Last Saturday I purchased a wonderful find at Powell’s Books (Portland, Oregon’s own homegrown new and used bookstore) – a used book called “Invisible Light: Poems about God” – for only $4.50. And it is in excellent condition.
It’s a collection of poems by various poets, some well-known and some not so well-known, as well as a few Psalms and other pieces of poetic scripture. I noticed in the table of contents that there were two poems by William Cowper, who I first heard of when reading “When the Darkness Will Not Lift” by John Piper. (See my book review of that book here).
Both of Cowper’s poems were so beautiful; it made me wonder why I even try to write poetry. (But I do know my poetry is getting better, and reading poems like Cowper’s just makes me want to learn more about poetry and get better at writing it).
I want to share one of Cowper’s poems with the readers at Broken Believers. I do so because it is a great reminder that even when we think we are too lost and broken to be of any use to God, even then God can do the impossible. He can take a broken vessel and cause great light and wonder to pour from its cracks. I am thankful for the poetry Cowper wrote, and for the witness that he provides of the truth that God uses the broken for astonishing things.
Cowper suffered from recurrent bouts of depression and severe mental illness. At times he was convinced that he was damned for all eternity and that he was a lost soul. Nonetheless, he was able to write some truly inspiring poetry and hymns to glorify God. This particular poem will cause the “Comfortless, broken, afflicted to delight in the joy of a life to come where all pain and sorrow will cease, and the glory of Jesus will be all we need.”
If you are struggling, feeling like you can never be of any use to God, take heart. God is in the business of using His power and wisdom in tandem with the broken believer to accomplish great things.
The Future Peace and Glory of the Church
by William Cowper
Hear what the Lord hath spoken:-
O my people, faint and few;
Comfortless, afflicted, broken,
Fair abodes I build for you:
Thorns of heartfelt tribulation
Shall no more perplex your ways;
You shall name your walls, Salvation,
And your gates shall all be Praise.
There, like streams that feed the garden,
Pleasures, without end, shall flow;
For the LORD, your faith rewarding,
All his bounty shall bestow:
Still in undisturb’d possession,
Peace and righteousness shall reign;
Never shall you feel oppression,
Hear the voice of war again.
You no more your suns descending,
Waning moons no more shall see;
But, your griefs forever ending,
Find eternal noon in me:
God shall rise, and shining o’er ye,
Change to day the gloom of night;
He, the LORD, shall be your glory,
God, your everlasting light.
Here are things I’ve heard over the years that we must take a second look at. Here are some possible answers.
“There must be something wrong with your spiritual life.”
Yes, depression CAN be a result of sin. BUT depression is NOT always a result of sin! If it is, God will tell you loud and clear what the problem is. This saying piles on the guilt for the depressed Christian. It’s unlikely that their depression has a spiritual cause, and this implies that they are not good enough spiritually.
“Repent and ask forgiveness for your sin!”
Depression is a result of sin, in that if there was no sin in the world depression wouldn’t exist. But then, neither would diabetes, cancer, or any other illness… Sin caused the world to be not-perfect, therefore illness exists. It’s a sin to be depressed, any more than it is to have any other illness. Depression can be used by God to encourage repentance, but in that case, it will be crystal clear exactly what sin you should repent of. If you don’t know or have just a vague sense of guilt, your depression is not the result of sin.
“You need to have more faith.” “Have faith in God.”
Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” How much faith does it take to hold onto the Christian faith when emotions scream at you daily to give up, get out and turn against God? Very often a depressed Christian will be hanging onto faith by their fingernails in something that requires a ton of faith.
“Taking antidepressants is playing God, He can heal you.”
Yes, God can heal. Sometimes he doesn’t just flick a switch to make the illness vanish, sometimes the healing comes through the conventional ways of doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, therapists, and medication. By persuading someone not to take their medicines in preference for a quick, supernatural healing that God may not have in store for them, the sufferer is being denied something that will help them, right now.
“Scripture says everything that happens is for your own good!”
The actual verse found in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This verse in no way implies that the sufferer should sit back and accept the illness for the rest of their life. It also does not say that illnesses are not to be fought with the intention of a cure. While God may well have things to do with a depressed person, the illness is not a good thing itself, and it may take years before you see positive results from it.
“You’ve been prayed for, why has nothing changed?”
This can be expressed in several ways and spoken by one of two different groups of people: either the person who asked for prayer or those who prayed for them. We’ll break the underlying situation into two areas: something definite was experienced in the prayer time: chains were obviously broken and new freedom gained, or, nothing apparently happened at all. That is, “I know God set you free,” why aren’t you free yet?
“Depression is a self-discipline problem.”
Self-discipline is important to a Christian. We have to be disciplined enough not to break the laws of the land, and to obey our God. But no amount of discipline will get rid of a medical problem. This statement implies that the sufferer is lazy and could become better by sheer force of will. This is not possible and causes a lot of guilt.
“You’re depressed because you choose to be.”
Why would anyone choose depression? It is hell on earth. It destroys everything it touches. Families, marriages, jobs, churches, and ministries- faith, peace, hope, and love. Depression corrodes all that it touches.
Does a diabetic or cancer patient choose their disease? Does the blind or the deaf person wake up in the morning and decide they aren’t going to keep being handicapped? These are the questions I would ask.
“You just need to rebuke that spirit of depression and tell it to leave you. Don’t let Satan steal your joy.”
There are two problems with this statement. One problem is the assumption that depression is caused by demonic oppression. The other problem is the assumption that joy and happiness are the same things. Blaming a “spirit of depression” can be a wonderful cop-out. Just cast out the spirit and you’re cured! No need for long-term support, prayer, counseling, or anything at all! And with this statement comes the implicit assumption that once again it’s your fault you’re depressed, this time because you’re not “spiritual” enough to get rid of the troublesome spirit yourself.
Yes, it is possible that demonic oppression can cause depression. No, demons are not responsible for every case of depression. Imagine what would happen if this statement was directed at someone with cancer, hemophilia, or osteoporosis (“Just cast out that demon attacking your bones and be strong again! God wants to see you running marathons!”).
The second problem with this statement is that joy is equated with happiness. People with depression are not going to be the happiest souls in the church. I’ve heard it said that happiness depends on what happens, whereas joy can exist in very unhappy situations.
“There’s no such thing as mental illness, it’s all in your mind”
Saying this denies that there is anything actually wrong with the depressed person, and implies that they are just making it up. This piles on the guilt again! A mental illness can be defined as one that affects the mind; the brain is allowed to get ill, just as the liver and lungs are.
“It’s your own fault you’re depressed”
This is the kind of thing that Job’s “comforters” said, and it didn’t help then either. Bad things can happen to good people. Denying this hurts the sufferer.
“Pull yourself together”
If you’ve been trying, someone saying this to you comes across as “You haven’t been trying hard enough, do more, and more, and more until you get it right.” So back you go, pushing more and more, and still getting nowhere because you cannot pull yourself out of depression by your bootstraps, and you can’t fix a medical problem by force of will.
Once I was punched in the face while preaching. At the time I was an evangelist with SOS Ministries in 1987. I was leading a group to Haight/Ashbury St. in San Francisco. I remember it was really busy, and it was a good team, and they were excited to take their church to the streets.
Haight/Ashbury was the place the “summer of love” kicked off, it peaked in 1968. It has a certain sense of notoriety, and even in 1983 it still had a dubious reputation as a center of the counter-culture. “A cult a day is born in San Francisco,” a pastor friend once shared with me.
Normally the neighborhood where I took a team would direct me on how to preach. Tonight I focused on God’s love for sinful people.
That message seemed appropriate for this place, especially on this street. God loves these people very much.
A young man came forward. He told me that he was a backslidden Christian, and his father was an Assembly of God pastor. He had run away from home. Suddenly he began to weep. The entire team seemed to lean forward and I know they were praying earnestly for him. It seemed to me that he was teetering on the brink.
His punch however came unexpectedly.
His fist hit me square in the nose. My eyes began to water. Oddly enough he took a step back and began to really cry out. My team wasn’t quite sure how to respond, but I hoped they prayed even harder. I sort of gasped and tried to shake it off. Someone must have called the police.
The Holy Spirit was very much present, both convicting and comforting each of us.
One or two minutes went by and suddenly he stopped sobbing and he became really angry. He took a step and then tried to kick me in the stomach, but I dropped the mic and caught his foot. I was ready for him this time.
About 20 minutes went by before SFPD showed up and asked if I wanted to press charges. I thought for a bit, but deep down I knew that wasn’t the will of my Father. Maybe I should of, I don’t know. But I thought about my own sin and couldn’t judge no one.
The Father was reaching him while teaching me!
God loves His prodigal children very much, He understands the guilt and shame (and frustration) they feel. The Father however is always watching and waiting. He works through life’s circumstances to lead them home. Each belongs to Him. He continues far past what we think is possible. He will never give up.
“We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
1 John 3:16
I suddenly saw a “wounded” brother, very confused and quite angry. Not with me, the team, or the music–but with God who created him, and died for him.
At that moment I just happened to be God’s love for this prodigal.
“How did Jesus expect His disciples to react under persecution? (In Matthew 5:12 He said), “Rejoice and be glad!” We are not to retaliate like an unbeliever, nor sulk like a child, nor lick our wound in self-pity like a dog, nor just grin a bear it like a Stoic, still less pretend we enjoy it like a masochist. What then? We are to rejoice as a Christian should and even “leap for joy” (Lk. 6:23).”
“Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence.”
I’ve been down this road before.
I guess this is my big issue with Bipolar Disorder (BP); its unpredictability, and the way you fluctuate. You get up in the morning and you immediately have to start analyzing your mood. “Am I more depressed than I was yesterday, or I am speeding up?” Am I acting appropriately, or am I stepping out of line again?”
For BP persons we never can be too sure.
We are always in a state of flux or movement. As BPs who are believers in Jesus, it seems like we have broken every rule in the book, twice. This disorder almost always demands certain hypocrisy– which instills a lot of guilt and shame.
Almost 40 years ago, a visiting pastor to our church came up to me and told me that he had a word from God, especially for me. This was long before I was diagnosed with Bipolar. I can’t remember much, but I do recall him saying, “You are as unstable as water”.
But I can also see now that my instability has made me a deeper, more tolerant person.
I give a lot of latitude to others’ shortcomings. I know how difficult it is to process life and face issues. Because I do this “yo-yo” thing, I can accept inconsistency as a normal part of life. I realize that I’m not perfect, nor is anyone else I know, but I’m learning to make allowances for it.
Sometimes, just being aware is half the battle. And I’m starting to understand God’s grace given to others. I’m learning to be gracious. I’m learning how to love. Maybe this weakness is becoming a strength for me. I hope so.
“And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”