Who wins the shouting matches that go on inside your head?
We often split ourselves into two sides that we call good and bad. For the Christian, that’s Spirit and flesh, respectively. We like to think that every thought that we’d call “good” comes from the new man. And vice versa – anything that seems less than pious just must be the hoarse, dying gasp of the flesh.
Many (if not most) sermons and Bible studies promote thinking in these simple terms. Think this, and stop thinking that. Read this book, and ignore that one. Listen to this preacher, follow this dogma, accept these people. But not those.
When it comes to questions of life and godliness, we are heavily inclined to follow that approach: find the right thing, and do it. Figure out the wrong thing, and stop it. We have this concept in culture of an angel on one shoulder, with a devil on the other. We like to think it’s pretty clear which one is which. In fact, we’ll pride ourselves on being able to tell with absolute certainty.
But simple breaks down when you step into the fog. And much more when the majority of your days are spent probing its misty depths. Living in the margin of mental health and wellness means those lines are not so clear-cut. Attempts at discernment often lead to frustration. But when we've spent a lifetime learning one way of doing spirituality, let alone mental wellness, it can be difficult to imagine another approach.
Let’s explore an example: let’s say you’ve been feeling useless for weeks. You have this line of thought circulating in your head: “I am taking away far more than I put in. My efforts at things I’ve wanted to accomplish – they’re all falling on their faces. I have a list of things to do that just gets longer every single day. The energy isn’t there. When I feel like doing anything, what I need to use seems to be broken, and I end up spending all my time trying to make it work.”
Now, that may not be a constant stream of thought. Instead, it just comes in bits of pieces, piercing through the general noise of life. But these little thoughts ring clear among all that noise. We hear them well in our own minds, and we call them "intrusive" thoughts. Distinct from the things we keep telling ourselves to try to silence them, these are the thoughts that really feel like they are true.
When you start putting it in spiritual terms (because spirituality is a normal area of life for depression to affect), a more dire tone comes out: “I never seem to feel God. My Bible reading is dry (if I do it at all), and my prayers don’t seem to get answered. I go to church, and I seem to be the only one in the room who doesn’t get it. I know I’m going to stand before God someday, and I wouldn’t blame him if he had some really harsh words for me. I don’t seem to have anything to contribute to the church, or to offer any of my friends when they’re struggling.”
So where do you go from there? The danger I see in today’s church is, if someone is brave enough to give these feelings a voice, they’re often summarily dismissed. I get it – we don’t want to leave someone there. We have heard many testimonies from those whose depression and anxiety were solved when they focused more on Jesus.
But as many as we have heard, there are many more we have not heard – precisely because the depression and anxiety are still there. They persist month after month, year after year. Are these souls simply weak? They often feel like they are, which is one vein that leads to that feeling of uselessness.
Perhaps we could employ the angel-on-the-shoulder technique. “Feeling useless is what the devil would have you feel. You are not – you are valuable. You need to be spending your time finding that value that you can provide to the church, to your family, and to others. Staying in this funk is a waste of time.”
In fact, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a prominent 20th-century Welsh preacher, wrote a book about spiritual depression, called (wait for it) "Spiritual Depression." In it, he argued first and foremost that we listen to ourselves too often, when we ought to be speaking or preaching to ourselves instead. There is a certain concept of "taking every thought captive" here, where we are encouraged to put intrusive thoughts away, silence them, quarantine them, and deny them a voice.
Have you tried talking to yourself that way before? If so, does it work? In my experience, ultimately, it does not. And I believe my experience is shared by many others. In fact, it has the opposite effect to make the suffering soul feel more anxious.
We feel, after all, that we only have one life to live. If we’re wasting time in this funk, we are robbing the Lord of value that we can never repay. So by just being in this fog, we end up not just feeling useless – our existence here has been detrimental to those around us.
We can apply all of our energy to fight these undercurrents in our souls. But at some point, we are exhausted, and we can't do it anymore. We fear what happens then - what deeper darkness will happen on us when we have no more to give? How long will it take to recharge, and what will be left?
More than that, though. We've put down a rational thought version of where these intrusive thoughts come from. But really, they often well up from far, far deeper in our souls and minds, from our most basic neural pathways we employ to interpret the world around us. And those basic pathways are oriented such that we feel intrinsically less-than.
That’s what we hear in the fog. Voices try to encourage us to snap out of it, but they have a certain mist about them. It’s hard to figure out which voice is good or bad. We want to make the feeling go away, so we’re all prepped and ready to do spiritual surgery on ourselves. But is that really going to help? Or will we simply create more wounds in the process?
The idea that life is a zero-sum game leads to a lot of dark places in the fog. We already feel less-than, and then we add in the pressure to "win" at life. In reality, we have to realize that feeling useless does not make us more or less valuable. We learn that feelings are a barometer that helps us understand how our bodies and minds are reacting to life, but that barometer may be broken in some ways.
Taking off that pressure to win allows us to use a more dialogical approach - that is, we talk "with" ourselves instead of "at" ourselves. We don't have to maintain a consistent tirade within ourselves. I mean, doing that would just reinforce the same less-than tendencies we're trying to fix.
Our ability (or lack thereof) to make ourselves feel any certain way – that doesn’t make us valuable to the world, to the church, or to ourselves. So instead of just calling the feeling and the thoughts evil, maybe consider that the beginning of the conversation. The conversation where we aren’t losing anything by allowing that voice to say a few things and maybe get a glimpse of where we have wounds in our souls.
Some things we are probably able to explore by ourselves. Keep in mind that the deeper the wound, the more helpful it can be to have an understanding shoulder to lean on, whether that’s a skilled therapist or a perceptive friend.
Instead of going for that shouting match in our heads, we can simply say, “It is finished.” In Christ's presence, we can patiently allow the Spirit to move in our hearts and minds, and trust that our present condition thankfully does not represent our eternal reality.