Wednesday, 20 July 2011

God, Depression & Suffering

I have suffered, I have had many bouts of severe depression, and I am a Christian.  How can we reconcile our, sometimes awful, suffering, with a loving and nurturing God?  Can we be critical of God, or is it, more than likely, that we just don’t understand the nature of suffering, and likewise we don’t understand the nature of God?  I certainly believe in life that so many of us go around not seeing and not hearing much of anything, even though the truth may be all around us.  We misinterpret, we half-read things, we believe something just because someone down the pub tells us, and then we wonder why we are confused, or we don’t seem to know or understand anything much!

It is true that suffering, all kinds of suffering, seems such a very large part of human life and experience.  No one escapes it, and regardless of how fortunate and affluent some may be, or alternatively seemingly unlucky and poor, we all at times suffer, for one reason or another.  In some cases, and for some people, suffering seems such a part of some people’s lives, that it is almost a part of them.  I can speak only for myself here, but when I was severely depressed, which has happened many times in my life, it seemed almost a part of my nature.  I now believe that I was mistaken in this; no suffering has to be endured lying down, so to speak. 

Some people might say, and honestly say, that if you are a Christian, why did God let you suffer?  It’s a fair question, and one that I will do the best to answer.  I don’t believe that any human, whoever he or she is, is immune from suffering.  We all suffer, for any number of reasons.  Some things we bring on ourselves, others we have no control over; a person loses their job, they feel down, they start drinking heavily, their life unravels, they lose any self-respect they might have once had, their marriage falters, and, suddenly they are almost a different person, in a lifestyle not of their choosing, and perhaps depressed as a result.  So, why have I suffered depression?  I believe, with hand on heart, that the beginnings of my depression started when I turned my back on God!  Yes, I know, if you don’t believe in God, that that answer seems a cop-out at best, and just nonsense at worst!  But hear me out; I don’t write this to win you over to God, and I don’t write this because I am trying to outdo atheists, but simply because I believe it to be the truth.  If you have a calling from God, it is irresistible.  In other words, if He wants you to become His, for whatever reason, you really don’t have a say in the matter!  I have learnt the hard way, even when I didn’t want to know God at all and tried to put Him ‘behind me’, that it is better to heed that calling!  If He created the whole universe, and everything in it, who are we to stand out from His call.  Anyway, I did, I was a rebel, like so many people in life can be.

I made my own problems then, and became depressed as a result.  I was, on and off, severely depressed for many years; I was in the wilderness.

We need goals in life, and we need a vision too.  Without a purpose, of some kind, humans stagnate.  And we should challenge the limitations that are set for us, whatever they are, sometimes unwritten limitations.  The Class system imposes division and unfairness on many people.  Likewise racism, and many other basically unjust systems that ‘function’ in the world; could that be dysfunction?  Is this why so many people in the world are dysfunctional?  Is there a better way than all the enforced animosity in the world between Black and White, rich and poor, West and East, North and South, Atheist and Christian, them and us?  Do we have to live in opposition to everything and each other?  Do we have to compete against everyone?  Or, is there another way?

The disparity in the earnings between those at the top like footballers, judges, actors and politicians to name but some, and the people at the bottom has got progressively wider over the last twenty or so years.  This creates a kind of yearning for those who are poor to get on in any way they can, to be rich themselves, with the accompanying chaos, envy and vicious competition that this creates.  Is this a good thing?  Shouldn’t we all aspire to better things?

What’s the point of being a Christian if you are just going to be like everyone else in the world?  Shouldn’t we challenge class systems, racism, injustice of all kinds and any form of intolerance?  And perhaps instead of pointing fingers at everyone else first, we could start with ourselves.

Sometimes life has no meaning, when bad people prosper and good people go to the wall, and we struggle to make sense of it all, all the injustices big and small and the unfairness in life too.  Seemingly also suffering can have little meaning either; we suffer, and that’s that.  Or is it?  For a Christian, suffering might be telling us something vital, even though we might fail spectacularly to see this.  I can speak for myself in this.  For years I was lost to depression and for a long time I didn’t ask God why.  Coming to terms with my depression meant coming to terms with God.  No suffering is ever easy to endure, but if you were like me and didn’t have God in your life as well, this obviously made it worse.  I can’t really say why I turned my back on God, it just sort of happened.  I had my spell of rebellion and my time languishing and drifting from here to there aimlessly in the wilderness, but thankfully those days are over now.  Of course, my life isn’t perfect now and I have my ups and downs like most everybody else, but the serious depression has gone for good; I just don’t suffer with it anymore.  I attribute this to getting my priorities in life right; God is at the centre of my life, where He is very much meant to be.  Also, I am more moderate in my activities, I drink but never now to excess, I don’t smoke, I don’t abuse illegal drugs of any kind, and perhaps as importantly I am now realistically positive rather than unrealistically negative.  I was so very negative when I was depressed, as I think so many people can be when they suffer with depression.

I believe the harshness and injustice of the Class system in Britain can be, to some degree anyway, a reason why many people in life don’t have goals and a genuine purpose in life, why they might drift, and this ultimately impacts negatively on a person’s life.  Of course, I am not saying this is so in every case, we are all individuals after all, but that in general such division can by default create injustice.  It is obvious that in virtually every society in the world that there will be an elite of some kind, that is probably wealthier and more powerful in any number of ways than the majority of people perceived to be at the bottom.  I don’t think that is going to change any time soon, but the question begging to be asked is, if we benefit unfairly at someone else’s expense are we adding to this injustice?  For a Christian this is a very pertinent question.  If we help continue or create any kind of injustice, I believe sooner or later, God will bring us to task; in short He will very probably punish us for such things.  Not everyone of course who might be wealthy or even politically, or in any other way, powerful is creating problems for other people and I believe it is quite possible to be wealthy and powerful and still be a good Christian.  But history, even very recent history, has taught us that now and again some wealthy and powerful people can act unjustly and corruptly.

I believe that in some cases that the unfairness of many societies obviously impacts on many people within those societies and does help create a climate of double-standards that leads to people being side-lined and in some cases creating the basis for illness and depression that some people suffer with.  That illness or depression can then have serious ramifications for a person’s wellbeing, their life chances, their outlook on life, their relationships with other people, their marital relationship, their chances of getting work, and so many other things which can be affected.  Depression does have a way of impacting very negatively on a person’s life; I can speak of this only too well.  Saying that society creates depression because of its double-standards is perhaps too simplistic.  I think that depression of itself can have a number of causal reasons, and some of these might be very personal reasons pertaining to a specific individual.  And just what is depression?  That’s another question entirely.

Then we come to the most important question; what is God’s answer to depression?  I personally don’t think God wants anyone to suffer in any way, but the stark fact is that all human beings do suffer, some terribly, some moderately and some mildly.  But the one fact we can’t get away from is that humans suffer, in all kinds of ways and for all kind of reasons, and for perhaps seemingly no discernible reason at all.  We can suffer because we feel let down by life in some way or are frustrated with our progress in life, for whatever reason.  There may in fact be myriad reasons why any particular individual does suffer.  But we suffer, and we don’t want to!  The Bible talks about peace, peace pure and simple; and most of us fall so far short of that peace that it seems laughable.  I believe God’s answer to the worst kind of depression is ultimately the only answer, the only real solution to the problem.  If He created us, then He knows us more than we know ourselves.  Asking God to help us with depression is the beginning of a journey, the beginning of a process that starts with our submission to Him and helps us to understand Him and our place in the universe, just who we are, what we are about, and why we might suffer.

So what is depression then?  I have come to believe that serious depression, that which affects a person on a profound and life-changing level, is no mere illness like a common cold, or like a sprained ankle, or anything which has a simple solution.  For me, depression can be a spiritual malaise, that might ultimately require a loving Creator to put right, along with getting our priorities right in life.  For Christians, that means putting God first and very much at the centre of our lives, and asking Him quite simply to heal us.  God has the power to heal us, but we must work with Him too.  What has taken us years to get into may not be cured overnight.  It is, I have found, a process, which will probably take time.

So, the reality of life is that we suffer, but God can aid us in our quest not to suffer, and in so many other ways too.  

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