The text is Psalm 88.)
My only friend is darkness.
Depending on how you count them, from a third to half of the 150 psalms in the Bible are expressions of lament. In the lament psalms, the writers pour out their hearts to God, powerful expressions of grief, sorrow, and regret. They wonder why God seems absent or unconcerned and uninvolved. The lament psalms are bold expressions of strong emotions, men and women articulating their frustration and anger with themselves, their situations . . . and God. But by the end of the lament Psalms, the psalmists express hope – hope that God has heard their cries, hope that God does care, hope that God will ultimately intervene on their behalf.
Except for Psalm 88.
The writer of Psalm 88 is unable to imagine even the possibility of hope.
My only friend is darkness.
That’s how the psalmist ends Psalm 88.
The first time I read Psalm 88, I wondered what it was doing in the Bible. Where’s the good news? Where is the assurance and re-assurance. Where is the hope? Where is God?
Those are the questions the writer of Psalm 88 asks.
Those are the questions someone who is experiencing depression asks.
Those are the questions I have asked when I have struggled with anxiety and depression.
Thank God Psalm 88 is in the Bible! It acknowledges that being a believer is not all happiness and “yay God!”. Bad stuff happens in our lives just like it does in the lives of unbelievers. When I realized I was a Christian, my life didn’t become perfect and my moods constantly positive. There are times when God feels very far away, very hard to see through the haze of my own weaknesses and limitations, through the sometimes dim realities of life in an imperfect, fallen world.
If the writer of Psalm 88 was not suffering from depression, that person knew what depression feels like. Even God may feel like darkness.
But depression is a liar. It tells you that you are worthless, that you have no friends, that you are beyond hope, that you have no future, that you are only a burden to others.
Psalm 88 reassures us that struggles with depression and other forms of mental illness are not due to a lack of faith. In fact, the writer shows great faith by continuing to cry out to God even when God seems distant or absent or cruel.
The psalmist is lamenting what Luther called “the Hidden God” or “God in a mask,.” But the writer of Psalm 88 never stops crying out to God. Although he or she can’t hear or see God’s response, even if it feels like just shouting in the air, the Psalmist keeps on emptying their heart in prayer.
Psalm 88 declares that doubt and difficulty are not signs of a lack of faith. “I’ve been there,” the psalmist assures us. “The dark times are part of the journey.”
One of the most harmful misconceptions about depression and other mental illness is that they are a sign of weak faith or of a weak person. Believing they are helpful, Christians will tell someone dealing with depression that they can get better if they pray more or read the Bible more or be more thankful, or just be more positive and optimistic.
Those are not bad things – certainly praying, reading scripture, gratitude, and optimism are good practices, especially during times of struggle.
But depression is an illness. Would you tell someone with the flu – or cancer – to just pray more or think good thoughts?
I hope not.
I understand that it is more difficult to help someone with depression or another mental illness than someone who is suffering physically. You can see a cut and cover it with a bandage. An x-ray can reveal a broken bone that can be healed with the aid of a cast. You can look at someone’s throat and have a doctor do a culture to determine they have strep throat, then treat it with an antibiotic.
Mental illness is not as visible, often especially to the one experiencing it. But mental illness can be just as debilitating or even deadly.
How can we, the people of God, the Body of Christ, the Church – how can we help?
First, we must purge the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses. Instead of saying or implying that mental illness is a faith issue, we must acknowledge it as medical issue.
Also, following the example of the writer of Psalm 88, it will help others if we find the courage to admit our own struggles with mental illness.
I’ve shared with you before that I experience panic attacks, and that I have sought counseling for help with situational depression and anxiety. I’ve also participated in couples counseling and family counseling. There is no more shame in that than when I saw a surgeon to repair the torn cartilage in my knee. It would have been foolish not to get that surgery – instead I could have denied that my knee was injured or prayed harder while thinking happy thoughts. Those things would not have improved my mobility one bit, and may have even negatively impacted my faith because I would have remained frustrated and in pain.
In the same way God has gifted doctors and nurses and other medical professionals with the skills and talents to deal with our physical ailments, God has gifted doctors and therapists and counselors to treat our mental health struggles. To seek the help of professionals does not deny God’s power or ability to heal us – God works THROUGH those God has called and equipped to heal. God works through therapy they provide and medications they prescribe.
God can also work through the people of God – the same way God works through us when we help those who are physically ill or injured.
As the church, we can be a source of strength and support for those dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges. One of the lies depression tells, as we heard at the end of the psalm is that you have no friends, that no one cares about you, and that you’re not worth caring about anyway. As a community of faith, we can disprove those lies not just by reminding each other of God’s unconditional love and presence, but by BEING that love and presence incarnate – God’s love and presence in the flesh.
Rather than telling someone to “cheer up,” we can listen to and acknowledge their pain. We can encourage others to get help and point them to that help, and even accompany them as they seek that help.
Below the sermon is some information from Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency with various hotlines you can use to get help for yourself or for someone else. Of course, if someone is in immediate danger call 911.
The other hotlines are available around the clock. The Anne Arundel County Crisis Warmline is a local source of help. The Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline is obviously for young people. And the National Suicide Prevention Hotlines are always available no matter where you are.
There is also a note about Financial Assistance for Mental Health Services. It can be hard to pay for mental health services especially if you are uninsured. Even if you have insurance, it unfortunately often does not treat mental illness as it does physical issues. There is help – the number is listed there. Also, some therapists and other mental health professionals will treat folks on a sliding scale. Talk to me if you or someone you know might need a referral.
How do you know if you need to get help?
If your depression or anxiety is keeping you from doing the things you need and want to do, if it is keeping you from being the person you want to be, if it is separating you from the ones you love – then I hope you’ll consider getting help.
If you are having trouble finding hope and believing that things can be better, then I hope you’ll consider getting help.
If anxiety is causing you to be constantly worried, to believe bad things are going to happen if you don’t do things a certain way, if anxiety won’t go away, then I hope you’ll consider getting help.
If you feel you’re not WORTH getting help, then I hope you’ll consider getting help. You ARE worth it!
If you feel like hurting yourself or that the world would be a better place if you weren’t in it, then it is time to get help right away. Call one of the hotlines. You might need someone to help you get that help, or even to the emergency room. That’s okay. We are here for each other.
No matter who you are, no matter what you have done or what you haven’t done, you are a beloved child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, God’s masterpiece recreated in Christ Jesus to do the good stuff that God has planned for you.
No matter who you are, not matter what you have done or haven’t done, even when you can’t see that because your illness is lying to you. you are AWESOME and you are loved.
God does not desire you to suffer physically or emotionally.
There is help. There is hope.
We are here for each other. You have friends, even in the darkness.