Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Benediction Manifesto: The Power of the Indwelling Jesus


Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 6B
Philippians 4:13
Bob Rakestraw

I consider myself a committed Christian—not a perfect Christian, for sure, but a committed one. I desire to follow Jesus completely in his life and teachings and ongoing mission. I also suffer at times from depression. At least it seems to me to be depression. I have never been diagnosed by any medical professional, but from my reading on the topic and taking two brief questionnaires (one was the popular nine-question depression scorecard, known as the PHQ9), it does seem evident to me that I sometimes experience depression. This has especially been true since my heart transplant in 2003.

What I am calling depression is a very real—almost tangible—condition that is similar to but much deeper than discouragement and sadness. It is associated with circumstantial changes and significant loss, and is a wretched foe, always trying to engender despair over against hope. It is a physical and mental condition, and has significant spiritual connections.

Is Depression Always Caused by Sin?

It is this last aspect—the spiritual side of depression—that troubles me when thinking (and writing) about depression, and even when I am experiencing it. It troubles me because of some things I have read and heard about depression by Christians throughout the years. I have received the distinct impression that many Christians are afraid to speak of depression in their lives. The taboo has, thankfully, been lifted gradually and significantly in recent decades, but it is still influential in some Christian circles. Some Christians have been led to believe that depression always involves sin on their part, and that they can overcome the problem by simply choosing to have more faith, more hope, and more joy.

Some Christian teachers tend to think that being both a committed Christian and a person who suffers from depression is a self-contradictory condition. These two sets of circumstances, they say, cannot coexist. Since a committed Christian is one who demonstrates such evidences of the Spirit as joy and peace, then those who lack these qualities cannot be—in times of depression at least—faithful disciples of Christ. By definition, according to this view, depression is a voluntary (partly at least) lack of joy and peace, and therefore the depressed person cannot be a Spirit-filled person. One prominent Christian counselor wrote in the 1970’s, “The hope for depressed persons, as elsewhere, lies in this: the depression is the result of the counselee’s sin.”

While all troubles, individually or as a human race, flow from the fact that this is a broken, sinful world, it is not necessarily the case that every disease [and, in my view at least, the tendency toward depression has an element of disease in it] is the result of the affected person’s sinful thoughts or actions. This may definitely be the case at times, as when a person nourishes self-pity, pride or unbelief, but it actually seems cruel to look down on or speak disdainfully of a depressed person who sincerely desires to live a life pleasing to God.

Having Shalom to do Everything

In our postings from last month we considered the comforting truth of Isaiah 26:3: “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, whose thoughts are fixed on you.” We noted that the Hebrew words for “perfect peace” (shalom, shalom) speak of wholeness, completeness and contentedness, developed in us by God’s presence and power, producing well-being in our social involvements and an awareness of satisfaction and success in our life calling.

This concept of peace relates to the condition known as depression in that it describes the wholeness from which and toward which we steadily grow as we live out our scripture text of the month: “I can do everything through him [Christ] who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). Living with a tendency toward depression (which may be an affliction that is not necessarily sinful in itself), yet with a triumphant spirit over its downward pull, is part of the “everything” we can do through Christ. And having the “perfect peace” (shalom) that comes from a place of deep trust in God is the foundation from which we declare the manifesto, “I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me,” and live with the strength God supplies moment by moment.

The apostle Paul, a solid example for those who experience the warfare aspect of the Christian life, undoubtedly was aware of the tentacles of depression, either personally or in his ministry to those suffering from it. Quite likely he wrote his letter to the church at Philippi while he was under house arrest in Rome, about the year 61 (Acts 28:14-31). One of his reasons for writing was to thank the Philippian Christians for the monetary gift they had sent him when they learned of his confinement (1:5; 4:10-19), but Paul also wanted to encourage the Philippians to remain strong in the face of persecution and to rejoice regardless of their circumstances (1:27-30; 4:4). While our circumstances may be quite different from those of Paul and his ministry associates, Paul’s manifesto in Jesus can be a powerful benediction to all of us who are seeking divine assistance in the struggles of life, including depression.

In the original biblical language, Philippians 4:13 is only six words, translated literally: “All things I can do in the one empowering me.” Kenneth Wuest translates this: “I am strong for all things in the One who constantly infuses strength in me” (The New Testament: An Expanded Translation). If we live in him (in the atmosphere and caress of our Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer-Friend), the one who right now (note the participle “empowering”) is strengthening us, we can do anything and everything he asks of us. Whatever he wishes, it is for our good and the world’s good, and he is right now giving us the will and power to do it.

I have applied this month’s scripture to my most significant current struggle—the conflict with depression—and found Christ’s strength within me sufficient to sustain me. Even though he has allowed me to experience significant times of depression since my heart transplant and early retirement from teaching, he continually restores me to the peace and hope of shalom. This is not a once for all conquest (although the foundation for all victory was laid solidly at Calvary, once for all). It is a daily—sometimes hourly—remembering to walk with steadiness in Christ regarding incursions of hopelessness, irritation, anxiety, sadness and fragmentation. There is definitely a choosing of increased faith, hope and joy, but this is not from a place of heroic self-effort. Rather, we approach God with a childlike simplicity, a lack of trust in our own ability, and a desire to rest in the strong arms of Jesus. Then, from this position of human weakness we are able to follow the exhortation: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Gems From Spurgeon

I wish to close with some outstanding quotations from the one (other than Jesus, John Wesley, and my wife Judy) who has helped me more than any person in my Christian life, Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), often referred to as “The Prince of Preachers.” These pieces are taken from 2200 Quotations from the Writings of Charles H. Spurgeon, compiled by Tom Carter (Baker Books, 1988).

“I am the subject of depression so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to. But I always get back again by this—I know that I trust Christ. I have no reliance but in him, and if he falls, I shall fall with him. But if he does not, I shall not. Because he lives, I shall live also, and I spring to my legs again and fight with my depressions of spirit and get the victory through it. And so may you do, and so you must, for there is no other way of escaping from it” (pp. 55-56).

“I, of all men, am perhaps the subject of the deepest depression at times. Yet there lives not a person who can say more truthfully than I, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior’” (Luke 1:46-47; p. 55).

2 comments:

Scott Strand said...

Bob,

Finally got your blog on my regular blog reading list. As one who also suffers from depression, I agree with what you said. It has been and still could be taboo in some circles. Look forward to reading more of your new postings and reflecting back on your older ones.

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Hi Scott,

Thank you for your comments. I am sorry you also have experience with depression. May our Lord give you strength and grace daily to live for his glory.

I trust work is going well for you and that Eagle Brook Church continues to be a good fit for you and your family.

Peace and hope,
Bob