Downcast: Suffering, Depression and the Goodness of God
The question of suffering is a big one in depression, since suffering can lead to depression, and depression itself is suffering. We are fortunate to live in a society that is largely insulated from suffering, compared to other places and times where people have had to grapple with the daily reality of illness, death, poverty
by Jennifer Huang Harris, MD
Editor’s Note: Downcast: Biblical and Medical Hope for Depression is the newest addition to CMDA’s published resources, and it was intended to be released at this year’s National Convention. With the recent impact COVID-19 has had on our all lives, we hope this particular excerpt from the book, regarding the role of suffering in depression, is an encouragement. To get your copy of the book, visit CMDA’s Bookstore at www.cmda.org/bookstore.
The question of suffering is a big one in depression, since suffering can lead to depression, and depression itself is suffering. We are fortunate to live in a society that is largely insulated from suffering, compared to other places and times where people have had to grapple with the daily reality of illness, death, poverty or war. As a consequence, we are fearful of any kind of suffering.
Unfortunately, numerous modern churches fail to prepare Christians for suffering. Sadly, the predominant belief is a theological falsehood, that if someone is a true Christian, he or she will be blessed by God and be protected from suffering. As a consequence, when people encounter suffering—when accident, death or pain befalls them—their faith becomes undone. They believe suffering is evidence that God has broken His promises, God is not powerful, God does not care or God does not exist.
People used to turn to religion for answers to suffering, and the church needs to reclaim its voice on suffering. The themes of suffering are woven throughout Scripture. Our faith is borne on the back of a Savior who suffered and died (Isaiah 53:4-5). Shouldn’t our faith have the resources to equip us for suffering?
There are a couple of fundamental theological issues here:
- How can God be good and allow evil in the world?This is the age-old dilemma of theodicy, which many theologians and pastors have tried to answer. We do not have the space or the expertise to answer, so we refer to others who are much wiser. See Phillip Yancey’s Where Is God When It Hurts?, Joni Earekson Tada’s and Steve Estes’ When God Weeps, C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain and Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering.
- What does God intend for our lives?
When it comes to suffering, it may be helpful to remember that God’s goal is not our comfort and happiness, but rather our holiness. Paul talks about his own struggle with a thorn in the flesh and about his pleading with God to remove it from him. God’s answer was not to take it away. Rather, God’s answer to Paul was to teach him to think differently about his suffering. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, ESV).God does not promise us a happily-ever-after while we are here on earth. He actually promises the opposite: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12-13, ESV). He promises we will experience trials and tribulations. But the suffering is not gratuitous. There is value in suffering. When we share in Christ’s suffering, our character is refined, and we become more like Him (1 Peter 4:13, James 1:2-4).
- Can we trust God?
This echoes the fundamental question of faith struggled with throughout Scripture. “Can you really trust God?” which Satan asked Adam and Eve, questioning God’s goodness in withholding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from them. “Can we trust God?” Abraham questioned as he and his wife remained barren and without children, and then when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac. “Can we trust God?” the Israelites questioned, when they encountered the towering inhabitants of Canaan and ended up prolonging their years wandering in the desert. “Can we trust God?” the disciples wondered as they cowered in the upper room after Jesus had been crucified.The question “Can we trust God” has an implied second part, which is useful to consider. Can I trust God to give me what I want? If we look at Paul and his thorn in the flesh, and if we look at Jesus pleading in Gethsemane for the cup of suffering to pass, the answer is no. God is not merely a means for us to get what we want. God is not a genie in a lamp, nor a vending machine. He is much bigger than that, and He is much better than that. His wisdom about what is good and what we need is beyond our own wisdom. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8, ESV).On the other hand, can we trust God to be good? “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” declares Psalm 34:8 (ESV). And as John Newton, the pastor and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote to his grieving sister, “All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.”[i] Yes, we can trust that God is good.To those who are weary with trying to orchestrate the details of their lives and live in anxiety about the future, Jesus issues this invitation: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, ESV).
Learn to be honest with God, even with all the difficult feelings—the loneliness, the guilt, the doubt, the fear, the anger, the despair, the suffering.
In the church, we are comfortable with the feelings of exaltation and praise, worship and love songs to Jesus. But we do not know where to turn with the difficult feelings and the hard questions that aren’t so easily massaged into joy.
Are we allowed to complain to God? Are we allowed to be angry at Him? Are we allowed to doubt God’s power, His goodness or His presence? God never rebukes those in Scripture who humbly cry out to Him in their suffering. He hears their cry. For how many years did the Israelites cry out to God while they suffered as slaves in Egypt, often feeling like they were crying out into the void? Yet God did hear and would deliver them in His time. “Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 3:7-8, ESV).
God hears. And God can handle our doubts and our hard questions. Glenn Pemberton, professor at Abilene Christian University, writes in Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms:
“Although it may appear counterintuitive, an ability to ask difficult questions of God comes not only from submission but also humility…our pride prevents us from telling anyone the truth about ourselves—that I am not okay, that I am confused, that I am angry, that I feel as if God has abandoned me…
“The psalmists challenge us to decide how serious we plan to be about our relationship with God. And here, the greatest danger is not our questions but our silence. Silence in the place of difficult questions may come because we fear inappropriate, irreverent speech toward God. But silence may also be due to giving up on a relationship or because we have no real expectations of God. Oftentimes, we never ask God difficult questions because we are never disappointed or confused by God—and we are never disappointed because we never really expected God to do anything in the first place.”[ii]
Are we silent? Do we have expectations of God? Do we believe God will hold fast to His promises? Do we believe God is active in our lives? Do we believe God sees our suffering and hears our cries?
To read the rest of the chapter, order your copy today from CMDA’s Bookstore at www.cmda.org/bookstore.
About the Authors
Jennifer Huang Harris, MD, is a psychiatrist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Harold G. Koenig, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Associate Professor of Medicine at Duke University, and director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health.
John R. Peteet, MD, has been a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for more than 40 years, and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
[i] John Newton, Letters. p189-90
[ii] Pemberton, Glenn. Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2012. p172
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