The most important truth about your anxiety (Part 3)

Over the course of 12 years in ministry, I’ve delivered hundreds of messages, but few stick out like the one on depression.

It was one of those topics that I knew was important but didn’t realize how important until after it was over and dozens of emails filled my inbox. The sheer number of them proved that mental health is a major battle for so many of God’s beloved sons and daughters, even at a church that strives to be transparent and real.

Recently, I wrote two blog posts on the topic of anxiety, which so often holds hands with depression. A friend gently reminded me that there was something I forgot to say, the very something that made the depression message so helpful to so many.

So, I’ve decided to cut and paste a big section of that sermon for you today. If you’re struggling with anxiety and all the steps you should be taking to conquer it, I pray the following words give you peace as you remember God’s grace.

This is double the length of my usual posts, so I hope the words are worth your time:

Today I want to share Psalms 42 and 43, two ancient songs written by a depressed Christian. Because in the middle of this minor key, there’s a note you need to hear—God’s to-do list for the depressed.

Psalm 42 starts, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (verses 1-3). Where is God? When will I see God? These are the questions depression forces down our throats. Where is God right now? Why doesn’t God fix this? This marriage, this family, this bankruptcy, this injustice, this cancer, this chemical imbalance? And like an overheated deer, exhausted from running, panting for water, we thirst for God, for blessings, for anything better than this.

So, what do we do when we cry day and night? The songwriter knows: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng” (verse 4). Shouts of joy. Praise. Worship in God’s house. That’s the to-do list, right? When you count your blessings, when you remember how much worse it could be, depression doesn’t stand a chance. Right? Well . . . did you catch the phrase—used to? I used to rejoice. I used to have a good life. I used to be happy. I used to be healthy. I used to love my work. Used to . . . And the memory of how good life used to be presses down.

That’s when the chorus comes in, the words the psalmist will repeat three times before the song is done. It’s his to-do list to fix his depression. He sings, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (verse 5). He turns and talks to his own soul. Why are you depressed? Why are you so down? You know what you need to do? Put your hope in God. He’s “my God” and “my Savior.” This is the God who rescued me from danger, so hope in him. Do that and depression doesn’t stand a chance.

Which is amazing advice. Stop focusing on how you feel. Feelings are fickle. Feelings are often lies in disguise. The devil loves feelings. So, focus on the facts—God saved me. God is my Savior. He is my God. My personal Father in heaven. That’s what the depressed need to do—Talk to their souls. Tell their souls to block feelings’ calls. Command their souls to listen to the facts. That’s where hope and joy and happiness come from. That’s the to-do that will make depression go, right?

Not quite. Look at very next lyric: “My soul is downcast within me” (verse 6). With that abrupt turn, we learn that depression can’t be cured with a catchy chorus. In fact, the rest of the song makes that point. In verse 7, he sings, “All your [God’s] waves have swept over me.” I’m drowning, God, and you send one thing after another. I’m down, then out, then down and out, and you kick me again. I get sick and then broken and then sick. (Ever had a “seriously, God?” season of life? Seriously? Again? What else, God?)

Things get better in verse 9: “I say to God my Rock.” Aha! Depression cured. God is my Rock. Everything in life is shifting sand, but God is faithful and solid. Until the next line: “Why have you forgotten me?” I prayed 1,000 times, Father. Did you forget? Do my messages go into your junk mail? So, the psalmist repeats the chorus in verse 11—“Put your hope in God.” Aha! He just needed a second chance to do the right thing. Nope. Psalm 43 continues, “Why have you rejected me?” and then back to the chorus, “Put your hope in God.” And if there was another verse, you can guess how it would go. “Why, God? Where, God? When, God?” 

What a song. It’s not inspiring enough for Kidz Bop, but helpful for grown-up faith. Depression isn’t simple. You can’t say the right thing or recite the right thing or pray the right thing and depression respectfully leaves. No, depression feels like this . . . sadness. You are on your face knowing what you need to do. So you try to get up, try to fake a smile, and then—bmpf—back down. After a meal of tears, you know you need to pray. So you start the prayer and then—bmpf—back down. So you talk to your soul, and you know what you need to do. So you try to go out and then—bmpf—depressed again. And the guilt of what didn’t get done hits you again and again and again. And those around you are frustrated that you didn’t do what they said again and again and again to do.

So, what should I tell you? Pray more? Talk to your soul more? Put your hope in God more? That would look good on paper, but more to-dos? That’s why I want to give you something better, something that works. I want to give you a . . . chiasm. 

Ever heard of a chiasm? A chiasm is a common technique in ancient song writing, a way to express the point of your poetry. In pop music, we put the point in the chorus. Justin Bieber sings the same thing 78 times until you can’t help but hum with the radio. But ancient poets would put the point in the middle. The meat of the message would be in the middle. A chiasm is like a song sandwich, where all the lyrics are good, but what comes in the middle is the best.

If you look at this song, which covers Psalms 42 and 43, and find the middle, do you know what you hear? You hear God’s to-do list for the depressed. Check it out. Psalm 42:8—“By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me.” Oh, that is so good. In the middle of his deep depression, in the midst of all the crying and sleeping and moping, what is the Lord doing? Directing his love.

The Hebrew word direct is the same word as command. God commands us in the Ten Commandments—do this and don’t do that. But here he is commanding his love. His unfailing love, his grace, the love you don’t deserve. God is looking down on his sad sons and his depressed daughters, and he is commanding his unfailing love, “Go! Help her! Help him!” Day and night, God is directing love to the depressed, refusing to let them sit in the pit alone. 

Because God’s to-do list is not something you do. It’s something God does for you.

So maybe our greatest hope isn’t in the steps we take to get out of the pit of worry and depression. Maybe our hope is the God who sent his loving Son into the pit simply to be with us.

Pastor Mike Novotny has served God’s people in full-time ministry since 2007 in Madison and, most recently, at The CORE in Appleton, Wisconsin. He also serves as the lead speaker for Time of Grace, where he shares the good news about Jesus through television, print, and online platforms. Mike loves seeing people grasp the depth of God’s amazing grace and unstoppable mercy. His wife continues to love him (despite plenty of reasons not to), and his two daughters open his eyes to the love of God for every Christian. When not talking about Jesus or dating his wife/girls, Mike loves playing soccer, running, and reading.

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