Editor's Note: Matt Woodley had a chance to interview Mark Meynell about preaching on depression. This interview provides a little more background on why Mark preached a sermon on depression. It also provides a few tips for other preachers who want to talk about this topic. As an introduction to his sermon we are providing the interview below.
1. Why is depression an important topic to cover from the pulpit and not just in a pastoral counseling sessions?
There are several reasons, but here are two. For one, it is guaranteed that there are people listening who have first or second-hand experience of depression and other mental illnesses. They need to know that God is concerned about this, and that they are not odd, less spiritual, or even under some divine curse. Secondly, we are called to share one another's burdens as a church community (Gal 6:2)—understanding is the first step towards compassionate burden-bearing.
2. What was the goal of your sermon?
The goal was to demonstrate that the Bible is fearless in exploring the darker sides of human experience—including mental illness. And therefore to show that God speaks even in the darkness with both realism and hope (too often it is that combination that is lacking in how people try to pastor others' pain). I also wanted (with my colleagues' support and agreement) to testify to my own experience, to show that ministers aren't immune.
3. What are three things preachers should not do if they want to address depression or mental illness?
Be careful not to make false assumptions about what we're talking about here (but that goes for any subject we preach on, doesn't it.) Depression is a matter of deep heart-pain and fear, far more than simply being low or a bit down.
Tread sensitively when touching on such deeply personal pain. Just as we might tread gingerly around someone with a broken foot (treading on toes will make matters worse), so respect the sufferer's anguish. Don't pretend to grasp its depths if you've never experienced it yourself. Remember that the Lord Jesus is really the only person who can legitimately say "I know exactly how you feel." So there's yet another reason to point to him in our preaching.
Avoid suggesting there are quick fixes to this. Offering false hopes of cures or charging people with a lack of faith are disastrous (guilt-feelings are already a central feature of depression, so this will only exacerbate matters, with potentially tragic consequences). We can really help our people if we show them how (from the Scriptures) to live for a while in the confusion and gloom of Easter Saturday (after the horror of Good Friday, but before the victory of Easter Sunday).
4. How did people respond to your sermon on depression? Was there anything that surprised you?
Those who didn't know about my own situation were perhaps surprised! Most were helped and encouraged by simply talking openly about such things (after all, if they think their pastor never has problems, they'll assume you're either far too spiritual for them, or concealing stuff from them—either way, they'll stop listening to you pretty fast). I wasn't especially surprised though, but felt an almost palpable sense of relief with some.
5. You alluded to the fact that you have struggled with depression. What kind of impact has that had on your ministry, especially in your preaching role? How does it affect your sermon prep, your sermon delivery, or your post-sermon experience?
It has been a long-term thing (in fact, I recently wrote a series of blog posts to mark my 10th anniversary!!) It did mean that I had to change my work patterns in 2014 (by coming off the All Souls full-time staff after nine years). That I suppose was the most obvious impact, but I definitely do not see it as preventing ministry. I'm just as involved in ministry now, training and supporting others as Associate Director (Europe) for Langham Preaching. It's just a matter of finding manageable routines and knowing one's limits. But that would be the same if I had lost an arm or had a physical illness, wouldn't it? We need a few trusted people around us who know the whole story and can give advice, support, and reassurance. As far as my preaching is concerned, I hope it has made me truly see people's experiences and therefore better placed to speak truth into that.
6. What advice would you give for other preachers who struggle with depression?
Well, there's plenty of others in the same boat out there! It's not an especially modern problem. The great Charles Spurgeon perhaps preached most openly about his own struggles more than anyone (see Zack Eswine's superb book, Spurgeon's Sorrows). It's vital you find others you can talk about it with—don't allow any perceived stigma or spiritual insecurity prevent this. We need each other, all the more so if we're in ministry. Then if you do decide to speak publicly about it (and there are good reasons for doing so), make sure you have the support of a few around you who are praying and keeping an eye out for vulnerabilities, and that you work out some boundaries for what you will and will not discuss. But above all, keep eyes fixed on the Lord of compassion.
It's astonishing how many Bible saints endured what we might call depression. But if the modern statistics are to be believed, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised; of course there are going to be some people in the Scriptures for whom this is going to be very real. Of course Job suffered terribly after many personal tragedies and these were exacerbated by the callous probing of his so-called friends. Elijah suffered acute nervous exhaustion, a total loss of perspective and isolation. King David knew real despair and terror as he fled for his life into the wilderness from Saul. But he also suffered what we might call depression as a consequence of his sinful actions. Then there is the Lord Jesus Christ. He himself suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross. He was overwhelmed by fear and anguish. Is it such a stretch to suggest that even he battled with bouts of depression? After all, the Scriptures are very clear in telling us that he experienced every aspect of human life, good and bad, with the sole exception of sinfulness. His human experience was full and real.
So no wonder then that many heroes of the faith too battled with mental health issues. William Cooper, the great poet and hymn writer, the great Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon, was much afflicted by this, and even C.S. Lewis more recently. Then why is it so taboo? Well, C.S. Lewis is helpful here. He said this in his book, The Problem of Pain, "Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and harder to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain only increases the burden. It is easier to say, 'My tooth is aching' than to say, 'My heart is broken.'"
Psalms: God-given liturgy of despair
Well, we are intentionally breaking the taboo. I often wonder, if only we had taken the whole Bible seriously, that taboo would never have risen in the first place. In fact, in the Psalms, God gives us permission to voice deep despair in prayer, which in fact is ironic if you think about it, isn't it? Because what is prayer? Prayer is an act of trust in the God who hears. Yet some Psalms express profound doubt, even despair. But by including them in the Bible, God is effectively saying, "It's okay, you can talk to me about it, far better you talk to me than no one. In fact, for those times when you don't know what to say and you don't have the words, I'll give you the words to say." That's what some of the Psalms do. So some Psalms are what I might call a God-given liturgy of despair. And some are very bleak indeed. Like Psalm 88. Psalm 88 closes without any confidence in God at all—"Darkness is my closest friend." End of Psalm. It's not exactly what we might expect from a holy book, is it? I can't think of many holy books, if any, in human history that indulge in that sort of thing.
Psalm 42 is more positive, but not by much. Never make the mistake of forcing the Bible to resolve too quickly. For the curse of despair is a reality, and to deny so is in fact to cause more problems. So I think there are two brief things we can see from what the Psalmist does in this Psalm 42.
Cry out to God in the midst of pain
The first thing the Psalmist does is he cries out to God in the midst of his pain. Now, this Psalm I'm sure is familiar enough. But sadly the music of modern verses tends to make it far too sentimental and a bit sloppy in my opinion. This is a song of agony, not sentimentality. The dry mouth thirst of someone who knew God, but now only feels his absence. He looks back in verse four on happier days of life with God. He'd go to the temple full of the joys of the Lord, but not now. Tears of desolation are his life now, and we can see that in verse three. While depression so often leads to acute loneliness, the hardest thing here for the Psalmist is that he also feels cut off from God, which is precisely what makes the sceptic's insult in verse three so unbearable. Where is your God, they mock. And in his heart he is saying, Where indeed, where indeed.
So down in verse nine he cries out, "I say to God my Rock, 'Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?'" William Cooper chimed with this completely when he wrote this couplet: "Where is the blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord?" That's exactly the experience of Psalm 42.
The need for compassion
But what does the Psalmist do in Psalm 42? He starts preaching to himself. He starts with that dreaded question in verse five—Why? Why is this happening? Now occasionally the causes for depression are obvious sometimes. We've already heard how complex they are, but sometimes it really is the result of maybe a blatant sin, maybe the outworkings of our own rebelliousness. That is true. But with depression, genuine guilt, I would suggest, is far less common a cause than we might think, despite depressed people usually assuming that everything is their fault. There are a host of external factors like trauma or persecution as well as internal factors like maybe chemical imbalance or a temperamental vulnerability. Whatever it is, to ask the question "Why?" is to enter a minefield.
Please allow me to speak personally just for a moment, since none of this is theoretical. I myself have battled with depression for the last seven years, since returning from Africa. Which is in fact if you think about it, the whole time we've been at All Souls Church. For nearly all of this time I've been on antidepressant medication. Now, I say this not to indulge in the modern obsession of therapy by public confession. Far from it. Nor do I say it to present myself as an expert—I am far from that. I say it simply to burst the taboo. So I truly relate to the Psalmist here. If I knew why I have those dark, dark episodes then I would cope with them so much better. It's the not knowing that is such torture. So if you want to love a friend who is in the pit, don't assume it is your job to prove the wise. It may well be somebody's job at some point but just as a friend it's probably not yours. Just be a friend.
Depression obscures the reality and goodness of God
The Psalmist goes on to preach to himself. He keeps asking why in verse five and again in verse 11, but he doesn't really get an answer. Instead, there is an act of will. Do you see that? "Put your hope in God," he says to himself, "for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God."
Did you notice how in verse nine he addresses his complaint to the Lord as "God my Rock"? He can still call him "God my Rock" when he thinks God has forgotten him. That is a noble act of faith in the face of deep unfaith and despair. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief. But it's hard, very, very hard. Depression is like a blindness, a fog that obscures reality and in particular it obscures the reality and the goodness of God.
Now, I know that I receive a good deal of justified flak for my obsession with the band U2. Fair enough. But I can simply say that at times it felt like U2's music was the only thing holding me to God. You probably think that's absurd, but Bono and the Edge articulate Christian hope in the face of a world of horror, irrationality, and pain like nobody else. Sometimes echoing their complicated faith was the only thing that kept my feet on God my Rock because they were articulating the same darkness at times. Now, all of us might have different things that we relate to, to do that. Maybe it's a generational thing, a temperamental thing, who knows. But that's certainly been true in my experience.
The need for community life
At times my downcast soul has been helped in another way too. The Apostle Paul almost in passing in 2 Corinthians, writes about how God helped him in a very dark moment. In chapter seven he says "God who comforts the downcast comforted us by the coming of Titus." Just a very simple little passing comment as he writes to the Corinthian friends. It's a lovely description of God, the God who comforts the downcast. He's not too busy to do that, not too important to do that. It's a vital pointer to our need for community life. The church is meant to be God's primary means of comfort, which makes it so painful for people when the church is not that. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus. Sometimes, the best gift is a good friend.
To speak of a gift in this context seems incongruous at best. A gift? What on earth can you be talking about? Well, we do need prayer. Trite platitudes always crush the spirit of the anguished, but this does not mean there is nothing positive to say. We need a wise combination of gentleness and reticence. For one thing that depression does demand, whether it is our own or that of others we know, is a profound humility.
Don't be a fixer, be a friend
We live in a fix-it culture and assume that everything gets sorted once we put our minds to it. That's all we need to do. It's perhaps the result partly of that wonderful institution the National Health Service. It's easy to knock it but it is a remarkable thing, the NHS, and we assume therefore that we have both the right to healing for all our ills and the means to healing for all our ills. But there are some things that simply can't be fixed humanly speaking. Nor can they necessarily be fully fixed in this life. The Christian gospel has never promised that and it never will. We are limited, floored, confined, and finite.
Now, of course God is never limited and he is a God who does heal and who does have compassion. He comforts the downcast. He can do anything that he wishes. But the mysteries come precisely because sometimes he doesn't heal. For someone caring for a depressed friend, I think this can be one of the hardest things. I want to be able to fix it. I want to be able to have just the right word to be able to sort of pull them out of it. And yes sometimes the very attempt to fix can be the very thing that makes it worse. Don't try to be a fixer; just try to be a friend. For there may be a broader purpose at work.
The mysteries of pain and suffering: hope, humility, grace, and power
So as we think about this subject of the gift, where is the gift in all this? The first thing to say is there are mysteries to do with pain and suffering. Of course there are. Paul's experience in 2 Corinthians 12 was unique to him. There are things that he had in his life that we can't necessarily draw parallels. Very few of us ever have anything remotely like his experience on the Damascus road when he was converted and we have no idea what this thorn in the flesh really was. Perhaps it was a physical ailment. I mean, we know that he struggled with his eyesight. And after years of persecution and hard living, his body was a canvas of scars and wounds. Perhaps it was a psychological scar, acute trauma and stress. Trauma can lead very often to sort of panic attacks. Perhaps that's something that he faced. Who knows. We're not told. The fact that Paul doesn't tell us exactly what it was clearly shows that it is not important. All we do know is that it was so awful, so grim that he called it a satanic torment.
So Paul asked God to remove it. In verse eight he says he pleads three times. I find that staggering. I've always been amazed by that because I'd have asked 3,003 times, not just three. And in fact I have. But now God reveals himself to Paul by saying, he's not going to take it away. This particular pain will not be relieved in his lifetime.
Now, if one of the hardest questions for someone in the pit is why is this happening, the next hardest question is how long is it going to last? Believe me, it is a haunting question. Especially as you're all too conscious of the affect that it has on those closest to you. The classic response is, "I don't know how long I can go on like this." We've just been singing. That cry that's echoed for two-and-a-half millenia, the cry of the Psalmist crying out to God, "How long, O Lord. How long must I go on like this?"
Well, if a depressed person has lost hope, the best thing a loving friend can do is to hold hope for them. Now, that doesn't mean imposing timetables for recovery. It certainly doesn't mean bludgeoning them with hope. And thirdly, do not indulge in talking the language of Zion as if it makes everything rosy and lovely. It might actually mean being silent or doing something distracting together, or even doing the dishes. Being willing to do that might give all the hope that's needed, since that alone speaks volumes about somebody's value and your love for them. But what Paul points to here is integral to our hope because in God's purposes pain is never the end. So when I speak of depression in terms of gift, please understand I am not saying that depression itself is a divine gift. Far from it. But that even through the darkest things God can and does give gifts. I, in my weakness, could be God's best gift to you just as God's weakness in Christ was his best gift to me.
You see, there are purposes at work. Paul is quite clear, he has obviously thought a lot about this. He is trying to work it all through and he has seen that there is some method in what feels like madness. So in verse seven, he can make it very clear in his own mind that it's a means to keeping him humble. That must have been a painful thing to write, don't you think? Paul was a hugely gifted man, one of the most brilliant thinkers in Christian history bar none. Intellectually and creatively, hugely gifted with a huge capacity for courage and deep friendship. He was an amazing friend to people, and clearly someone who needed friends. He had unique experiences of God, not just on the Damascus road but also other things that he talks about earlier on in this chapter. All of this could have gone to his head and no doubt did before he came to Christ. So he understands in verse seven that the thorn is to keep him from becoming conceited. It keeps reminding him of his limitations, his flaws, and above all his need for God.
Doesn't our society need a little dose of this humility? Could it possibly be that some sort of suffering is the only thing that brings us back to recognizing our need for God? As Peter puts it in his letter, suffering can be God's refining fire, and for Paul that refining meant growing in humility. But it's hard to grasp that in the darkness. It's hard to appreciate the refining fire when it's at it's hottest. Sometimes we must simply decide to cling on even if it's the last thing we feel like. Just as the Psalmist preached to himself, put your hope in the Lord.
But there's more. There is also a promise of grace. You see, in verse nine it's very clear. Very often we assume that healing is a right, it's a shock to recognize that any blessing from God is always a gift of grace, whatever it is. Any blessing. That includes healing if it comes. Also surprisingly, if it doesn't come it is his grace that enables us to endure. That itself is a gift of grace. Both are signs of his mercy and kindness. That's a very different way of thinking than the world thinks, isn't it? But that grace is sufficient, whatever our circumstances, whatever our pains. My problem is that when darkness is my closest friend, grace feels furthest from me. But I must echo the Psalmist and preach to myself. Verse 9 is a promise from God, "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness." It's a promise.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all in our culture, there is power in weakness. Depression is nothing if not weakness. It is about being absolutely at the end of oneself, and tragically it offers nothing beyond it. The wonder is that God does offer something beyond it. It's as if we need to get to the end of the road before we can see what God has laid out in front of the end of the road. Once Paul sees that, he can boast. He can boast not in his gifts or abilities but in his weaknesses and traumas, bizarre though that seems. For the very fact of his ability to persevere while enduring pain. You only need to read the middle chapters of the book of Acts to have a sense of some of the pains he endured. The fact that he could endure and trust God proves God's grace is at work.
To paraphrase verse 10, when he is weak in himself, then he is strong because of Christ. Now that is liberating. It is liberating. It is a relief. The world has too many strong men and self-sufficient women. In fact, the requirement to be strong in our culture is both a curse, and when it enters the church, heretical. It's built on the lie that we can cope in and of ourselves without God. God never created us to be strong without him. It's not how we were wired. It's not in the blueprint, it's not in the manual. Which is why he is still interested in us in our weakness.
The Spanish psychiatrist, Pablo Martinez, has said this: "God in his mysterious sovereignty uses vessels of clay, not of gold." That's the way he has always done it. You see, our humbled weakness may itself makes us the gift to the church God wants us to be, with the mask stripped away and the reality exposed. I've seen that when I've talked with friends, people going through difficult things. When I tell them that their minister is on antidepressant medication, boy, the floodgates open. It means they're not alone.
Isn't this ultimately what happens when any of us comes to Christ? Isn't this the gospel? For we always come to him in weakness, at the end of ourselves. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the Cross I cling. I cannot contrive forgiveness for my sin. I cannot make myself acceptable to God. I know, we know, we need his grace, to accept us he does in Christ. He is the God of compassion who comforts the downcast, who was wounded and suffered for us. He became weak that we might become strong. He became poor that we might become rich. He became sin that we might become righteous, right with him. For he truly is the wounded healer. His scars he wears for eternity. The Lamb that was slain who sits on the throne. And Christian ministry, when believers in Christ show Christ's love to anybody else at any point, it is always but a pale reflection of that love demonstrated, proved at the Cross.
Let me finish with William Cooper, and his description in his very long poem called The Task written in 1785. He describes his comfort from knowing Christ.
I was a stricken deer that left the herd long since. With many an arrow deep enfixed, my panting side was charged when I withdrew to seek a tranquil death in distant shades. There was I found by one who had himself been hurt by the archers. In his side he bore and in his hands and feet the cruel scars. With gentle force, soliciting the darts, he drew them forth and healed and bade me live.
Mark Meynell is Associate Director (Europe) for the Langham Preaching arm of Langham Partnership, having previously been a Senior Minister at All Souls Langham Place in London for nine years.