Relying on God to carry the burden of depressionWritten by Paul Asay
What's inside this article
One Thanksgiving when I was a kid, my dad wanted to go for a walk through a vacant mile of scrub oak near my grandma’s house in Alamosa, Colorado. It was pretty cold outside, so my sister and I dutifully pulled on sweaters and hats and followed him into the winter air.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a landscape look quite so scrubby and lifeless. We trudged through thin brush under skeletal elms and cottonwoods. We poked through trash and explored the rusted ruins of an old construction project. And then my dad stopped and looked around.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said.
“Yeah,” Dad said. “Look at all these browns!”
I remained unimpressed. To me, beauty in nature meant green and lush. Or green, at least. Brown was the colour of dirt and grime, of dead leaves and other less pleasant things.
But there is real beauty in those browns. Not beautiful like a colourful rainforest or a snow-capped mountain, but a subtle beauty that is just as rich. Shades and textures blend like mellow rivers of honey and earth. You see the architecture of trees, the graceful brushstrokes of grass. It’s a beauty that doesn’t translate well into Instagram pics, but it imprints itself somewhere inside you.
I often think of that dreary landscape when I consider my journey through and the burden of depression. Look at all these browns! Isn’t it beautiful? My depression has helped me see the beauty in the browns of life.
Rediscovering the comforts
Anyone who’s ever dealt with depression knows how hard it is to be thankful about anything. Depression is a wet blanket. It constantly smothers us, making gratitude nearly impossible to reach.
And yet, I’m thankful for my depression.
There are caveats. My burden of depression isn’t as severe as what others might suffer. I’ve also learned ways to manage it – faith, prayer, an understanding wife and a regular run.
I’m also not saying I’ve ever enjoyed depression, that I miss the times when I’d lie around for weeks staring at nothing, feeling dead or wishing I was. Depression steals vibrancy from life, and as you crawl out of its smothering embrace, colour returns only slowly.
But if you look closely, you may start seeing the blessings that you’d never have seen without depression. You rediscover comfort. There was a time in my life when I stopped reading. I felt good about myself and didn’t need it. I rediscovered books when I needed them, in depression’s aftermath. Books now surround me like old friends. I know nothing about cooking, but one of my favourite things to do in the evening is flip on a cooking show and watch it with my wife, Wendy.
Today, when my daughter, Emily, and I run through the scrub, through yellowed grass and bare trees, I sometimes say, “Look at these browns!” Mimicking my dad, I suppose, but also mocking myself. “Isn’t it beautiful?” And we agree it is.
God’s quiet presence
God’s apparent silence during depression’s nightmarish introspection is horrific. But when I crawl free of the burden of depression, even partly, I see that some of the terrible elements I’ve experienced can mellow into possible virtues.
When I’m depressed, I obsess. When I’m not, depression gives me a better ability to reflect. When I’m depressed, I feel worthless. But then depression gives me a bit of humility and helps me be more realistic about my weaknesses. I’ve also learned the difference between loneliness and the quiet joy of being alone. What seems like God’s stony silence can actually be God’s quiet presence.
God, give me the strength to carry this burden. That’s my prayer these days. Not for God to wipe depression clean away from me and make me “normal.” I pray instead for the strength – if and when it comes back – to deal with it. Because, honestly, and with a deep sense of irony, I feel closer to God because of my depression.
It pushes me toward dependency. When I feel worthless and weak, I understand how much I must trust in him to carry me through. As Peter told Jesus, where else would I go? No one else can save me. No one else can make me feel whole. I have no other hope but in God and his strength.
A mysterious affliction
For a Christian, the burden of depression is a vexing mystery. Is it born of sin? Is it a lack of faith? And if it’s none of those things, what kind of God would have us be in this sort of pain and melancholy?
I’ve come to realize that sometimes pain is a gift, that sadness and even suffering can be a positive if they make us stronger or help us grow. Our awful, sorrowful hurt can also be an instrument of healing. When we suffer and still believe, when we doubt and yet hope, we help illustrate another side of the Christian journey, one not often publicized in chipper praise music or inspirational talks – a journey walked among the browns. The browns of life are easily overlooked. But they’re strong, gentle, warm.
I don’t know what depression is for me – a disease, a punishment, the “thorn in the flesh” the apostle Paul wrestled with (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). But I believe God works in my weakness. “His grace is sufficient.” When depression makes me feel empty, God can fill me with something better.
I have no real assurances that “I’m all better now.” Maybe depression never fully goes away. As much as running and writing and friends and family and God have helped me through the days and years to stay relatively sane and hopeful, I’ve learned that depression loves its little surprises.
But I’m not afraid of it. I’ve seen the face of depression. I’ve heard its lies and half-truths and nihilistic whispers. So I stare depression in the eye and live. Life is a gift – even when it doesn’t feel like it.
There’s so much of our stories left to live. So even in the emptiness, I choose to live.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, we encourage you to reach out for help. Our team of registered counsellors offers a free one-time phone consultation and can also refer you to a trusted counsellor in your area. Call us at 1.800.661.9800 Mondays to Fridays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or visit FocusOnTheFamily.ca/Counselling to learn more.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing countless movies and television shows. He’s also written for other publications including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today, and he has authored several books including God on the Streets of Gotham, which was borne out of his love for superheroes and finding spirituality in unexpected places. Paul and his wife, Wendy, have two grown children.
© 2021 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Adapted from the book How I Found Beauty in the Browns by Paul Asay, a Focus on the Family resource published by Tyndale House Publishing.
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