When Frozen first came out, “Let It Go” became a rallying crying for a lot of the moms I know that struggle with perinatal mood disorders. I think the reason this movie did so well is because no matter who you are, we *all* struggle with some kind of shameful secret to which we can all sing with Elsa, “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.” The song encouraged all of us to let go of that “perfect girl” (or in our case, supermom) and learn to stand in the light of day no matter the storm inside.
It’s too bad that depression isn’t a cool superpower, though.
Or is it?
Do you ever have those moments where your entire reality suddenly shifts, and now nothing looked the same as it did before?
I am in the process of birthing such a paradigm shift right now, and it’s a doozy.
I’ve been frustrated lately with my continued struggle with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which—in laymen’s terms—means PMS from hell. Instead of your average PMS that is made up of some irritability and mood swings, I face a full blown depressive episode laced with intrusive (sometimes suicidal) thoughts that lasts for about three to five days and then disappears as quickly as its onset. One day I am fine, the next I struggle to care for myself or my kids, and a few days later I am completely fine again.
I couldn’t seem to figure out what God is “doing” with this PMDD thing. I think I understand some of God’s purposes behind my previous major depressive episodes and can see the fruit that they bear—the growth of my faith and my character, the life-long friends I’ve made, the strength of my marriage, etc.—but what is the point of being too depressed to function for a couple of days a month, EVERY month?
Every month I try to outsmart it. Maybe if I exercise more or eat better or take more vitamins or sleep more or pray more or get my thought life under control, maybe this month will be different. Maybe this month I will finally figure out the key to beating this thing once and for all.
And every month stays the same.
So what do I do with this?
Enter Matt Chandler, who had this little gem tucked into a sermon of his: “There are times that difficulties aren’t there to be solved but are there as a measure of God’s grace.”
I can’t even link to the sermon that came from, because I have no idea now. All I know is the second I heard him say this, I paused the video, wrote that down, and collapsed onto my kitchen floor and sobbed. (It was during those three to five days, okay?)
During those days, it doesn’t feel like grace; it feels like torment.
I have always viewed my PMDD as a thorn in my side, something that I continually plead for God to take away just like Paul:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10)
We love this passage. It makes us feel good. It reminds us that God’s grace will carry us through whatever is burdening us and that He will be our strength when we feel weak. All good things. I need to remember these things.
But look at the reason Paul gives as to why he has a thorn in his side: “to keep me from becoming conceited.”
“There are times that difficulties aren’t there to be solved but are there as a measure of God’s grace.”
So then, is not the thorn itself a measure of God’s grace too? Is God turning the tables by using what in Satan’s hand is a tool of torment but in God’s hand is a tool for grace and growth, just like Job? It’s all grace! It’s grace that gave me the thorn, and it is grace that will give me the strength to carry on with the thorn still embedded in my flesh. One that may never be removed, and indeed, it would not be to my benefit to have it removed!
There is the paradigm shift: what if it is better for me to continue to have PMDD every month than to conquer it?
Is it time to stop fighting my depression but instead to work with it?
The more I treat depression as something to be conquered or overcome, the more I fight, struggle, and resist it like an enemy, the more pervasive it becomes. The more I loathe and despise and fight it, the more I loathe and despise and fight that part of who I am. Is it time to stop wrestling it into submission but rest in acceptance that this is a measure of God’s grace and an essential quality to my person?
Depression, like whatever Paul’s thorn was, most definitely keeps me from becoming conceited. Its pressure exposes my brokenness, my dark places, my doubts, and my insecurities. It keeps me humble and dependent on Him. It reminds me just how poor and needy I am and requires me to constantly stare my sin in the face.
But it does more than that. As I see my sins laid bare, I can work to excavate them. The hard work and struggle strengthens me for spiritual battle, building my endurance and growing my character. It leads to compassion, empathy, humility, and a nurturing spirit I otherwise might not cultivate on my own.
It is a painful process to dig up and cut out the bad so that the good may flourish, but a very necessary and very beneficial process that I would be remiss to prevent. C.S. Lewis agrees in A Grief Observed:
Suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us?
Nothing less will shake a man—or at any rate a man like me—out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses.
If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards…. [God] always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down….
A measure of God’s grace. A painful one—to watch all you’ve built come crashing down—but gracious nonetheless.
The problem is I keep trying to rebuild my house of cards. As soon as my depression lifts, I get to work rebuilding it almost immediately.
If my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better.
In my case, the sooner—and more often—it is knocked down the better. So, how does once a month sound?
Paul Miller in A Praying Life might call this process of knocking down our house of cards “life in the desert:”
The desert is that middle ground between hope and reality, where you try to hold onto hope for something different yet facing the reality of the same. Every part of your being wants to close the gap between hope and reality. We will do anything not to live in the desert.
God takes everyone he loves through a desert, customizing it for each of us. It is his cure for our wandering hearts, restlessly searching for a new Eden.
There we slowly give up the fight. Our wills are broken by the reality of our circumstances. The things that brought us life gradually die. Our idols die for lack of food.
The still, dry air of the desert brings the sense of helplessness that is so crucial to the spirit of prayer. You come face-to-face with your inability to live, to have joy, to do anything of lasting worth. Life is crushing you.
Suffering burns away the false selves created by cynicism or pride or lust. You stop caring what other people think of you. The desert is God’s best hope for the creation of an authentic self.
Desert life sanctifies you. You have no idea you are changing. You simply notice after you’ve been in the desert awhile that you are different. Things that used to be important no longer matter…
After a while you notice your real thirsts. While in the desert David writes, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; My soul thirsts for you; My flesh faints for you, As in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)
The desert becomes a window to the heart of God. He finally gets your attention because he’s the only game in town.
You cry out to God so long and so often that a channel begins to open up between you and God…. The clear, fresh water of God’s presence that you discover in the desert becomes a well inside of your own heart.
God uses the desert to humble us, to make us more like his Son, to save us, to wake us up spiritually, to call us back to himself when our hearts bend away from God. In the desert I can no longer do life on my own. I need Jesus to get from one end of the day to the other. I ask for a loaf of bread, and instead of giving me a stone, my Father will spread a feast for me in the wilderness.
Psalm 23 says that God prepares that feast for us in the presence of the enemy. Satan met Jesus in the desert. So what is Satan’s role in all this then? I used to blame him for my PMDD, and perhaps he still is to blame, “a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” But now I see God’s grace in it too, and if this is God’s tool to sanctify me to Himself and make me holy, of course Satan will do everything in his power to do the opposite. I am more vulnerable to spiritual attack when I am weak and weary.
The temptation is to respond to the crushing weight of depression in sinful ways. I don’t think the depressed thoughts and feelings—like hunger and thirst—are sinful in and of themselves, but how I respond to them can be.
So what does it look like to honor God when I am in that place? I guess I don’t really know yet. I just know that every month I get another chance to figure out how to “do” depression in a way that honors God better than I did last month.
I don’t think it means pretending I don’t feel the way I do. I think it is okay to lean into those feelings, as long as I lean into them with the purpose of pushing them before the Throne of God. I think it is okay for me to rest on those days, to lower my expectations and shrink my to-do list accordingly, and to simply sit at God’s feet and just be. To weep if I must weep, to groan under the weight of the darkness.
But here is where Satan lies in wait. I think he tempts me to make my groaning something more sinister. As Kevin DeYoung posted on Facebook recently:
A groan is one thing, a grumble is another. A groan says, “Oh God, this is really hard.” A grumble says, “Oh God, you are really hard.” A groan says, “Oh Lord, I would like something different.” A grumble says, “Oh Lord, I wish you were someone different.” Do you see the difference? The Bible isn’t against groaning, but it is against grumbling.
So what is the antidote to grumbling? Kevin again to the rescue:
God anticipates and even welcomes a godly groan, but to prevent that groan from becoming a grumble means to remember all that God has done for you in Christ and all that he has promised to you in Christ.
In other words, gratitude. To flee from Satan’s temptation to grumble, find gratitude even in the groaning. Gratitude, I’ve been learning, is a cornerstone of Christian maturity:
Gratitude is the ultimate virtue, undergirding everything else, even love. It is synonymous with holiness. Gratitude not only defines sanctity, it also defines maturity and is the ultimate fuel for generativity. We are mature to the degree that we are grateful…. The real task of life then is to recognize that everything is a gift and we need to keep saying thanks over and over again for all the things in life that we take so much for granted. (Sacred Fire,p. 244, 249)
It’s funny, gratitude is the anecdote to grumbling in the midst of depression, and at the same time, gratitude is also a byproduct of depression after it lifts. That, without a doubt, is one of the ways that depression is good for me: gratitude. When I have spent so much of my time lost in a world that is flat and gray or altogether drowning in a sea of blackness, when I finally emerge from that darkness I can see the colors of life in a way that I think those who do not suffer from depression cannot. It is as if I have put my glasses back on after losing them for a while; I can see colors and details that I couldn’t see before, and as a result I do NOT take them for granted as easily as someone who has always had 20/20 vision.
I think those who suffer from depression have a certain kind of depth to their lives that many others do not. (Though perhaps this depth is something in common with all of those who have drunk deep from the cup of suffering.) I don’t mean that to be an insult, as if I consider those who don’t suffer from depression to be shallow. I just think life is simpler for those who have not tasted this kind of darkness. I often envy that simplicity, to be frank. I see the way my husband Chris dances through life and rolls with the punches like it’s no big thing. His lows are definitely not as low as mine. I do think, however, that his highs might not be as high as mine as a result. I do think this is one of the best gifts of depression. The cost is very steep; don’t get me wrong. Those valleys are very far down and very dark. But the deeper and darker the valley, the more spectacular the view from the uppermost peaks.
Is this not exactly the way of the gospel? Jesus had to pass through the darkness of Gethsemane and Good Friday first, for if he had not, there would be no Easter?
And so, every month I die a little more to myself. It’s painful. Pruning always is. But it is so necessary to remove the dead parts in my heart to cultivate even more growth. Perhaps by leaning into this pruning process little by little each month, I won’t have to uproot the entire tree and start over as often. What if it really is the best thing for me? I have the opportunity to take down the cards one at a time as quickly as I start setting them up again. What a tremendous measure of God’s grace!
What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord…. When they walk through the Valley of Weeping, it will become a place of refreshing springs. The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings. They will continue to grow stronger, and each of them will appear before God. (Ps 84:5-7, NLT)
You know, maybe depression is my superpower. It is the power of God in me, because it keeps me relying on His power. His power is made perfect in weakness. For me, His power is made perfect in my depression.