Spiritual Depression and Its Divine Remedy
Jesus Christ is lovely to the child of God. Deep calls to deep, and love to love, so that we say of him and to him, “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine.” No loveless professor of Christianity ever entered heaven. We partake of Christ if we are receiving and resting upon him alone for righteousness and peace with God (Heb. 3:14). Resting upon him, we grow to love him and walk with him. He dwells with us and enriches us with his life (Col. 3:3). He establishes a living and fruitful union with all his sheep, for he knows them by name and leads them (John 15:1-11; 10:27). Desire for Christ, interest in holy things, conviction of sin and of mercy, and growing adoration and dependence upon Jesus’ person and work are some of the surest marks that we know him, have a saving interest in him, and will be with him forever.
There is also in the redeemed the specter of spiritual declension. It may occur suddenly with the onset of a violent temptation to which we yield. It most often occurs progressively, as when we neglect closet religion and leave off making use of the means of grace, which are the ways we enjoy communion with our Savior and draw abundant life from him. Daily mortification of sin, especially those that are most common, is neglected. The loveliness of Christ becomes obscured through immersion in earthly concerns. The heart becomes divided, fearful, or doubting. We may sense strongly that something is wrong. I pray we do. Those who have never been in spiritual health do not know what it looks and feels like. They often confuse disease with the normal state of the soul. If you are a believer, however, you remember times of spiritual health and vitality. You can sense declension in your life.
In Psalm 38, we find an autopsy of spiritual depression. David was apparently sick during this time of his life and recognized the illness as chastening for his sins (vv. 1-3). Whatever his sins were, they were “going over his head,” consuming him, a great burden to his soul (v. 4). He confessed that his wounds and disease were the result of foolishness; he could find no rest from them (vv. 5-7). He was feeble and broken; he had no strength remaining, and his heart roared for relief (v. 8). All the marks of spiritual declension were present: sin, a disturbed relationship with the Lord, chastening, and morbidity.
The marks of fundamental spiritual life were also present. Spiritual declension is a state that the believer cannot tolerate forever, for the Lord will not lose or leave his sheep. Faith will cry. “Lord, all my desire is before thee” (v. 9). David wanted repentance, restoration and relief from the Lord. His friends had forsaken him, and his normal zeal for God was being suffocated by their reproaches, but he hoped in the Lord (v. 15) and confessed that hope. He declared or confessed his sin with sorrow (v. 18). He prayed for the Lord to help him and was confident that he would – O Lord, my salvation (vv. 21-22).
The Lord speaks directly to our dryness and his provision when he promised, “I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground” (Isa. 44:3). Our Savior came to give these living waters – his life in our soul. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). He told the Samaritan woman, “But whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:11).
Often we must come to these living waters, to our Savior. Otherwise, spiritual declension may become spiritual depression. I say this not in the clinical sense of the word but as referring to a real heart sickness. David and other saints have confessed to this. It is not always easy to define or to discover its causes. It may be brought on by fear, which is a failure to trust the Lord. Our sins are so many diseases; without repentance, they will make us spiritually and sometimes physically sick. Worldliness, too much prosperity, or even spiritual gifts without corresponding thankfulness and humility push God away – and he is our health! We cannot discount that the Lord will sometimes sift his people and for a season remove a comforting sense of his presence. Spiritual depression is not the absence of God nor does it indicate a lost state, but it is the temporary absence of joy and hope in God.
This is the reason we must in a sense whip our hearts into good hope. We must be conversant with our souls, the state of our hearts before God. I know that we are wisely told that for each look at ourselves, we should look at Jesus a thousand times, and this is a blessed comfort! But shall we truly look and keep looking unto Christ unless we have first looked honestly at our hearts and felt the urgency to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling?”
God is greatly concerned about the state of our hearts. The old, pre-Flood world was destroyed because “the thoughts and intents of man’s heart were only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Certainly there was much wickedness, idolatries, immoralities, and blasphemies, but these had a common sewer – careless, unbelieving, and hard hearts. So serious is the heart that when Simon Magus wanted to purchase the gift of the Holy Spirit with money, Peter responded, “Pray that the thought of your heart may be forgiven” (Acts 8:22).
Now, some will say, “This is depressing work. Why would I want to see my cesspool of corruption? There is self-evident truth in this. The healthy heart, the heart made alive by the new birth, does not wish to fall into the quicksand of hopeless. His sins lead him to cling to Jesus Christ as his peace and righteousness. Yet, few have ever made earnest appeal to him and fervently clung to him without sensing their pressing, consuming need of his cleansing work and renewing grace. Few ever made much progress as his children without continued keeping of the heart – careful, earnest, and honest self-examination leading to hatred of sin, turning to God, and trusting in his promise of mercy.
This is the divine cure for spiritual declension and depression – a clear, believing sense of God’s free and great mercy through his Son. As vile as we are, God swallows up the abyss of our sins in the bottomless depths of his mercy. No matter what we feel at a given time, God is loving and caring for us. This is his promise! It is secured not by our feelings or performance but by his faithfulness. He promises free and complete pardon and purging of sin in Calvary’s bloody tide.
As David conversed with his soul, he returned to the bedrock promise that has recovered many a saint to hope and joy after a season of discouragement. “For in you, O Lord, do I hope” (Ps. 38:15). In another place, he said, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted in me? Hope in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance” (Ps. 42:5; 43:5). He immediately added, “O my God, my soul is cast down within me: therefore I will remember you” (v. 6). David did not promise himself that he would do better tomorrow, hanging the hat of hope upon the wispy delusion of an easy cure in himself. Nor did he dismiss his sense of being cast down as something that would pass when his circumstances changed for the better.
When all was disquiet and fear in his soul, he turned his sights upon God’s promises. God had not moved. His love had not altered, and his covenant remained unchanged. He had not stopped being God – the ever true and faithful God of our salvation, the God of our mercy. Hope and health return to the soul when we look to God and trust that he will be faithful. We shall have to fight for this, for the flesh and the world fight against such a hope. The night of weeping may last longer than one night, or many. God often refines and tests faith through many long “nights” of waiting upon him, suffering, chastening, even persecution for righteousness’ sake. The battle against sin is life-long, and thus we can expect to enter the struggle of Psalm 38.
Often bathe in the healing waters of this great promise! God will turn to us, and we must therefore turn to him. He cannot deny himself, and he has never turned away one of his children or forgotten one of our tears or cries. When life and circumstances and sins and fears engulf us, he says, “Look to me. Trust me. Pour out your heart to me. I did not bring you here to leave you here. I brought you here so you would trust me and base all your hope upon my promise of mercy.” When sin engulfs us and hides his smiling face, let us tenaciously hold to our God’s promise of mercy and help and hope. It is a blood-sealed promise. Our Savior was forsaken so that we would never be. He was crushed so that we might have abundant hope and life. Let us run to him, tell him everything, and wait upon him to nurse our wounds. He will love us to the end and never forsake us.