says, “My tears have been my food day and night,” in other words, a protracted period of time. And in verse 7 he alludes to the depth of his depression, saying, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and breakers have swept over me.” The image is that of surf pounding sand, of being overwhelmed by problems and sinking beneath the waves of despair.

Depression, of course, has many causes. Some causes are primarily biological and should be treated by a physician—bipolar disorder, for example; or an imbalance of hormones. Other causes, however, are simply the result of the heartaches, frustrations, and changes of life: financial difficulties, health issues, guilt, divorce, loneliness, hard work with no recognition, aging, the death of a loved one, even feeling forsaken by God.

Have you ever felt forsaken by God? I have. One of the most depressing periods of my life was due to an unwanted divorce. For nearly seven years I felt useless, unwanted, unloved, without purpose, and—to an extent—forsaken by God. One night I grew so despondent that I left the parsonage, walked to our nearby church building, went inside, locked the door, and in the darkness prostrated myself before the altar of God, where I wept and prayed and poured out my heart to God.

The only response I heard to my prayers and pleadings were the sounds of my own sobs echoing off the church walls. And through it all, being a pastor only intensified my depression. Intensified, because pastors didn’t get depressed. Pastors were able to withstand every problem with smiles on their faces and songs in their hearts. Pastors were immune to depression. Or so I thought.

Today our world is experiencing a crisis of depression. According to some studies, there are more than nine million clinically depressed people in the United States. And while depression tends to afflict the old more than the young, and women more then men, it is no respecter of persons, places, incomes, or titles.

Consider the following statement: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth.” Can you guess who wrote these words? Abraham Lincoln, one of the most revered and cherished Presidents in American history.

Or this statement: “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” The reference is to contemplated suicide. And who spoke these words? Winston Churchill, the legendary war-time prime minister of Great Britain.

Does God care if we’re depressed?  Of course He does. Depression was not the life He created for us. Depression is not the life He reclaimed for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:11) Paul wrote, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear.” (Romans 8:15) The psalmist invited in today’s responsive reading, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs.” (Psalm 100:1-2)

So, knowing the joyful, full life God wants for us, what do we do when feeling down? Where should we turn? Throughout Scripture God provides the answers. But this morning, using Psalm 42 as a foundation, I’d like to briefly share six principles for overcoming spiritual depression. They are look up, speak up, get up, read up, shape up, and cheer up.

            First, if you’re feeling down, look up. This is not the same as the well-intentioned platitudes often spoken to the depressed: “Cheer up. Chin up. Smile, because things are looking up. Snap out of it. Look on the bright side. Tough times never last, but tough people do. The sun will come out tomorrow. Tomorrow will be another day.” No, the Scriptural principle is vastly different. The psalmist does not tell us just to “look up,” but to “look up to God”; to God, the Source of all life, light, hope, and power. “Put your hope in God,” he tells himself twice, verses 5 and 11. And when feeling down, you and I should repeatedly tell ourselves the same. “Put your hope in God.”

But why is it so important to look up when feeling down? When we are depressed, our tendency is to look down instead of up; to turn inward instead of outward. The more depressed we are, the more self-absorbed we are. The more self‑absorbed we are, the more depressed we are. It is a vicious cycle. This is why the writer of Psalm 42 directs us to break that depressing cycle by looking up “to the living God,” Psalm 42:2; to turn to the true God instead of to money, philosophy, affairs, fame, illegal drugs, or alcohol. Such things do not solve depression; they fuel it.

Second, when feeling down, speak up; that is, speak to God in prayer. Don’t be silent. Don’t pretend. Don’t keep your depression to yourself—which will only increase your pain and isolation. Tell God, “I’m depressed.” Tell God, and in the telling you will experience that perfect, transcendent peace that can only come from giving your burdens and worries and depression to Jesus Christ.

Isn’t this what the Bible teaches? Paul wrote in Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

            When depressed, the writer of Psalm 42 prayed. He ‘poured out his soul,’ to God, verse 4. You may be thinking, “What good is prayer? I’ve prayed, but I’m still depressed. I’ve spoken to God, but He hasn’t answered.” Have you been listening? And if God hasn’t yet answered your prayers, He most certainly will. You have His solemn promise. “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor Me.” (Psalm 50:15) Or as Jesus stated in Luke 18, “And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

I’m not telling you to pray because prayer is therapeutic. I’m telling you to pray because prayer is powerful and effective, as James wrote in his epistle: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)  So the hymnist was right: “Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear; all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”

Third, when feeling down, get up.  And I don’t simply mean get up and get out of the house, get moving, get involved, get busy, and get your life back—practical advice, since depressed people are often isolated people. Instead, I mean get up and get to church, where you can hear the Word of God and feel the love and support of fellow Christians. Is this easy? No. When depressed, the last thing we may feel like doing is getting up, getting dressed, going to church, singing hymns, hearing a sermon, reciting prayers, carrying on conversations over refreshments, and attending Bible Class.  Yet ironically, by staying away from church we are actually feeding our depression instead of feeding our faith.

            The writer of Psalm 42 knew better. In fact, in his depression, one of the things he longed for and desperately missed was attending church. And so he wrote, “These things I remember as I pour out my soul; how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.” (Psalm 42:4)

The Letter to the Hebrews was written to Christians who were depressed by hardships and persecution. What advice did the writer of Hebrews given them? He wrote: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:23-25)

Fourth, when feeling down, read up. More precisely, read Scripture. Read the rich, comforting promises of God. Read and reread about who God is and who you are through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why is this so important?

Someone very close to me also struggles with depression. A major part of his depression is based on a wrong view of himself. And his wrong view of himself is based on a wrong assumption of how others perceive him. My heart nearly breaks when I see him feeling so down, when I hear him despairingly say, “I’m worthless. I’m nothing but a burden. My life is going nowhere. I can’t do anything right.” I tell him, “No, you’re wrong. You simply don’t realize the reality of who you are in Jesus Christ. This is what I want for you: I want you to see yourself as God sees you in Christ, because the way God sees you is the reality.

And how does God see us through Jesus Christ? The answer is found throughout the Bible. However, nowhere is it more eloquently stated than in Romans 8, a chapter that begins by saying, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), a chapter that ends with the glorious promise that nothing “in all creation  will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)

And in between lie the precious words of Romans 8:14-17, “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by Him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” That is the reality.

            Do you see? No matter what happens to you in life, no matter where you live or what you own, no matter what others may think of you or what you may think of yourself, the reality is that through the saving work of the Spirit of God you are a redeemed child of God. You were adopted into the family of God, which means you were wanted by God and chosen by God.

And as a member of God’s family, you have the royal privilege of calling God Abba, an Aramaic term of endearment which means “Daddy.” Read that. Then read it again. Let the reality of who you are in Christ Jesus overcome the disappointment you think you are. And as you read, feel the Spirit of God lifting you up and out of your depression. For He most certainly will.

And when you read up on the Scriptures, you’ll learn something more. You’ll learn that those feelings you have of “no one understands how I feel” and “no one has endured what I’m going through” are simply not true. Elijah prayed for death. Job cursed the day of his birth. Paul exclaimed, “What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:24) And the writer of Psalm 42 certainly understood depression. So, no, you’re not alone. Countless numbers of believers in Christ have suffered depression too. You need to know that. And to know that, you need to read up on it.

            Fifth, when feeling down, shape up. That is, make godly changes. Set godly priorities. Eliminate ungodly behavior. For as we know from Scripture and personal experience, guilt can be a major source of depression.

When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and refused to repent, his guilt caused him great spiritual, emotional, and even physical anguish. He wrote in Psalm 32, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit there is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD—and You forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:1-5)

            And finally, when feeling down, cheer up—or better said, be cheered up by the knowledge that Almighty God will certainly bring you through your depression and “restore to you the joy of your salvation.” The writer of Psalm 42 had this same glorious expectation. Each time he asked the question “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” he followed it with the confession “For I will yet praise him, My Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:5, 11)

“Don’t talk to yourself.” We’ve all heard this admonition before. But Scripturally, there is a time and place when you absolutely should talk to yourself, when you should ask yourself the same question the psalmist asked himself twice: “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” Why am I so depressed? Why do I feel so down, when God has proven His love for me in the death and resurrection of His only Son, Jesus Christ? Why do I continue to expect the worst from God, when He has given me the best He has to give in Christ?

So, if you’re feeling down today, look up, speak up, get up, read up, shape up, and cheer up. If you do, you will surely say with the psalmist, “For I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.”

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