Article by David Nelson
The darkness of spiritual depression and spiritual desertion confuses, disrupts, and overwhelms many brothers and sisters in the Church. It’s a period of morbid introspection, crumbling assurance, unexplainable joylessness, and frustrating apathy. It can, more or less, also feel like God has absolutely deserted you.
Above all, though, it is a season that Christians should expect to experience. As we are told in Scripture, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
Martin-Lloyd Jones, who preached a plethora of sermons on the subject which were later made into a book, lamented roughly 50 years ago that this is a topic no longer addressed by authors and preachers.
His remark is sadly true.
I’ve been in this darkness for more than seven months now. My experience can be described by feeling deserted by God, wrestling with introspection, a wounded conscience, and unmet comfort regarding assurance of salvation.
Perhaps this is you, in some capacity or another. Perhaps what I’ve just described sounds too extreme or maybe not extreme enough?
I think the most important truth to lay hold of when in seasons of spiritual depression is to know you’re not alone — even when it feels like God Himself has deserted you.
IS THIS BIBLICAL?
I’m afraid many will read the description and characteristics of someone in darkness and wonder if that person is truly a believer. Job’s three friends thought he was a hypocrite because of what he was going through, so the questions we must ask are, is this season biblical, and does it happen to genuine Christians? Yes to both.
First of all, God does not leave or forsake His own completely (Hebrews 13:5), but He does hide His face from time to time.
The Psalms are overflowing with remarks about depression and God’s hiding Himself (Psalm 22, 34, 40, 42, 66, 77, 88).
God tells his people that He hides His face in His anger. (Isaiah 54:8).
Lamentations deals with the repercussions of God’s discipline, including His looking like our enemy (2:4).
God allowed Satan to overwhelm Job and we are given no indication that God and Job had a joyful relationship during that.
Solomon’s bride — a parallel to the Christian Church — opened the door to nothingness and wept at the departing of her husband (Song of Solomon 5:6).
God wrestled with Jacob and wounded him (Genesis 32:22-32).
WHY GOD DEPARTS
I don’t know the ultimate reason for each case. Such answers can only be answered on the other side of eternity. However, what are some possible reasons to think about?
1. Discipline for Sin — This seems like a Captain Obvious comment, but it’s important that we don’t assign blame to God when it is our own fault we lack His presence. Jesus said the pure in heart shall see God and the author of Hebrews tells us a lack of holiness clouds our vision of God (Hebrews 12:14). John wisely counsels us that living in unrepentant sin is the equivalent to walking in darkness (1 John 1:5), so we shouldn’t be surprised that darkness and depression result.
David mentions that his bones waste away when he didn’t confess his sins (Psalm 32:3). Depression of any form can cause physical pain, so it stands to reason that spiritual depression can be linked to sin not repented of.
2. Testing — The apostles remind us that God’s children must face many tribulations (Acts 14:22) and that trials of various kinds will afflict us to purify the gold of our faith (1 Peter 1:7). God uses these periods to correct and refine.
We see God using trials to reveal what was in the heart of His people in two different places in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 8:2 we read God leading His people into the wilderness, “to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.”
And, “God left [Hezekiah] alone only to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart,” in 2 Chronicles 32:31. Trials ultimately reveal the “tested genuineness” of our faith and so God burns up whatever isn’t authentic.
Job walked away from his darkness with a grander vision of God and repents of his speaking “things too wonderful for me” (Job 42:3).
3. Training — God might use these seasons for the continued development of ministry workers. Most of the people God used greatly in Scripture were brought into times of distress.
Jacob wrestled with God before receiving a new name and a blessing. Joseph was in bondage before becoming King of Egypt. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. David went through the cave of Adullam before ascending to his throne. Paul spent days in blindness before Ananias prayed over him. Years later, a messenger from Satan became Paul’s companion during ministry.
Christ himself went through the wilderness, being tempted by Satan, before beginning His earthly ministry.
Trials are sometimes referred to as “God’s gymnasium.” There’s perhaps nothing more humbling than a season in which God takes away a sense of His comfort toward us.
WHAT TO DO AS YOU WAIT
For those in the depths of spiritual depression (or you’re wondering how to care for someone in them), meditate on these truths. This list is not expansive and therefore I must highlight Baxter’s sermon The Cure For Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow for those looking for further reading.
1. Be Encouraged — Puritan pastor Thomas Goodwin wisely notes that no hypocrite would be bothered during a season in which God’s presence is sensibly gone. Considering people in this season struggle with assurance, this should be great news.
Goodwin writes, “Carnal men, having other comforts, can bear the want and absence of Him well enough; but not you, who have made Him your portion, your exceedingly great reward.”
Additionally, God disciplines those He loves and chastises every son He receives. God doesn’t discipline illegitimate children.
Sometimes the believer comes to Christ looking for his daily bread only to be fed the bread of adversity. Sometimes the Christian comes to the Fountain of Living Water only to drink the water of affliction.
Even then, God has not left, nor will His love cease forever.
2. Use your doubt to your advantage — Your conscience will be in overdrive if you’re in this situation. Everything will condemn you. This is – to a healthy extent — a good thing. David prayed God would show him every false way (Ps 139:23-24) and, for the Christian in darkness, every way appears to be a false way.
Repent of every corruption you find in your heart. “Let us search and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” (Lamentations 3:40.) Plead with God to show you the true way and earnestly fight in the darkness.
3. Stay in the Psalms — There’s arguably going to be no more relatable book in Scripture for the Christian in darkness than Psalms. Job and Lamentations are certainly helpful too, but no book in Scripture will evoke everything you want to say more than the Psalms. Psalm 88 has become regular reading for me and it should be for everyone in the midst of spiritual depression.
4. Remember your merciful God — Richard Baxter, another Puritan preacher, encourages the fainthearted by reminding them, “God’s goodness is equal to his greatness; even to that power that rules heaven and earth.”
Like Joseph with his brothers, God may give you a stern look for a while, but He struggles to hold back his smile from His treasured portion.
Finally, Charles Spurgeon helpfully remarks, “If you tremble at God’s word, you have one of the surest marks of God’s elect! Those who fear that they are mistaken are seldom mistaken; if you search yourselves and allow the Word of God to search you, it is well with you!”