For some, it looks like gathering clouds. For others, a black hole. For some, it feels like dread or fear or hopelessness. For others, it feels more like guilt — the kind that won’t go away. It may feel like shame, or like anxiety that never eases up. It can leave one with questions, unable to function, and another unable to sleep. Some ease the pain by eating; others by not eating. In some people, it masks itself as physical pain. Other people mask it with anger; many medicate with substances that seem to help at first, but end up enslaving in a deeper darkness. It saps some or all their energy; it makes others nervously busy. Some become manic; others become numb.
Depression is hell.
And there are as many faces of it as there are people who live with it. Statistics say one in ten adults will deal with it in some form at least once in their lives. They tell us more women than men suffer from it, but that may be more a difference in how we talk about it. We know this much for sure: a depressed person cannot talk himself out of it or will it away, nor can the people around him. And the pain of it can affect us spiritually, causing us to question God and even our own existence.
As spiritual people, how do we cope when the clouds gather? What stories help us understand how God works when we are in darkness?
The obvious choice would be Job, I guess, but I’d like to draw some thoughts from an unlikely character in the Bible — Moses, a great man whose obedience changed the world. Consider his story. Moses spent literally decades, sitting in his own cloud of unknowing, waiting for God to show up. Then, when God did show up, Moses could not have responded more unenthusiastically if he’d tried. He responded to God in fear. He was a man who tended to leave things half-done (remember the argument with his wife?). He caused his family no end in grief. His meetings with the Pharaoh create suffering for a cityful of people. If ever there were a man with a right to feel depressed, Moses would be it.
Eventually, he had it out with God (I love him for this). He explodes in frustration. “God, why have you mistreated your people like this? Why did you send me? You have not even begun to rescue them. Where are you, God? Have you forsaken us forever? Where are you? Where are you?” (Exodus 5:22-23).
Have you been there and done that? Have you felt low-hanging emotional clouds, like a weight of fog over your life? “Why are my finances in such trouble? Why is my job so miserable? Why is my home life so unappealing? Why is my marriage loveless? Why do my children suffer with illness or disability or emotional pain? Why, God, have you mistreated your people like this?” For some of us, the questions far outweigh the answers. And it leaves us depressed, broken, fearful, and feeling guilty for the way we feel about it.
One of the angriest times I’ve had in my life came after my mother died. I hurt. The grief was heavy; the pain worse than what I’d known before. I remember a pastor telling me I needed to keep praying. I responded by telling him I had no more prayers. I was so angry. I didn’t understand the suffering she went through or the grief with which we were left. Folks around us meant well (they always do), but no amount of words, food, flowers or care seemed to penetrate the darkness.
Then I got a card from a friend that seemed to touch at the point of my deepest need. In the card, she quoted a French poet named Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”
That thought seemed more relevant than any well-intentioned encouragement others offered. It went right to the heart for me. I couldn’t talk myself out of how I felt. There were no answers to make it all make sense. It helped greatly to be told I didn’t have to have answers. It helped to know I didn’t have to depend on cheap clichés to soothe deep pain. Making peace with the questions made more sense. It was certainly more do-able.
I suspect that God understands that. Maybe that’s why he answered Moses the way he did when Moses got to the end of his rope. God didn’t get mad at him or fire him. He didn’t make him feel guilty for being frustrated. He didn’t punish him for the emotional outburst. In fact, I can almost hear him saying, “Finally … now we’re getting somewhere.” In the midst of Moses’ honesty, God showed up compassionately. God met him at the very point of his questioning. God acknowledged his frustration and raised him above it not with cheap clichés that would ease the immediate pain but with the eternal truth of God’s power and promises.
The principle behind God’s response to Moses in his pain is this: The best thing God has to offer us is not answers to our questions, but the truth of himself. God said to Moses, “I know it doesn’t look great right for you now, and while that’s not something I will change, I am One you can trust as you walk through it. You can count on me to do what I’ve promised.” God comforts Moses by showing him who He is. “I am the Lord.” And then he gives him seven promises to bank on in the wilderness.
In Exodus 6:6-8. God says to Moses and the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and
I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.
I will free you from being slaves to them, and
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.
I will take you as my own people, and
I will be your God. …
I will bring you to the land I swore with an uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.
I will give it to you as a possession.
(not because you asked but because) I am the LORD.’ (And that’s what I’ve promised.)
In other words, God says, “I have not changed. Even though your moods may swing and the clouds hang low and your perspective may shift and your faith may waiver and your circumstances may alter, I AM. I am the same yesterday, today and forever. I have not changed,” says the Lord. “What I have promised, I will deliver. Even if Pharaoh does not remember your ancestors, and even if you don’t either, I will not change. I am still the same powerful and loving God who cares for you and wants to bring you into your destiny. I Am Who I Say I Am.”
Neil Anderson, in his book, Who I Am In Christ, says the most important knowledge we possess is a true knowledge of who God is (p. 11). Knowing who he is grounds us in who we are. “You are not who you are in Christ because of the things you have done,” Anderson writes. “You are who you are in Christ because of what He has done” (p. 15). In the midst of his frustration, God reminds Moses of who He is, and He calls Moses to rest in that truth.
Maxie Dunnam tells a story he first heard from J. Vernon McGee about a little Scottish lady who worked hard, day and night, to make enough money to send her son to college. After his first semester away, he came home full of doubts and questions about God, like college sometimes does to people. He didn’t want his mother to know about these new doubts, but his mother had this habit of talking incessantly about the wonders of God — of how he’d saved her and of how she knew she was saved. She would go on and on like this, so finally, he said, “Mother, you do not seem to realize how small you are in this universe. If you lost your soul, God would not miss it at all. It would not amount to anything.” She didn’t respond. She just went on with her work. Finally, she said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said. You’re right. My little soul does not amount to much; I would not lose much and God would not lose much. But if he does not save me, He will lose more than I will. Because he promised that if I would trust Jesus, he would save me. And if God breaks his word, he will lose his reputation and mar his character.”
That’s the point. Because you see, when it comes to us and our stuff, its not ultimately about us at all. Its about God. Its about his character, his faithfulness, his power to save and his desire to do so. Ultimately the best God can give us is not answers to our questions, but commitment to his promises and his character. And what has God promised us? At least this much: that if we trust in Jesus, he will save our souls. He will deliver us from our slavery to sin; he will redeem us with an outstretched arm and with his judgment which is full of grace; he will accept us as his people; and he will be our God; and he will deliver to that place of our destiny and give us what is our right as children of God. That much, we can count on … if we choose it.
Henri Nouwen was a brilliant scholar – a professor at both Yale and Harvard who left the academic world to work as a priest for people with profound disabilities. In his book The Inner Voice of Love, he writes this: “You are constantly facing choices. The question is whether you choose for God or for your own doubting self. You know what the right choice is, but your emotions, passions and feelings keep suggesting you choose the self-rejecting way. God says to you, ‘I love you, I am with you, I want to see you come close to me and experience the joy and peace of my presence.’ This is the voice to listen to. And that listening requires a real choice…. Do not let your anxious emotions distract you.… Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected.… What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it and it will be yours” (pp. 114-15).
That’s the lesson of Exodus, chapter 6. In the face of our own pain and questions, God may not give us all the answers we’re hoping for, but he gives us himself. Which is so much better in the long run than the temporary fix of cheap advice, comforting food, bumper-sticker encouragement. All well-meaning, but what is of God will last.
Now, the very next section of chapter 6, beginning with verse 14, is a genealogy list. We are given the lineage of Moses and Aaron – who their parents and grandparents were. Then, at the end of this genealogy, we find an interesting little paragraph (Exodus 6:26-30) –The Aaron and Moses named in this list are the same Aaron and Moses to whom the Lord said, “Lead all the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt” … They are the ones who went to Pharaoh to ask permission to lead the people from the land of Egypt. … This is the same Moses who had argued with the Lord, saying, “I can’t do it! I’m no orator. Why should Pharaoh listen to me?”
Don’t you love this? Whoever wrote this (and most people say it was Moses himself) must’ve thought it was something to remember that the same Moses who melted down with God, who had no sense of his own calling, who was moody and doubtful and at times deeply depressed, who didn’t even realize what it was he was made for –this Moses was the very guy who ended up in Pharaoh’s court demanding the release of a whole nation of people. And this family lineage of Aaron and Moses teaches us God had been planning to use them all along. Whether they felt like it or not, God planned to use them. Whether they sensed their worthiness or not, God used them. Whether they could see more than a half-step ahead or not, God came for them. And in fact, just after we read this genealogy list, God commands them to get back to work. And he even tells them it will get harder before it gets better. But none of that is because of them. All of it is about God. “I am the Lord!”he says in Exodus 6:28. “You tell the enemy of the souls of my people this news. I am the Lord!” That fact alone seems to carry power into the darkness, power to quiet fear and power to step into the unknown. We are not alone.
When I was ordained I was told to choose an elder in the church to stand with me at the ordination ceremony. I asked the man who was the senior pastor of the church I was serving at the time if he would be by my side. He had taken me on as his associate and I was grateful, but we didn’t have a long history together. Many of my colleagues who were also being ordained that year chose people who were special to them —a parent who was also a pastor, a spiritual father or mother in their lives. They chose mentors and pastors who’d led them richly. Since I didn’t have a person like that in my life —someone who’d shaped me over many seasons — I remember feeling a little lonely as we marched into the ceremony, almost like a spiritual orphan. I even remember wondering if maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there. I mean, all these other people seemed to have a heritage and a connection, and I didn’t sense that for myself.
But I was there, so I got ordained. Afterward our bishop gave each of us a certificate that included our lineage of ordination. It listed who ordained us, and then who ordained that person, then who ordained him … all the way up the line to John Wesley. And when I got that list and looked at it, I was blown away. Listed six spiritual generations before me was Bishop William Capers, my great-great grandfather. My own ancestor was in my spiritual lineage! I had no idea, and was overwhelmed to see that name there. Right there on stage, I wanted to cry out, “I’m supposed to be here! I have a heritage! I’m part of the plan! And even if I don’t think I can do it, even if I don’t feel this, God knows what I’m made of and God has plans for me!”
In Jeremiah 29:10-14, God says, “The truth is that you will be in Babylon for seventy years (in other words, you are going to walk through seasons of spiritual darkness, of burn-out, of depression, of discouragement. You are going to walk through seasons when there are more questions than answers). But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me in earnest, you will find me when you seek me. I will be found by you, says the Lord. I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and bring you home again to your own land.”
Do you hear it? This is God’s response to Moses, to the Israelites, to you and me, throughout the generations. In our questions, we have a hope, and it is not rooted in our circumstances; it is rooted in the plan —in the very identity—of God. For those of us who struggle, who live under gathering clouds, it is not a promise that God will answer all our questions. It is promise that He will not change on us. God’s character is eternal, his promises are safe, his nature is to love and his plans for us are good. “What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.”