I always thought sadness was a milder emotion. Other feelings—say, anger or love—are fierce, like stormy waves tossing you about. But sadness (so I thought) is more like a gray cloud that hangs about you.
Recently I went through a deeper experience of sadness. It wasn’t as terrible as what some Christians endure, but it wasn’t mild, either. Sometimes it felt fierce and unrelenting, like a wave crashing over me. For a few moments, it felt black and invincible, like Bane standing over a broken Batman.
Those who have endured such seasons know what a terrible experience it is. The feeling of aloneness. The lethargy that attaches like a shadow. The incessant low-grade despair, like a dim grinding noise in the distance, always humming. The shocking alarm when certain things don’t excite you anymore, and then (of course) the dreadful question that follows: Will they ever again?
How do we find God in such seasons? I don’t have it all figured out, and there may be moments when nothing seems to help. In cases of clinical depression, it’s important to seek professional help, and there may be other resources we need to take advantage of as well, such as consulting a doctor.
In and with all this, here are some spiritual practices that I’d recommend. Those in the throes of severe, debilitating depression may not be able to approach all of these yet—but in the less extreme circumstances that many of us face, these habits may help keep a candle burning when the darkness does not yield.
1. Run to the Psalms.
The Psalms are precious friends to sufferers. They show us that the Bible has categories for our emotions; we haven’t fallen off the radar screen. In fact, some portions of Scripture were themselves occasioned by feelings of deep grief (psalms of lament, Lamentations, and so on).
Moreover, the Psalms teach us to connect the dots between our emotions and our theology. They help us to not simply listen to our feelings, but also—as Martyn Lloyd-Jones counseled—to talk back with truth.
One of my favorites is Psalm 42:11:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
I love the question why?. It’s like the psalmist is reasoning with his sadness, exposing its strangeness and arbitrariness. In the gospel, we have the resources we need to argue with our emotions, rather than merely listen to them.
2. Acknowledge your sadness to the Lord.
I preached recently on Psalm 23. I talked a lot about my favorite little line in there: I shall not lack. It’s a beautiful expression of knowing God as shepherd—having our deepest needs fully met in him.
I’ve also found strange comfort in admitting my frequent distance from David’s experience. To be able to plainly acknowledge, “I lack”—there’s a kind of refuge in those words, a refuge distinct from the actual meeting of the need. Hanging in that space of honesty and vulnerability provides an open channel to richer intimacy with God.
Thankfully, he doesn’t despise us, but warmly welcomes us when we admit: I lack.
3. Find a friend.
Some Christians can unhelpfully aggravate times of suffering through glib advice. But a friend—a true friend—can also help get you through (Prov. 17:17).
Comfort is a legitimate part of Christian relationship. Comfort amid affliction is one of the blessings of the gospel—and this comfort doesn’t only descend vertically from Christ, but also spreads horizontally through Christians (2 Cor. 1:4–7). Paul also speaks of being refreshed by other Christians (Rom. 15:32; 1 Cor. 16:18; 2 Cor. 7:13; 2 Tim. 1:16).
In my time of sadness I developed a practice that was enormously helpful: I found three to five friends with whom to text and pray regularly for the purpose of encouragement.
One of them—a sweet, older saint—was battling cancer. We texted almost every day. It made a huge difference.
4. Choose hope.
I don’t think it’s right to say that hope is just a matter of choice. Sometimes there are complicating factors, such as brain chemistry. In such a case, simply telling someone “choose hope” can be unhelpful, and it’s wise to involve someone with professional training.
At the same time, choice matters. In my experience, which has been far milder than that of others, it’s possible to fight the feeling of hopelessness through an act of the will. This isn’t all you need, but it’s one thing you need.
Despair can be stronger temptation than lust.
Sometimes you have to struggle to make this choice. Despair can be stronger temptation than lust. Sometimes you have to take a stand against it with all your might, like Gandalf shouting, “You shall not pass!” to the Balrog. There’s a way to say, in small moments of the day, through an act of the will: “No. I will remember heaven. I will remember childhood happy memories. I will remember the promises of God. I will remember Calvary. I will remember sunrises, and soap, and fried chicken, and white sand, and blue skies, and running water. I will choose hope today.”
5. Meditate on the crucifixion of Jesus.
The cross is precious to me for so many reasons, but one of them is it takes the shame out of suffering. Even the all-holy Son of God sank down into the darkness, and couldn’t rise. He received taunts and blows, yet didn’t scramble to vindicate himself. He was accused, betrayed, and forsaken by everyone. The darkness did not yield.
His suffering not only cancels our guilt, it also shines a light on our path when we walk in the darkness. It reminds us: Even Jesus has been here! And he defeated it.
6. Use the gospel to fight the chronic guilt of suffering.
Guilt loves pain. In fact, guilt and pain are allies. Pain launches an open assault, and then guilt follows with a secret attack from the rear, bombarding you with nagging thoughts like:
- “Quit feeling sorry for yourself!”
- “Your quiet time was lame. That’s why you feel this way.”
- “God is punishing you. This is how he really feels about you.”
Sometimes, of course, our sadness is caused by our sin. Other times, sadness is sinless. Often, it’s mixed. But whatever the case, we must fight against the cloudy, clinging guilt that deadens our sense of God’s favor in Christ. We must, again and again, wash our consciences in the gospel (Heb. 10:22) and taste afresh the joy of being truly, fully, irrevocably forgiven.
I don’t know everything, but I know this: Our deepest need is always to know that, through the gospel, right in the midst of our mess, God sincerely loves us. In Christ we aren’t just formally accepted, but embraced with a willing delight and affection—like how I love my kids, but much better.
Make this your constant refuge, your deepest hope: The One before whom every knee will bow has set his affection and favor on you. This truth is more certain than the rising of the sun, and its power to help you is inexhaustible.