The Word in the Wilderness
The experience of depression and anxiety can be disorienting in all kinds of ways. One of the hardest for me personally was that, for several years, I was barely able to pray and only able to take tiny sips of Scripture.
It was bewildering, and scary: I went from being greedy for the Bible to hardly being able to read it at all. I couldn’t focus my attention, and when I did try to read, nothing in God’s Word seemed to connect with me.
What did I need in those days? What could my friends do to help me? The worst thing would have been to urge me and pressure me to read the Bible and to pray. I needed far gentler counsel. I needed friends who knew that God is never in a rush.
Now, we’re all different. What we need and what we can cope with varies greatly. I know one lady who, after the tragic death of her son, needed to listen to recordings of sermons constantly, as she did the housework, drove to the shops, walked around town. That worked wonders for her. It wouldn’t have worked for me! Over time, I learned that what helped me most was a few words, a verse or two, which the Lord used to speak and sustain me for weeks or months on end.
At one point, when I was feeling like I simply couldn’t go on any more, a friend told me about a time he was in dire straits. Then words of Peter had popped into his mind: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life?’ (John 6:68). I clung to those words, almost like a mantra, through some very dark days. And Jesus held me fast.
Another time, a different friend texted me with the words ‘Isaiah 43:1-6’, and God helped me to see that in these tender words he wasn’t just speaking to Israel long ago, but he was also speaking directly to me day by painful day.
‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.’
As my mental energy started to return, I found I simply couldn’t cope with all the evil and heartache in the world. Stories in the news crushed my spirits. Other people’s pain overwhelmed me. Until, for weeks on end, I read Ephesians 1:3-14 every day. And God used this to put all my suffering, and all the suffering in the world, into the bigger perspective of his plan in Christ for all things from eternity past to eternity future. And a tiny light began to shine. It was a flickering light. It often felt as if it could be blown out by the tiniest breath. But over time it grew, until even in the darkness of depression, my mind was filled with light.
Perhaps the verses that made most sense of my experience were 2 Corinthians 1:8-10. Over a couple of years, I inched my way slowly through Paul’s experience, recognizing it was also my experience. It was a tremendous comfort to learn that God was dealing with me in the way he’d dealt with Paul! As time went on, each phrase in turn sprang to life: ‘For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself…Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death…But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead…He delivered us from such a deadly peril…and he will deliver us…On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.’
Such a trivial way to indicate what were often agonizing months of waiting and confusion. It was like crossing a desert, never sure where the next oasis would be. But eventually, the next refreshing drink would come.
Lastly, there was comfort too in knowing that Jesus wasn’t distant or unfeeling. He didn’t float above the muck and mire of life. He is merciful and can help, because he too shared our frail flesh and blood (Hebrews 2:16-17). In fact, my cries and tears were mild compared to his (Hebrews 5:7-8).
But—amazingly!—unlike our suffering, what the Lord Jesus Christ suffered was freely chosen, in love, for our salvation (Hebrews 2:16; 5:9).
So, as sweet as the promises of God are, and as comforting as the sufferings of the great saints of the Bible are, my greatest help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth, who does not slumber and sleep, who guards us and is our shade night and day (Psalm 121). But who doesn’t do it from a distance, but came near and suffered with us and for us.
Over several years now, I have found this prayer to the Lord Jesus in Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ Preces Privatae (Private Devotions) really helpful for meditating on the suffering of Christ for us and for our salvation:
By Thy sweat bloody and clotted, Thy soul in agony,
Thy head crowned with thorns, bruised with staves,
Thine eyes a fountain of tears,
Thine ears full of insults,
Thy mouth moistened with vinegar and gall,
Thy face stained with spitting,
Thy neck bowed down with the burden of the cross,
Thy back ploughed with the wheals and wounds of the scourge,
Thy pierced hands and feet,
Thy strong cry, Eli, Eli,
Thy heart pierced with the spear,
the water and blood thence flowing,
Thy body broken, Thy blood poured out,
Lord, forgive the iniquity of Thy servant,
and cover all his sin.
Turn away all Thy wrath:
turn Thyself from the fierceness of Thine anger,
Turn us, O God of our salvation,
and cause Thine anger toward us to cease.
Wilt Thou be angry with us for ever,
wilt Thou draw out Thine anger to all generations?
Wilt Thou not revive us again:
that Thy people may rejoice in Thee?
Show us Thy mercy, O Lord,
and grant us Thy salvation.