Matthew 11 verses 25 to 30.
25 At that time Jesus prayed this prayer: “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. 26 Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way!
27 “My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
One of the things that often surprises us is the number of people suffering from depression. Sometimes we may feel critical of them – particularly if they are believers – and wish they’d take a grip on themselves and look on the bright side.
But when we find ourselves in depression, we often feel we’ve failed because one thing we all expect faith in God to do for us is bring joy and peace. A depressed believer seems to be a contradiction in terms.
But depression is one of the realities of being human. It’s a natural response to things like loss and emotional exhaustion. We all suffer it sometime. That’s why Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading are so relevant. ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’
However, I’m not talking about Clinical depression, which is more complex and is the domain of mental health professionals. What I want to talk about is Spiritual depression – that general state of unhappiness of the soul that paints all of life grey.
But first, we need to understand what causes it; and the first factor is temperament. Many centuries ago, Hippocrates recognised four basic personality types which he named sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic. Of these the sanguine personality is seen in those carefree, extraverted individuals who seem to breeze happily through life, whereas the melancholic personality is seen more in those of us who are introverted and introspective.
It’s not that one is better than the other, just different. It’s probably true that many of the most significant people in the history of the church were melancholic and it was their introspective natures that enabled them to search out the deep things of God.
But as well as temperament, physical conditions can also be the cause of spiritual depression, including certain physical ailments. One of the greatest preachers of all time was Charles Spurgeon, yet he was often subject to periods of intense depression. But Spurgeon suffered from gout, like his forebears before him, and gout often produces a tendency to acute depression, as do other physical ailments.
Similarly, depression often follows a time of significant achievement. The story of Elijah after his great victory over the priests of Baal illustrates this. Immediately after it he was overcome by despair.
What he really needed was a time of rest and recuperation, and that’s what God gave him, followed by the most profound spiritual experience.
Dr. Arch Hart calls it the disease of those who live in the fast lane. Our bodies produce adrenaline to enable us cope with challenges, but God never intended us to live at such a pace that we overdose on it. The result of too much adrenaline is depression and burn out.
One other source of depression that is often overlooked is unresolved anger. I remember a Psychiatric Hospital chaplain telling me of his work at an aged persons home run by the Methodist Church which, he said, was full of elderly Christian women suffering from depression. And the reason for their depression, he said, was overwhelmingly that they were filled with suppressed anger and resentment that all their lives they had been taught never to express.
So, whether the cause of our spiritual depression is temperament or some sort of reaction to various life situations, the issue is not necessarily about a failure of faith, but about understanding ourselves and acting accordingly.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of Britain’s greatest preachers, and himself a medical practitioner, used to say that ‘we have to talk to ourselves instead of allowing ourselves to talk to us.’ We have to look objectively at ourselves and the factors that produce depression in us; facing up to the realities of our personality type and taking a hard look at our lifestyle and what it does to our wellbeing. And then, talk faith to ourselves rather than listening to our emotions.
This is certainly true in response to buried anger. Feelings of anger often lie dormant deep within us because we’ve learnt to shut them out of our mind. But sometimes they manifest themselves in our dreams, or in seemingly unrelated outbursts we don’t understand.
The key to resolving such feelings lies first in acknowledging them and then learning how to express them in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good. A good pastoral counsellor can help us do this.
But there are a few other things that also help in the process. One of them is rest and recuperation. This is particularly true for those of us who push ourselves too hard. Healthy eating and aerobic exercise are also key ingredients. A brisk half hour walk can often do as much to break the downward cycle of melancholy as a good half hour of prayer. Put the two together and you have a powerful resource for lifting the spirits.
But there’s one other thing that I’m convinced is the most powerful stimulus we have for changing our mental attitude. It’s the simple practice of thanksgiving. Make yourself think of everything that you have going for you, and then consciously give thanks. It’s a time-honoured message, the distilled wisdom of countless generations who learned that the act of thanksgiving is the most powerful stimulus we have for changing our mental attitude, and improving our potential for joy.
I’m sure that this is part of what Jesus had in mind when he said: "Come to me, all you who are exhausted and weighted down beneath your burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me..., and you will find rest for your souls..."
It’s likely that Jesus was thinking particularly of the Scribes and Pharisees, who, he said: ‘bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders.’ Religion, rather than being a blessing, can become an intolerable burden. Instead of healing, it can be toxic
Jesus taught that the whole law of God was based on love: love for God and love for people. But we have an accursed tendency to take great spiritual principles and hide them in so much dogma and legislation that we end up with is the opposite of what God gave us.
And I’m convinced that much of the spiritual depression I see in people has been exacerbated by oppressive, legalistic interpretations of Christianity. But Jesus says: ‘Come to me...my burden is light, and you will find rest for your souls.’ This is what he intends for us.
In John Bunyan’s great parable of the Christian life, the Pilgrim’s Progress, there’s point along their journey to the celestial city where Christian and Hopeful are captured by the Giant Despair who locks them up in Doubting Castle and beats them unmercifully.
But at dawn on Sunday morning, Christian suddenly realises how to escape. He says to his companion, ‘What a fool I am to lie in a stinking dungeon when I could walk in liberty. I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will open any lock in doubting castle.’
And it did. Promise was the key that freed them from Doubting Castle and the Giant Despair. And it’s Promise that will do it for us too; those great and precious promises like: ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age’…’If God is for us, who can be against us?’…
What we have to do, like Bunyan’s Christian, is remember we too have the key to unlock the door of the dungeon of spiritual depression. The great and precious promises Jesus has given us are there for us to use and to transform the way we think.
There’s a sheet of paper I keep that someone once gave to me when I was going through a very tough time. I can’t remember who it was but I do remember them scribbling these words: ‘God’s promises are like the stars; the darker the night the brighter they shine.’
At the time I really didn’t want to hear another pious cliché; but I kept it anyway. Why? Because as I thought about it, I realized it was true, and those scriptures I’d read so often suddenly became my constant companions, not just words in a book, but actual words of life.
I discovered that God really is at work for the good of those who love Him, just like the Bible says. And that promise became one of the brightest stars in my dark night. The darker the night the brighter the stars shine. I hope those promises are shining for you.
‘Come to me,’ Jesus said, ‘all you who are exhausted and weighted down beneath your burdens, and I will give you rest.’ But when all is said and done, everything comes done to what we choose to do.
It’s a choice we have to make – whether to live on the rock of what we know to be true or on the shifting sands of our fragile emotions. None of the promises of the Bible will ever help us if we continue to fill our minds with our fears rather than with what God promises.
I’ll finish with those words of Jesus again, only this time as Eugene Pedersen renders them in that popular paraphrase of the New Testament called The Message.
“Are you tired?... Burned out on religion? Come to me…and you’ll recover your life… Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy … on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
That’s the answer, when we ask ourselves: Why do I get so down?