Out of the Depths I Cry to You
Turning to Psalms in Depression
The most recent time it happened, my children were clambering over a wooden playground structure reminiscent of a castle tucked into the woods. Their laughter spiraled skyward, mingling with towering oaks and pines, with lush foliage that shimmered gold and green against the summer blue. I breathed the scent of pine needles dried and baked in the sun, and I reveled in God’s workmanship.
Then, as dramatically as it had bloomed in my heart, the light vanished. Without warning, the rusted gears of a forgotten timepiece engaged, groaned, and clicked to a stop. A shadow descended, and like the emptying of a pool, all joy drained from within me.
I glanced around the playground. My kids still squealed and hurtled down slides, but the jewel tones that moments before had inspired awe from me suddenly lost their imprint. I searched the treetops, and my vision cobwebbed over. Movements felt heavy and sluggish, as if I flailed underwater. A familiar despondency seeped into my bones.
Oh no, I prayed. Please, Lord. Not again.
The Power of Depression
As a clinician, I know that a genetic legacy predisposes me to clinical depression. I understand that neurotransmitters, the clouds of molecules that hover within the synapses of my brain, balance off kilter, and disrupt the delicate translation of electricity into thought and feeling. I can recite mnemonics for you to diagnose the illness, and describe how medications keep symptoms at bay.
Such textbook details, however, do not capture the power of depression to drown us. While we all feel sad from time to time, depression drags its victims into a pervasive joylessness. Despair creeps into every moment, tarnishes the luster of things, and robs us of hope. The compulsion to cry lodges perpetually in the throat, but the relief of weeping never comes.
During such times, we require the message of God’s love and forgiveness more desperately than ever.
When We Cannot See God
As Christians, we delight in our salvation through Jesus’s sacrifice, but depression swallows up our very capacity to delight. The gospel may ring familiar, but we fear that grace has withered away, and that God has withdrawn from our reach. We may acknowledge the truth in Christ, but as gloom hollows out our hearts, we cannot feel it. We grapple in the dark, our hearts gilded with lead, and the enemy hisses into our ears, “God doesn’t love you. He’s forgotten you. You’re worthless. You don’t matter. Nothing matters.”
During such bleak seasons, when our minds twist and warp every good thing, we must bind ourselves to the truth that persists beyond our perception of it. As we seek out medical and counseling support, and as we struggle to complete the most mundane tasks, we may have little strength to pore through Scripture. Words fall limply like withered leaves upon our hearts. Yet when all seems lost, our one hope arises from the God who reigns irrespective of our understanding (Psalm 33:20).
When we cannot see God in our daily lives, we cling to the Bible for assurance of his steadfastness (Romans 15:4). When misery threatens to choke us, the Psalms offer light and air (Psalm 119:105).
Not Alone in the Darkness
The Psalms reassure us that those who know and love God also labor through seasons of despair. Even David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), whose youthful hand God steadied against a giant, cries out to the Lord from the depths (Psalm 13:1–2). “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate,” he laments in Psalm 38. “All the day I go about mourning. For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (Psalm 38:6–8).
Through such earnestness and imagery, the Psalms lend a voice to our own sufferings. When depression seizes us, we too may perceive our days “like an evening shadow,” and feel that we “wither away like grass” (Psalm 102:11). When cut off from the Father on the cross, Christ drew from Psalm 22 (Matthew 27:46). David grieves, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (Psalm 55:4–5).
Such verses echo the turmoil within us when depression obscures our identity in Christ. As we fumble through the shadows in search of God, the Psalms reassure us that even those dearest to him struggle through such seasons. Those who have known God, and who have loved him, have also drowned in anguish and cried out in longing for him. When we drift in the blackness, the Psalms guide us to pray, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1–2).
Assurance in God’s Character
As fear and desperation engulf us, the Psalms teach us to find solace in who God is. When the psalmists cannot discern God’s workmanship in their immediate circumstances, they run to the past: to creation, the exodus, and God’s covenant with Israel. Through such tangible remembrances of God’s steadfastness and goodness, the psalmists salvage light where otherwise they discern only emptiness.
Psalm 22 beautifully demonstrates this approach. After his initial cry to God in verses 1–2, David’s tone shifts from one of lamentation to faithfulness (Psalm 22:3–5). Similarly, in Psalm 77, Asaph cries aloud to God and despairs, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Psalm 77:9). Then, he looks to the past: “Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old” (Psalm 77:10–11). When Asaph cannot perceive a way forward, he leans upon the memory of God’s work in the past.
In this same vein, the Psalms instruct us to peer backward into our personal history with the Lord. Consider, for example, Psalm 71, which recalls a lifetime of dependence on God: “For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb” (Psalm 71:5–6).
Similarly, David repeatedly invokes memories when God intervened on his behalf in times of trouble (Psalm 18:6; 31:22; 40:1–2). When darkness clutches us, the Psalms urge us to clasp to the memories of God’s faithfulness in our own lives — the times when we have leaned on him, with nowhere else to turn, and like a patient father, he has answered.
In remembering God’s works for his people in Israel, as well as his providence in our own lives, we peer through the murk and envision who God is: our sovereign Lord, steadfast, loving, forgiving, faithful to all generations, a stronghold for the oppressed, our rock and fortress and deliverer (Psalm 9:9–10; 18:2; 36:5; 86:5; 100:5).
Looking Forward to God’s Promise
Throughout the psalms, hope in messianic salvation flanks remembrances of God’s character (Psalm 22:25–31; 27:14; 31:24; 33:20; 37:7). While we look backward to steady ourselves with the memory of God’s works, looking forward to the cross reveals his faithfulness and love manifest in Christ. When depression eclipses our hope, we wait for the Lord “more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). Breathlessly, bogged down in despair, we clasp to the promise that through the abundance of God’s steadfast love, in Christ, we will enter his house (Psalm 5:7).
While misery steals our voice and cripples our limbs, we cleave to the assurance of a new heaven and a new earth, when depression no longer darkens hearts. We wash ourselves in the hope of that day, when our hearts “shall rejoice in your salvation” (Psalm 13:5), when with clear eyes and uplifted minds, we will sing, “I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever. I will thank you forever, because you have done it” (Psalm 52:8–9).