Category Archives: Despair

Finding hope in a hopeless world


The world has always been falling apart. Well, at least since Genesis 3. But there are times when we are far more aware of just how busted up we are in this world. This is one of those times. Those of us who work in the social services get a front-row seat at seeing individual, family, community, and society level brokenness.

Frankly, this vantage point tempts me to become cynical, skeptical, and in despair. Listen in on some of the thoughts we Christian counselors might have: people don’t change; leaders serve themselves; God doesn’t care… Out of this experiences, counselors may find themselves becoming complacent, settling for palliative care only (vs. recovery), or worse, using clients to sate their own appetites.

So, where do you find hope in an otherwise hopeless world?

Cynicism and skepticism illustrate conclusions we have made about our world. file-nov-28-5-16-13-pmThey illustrate that we have stopped looking for other data. Consider instead these three activities as a reminder and cultivator of the hope available to us:

  1. Waiting and lamenting. I’ve written on this quite a bit over the years. This post was my most recent, but this one and this one may be of use as well. You might wonder whether lamenting leads to more cynicism. But notice that the goal is to actively wait on God for an answer. When we lament in front of God we talk to him about the state of our soul or the state of the world. Waiting requires that we prepare to listen to God’s heart on these same things.
  2. Waiting and looking. This is the season of Advent, of remembering the birth of Jesus, the messiah. †Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist had stopped looking for God to show up. Who can blame him, God hadn’t seemed to show up for a mere 400 years or so. It took being struck silent by an angelic messenger to wake him from his disbelief. Where are you no longer looking for God’s hand in your life? In the world? Look to your present. Ask your friends to tell you where they notice God’s activity. Look to your future, imagine yourself as a child waiting eagerly for Christmas morning. Be like that child and keep talking to God, “Is it Christmas yet?” Look even to the past. See what God has done in your life in the past and let that remind you that he is at work in your present and future. Read Hebrews 11 as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to his people.
  3. Waiting and loving. While we wait, we are not passive! We move and act in love, even when it seems the good we do will not change the outcome. That loving may be acts of palliative care, or it may be an act of planting a dormant seed that one day springs to life and full bloom. This act of loving others grows out of Jeremiah’s lament (Lam 3:21f): because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed. Therefore we recognize that our minuscule capacity to love, to care, even to call others to repentance are all signposts of God’s ongoing love for his people.

Is it crazy to hope in this world? Absolutely. But the signs of birth are around you if you look. Notice in Luke 1 how Zechariah sings of present-tense salvation and redemption, even though Jesus is merely in utero. How much more ought we to be able to hope as we live in the age of the Resurrection.†

†I got these ideas from a sermon preached by Marc Davis on 11/27/16.

 

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Filed under Advent, Biblical Reflection, Despair, suffering, Uncategorized

The cure for mental weariness?


Check out this thought by George Matheson, a blind 19th c. Scottish Presbyterian minister:

What a strange cure for mental weariness…I should have expected an invitation to mental rest….The weariness of the body is cured by slumber, but the weariness of the mind can be cured only by stimulus.

He said this as he was meditating on Hebrews 12:3 (Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart). He suggests that an active meditational life on the work of Jesus will help promote rest and protect from mental weariness.

Quote found in Leaves for Quiet Hours, p. 141 (1904)

[reblogged; first published 2/8/07]

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Filed under Depression, Despair, Great Quotes

When all you see is brokenness…what then? A thought from Jeremiah 29


As a counselor and a Christian it is easy to see that the world is breaking. Suicides. Shootings. Affairs. Cancer. Addiction. Corporate Greed. Abuse. In addition, we hear about

  • Christian leaders who either perpetrate abuse or fail to protect when they hear of it
  • rampant immorality
  • political corruption

When we face these kinds of things, it is easy to fall into one of two unhelpful patterns. For some of us, we fight. We try harder. We attack others with sarcasm. We lay blame at the feet of others. While fighting harder to correct injustice is a good thing; while pointing out blame where it should lie is not a bad thing, the pattern of fighting may reveal a dangerous value system: if I can control my little corner of the world, things will get better. Sometimes this is true but most of the time, the “getting better” motif is an illusion. The wrong kind of fighting usually leads to embitterment.

Others of us choose a pattern of giving up.We stop trying to make a difference because it won’t. We turn down the volume on suffering. We avoid others who are obviously suffering. We move towards embittered discontentment. Now, it is not wrong to turn off the 24/7 “news” and to not read up on every tragedy. It is good not to fill our brains only with brokenness. But, giving up can sometimes lead to lamenting that the “good ole days” were better.

Enter the Prophet Jeremiah

In chapter 29, he writes to those who are experiencing brokenness. Israel is no more. A mass of Jews have been carried off into captivity. They live in a land that is not theirs as foreigners and likely without rights, privilege or land. They have lost connection with the promised land, with family, with language, with custom. Around them would be idol worshippers and a society not built on the Torah. There are some individuals who have been prophesying that in 3 years they will return home to Israel in triumph.

Jeremiah says, “Not so fast. No, you guys will die in captivity.” Well, no, he doesn’t exactly say that. He says it will be 70 years and then you (meaning your children and/or grandchildren) will get to return to the Land.

Nice. Jeremiah responds to their suffering and says, “Yup, it’s bad. And it is going to stay that way.”

But read on because he tells them God has a message for them to hear: (in Phil’s loose translation)

Obey me [the Lord, not Jeremiah]. Because I love you dearly, I will protect your soul. I will be blessing you even though there are dire consequences happening to you. Here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Look for the blessings I am sending you NOW. Don’t overlook them. They are really there for you to find.
  2. Live holy lives, not out of fear, but in confidence that I am keeping my promises to raise of a kingdom for my people.
  3. Live. Don’t put your life on hold. Build houses. Plant gardens. Harvest. Marry. Have kids. Help your kids get married. Enjoy your grandchildren. Be present and rooted where you are at. Live. Enjoy it.

Notice that to live, you have to move, act, have impact, even as you are accepting that you cannot avoid the consequences of living in a fallen world. I think this can be helpful for us in a season of much brokenness. Without denying the suffering that is everywhere, we can also choose to notice the little and the big blessings. We can simplify our lives to, “What do you want me to do today?” We can be mindful of the small activities of life. The grocery store is drudgery. Laundry is never-ending. And yet, we have the opportunity to act in our world and to pray for the peace of the city (as Jeremiah gives encouragement to do).

Maybe your joy is pretty tiny these days. That is okay. Just find it and savor it as a gift from God for the few minutes you have. Not all is broken. In a few days, hours, years, God will indeed put all to rights. Every heartache will become untrue. Still, even now, hang on to the signs of life and growth.

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Filed under Biblical Reflection, Christianity, Depression, Despair, Meditations, suffering

Suicide assessment mistakes


Yesterday’s post was about suicide. Counselors sometimes fail to adequately evaluate suicidal ideation, plan, or intent in their counselees. Some years ago, I ran across a research study looking at the most common mistakes made by 215 masters level counselors when dealing with suicidal clients. I’ve lost the bibliographic data for the article and couldn’t find it easily in Psychlit…

Here are some of the mistakes (in no particular order):

  • Superficial reassurance (“you have so much to live for”
  • Avoidance of strong emotions (not allowing client to express strong despair–usually with first bullet point)
  • Professionalism (cold and distant, possibly seen as uncaring in assessment)
  • Inadequate assessment (failure to explore fully because of nervousness or fear of asking)
  • Failure to identify precipitating causes (most suicides have both current and historical precipitating events. Counselors may identify historic event (e.g., divorce 4 years ago) but miss the current precipitant.)
  • Passivity; failure to be empathic (25% took this stance)
  • Insufficient directness. No contract to not harm, no next steps
  • Overbearing advice. Counselee needs to be involved in the planning for safety
  • Stereotyping response (“She’s just a borderline!”)
  • Defensiveness (usually about whether hospitalization is necessary)

Every counselor worries about how they will perform when addressing the serious problem of suicide risk assessment. We do well to review (a) our natural inclinations when stressed (e.g., do we tighten up, become over-controlling, too professional?), (b) our standard of practice when confronted with despairing or suicidal clients, and (c) our assessment procedures with all clients. While there is no way to prevent the suicides of highly motivated people, we can increase our capacity to respond well to those the Lord sends our way.

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Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Depression, Despair, ethics, Psychology, Uncategorized

Belief in a loving God and Depression?


Thanks to a friend’s sharp eyes, I learned of this news release from Rush University Medical Center:

Research suggests that religious belief can help protect against symptoms of depression, but a study at Rush University Medical Center goes one step further.

In patients diagnosed with clinical depression, belief in a concerned God can improve response to medical treatment, according to a paper in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

The release goes on to say that the positive benefit did not stem from hope but in belief in a caring God. What it doesn’t say is whether or not those NOT taking medications get positive benefit from a belief in a caring God.

What do you make of this? Should we get excited when research confirms our established beliefs? Should we look for alternative explanations? I would be curious how they separated hope and belief. Hope and belief that God is active and looking out for you probably encourages you to look for and remember evidence! The more you look for the evidence the more you practice being mindful of something bigger than your despair.

What is your reaction?

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Chronic pain and the Christian faith


Last night’s Counseling & Physiology class covered the topic of chronic pain. There are a number of syndromes and disorders that cluster around pain as the presenting problem: Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Osteoarthritis, back pain, etc. Depending on which research study you read, some 9-17% of the population struggles with some form of chronic pain.

While these various forms of pain are quite different, there are some commonalities. Chronic and diffuse pain sufferers frequently experience some form of inflammation, fatigue, sleep disruption, negative mood, and poor memory (its hard to pay attention to new information when you are weighed down by pain). We don’t really know what causes what but we do know that these symptoms form a vicious cycle. If you don’t get restorative sleep, you experience more fatigue, you are more prone to negative thought patterns, your pain levels go up, memory goes down…and thus you don’t sleep well the next night, and so on. Researchers describe this vicious cycle in terms of “allostatic load”–the deleterious effects of chronic stress hormones without restorative sleep.

Because of the diffuse nature of pain (vs. focal) and the lack of obvious objective evidence of that pain (a big red spot, a swollen limb, etc.), chronic pain sufferers and their families struggle to understand whether or not the pain is real and what they are truly capable of doing. How do you measure pain levels? It’s pretty subjective! Thus, it encourages more “I should be able to…” thinking in all parties. Those not suffering chronic pain do more damage by implying that the person is just looking for attention, is just being lazy. Those suffering pain who either deny the pain and try to do too much or refuse to engage the world and withdraw from it do damage to themselves–real physical damage.

As with all physiological problems, one’s mood, one’s perceptions, one’s focus, one’s stress levels impact severity of the problem. While chronic pain is not just in one’s head, how one responds to chronic pain may help alleviate or elevate the pain sensations. Ironically, many pain sufferers resist counseling because they fear that others will believe that their symptoms are all in their head. Those who refuse to acknowledge the psychological factors in pain sensation and management miss out on important means to cope with the pain and to lower pain perceptions.

Chronic pain sufferers must accept the need to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate more rest. They must fight to get the best restorative sleep possible. These are probably their primary practical responses–even above medical treatments (and I’m not knocking medical treatments nor saying that just getting sleep will solve the problem).

One of the biggest challenges for pain sufferers is the matter of hope and faith. When we suffer problems, we often hope they will go away. And when they do not, or only get marginally better, it is easy to slide into despair. Despair usually is the result of things not going the way we hoped or expected they would. Part of dealing with chronic pain is grieving what is lost in order to accept–even enjoy–what strength and health we do have. Without hope, we lose what self-efficacy we once had, thus not doing the basic care-taking activities within our grasp. Interestingly, one of the clearest signs of this struggle is the massive dropouts in pain management research. Frequently, dropouts number about 50% in these studies. This means that before a study gets too far along many are dropping out because they assume the new treatment isn’t going work.

Faith is not that things will go my way right now but that God is in control, cares/protects me, and is working for my ultimate redemption–even when the opposite seems to be true. Faith is acting in a manner consistent with said assumptions even while grieving over real losses. Such faith enables us to be mindful of our thoughts so that we do not practice into beliefs counter to what we have come to know as true.

The chronic pain sufferer who grieves well (asks God for relief, stays in community with others, seeks relief through human means yet has an attitude of waiting on the Lord, and yet still willing to explore and confront hidden sin in self) begins to see that in the midst of the pain, God is there and providing momentary help. Such a person need not act as if the pain were nothing but will look for and rejoice in 5% improvement, 10% more comfort, etc, rather than demanding complete healing as the determinant as to whether God is present with them in their distress.

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Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, Despair, Mindfulness, suffering

What discourages you?


Spoke today to a group of pastors about encouragement and discouragement in their ministries and lives. Generally speaking, our levels of either fluctuate with our expectations crashing into reality. When things go as we hoped, we feel encouraged. When they don’t for periods of time, we get discouraged.

What discourages pastors? Many struggle with knowing just how to evaluate their work. Since the work is never done and there is always more to do (another complaining friend, another couple to counsel, another program to oversee, another small group to visit), the temptation is to fall back on some unhelpful measuring sticks and either try to do more than one should or give up and withdraw.

My view is that while our circumstances give ample opportunity to deflate us, discouragement is much less the result of our circumstances and much more the result of unmet desires and expectations. Haven’t you have had the experience where something went badly but since you had no significant expectations for anything better, you weren’t all that discouraged by it? Our problem is that we look to the wrong things to encourage us. We look to successes in ministry, in work, in marriage, in parenting, in whatever we do. And the absence deflates us and tempts us to either get angry or quit.

Among the passages we looked at were:

1. Phil. 2: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, then…” Many are familiar with this passage because of Paul’s exhortation to set aside our own agenda and to follow the example of Christ–sacrificially serving others. And many admonish us to take to heart what it is this passage calls us to do. But, what is the engine that drives us? Encouragement. Where does that come from? See v. 21 of the previous passage: “It has been granted you to believe….” Encouragement comes from remembering the work of Christ NOT from our success in ministry.

2. Heb. 12:5. This passage starts out with a “therefore” as well. Remembering all the saints before us and their faithfulness, we are called to “run the race” and “throw off everything that hinders us.” We are to leave sinfulness behind. But such a task wearies us. Verse 3 tells us that spiritual weariness is not fixed by numbing ourselves with food, sex, TV, etc, but by “considering Christ” and his endurance. The the author knows that to kill the flesh we have to fight to the point of what feels like bloodletting. But in verse 5 he tells us to take courage because God is disciplining us. Huh? Did you ever take courage when your father or mother disciplined you? I didn’t. But Hebrews is telling us that one of our sources of encouragement is that God is treating us as family and so he lovingly disciplines and refines us. 

Bottom line, our encouragement comes from remembering that God is at work in our lives even if we cannot see it. Now, encouragement may come in the form of being able to quote Ps 88 which communicates much faithful despair. 

One more point. We ought to differentiate between discouragement and grief or sadness, or frustration, or confusion. These are not the same. It is possible to be dismal about the outcome but having courage to keep going. Courage and action are more likely signs of encouragement than anything else.

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Filed under Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, Despair, pastors and pastoring

CS Lewis on suffering from your suffering


Read this helpful quote from my Aug. 1 daily reading from CS Lewis (from his Grief Observed):

Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer.

I didn’t write the whole quote down but he said something like, the problem with lying awake at night with a toothache is that you are thinking about the fact that you are lying awake all night with a toothache.

Isn’t this so true. We suffer not only from the present pain but also from our inability to distract or think thoughts other than reminding ourselves that we are in present pain.

Is it possible to forget the present pain (or depression, anxiety, etc.)? No. I don’t think so. Nor should we seek to forget altogether. And yet, we can find bits of respite where the pain moves from the front of our consciousness to the back. It is at those times we find rest. Some seem more capable to move the pain to the back burner. And this can be healthy, as long as it doesn’t lead to denial.

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Spurgeon on depression


A couple of times a year Diane Langberg invites one of her pastors to come and minister to us at staff meeting. It is always a rich time. Last week, Greg MacDougall talked to us about some of Spurgeon’s thoughts on depression. He summarized a chapter from Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students. Gotta love the chapter title: “The Minister’s fainting fits.” As Greg said, “No, this isn’t about histrionic ministers, though someone should probably write about that, its about why we find ourselves in despair, what occasions our depression, and the lesson from it” (I’m paraphrasing Greg here from memory). By the way, I think we could replace “depressed” with anxious, and tempted towards addictions in what is written below.

So, here are some of Spurgeon’s points.

1. Why do we get depressed?

  • Duh, we’re human. No, he didn’t say, “duh” but we are sons and daughters of Adam and so we know suffering and brokenness.
  • We all have physical and mental infirmities. “Certain bodily maladies, especially those connected with the digestive organs…Are the fruitful fountains of despondency….As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane?
  • The work of christian ministry encourages us to despair when we see sinners sinning all the more boldly
  • The Christian leader is somewhat lonely by position
  • “Sedentary habits have a tendency to create despondency in some constitutions.” Studying, reading, etc. He suggests “stiff walk in the wind’s face, would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.”

2. When are we likely to get depressed?

  • Right after a great success, after a “cherished desire is fulfilled.”
  • Before a great achievement (when we may be tempted to give up)
  • “In the midst of a long stretch of unbroken labour…” we wear out and despair
  • When we are betrayed by a beloved
  • When troubles abound
  • For unknown reasons. This must not be forgotten. Many depressions may not have a discernible cause. What we do with them is more of the issue. “Causeless depression is not to be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings….One affords himself no pity when in this case, because it seems so unreasonable, and even sinful to be troubled without manifest cause; and yet troubled the man is…”

3. The Lesson:“be not dismayed by soul-trouble.” “Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not his saint. Live by the day–ay, by the hour. Put no trust in frames and feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement….Be not surprised when friends fail you: it is a failing world….Between this and heaven there may be rougher weather yet, but it is all provided for by our covenant Head….Come fair or come foul…be it ours, when we cannot see the face of our God, to trust under the shadow of his wings.”

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Talking back to your depression


I think Martyn Lloyd-Jones gets it right when he tells his readers (Spiritual Depression, pp 20-21) to take charge of their thinking by talking back to their feelings rather than passively listening to their own feelings. In many respects, this is what the author of Psalm 42/3 is doing. This is good medicine, if taken on one’s own. Probably not so good if forced down the throat of another… Continue reading

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