It’s usually not caused by a situation or something outside me that I can see. My resting emotion changes from neutral to, just, sad. If I don’t do anything or think anything or am not influenced by anything, I’m just sad. I can feel it shade whatever I think about. Even happy thoughts of family or work turn regrets or fears. Then my mind begins marshalling all the hard and sad things in life together, building a case for the sadness I already feel.
Here’s what it’s like: I went to see a movie I’d been looking forward to forever. It was great, I was caught up in it. Then soon after it ended, I was sad again. I went to bed, then woke up, sad. I drank a coffee, read my Bible, and felt better. Then I heard a radio story about someone with a life-ending illness. I began recounting life-threatening illnesses I or my family could have. You can guess how I felt next. So I turned it off and listened to a sermon. A little better. Back and forth it goes. Often it’s not this bad. Sometimes it’s worse.
It could be mild depression, fatigue, melancholy, or a general spiritual low. It usually doesn’t last long—a day or two up to a week or so. It hits every few months and then goes away. I know other people have a much longer, harder road here: they’ll stay there, worsening, for months. I can function, I can come up for air with a sunset or the smile of my kids, but other people can’t.
I’m not an expert on depression or dark nights of the soul, I’m just a guy who is trying to love Jesus when I can’t explain why I feel sad. But in recognizing it, acknowledging it, there’s a power there. I turn from being passive, watching something happen to me, to being active.. I’ve learned that to make it through the season I need to get my eyes off of myself. Otherwise, these thoughts and feelings often form a downward spiral, building on one another more and more until I feel like I can’t pull out. So I need to stop looking at myself and the spiral, I need to look out.
To fight it, I usually try to think in six categories. Read them with yourself in mind, or perhaps to discover categories to help people around you.
Be With God
When I am with God, I get my eyes off of myself. Over and over in the Psalms in times of difficulty and even internal anguish rather than running from God, the Psalmist runs to God: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps 63:1). Later in verse 8 the Psalmist says that he “clings” to the Lord. This is an earnest seeking, a longing, a clinging. And when I see the Lord, I am reminded that the world doesn’t revolve around me or how I feel. I am reminded that there is a creator and sustainer of all things, there is a glorious and grand purpose to the universe in light of this, and that my purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
The challenge is that often when I’m feeling down the last thing I want to do is spend time with God. What then? On a practical level sometimes when I’m fighting depression or melancholy sometimes I can’t take in a lot of Scripture or truth. Where I would normally read several chapters of the Bible, it can all just blur together. So instead I try to focus in on a smaller section, even spend most of my time meditating on one line of Scripture. Recently I spent 10-15 minutes simply reading and re-reading the first four verses of Psalm 61 and specifically on the phrase “lead me to the rock higher than I.” Slowly, slowly, as it sunk in my eyes turned upward.
Be In Nature
In Scripture the Psalmist often takes time not just to look at his circumstances but at God’s creation all around him. Psalm 19:1 declares: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” And creation speaks about God: “Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (19:2). Every part of his creation bears God’s handiwork and, despite being tainted and corrupted, still proclaims the work of his hands. Sometimes when I can’t take in a sermon or a book, I can take in a sunset. My attention is turned upward. I am reminded that the world doesn’t revolve around me or how I feel.
Be With People
When I feel like this the last thing I want to do is be around people. But Scripture calls me to not forsake the regular gathering of God’s people (Heb 10:25) and the pattern of Christian fellowship is not occasional but regular and day to day (Acts 2:42-46). God has made us a body (1 Cor 12) and when one part of the body is not doing well the last thing it needs is to cut itself off and make a go of it on its own.
I do need some space sometimes (see above). But being with people also has a way of pulling me out of myself. I hear other’s problems and am moved to compassion. I hear other’s joys and am moved to joy. I am reminded that the world doesn’t revolve around me or how I feel. My wife knows that when I’m feeling down one of the healthiest things I can do is go be around people and she faithfully encourages me to play with my boys or to visit a friend, even when I want to stay home at
Be Careful What You Consume
I like dark stuff sometimes. I enjoy visits to the dark and bleak literary wastelands of Cormac McCarthy or T.S. Eliot or Hemingway. I can gravitate to moody music. I can. And sometimes when I feel sad I crave that stuff because it expresses how I feel. But I’ve learned the hard way, when I’m sad Radiohead does me no favors.
On a spiritual level staring at the darkness and hardship and depravity of the world around me isn’t what I need, because I already see that pretty clearly. Instead I need Paul’s counsel in Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” And then on a practical level I need to be sensitive to how what I’m listening or reading or watching affects me. We should always do this, but there are times to watch There Will Be Blood and there are times to watch The Princess Bride again.
There are times even normal everyday tasks seem wearisome and pointless. There are days the proclamation of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is my heart language “All is vanity!” But laundry still needs folding, emails need to be returned, bills paid, friends encouraged, projects completed. Galatians 6:9 reminds us “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9 ESV). There will be seasons where we are weary of trying, of getting out of bed even. But God encourages us that daily sowing, little by little, is what produces fruit over the long haul.
Look, I’ve found that sometimes I just want to keep thinking, reading, journaling, feeling indefinitely. I want to “fix” whatever is making me sad so that I’m back to normal and happy. Sometimes (often?) it doesn’t happen that way. More often sadness subsizes little by little, and often as I’m busy with God has put in front of me to do.
Here’s what I must remember: the sadness will lift. It always has. Day by day we are being renewed inwardly, so we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:16). I know people with deep valleys that seem insurmountable, that last months or years, that require medication and constant care. But this is the truth: in Christ, sadness will lift. It may not be tomorrow or next week, there are times it never seems to lift in this lifetime. But in eternity it will be banished (Rev 21-22). We will open our eyes to the sight of our Savior, and with a glimpse of him our hearts will find joy and never lose it again.
Recently I was really helped by Zack Eswine’s book Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Struggle from Depression. One of the things I was helped by in Eswine’s book was tracking Spurgeon’s long fight with melancholy and depression. He had good seasons and bad seasons. But through it all he was faithful. And thought faithfulness he was fruitful. And in the end his depression did not stop the effect of his life. That gives me hope. I can feel useless sometimes–frustrated with myself especially. But I am reminded that I need patience over the long haul. God can help, God can still use me. I may not be Spurgeon, but I can be persistent like him.
So, friend, do you find yourself sad? Don’t lose heart. Pick up your Bible. Take a walk outside. Come downstairs and find your family. Fold the laundry, pay the bills and return emails. And then be patient.
Do you find yourself looking on, hurting with a friend who can’t seem to stop being sad? Be patient with them. Sit with them for a while. Suggest a walk. Share just one Scripture that lifts their eyes. Remind them they’re not alone. It may well be that God has put you in their life for a reason. They need you by their side, and it may well be that someday you’ll need them by yours.