What is depression and how does it differ from sadness? How can sufferers, friends, and churches respond to those facing depression?
We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about Mental Illness and Depression, something that is all too common in our community. We’ve talked about what Depression is, what causes it, and a bit of what it’s like to live with it. Last week we talked about the stigma of depression and how hard it is to be honest with people – even in the church – about what you are going through.
But if there’s one thing I want to make clear today it’s that Jesus knows what you are going through. A couple weeks ago I said that it’s possible that Jesus Himself faced true depression and I want to take a little time today to explain how important that truth is.
In Hebrews 4:14-16 we read this:
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Many people who are going through a time of suffering and pain have a hard time praying. They feel like their prayers bounce off the ceiling, that there’s no way that God can understand what they are going through, and if He does, that He doesn’t care. Those are natural feelings that the Bible spends a lot of time arguing against.
The argument in this passage is that when we are in a “time of need”, what we really need is to “receive mercy and find grace to help”. No one would argue that. When we go through hard times, that’s what we want – mercy, grace and help. But where are we encouraged to turn to? “The throne of grace.” What is that? God’s throne. Before that throne stands a High Priest, a mediator, a go-between, between us broken, human sinners and the Perfectly Holy Creator of the Universe.
This is a big deal. We can’t come to God on our own because our sin prevents us. If we saw God, we’d die. We need someone who can talk to God, and who God will listen to. Who is that? Jesus. Jesus lived a perfect life, never sinned, and therefore can stand in the presence of God. And so He has promised to be our mediator, our facilitator, between us and God.
But there’s still a problem. How can Jesus know what we’re going through? He’s Jesus, after all! He’s God’s Son, a perfect person from two thousand years ago. How can He relate to what we’re going through? It was the same with the Old Testament priests. They lived a totally different life than the average person, so how could they pray for anyone? They don’t know what we’re going through!
Scripture says, “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” The teaching here is that Jesus actually knows exactly what we’re going through, has faced that same problem, that same temptation, that same situation, and yet navigated it perfectly. He literally knows how we feel, what thoughts are racing through our heads, and what it’s like to live surrounded by sin while living in this failing, human flesh. He gets it. He knows what it’s like to face what we are facing.
And to illustrate that today, I would like you to turn with me to Luke 4:1-13.
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”
And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
Before we get into taking this passage apart, I want to talk briefly about the nature of temptation.
If you’ve ever worked with addictions then you’ve probably heard of the acronym H.A.L.T., standing for Hungry, Angry, Lonely & Tired, and is a tool meant to help people recognize when they are at their most vulnerable so they won’t relapse. The Christmas Season is a major problem time for a lot of people with addictions, and is similarly a peak-time for spiritual troubles and temptations.
The first letter stands for Hungry. If you’re pinching pennies but are used to spending, or trying to stop the habits of sugar or alcohol by dieting, then you are going to feel hungry. It’s not just food though. It’s about something within you being drawn towards something. You have a craving, a hunger.
The next letter stands for Angry. If you’ve had some bad experiences over the holidays, or you’re back at work and people around you are grumpy, or you’ve been putting things off and need to catch up and it’s not going well, then you could be feeling angry. When we get angry we are more likely to go to our vices to gain control.
The L stands for Lonely. Maybe you had some wonderful times with your family over the holidays but now they’re gone and you feel lonely. Feeling alone can drive us to do foolish, dangerous things just to distract us from our loneliness.
The next letter stands for Tired. The dark and cold, the freezing rain, shoveling, and all Christmas shopping, planning and preparation, the long hours of partying, and then having to get back to work, can leave a person pretty tired.
And that’s just post-holiday stuff. Many of us have other stresses and issues in our lives that have been going on for a longer time and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of relief in sight. Plus some have pre-existing mental and physical conditions that leave you open to feeling miserable even on good days. There are lots of times that we feel extra hungry, angry, lonely and tired.
When those triggers occur, and it all starts to pile on, we tend to be much more open to falling for temptation. These times are when Satan really likes to turn up the heat. It is during Jesus’ weakest time, during His 40 day fast in the desert, that Satan piled on the temptations (Matthew 4:1-11). 1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Do lions take on the biggest and strongest prey? No. They pick off the weak ones because they are easier. As Jesus said to His friends, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38)
Turn there with me to James 1:14-15 and let’s talk a little about what temptation is and how it leads to sin. It says this: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Breaking this down simply, we read three important things. First, temptation has to do with “enticement” and “desire”. I enjoy fishing and it is absolutely true that you cannot catch all fish with the same bait. Some like worms, some like spoons and spinners, others want it to float at the top of the water or sink to the bottom. You change the bait depending on the fish you want to catch.
Similarly, though temptation is universal (1 Cor 10:13) different people have different desires. Not everyone is tempted towards the same things. When stress or fear or longing or hunger or anger or loneliness – or whatever trigger – comes, we all turn to different things for comfort. Christians are taught to turn to Jesus, and most believers do, but we also often find ourselves turning to other things as well – either instead of or along with, Jesus.
Some turn to material things, using shopping as their comforter, while others turn to alcohol or drugs, coffee, food or sugar. Some turn to wrath, yelling and controlling behaviour as they shout out their injustices and try to take control from God, while others push people away, putting on the headphones, wallowing in their mood, growing more fearful or bitter. Some turn to books, movies or video games, distracting themselves with entertainment, while others turn to pornography and sex for instant distraction and gratification. Some turn to gossip and slander, knocking others down so they can feel better, while others prefer lying about their emotions by pushing the bad feelings down and pretending everything is ok.
We all have these desires within us, and these desires make up our temptations. They are, in a very real sense, our ‘functional saviours’ that replace Jesus as our “go to” for protection, comfort, help, and hope. They don’t work, and often make things worse, but we still go to them.
So that’s the first part, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire”. Here’s the thing: These desires aren’t always sinful. Technically, deep down, those desires are universal and given by God to be best fulfilled in Jesus. We don’t want alcohol, food, bitterness, video games or porn –we want to feel safer, happier, comforted, but those sins are a quick fix.
Which brings us to the second part. Next it says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin…”. Having desires isn’t sin. Sin is part of a process. When the desire stops being for the good God has for us and moves to formulating the plan of how to get what God wants us to have without Him, we sin. When plan to and then turn to someone or something other than God – where it is a fantasy in our heads or a chemical in our veins – we are sinning and causing ourselves spiritual damage.
Here’s how it works: Something happens and we are hit with the desire for love, comfort, protection, safety, fulfilment – and then God offers us Himself as the answer. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) And we say “No, that takes too long, that’s not how we want to do it, you’re not doing it my way.” And we turn away from Him and come up with a plan for how to get our desire fulfilled without Him. That is sin.
And as it says at the end of the verse, “…and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” When we turn away from the Author of Life and try to find what we want outside of Him and His plan, we are walking the path of death, which is why we feel worse after we have done it. Sure, sinning works for a moment, but when our head clears, and we can hear our God-given conscience again, we feel guilt, shame, fear, dread…. which awakens a desire for peace, comfort, safety, which leads to a new temptation – a new opportunity to turn back to God, or try again with our sin. And the cycle continues.
With that all in mind, let’s turn back to our passage in Luke about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and take it apart a bit so we can see how He really does know what it’s like to walk in our shoes – so to speak.
Sent By His Father
The first thing I want to notice is that Jesus was sent into a time of suffering and temptation by God the Father. If we back up the timeline a bit to what was happening just before the temptation in the wilderness we find ourselves at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. It says in Luke 3:21-22:
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
Fast forward to Luke 4:1-2 and we read:
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.”
After the wonderful, peaceful, riverside moment where the whole Trinity is present, full of loving, affirming words – Jesus was sent into one of the most difficult times of His life. The same story in Mark 1:12 says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” It’s the same word as when Jesus “drove out” the merchants in the temple (Mt 21:12), or when Jesus was forcibly driven out of his home town so they could throw Him off a cliff (Lk 4:29). This was God’s idea, and there was no choice in the matter. WHAM! Sudden suffering.
People with depression know this feeling, as do many of us who have been through difficult times. It comes out of nowhere, unprompted, and unasked for. One day you’re having a good day by the river, and the next you are starving alone in a wilderness, surrounded by darkness, dread, the snarling of wild animals (1:13), and non-stop evil voices. Jesus knows how that feels.
Jesus Was Weak
Next I want you to notice that Jesus was weak. He was in the desert wilderness alone for over a month. He ate nothing and was hungry. He had no special clothing to protect him on cold nights, and nothing to sleep on. The ground was hard, rocky and hilly, the sand blowing in his eyes. Hungry, lonely, tired… for sure. And not for one night, not for a week, but for over a month. And not just natural problems to battle, but also spiritual ones. The word “tempted” indicates that the temptation from Satan was continual, unceasing, night and day. The three temptations were just a final culmination, the last stabs, of Jesus’ terrible time.
Jesus knows what it is like to be weak.
Let’s turn our attention to the attacks. First, we see Satan attack Jesus’ identity and mission. The words of His Father, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”, may have seemed pretty far away after a few weeks in that demonic wilderness.
And so Satan attacks Jesus’ identity – who Jesus is. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” (Lk 4:3). Jesus, you are crazy to think you are the Son of God. You’re just a man. You’re not who you say you are. You’re not even who you think you are. You’re a fraud, a fake, a fool. Do something to prove to who you really are. Prove it. Do something to remind you of the good old days when you had everything. Do something so you can feel good, feel important, feel better, feel powerful…
Then the devil used his hunger against Him. God had sent Him there on a mission to combat Satan and Jesus would need all of His spiritual strength. One way humans concentrate on spiritual things is by fasting – removing the distraction of worldly things so we can concentrate on spiritual things. This is what Jesus was doing. Satan knows this and wants it to stop. He says: “Don’t you want something to eat? The road is long and hard and you are hungry. There’s no law against bread. Just this once, just for now, no one will see. Tell your spirit to be quiet and give in to your body’s cravings. It’ll help you. I promise. Since your body wants it, you have a craving, a desire, why not? It’s just a bit of bread. You have the ability to do it, you’re alone, I won’t tell anyone. Actually it’s really Your Father’s fault for putting you in this situation. You deserve bread. You wouldn’t be hungry if it wasn’t for Him and this messed up world. Use your power for yourself. Be selfish.”
Jesus knows what it is like to have your body work against you, to be hungry, to hear a thousand excuses as to why you should tell God to get lost and just give in to the thing that you know will fill the void for a moment.
Attacked His Mission
Next Satan attacks Jesus’ because He’s tired. He attacks His mission.:
“And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’” Aren’t you tired of this fight? Don’t you wish there was an easier way? Don’t you wish you could just give up? God’s way is too hard, it doesn’t make sense, it is just plain cruel. I’m giving you the easy way, the right way. Why suffer needlessly? I can give you what you want. You don’t have to do all the hard work, Jesus. You don’t have to spend years being attacked, misunderstood, mistreated, and suffering. You don’t have to wander lonely places, gather slow-witted followers just to have them turn on you and leave you to be arrested, falsely accused, and then murdered in the most brutal way humans have ever come up with. Why go through all that? I’ll give you the easy way out. I’ll give you everything you want, all the whole world, for free… just bend your knee a little. Just say that I win and I’ll make you a king under my command. Give up. Say it’s too much. Tell God His way is unfair, too hard, and bow to me.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to just want to quit, to be so exhausted you just want to take the easy way out. He knows what it’s like to wonder about the plan of God and to look at a hard life of discipline, and to have Satan offer an easier alternative.
Attacked His Theology
Next Satan attacks Jesus relationship with God. Verse 9:
“And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Satan can quote scripture better than anyone, and knows how to twist it. He can misinterpret God’s Word, spin it to his own ends, and seek to convince people that God has said something He has not and permits something he has forbidden. He is a liar, the father of lies, and lies are his native language (Jn 8:44). This is why we need to work so hard to interpret it correctly, because when we are weak, Satan will throw all kinds of half-truths, mixed up verses, and out of context scripture, to help convince us to do his will instead of God’s. He’ll even use well-meaning, but biblically illiterate Christians, to give you good-sounding advice.
Jesus knows what it’s like to be surrounded by liars who can quote religious language and Bible verses, but who are only trying to lead you away from God.
Attacked His Trust in God
Along with this came the temptation to stop trusting God. He says: “How can you trust a God who would put you through this, Jesus? Maybe He’s left you? Maybe you’re on your own. Look around. You are alone. And look at those people down there. Here you are, the Creator of the Universe, the Son of God, and they don’t even know who you are, and you know it’s only going to get worse. They don’t love you – and I don’t think God loves you either. How could He? He sent you to this miserable wilderness alone, with no food, no water, no help, no clothes, no nothing – so that you could take me on! No warning, no help, no nothing. That’s unfair.
I know how hard this is for you. I know how badly you want to quit, even now, and you haven’t even hardly gotten started yet! I’ve got years to hurt you, your family, your friends, your followers, and then I get to turn the whole world against you. I have years left to make your life hell.
It’s not my fault though. I’m just doing my job. It was God who put you here in your weakest state, and then invited me to come and attack you non-stop. He delivered you into my hands! What kind of Father does that? He doesn’t love you.
You know what you should do? You should do something to force Him to prove that He cares. You should do something drastic and dramatic that makes everyone take notice. You should make God prove He loves you, force Him to do something. Make Him fulfill His promises to you. You should try to kill yourself. You should jump off this building and make God catch you. Then everyone will know how much pain you are in. Then, if God really wants to save you, He’ll be forced to intervene or let you die and bring you to heaven – either way you win.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to think like this – and so do many people who go through depression. I’ve been down this road and thought these same things. It’s exhausting.
As much as it pains me to do it, we need to leave it there for this week. Next week I want to look at how Jesus dealt with these temptations, and how He faced the symptoms of depression.
But for this week, I want you to know one thing: Jesus knows how you feel and what it’s like to go through what you are going through. I may not know exactly what you are facing, but Jesus knows every detail, and has been there. He’s lost friends, been betrayed, been hurt, angry, broken, and in physical pain. He’s lived without money or a home, been attacked by enemies, prevented from sleep, and attacked by demonic forces.
My hope for you today is that knowing this will spur you to have new and deeper conversations with Jesus in prayer, knowing He can sympathize with you – that He loves you and has experienced your pain, and is experiencing it even now. He is not a far away God, but one who knows your very heart, and has been touched by it.
Pray to Him as a friend, as a brother, as a kindred spirit, a fellow sufferer, who offers you real help and real hope, because He’s been where you are, has achieved victory over it, and offers to teach you how.
*Sorry, no audio.
Tattoos & Human Branding
I don’t have any tattoos, but I know lots of people who do – and a few that don’t have one yet but want one. As far as the Bible goes, there’s no problem with getting or having a tattoo, so long as it’s not done in as part of a pagan religious ceremony (Lev 19:28) or done in a prideful way, to show off and attract attention to your body (1 Peter 3:3-4). If you can do it in a tasteful, humble way, is profitable and helpful, that honours your body as God’s temple, and is an act of worship that brings glory Him glory, then go for it! (Eph 5:4 Col 3:8; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 10:23, 31)
As funny as some of these are, I want to take a minute to use it as an illustration. All of the people we saw in those pictures made the choice – however misguided that choice may have been – to go and get their bodies marked, but human branding has been around for a long time.
People would brand their slaves as their own property, brand thieves, brawlers or other undesirables with letters on their skin marking their crime. The practice even occurs a few times in the Bible. God marked Cain so people wouldn’t kill him (Gen 4). Ezekiel had a vision of men dressed in linen walking through a town destined for destruction marking the people who lamented their sins so they would not be destroyed (Exe 9:4). In Revelation it speaks of two different marks, those marked by God for salvation and those who take the Mark of the Beast (Rev 7:3; 13:16-17). Paul speaks of the scars on his body, from beatings, stonings and lashings as marks that point to his faith in Jesus (Gal 6:17). And it was seeing the marks in His hands side that brought doubting Thomas to faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 20:27).
The marks of Jesus are often called the “Stigmata”, from which we get the term “stigma”. Last week we spent some time looking at a biblical view of depression. It was by no means comprehensive, but I think we covered some of the basics, and I hope it was helpful to you. I was surprised how much feedback from last week’s message, both locally and after I posted it on the internet. I got hits and messages from all over North America. I even received an email from someone in Mexico.
The comment I heard repeated most often, including from my new friend in Monterey, revolved around stigma. Multiple people thanked me for simply not making them feel badly about struggling with depression or mental illness. Being a person suffering from mental illness like depression is bad enough, more than a few Christians I know have recently admitted some bad stories about letting people at church know about their struggles, and then having that knowledge used against them.
They come to their friend, their church, their family, to share a small part of one of their deepest struggles – that for a long time they have been in a daily battle against their own brain, that has made them feel anxious, sad, fearful, hopeless, and like an utter failure – and instead of getting love, acceptance, support, and prayer – they get stigmatized, branded, tattooed with a label. Most often in the church, that label is “Lazy” or “Faithless”.
Instead of coming alongside this person and patiently bearing their burdens with them, they accuse them of not having enough faith, not praying enough, not reading the bible enough, not understanding enough theology, not worshipping enough. They throw out quick answers like, “Have you done your devos? Reading the Bible and praying always cheers me right up!” or “You should listen to more worship music.” or “You need to stop drinking coffee, you’re your vitamins and do some exercise, and then you’d be happy.”
The implication to those quick answers is that the person’s problem is their fault – as though this was something they chose, or there’s something they are not doing that if they would just do, then their sickness would go away. That’s a ridiculous notion that we would never apply to any other sickness, would we?
I don’t intend to repeat last week’s message about the importance of realizing that they are suffering from a mental illness, meaning that they are literally sick, and that part of their body is broken (their brain chemistry) and outside of their control. And I don’t intend to try to convince you how bad it is by telling you a bunch of horror stories from my life or anyone else’s – please just believe me that however bad you think it is to be clinically depressed or suffer from mental illness, the reality is that it’s probably worse. But after hearing from more than a few people relate stories of how much pain they have been caused by people in the church, and saying that they are literally afraid of telling other Christians about their struggles, I feel there’s a couple topics we need to cover.
People Usually Fear / Hate Sickness
Today I want to talk about how God uses sickness and suffering for our good and His glory. Essentially, what we’re talking about is a building a theology of sickness.
People who are sick are often treated very badly by their fellow man. Maybe it comes from our inherent fear of death, so we distance ourselves physically and emotionally from anyone who is suffering. Maybe it comes from our belief that all suffering and sickness is bad, and therefore we need to avoid it at all costs. Maybe it comes from thinking that anyone who is sick or suffering is being punished by God, or has lost faith, and therefore we need to stay away while God deals with them. Whatever the case, being sick, whether with a mental or physical illness, has often come with stigma – they are marked as outsiders and shunned.
Even though the Old Testament is full of commands to care for the poor and be merciful to the suffering (Deut 15:11; Micah 6:8), and they did have medicine and physicians (Job 13:4; 1 Chron 16:12; Jer 6:22) it was often believed that anyone with any kind of handicap, from birth defects to blindness to leprosy to the flu to losing life or limb in an accident, was being punished by God for their sins, and was therefore shunned from the community.
From ancient times until today one way that societies have dealt with their weak and sick is to lock them away, forget them, or simply kill them – and this is on both ends of the spectrum. In some ancient cultures, if a baby had any kind of defect at all, it was policy to leave it out in the open until it died so that it’s weakness wouldn’t impact the family or the nation. In some cultures today girls are seen as weaker than boys, so they murder baby girls in favour of having more boys.
Since we have the technology to look inside the uterus before the baby is born doctors can diagnose all kinds issues a baby might have. Most of these issues are non-life threatening and are very treatable, but often end in abortion. For example, the rate of Downs Syndrome children has rapidly declined these days, not because there are less of them, but because they are murdered before they are ever born.
In the proudly liberal United Kingdom, famous for their open-mindedness and tolerance, they have a law that says you can abort a “disabled child” up to the day it’s born. Because the term “disabled” isn’t defined well, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of women have aborted their baby because it had a cleft lip. Why? Because people hate, shun, stigmatize, and reject sickness.
And we do it on the other end of the spectrum too as we take the sick and the elderly, push them out of our society, remove them from our media, lock them away in homes to forget about them, charge them enormous fees to care for them, and then, when they are rejected and alone, and feel like a burden to everyone around them, the lawmakers, doctors and insurance companies offer them euthanasia (Greek for or “The Good Death”). Like Coke, Pepsi or Nike, they find a young, pretty spokesmodels like Brittany Maynard to be their advocate and make suicide seem like a wonderful thing that everyone should consider, and then do what they can to eliminate other options.
One recent example of this comes from the story of Stephanie Packer, a mother of four who lives in California which recently legalized doctor assisted suicide. She has an auto immune disease that forms scar tissue on her lungs which makes it hard to breathe. She was told she wouldn’t live until age 32, but she’s already a year past that. She’s been in treatment for a long time, but when her doctors switched her expensive chemotherapy drugs, her insurance company informed her that they refused to pay for them. She then asked if they would cover the cost of the drugs that would put her to death. They said yes, and that it would only cost her $1.20. The same thing happened to a 64-year-old woman in Oregon who was given the choice between paying for a $4000/month drug to help her get better, or a $50 drug that would kill her.
Humanity hates and fears weakness, sickness, and death, and we will do everything we can to remove it from our minds, hearts, homes, and country. Christians need to be better, but too often we’re not. Instead, we, in our own ways, mark those who are sick, hurting, or weak, as undesirable outcasts that need to be treated by specialists, and only hang out with people who are strong, helpful, and that contribute to our wellbeing.
Think about it. I’ve heard so many times that people want friends that will help them grow, a church where they will be fed, spouses and partners and friends that will strengthen them – but they never, ever, ever mean someone that is sick or hurting. They always mean that they want to find someone who is strong, smart, and healthy, that will build them up. They never meant that they want to be surrounded by people that are sick, weak, afraid, confused, struggling, and in constant need.
But let me tell you the God’s honest truth. The place your faith will grow most, where you will be challenged most, where you will be tried, tested and refined most – is among the lust, hurting, and sick.
I hear Christians ask all the time about how they grow more spiritual, get closer to God, deepen their prayer life, learn more about the faith, be more dependent on scripture, hear the Holy Spirit, and become more like Jesus – and that’s a good thing. But the answer isn’t just “read your bible, pray every day”, avoid bad things, and you’ll grow, grow, grow. No, what will really, truly cause you to become desperate for the presence of God is to come face to face with weakness.
Sickness as a Gift
The Bible says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6) and one way we become more humble, and thereby gain more grace, is to be faced with sickness – in ourselves or someone else.
- Physical, emotional and mental weakness will stop you in your tracks and force you to evaluate your life and faith.
- Whether you are the one who is ill or the one facing the illness, it will test the strength of your marriage, your friendships, and the bonds of your church and family.
- It will require you to admit you have problems and that you need help, opening up your heart to the ability not only to admit physical and mental problems but ultimately spiritual ones.
- It will force you to stop depending on yourself and humbly accept the help of God and others.
- It will force you to see your own weakness, and even your own mortality, and realize your time on earth is short.
- And it gives others an opportunity to care for you, thereby helping them grow.
- It will cause you to talk to God in ways you never have before– whether in anger, sadness, fear, or faith.
When you or someone you love is in pain your prayers get a lot less general. Gone are your prayers for a nice meal, a happy life, and to bless everyone around you –because now you realize what it means to come to God and say:
“Father in heaven. Hallowed be your name.
Bring your kingdom soon, because I hate this world full of sin and death.
May your will be done, because I am utterly at a loss for what to do.
Give me this day my daily bread, because I am weak, tired, and all of my energy is spent – I need a miracle of provision from you if I’m going to make it through this day.
Forgive me my sins, because I realize now how worldly I have been and how much I have sinned against others who just needed my love and comfort. How I wish I had been more merciful to them, because I could use their mercy now!
Help me to forgive those who have sinned against me, because people are saying and doing so many stupid, selfish things to me and the one I love, and I don’t need any more bitterness in my heart, God. I don’t have the time or energy to argue. I just need to find a place to know your life.
God, lead me not into temptation – because I’m tempted to give up, tempted to quit, tempted to go to evil places for a moment’s comfort, tempted to lash out at the one I’m supposed to be caring for and the ones that are caring for me, tempted to push people away, tempted to stop worshipping, stop praying, stop asking for help. God I’m so very tempted.
I need you to deliver me from evil, because all the time I can feel the presence of the evil one around me, and as I battle this illness on so many fronts – I need your spiritual protection so there’s at least one battle I don’t need to fight because you are doing it for me. Protect me, God.
I recognize yours is the kingdom, and I am but a humble citizen.
I recognize that yours is the power, because I feel so powerless.
And yours is the glory, so help me to somehow bring you glory in this as you make me more fit for your kingdom.
Forever and ever, even now, even in this time, even as terrible as this feels today – amen, so be it, I relent, I give it all to you.”
In Sickness You Meet Jesus
To my fellow Christians, I remind you that it is when you are face to face with the weak, the sick, and the poor – which includes those who suffer with depression – that you are closest to Jesus, and have the greatest opportunity to bless him. Turn with me to Matthew 25:31-46 and consider the words of Jesus:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We will not be saved because of our compassion and mercy towards those brothers and sisters who are hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned, but we will do it because we are saved. Listen carefully: Your understanding of your salvation and all that Jesus has done for you is demonstrated in how you treat those around you, especially those who are difficult – like the sick, the poor, the estranged, or your enemies.
A Christian understands from what they have been delivered. They know that in the eyes of a perfect God they were deplorable, wretched, sinners, enemies of God. Before we are saved by Jesus, the Bible says we have all the attraction and benefit of a rotten, stinking, enemy corpse (Isaiah 64:6; Eph 2:1-3). Humanity became sick with sin and succumbed to it completely. Jesus didn’t come to meet us in hospital room, or our deathbed, he came to our grave. We have the smell of death and rotten deeds all about us – as unattractive as possible – and yet, though there was not anything good about us, God sent His only Son to take the punishment for our sin so we could be reborn as one of His people (John 3:16; Eph 2:4-5).
He stepped into a land of madness, sickness, death, betrayal, and hatred – a world completely bent away from Him – and stayed out of love. We insulted Him, He healed our wounds. We hated Him, and He exercised our demons. We broke every law He gave us, used the body He gave us for sin, rejected the prophets He sent us, corrupted the Word He spoke to us. He wept over us, prayed for us, fed us, calmed our storms, took the cross for us, sent us His Holy Spirit, and invited us to be part of His family. And even though we continue to get it wrong, sin like crazy, spit in his face, refuse to listen, obey, pray or do what He asks, even though we keep erecting idols in our hearts – He keeps walking with us, forgiving us, helping us, sitting with us, weeping with us, mourning with us, and reminding us of why we can still have hope.
We are never more like Jesus, and we never see Jesus more, than when we are serving, helping, and loving people who are suffering – and that includes people who are facing depression and mental illness.
Next week I hope to give some practical tools, but I that’s where I want to leave it this week. But let me challenge you to some reflection:
First, is there anyone in your life that you have stigmatized, marked as an untouchable because they are too weak, sick, sad, or frustrating? Has God called you to serve someone, visit them, feed them, help them, welcome them, clothe them, but you have said no, because like the pagan world around you, you don’t want to, are too lazy, too afraid to be touched by weakness, sickness and death? I beg you to repent. Ask forgiveness of those you have marked as outcasts because of your own selfishness, fear and sin, and then go and be Jesus to them – and meet Jesus in them.
And second, to those who have been marked by sin, who bear the scars of depression, anxiety, sickness and pain. I challenge you to change your perspective on your suffering to see that you are not being punished, and God has not left you. You have been given to your church and your family as a gift by which we are able to see Jesus. You have been given something that forces you to grow closer to Jesus, to depend more on Him, and to have a greater faith than many people will ever experience – if you allow it to drive you to Jesus and not from Him.
Consider how you can say the words of 1 Corinthians 12:9-10, which have been echoed by so many faithful believers throughout the centuries: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Well, we took down the Christmas decorations at home this week. No more tree, lights, or socks on the wall (nothing says Christmas like decorating the wall with fancy socks you’ll never wear, right?). The socks have been replaced with our standard portrait, the tree has been boxed up and the furniture rearranged so that you’d never know it was there. Some of the stores are hanging in there though. I went out a few days ago and still saw some snowflakes and poinsettias around, but they’re likely to come down soon too. All the special holiday food has been eaten and we’re back on the normal meal plan – and maybe even less than that as we try to shed some of the celebratory pounds. I know a few of us had birthdays in the last few weeks – I had my 39th this week – so that means no more presents for almost a whole year.
I think we had a really good Christmas season together this year, but sadly, as Chaucer said, “all good things must come to an end.” I’m not sure if you feel it, but January is actually a difficult month for a lot of people. In fact, the third Monday of January, this year the 16th, is sometimes called “Blue Monday” and is considered by some to be the most depressing day of the year. One newspaper I read this week called January “nothing but a 31-day chasm of despair.”[i]
I did some digging around for actual experts and statistics to support the idea of blue Monday and found it been largely debunked, but there are a few correlations that make January seem a little worse, making Blue Monday at least relatable.
The weather is often cold and dark, which contributes to some people’s Seasonal Affective Disorder[ii]. Family has all gone home and the Christmas buzz is over, so we start to feel lonely. And if there was unresolved drama during the visits, those thoughts come crashing back at us when they leave. The credit card bills come due. By the third week of January we’ve likely already given up our New Year’s Resolutions and feel like failures.
This can be an especially dangerous time for people who are already suffering with depression, anxiety, or other metal illnesses because it compounds their struggles. When Christians talk about this sort of thing, we try to see it from a biblical perspective, and part of that is to realize that as the world around us seems to turn against us, and the bad feelings start to rise, so do temptations.
Now, with that as the introduction, let me pause for a second: I was really torn about this message this morning. Part of me wanted to get back into 1st Corinthians, but I felt strongly that I needed to share this sermon as a warning and an encouragement about the present or coming season of depression that you may be facing. Times like this bring a lot of spiritual dangers.
Not everyone here will go through this, but everyone, because we are a family, will be affected. I’ll go even further to state that no everyone here will even understand what it’s like to go through a season of depression – even though they or someone they know has.
It’s not an easy thing to deal with, believe me I know. I’ve struggled with different forms of depression for a long time, and they are hard on everyone. While you may not fully understand it, and a few of you may be in denial about it, I think most people here know what I’m talking about.
What I want to do this morning is to help you understand depression from a biblical perspective, and hopefully give you a few tools to combat it, because these depressive episodes are going to bring about all manner of dangerous temptations that have the potential to lead you into spiritual dangers, and I don’t want that for you, your family, or the church.
Two qualifications before we start, though: First, books upon books have been written about this topic, so this is going to be exceptionally abbreviated. And second, I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist, so I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have studied and experienced some of this, so I do think I have a bit of a handle on it.
So, as your pastor, here are a few things I want you to know about depression and how you can face it as a Christian:
Two Kinds of Depression
The first thing I want you to know about depression is that it comes in a variety of forms, but you can lump their causes into two broad categories: things that happen inside you and things that happen to you.
On one hand you have the depression that happens because of things happening inside of you. Major, chronic, and persistent depression, bipolar, postpartum, premenstrual syndrome, hormonal changes in men, etc. are all examples of depressions that happen regardless of your circumstances. You could have the best week ever, with sunshine, a perfect diet, great exercise, get a million dollars, and a promotion at work, and still feel terrible. And it’s because the chemicals in your brain and body are working against you.
Regardless of how great everything is going, you feel like you’re looking at life through dark sunglasses, wearing your itchiest pants, with a 50 pound weight around your neck, and headphones on with a negative voice that is stuck on repeat that keeps telling you how bad things are. It’s a terrible feeling, and it’s horribly guilt producing, because you want to feel good, you kind of know things aren’t so bad, but you still feel horrible.
These types of depression are often life-long struggles which require not only spiritual and relational help, but also professional therapy and medical interventions.
The second type of depression comes from outside you. Examples of this are Seasonal Affective Disorder where the lack of sunlight causes you to feel miserable, or ‘Situational Depression’ where you face extra stresses or troubles in your life like stress, sickness, big transitions, failure, or death, and it taxes your system and puts you into a depression.
Sadness vs Depression
Now, just to clarify, I’m not talking about “sadness”. There’s a huge difference between sadness and depression, and unfortunately we’ve lost some of the nuance as we’ve used these words interchangeably. Some people who are sad think they are depressed, while others who are chronically, medically, depressed sometimes mistake it for sadness – and are sometimes treated by those around them as though their medical illness is a temporary sadness – and that’s not good. Everyone gets sad at times, but not everyone will face depression.
The easiest way to understand the difference between sadness and depression is that sadness is triggered by difficult event and you feel sad about it. Sadness requires something to have happened. You are sad about something – that you lost the game, failed the test, broke your arm, that your friend died, that you lost your job, or someone stole your favourite thing. Sadness gets easier over time as we go through grieving, when something changes for the better, the hurt fades and we feel better.[iii] Depression doesn’t require a “cause”. It can start from something bad happening, but then it doesn’t fade.
It’s a mental illness, and it’s easiest to understand as such. It’s like a broken bone, a virus, or crones, or an allergy. You can’t just make it go away. If someone broke their arm in an accident, you wouldn’t tell them to think positive and it’ll get better, right? Or, if someone had the flu, you wouldn’t counsel them to pretend that they didn’t have the flu, would you? Depression is an illness. Sometimes it just happens and then sticks around for a long, long time.
Being Depressed Isn’t a Sin
Which leads me to my second point, which is that being depressed isn’t a sin. Regardless of which type you face, whether it comes from inside you or outside, it is not a sin to be depressed. It may feel like it sometimes, and may lead you to all sorts of sinful temptation, but depression in itself is not a sin.
David, the author of some of the most beautiful psalms of worship, also faced some times of deep despair where he spends whole seasons of his life crying out to God. In Psalm 6:6 he says, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye Wastes away because of grief.”. He terribly depressed, but his pain is never represented as a sin.
Elijah was one of the greatest prophets in scripture, powerful in word and deed, a worker of miracles and a mighty man of God – and yet in the end we see him in a dark depression and totally afraid. He cries out that he feels totally alone, yet there were thousands of believers around him. He runs away terrified of a pagan queen, even though God has already protected him dozens of times. After seeing God come in power through one of the most amazing miracles in scripture, he takes off, falls to the ground, won’t get up, and wants to die. Yet, this wasn’t ever presented as sin. What we see is God lovingly taking care of him instead. (1 Kings 18-19)
ob is another example of a person who faced depression. Horrible things happened to him – his family died, his possessions were lost, his health destroyed – and he cries out for death, wishing he was never born, hating his life, bitter in soul, terrified of every moment that it’s never going to end and that it will only get worse (3:11, 3:26, 10:1, 30:15-17).
And, though I must tread carefully here, I believe that Jesus Himself faced not only sadness and grief, but true depression. It says in Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus is able to understand our weaknesses because he was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin. Isaiah 53:3 calls Jesus a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”. I think there are a few places that show us times when Jesus faced deep sadness, and possible depressive episodes, but I believe that it is in the Garden of Gethsemane, moments before His arrest, trial and crucifixion, that we see true depression. He says to His friends, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death…”. Jesus, who that He came as the only one who could save mankind from sin by dying on the cross, actually asks God to stop the mission saying, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…”. It hurts too much. Everything inside of Him screams to just give up. He’s in such mental, spiritual, emotional agony, that His sweat comes as drops of blood.
Depression Effects Everyone
Which brings me to my third point, which is that depression is extremely common, that many people are facing it right now, and whether you have it or not, it’s probably affecting someone you know.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). That’s a two-fold promise. First, that we will have trouble, and one of those troubles is mental illness and circumstances that lead to deep sadness and depression.
In fact, these troubles, including depression, are often given by God. Job, in 16:12, says, “I was at ease, and he broke me apart; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces…”. Job’s trials were God’s idea.
When Jesus walked the earth He and the disciples came upon a man who was born blind. “And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” (John 9:2-3)The man suffered through many trials, since birth – and this in a society that didn’t have much help for people with physical handicaps – because God decided to make him blind. Why? Not because of sin, but because God had a unique, special plan for his life that required him to have a certain kind of weakness.
A synagogue leader’s little girl, and Jesus’ good friend Lazarus needed to get sick and die so people could see that Jesus had the power to raise the dead.
The Apostle Paul was used by God to heal many people’s diseases so they would know he was a true messenger of God’s Word, but when he begged God to remove his own source of constant pain and frustration, God said no. “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And Paul replied, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (1 Cor 12:9)
Sometimes our struggles are because of the effects of sin in the world, that we are surrounded by evil, under Satan’s dominion, in a world touched by the curse. Sometimes our pain is a result of people sinning against us, their own sin causing us permanent damage. But the Bible is also clear that sometimes God chooses to bless people by giving them or someone they love, or someone in their church, the gift of suffering – including what we’re talking about today, mental illness and depression.
I know that sounds strange, but it’s what scripture teaches. We wouldn’t have Psalm 23 if David hadn’t gone through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. We wouldn’t know of the Passover if Israel hadn’t spent 400 years in captivity. Job wouldn’t have stood out as a man of God and example of faith if he hadn’t faced such deep trials. Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, all faced deep hurts, trials and pain – but are also written down in the Hebrews 11 hall of faith. And there are many more in scripture.
Their faith in God, the faith of those around them, and those who would read their stories after, grew because of the trials they faced. They were deeper people because of their suffering. (Romans 5:3-5)
And it’s not just biblical figures either. CS Lewis, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, John Bunyan, and many, many faithful Christians through the ages have all suffered with depression. Not sadness, not melancholy, but deep, dark, often overwhelming depression. And yet, their faith, dependence and love for God grew. They were and are mightily used by God. Depression affects everyone, but it is not always a bad thing.
That’s where I want to leave it this week. Next week I want to look at some biblical ways that we can think about and face depression when it comes, but for now I want you to think and pray about what we’ve already learned today.
I want you to admit that depression is real and that you or someone you love may be facing it, and I want you to realize that you are not alone – but more than that, that God has a plan for it for your good and His glory.
I want you to pay attention over the next week when the blues creep in, and I want you to know that your sadness, depression, and desire for comfort isn’t a sin, but it can lead you to temptations – and to be on guard for those times.
And finally, I want you to pray for those who are facing depression. Pray they will find healing, hope and peace in Jesus – and that we as a church will show them love, patience, kindness, grace and understanding.
If you have your Bibles with you, please up to 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 and let’s read it together. Those of you who have been following along with the sermon series so far are going to see some really important words in there and will, hopefully, recall some of the things we’ve already learned.
When you read the word “calling”, I hope it brings to mind this section’s repeated emphasis on how it is not we who choose God, but God who calls people to Himself. When you read the words “wise” or “foolish”, I hope it reminds you of the Greek people who loved nothing more than the pursuit of wisdom and feared nothing more than being considered a fool, and then remember the contrast between worldly and godly wisdom and worldly and godly foolishness which we’ve seen over the last couple weeks.
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about human weakness these days – specifically my own. Most of you know that I’ve been dealing with Bell’s Palsy for the past 5 weeks or so. It’s a lot better now, but it was quite a shock when I woke up 36 days ago and half of my face was paralyzed. I still have a way to go to call myself “fully healed”, but I’ve come along way. The day before I was perfectly fine, then the next morning, I couldn’t blink, move my lips, taste on one side of my mouth, or breath properly. I went to the doctor and he gave me a mess of pills, but had no real explanation of what happened or how long it would last.
A week later I was back in the ER in a huge amount of pain. The doctor looked concerned, said “Hmm, I don’t think that’s supposed to happen”, prescribed more pills and said she’d get me a cat scan. It’s been some time since then, and I’ve done a lot of healing. Thankfully, the pain has stopped, but I still have some issues with my face and can’t blink – which is the most annoying part right now.
This sudden illness has caused me to do some soul searching that I would never have expected, and has caused me to ponder the concepts of weakness and foolishness in ways I don’t think I would have otherwise. This experience reminded me of how weak and foolish I really am – and how frail humans are in general.
I know that rankles some people because they hate the idea of being considered weak. “Sure, Pastor Al – you’re weak – but I’m not. I’m strong! I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me!”
I’ve even had people argue with me when I’ve said that I’m weak. Maybe this has happened to you too. I’ll be going though a tough time, physically exhausted, mentally drained, spiritually down, emotionally fragile, and someone will ask me to do something, or something will come up and I’ll say, “I just can’t do that. I’m too weak to pull that off right now. Just forget about it. If you want me to do that, it will literally require a miracle.” And they’ll say, “No! You’re strong! You’re smart! You can do it! Just believe in yourself! You don’t know how tough you are until you try! Quitters never win and winners never quit!”
Have you ever been told that? You get to the end of your rope, or you find yourself in a dark place, your life feels like you’re trudging through the slough of despond, or the valley of death, and you just want to curl up there and quit – and well-meaning people keep telling you to “keep trying”, “suck it up”, “get going”.
The implication behind that advice seems to be that if we try hard enough, everyone is strong enough to deal with whatever life has to offer. No matter what life throws at us: sickness, death, tragedy, natural disaster, war, abuse, heartbreak… we all have the inherent capacity within us to push through it, get over it, break it down, or build it up. All we have to do is try. No human being should need anyone else! You can do it if you try!
What a ridiculous notion! Not only does it go against what we read in scripture, it goes against common sense, worldly wisdom and human experience! Ask any professional counsellor in the world, any politician, anyone with military background, any doctor, or lawyer, anthropologist, historian, accountant, teacher, poet or artist and they will say the same thing: everyone needs help. Everyone needs help. No one is born with everything they need to survive, thrive and conquer this world and the troubles within it. No one. Everyone has lack. Lack of stability. Lack of strength. Lack of knowledge. Lack of skills. Lack of wisdom. Lack of resources. Everyone has weakness.
And yet, somehow, though countless voices around us – from the medical establishment to the educational system to religious leaders – are telling us that we have weakness built into us, the voices we tend to listen to are the misguided ones that tell you “you’re just not trying hard enough” or the voice in own head that tells you: “I can do it on my own, I don’t need anyone, I should do it alone, no one understands, everyone else has it all put together, I’m the only weak person, I should be ashamed of myself for having weakness. Even God is disappointed in me. He expects me to be strong, good, helpful, joyful, gracious, kind, sinless, and perfect – and every time I mess up, every time I show my own weakness, He’s angry, or disappointed, or leaves me, or punishes me.
Therefore I must be strong – or if I can’t actually be strong, I must pretend to be strong! I must tell everyone that ‘I’m fine, I’m good, in fact, I’m great!’. I must hide all of the ways that I sin, and keep them in the dark, because then everyone will think I’m perfect. I must have the best car, the nicest toys, the cleanest house, the prettiest wife, the smartest kids, the greenest lawn, so everyone will know how successful I am and then they won’t think I’m weak.
If I study hard enough then I’ll know more than anyone else and they won’t realize I think I’m a fool. If I diet and exercise enough then I’ll look good so no one will know that I’m crumbling emotionally. If I earn enough and have enough things, then I can impress everyone and they won’t know that I think I’m a total failure. If I say all the right religious words, and do enough religious things, then everyone will think I’m a saint, even though I have massive struggles with my faith and am trapped in a cycle of temptation that I can’t see a way out of.”
What a total load of garbage we feed ourselves in our private thoughts, don’t we?
God’s Way is Backwards
This same pile of lies had infected the Corinthian church too, and in the first chapter of his letter, Paul is trying to shake them up with some truth. They had already forgotten some of the most critical things about their relationship with God, and had slipped into a bunch of false thinking. I’ve covered a lot of those things over the past weeks, but another set of false beliefs that had snuck into their minds was that they needed to overcome their weaknesses so they could be acceptable to God and the world.
They had started to listen to teachers that were telling them that they didn’t just need to believe in Jesus to be saved, but also needed to do a bunch of other things – have ecstatic religious experiences, follow the whole Law of Moses, and come up with ways to make the Gospel of Jesus look cooler to their neighbours.
The true Gospel of Jesus, where we are unable to save ourselves but need to turn from our sins and accept the free gift of salvation that comes only through believing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was making them look like fools to their neighbours – and it was making them look weak.
They were used to boasting about their leaders, teachers, religion, and selves – and Christianity wasn’t very boast worthy. The leader of the church was Jesus – a rural, Jewish teacher from the middle of nowhere, spent most of His life in obscurity, and barely left a 120 mile square during His whole ministry. Their main teacher, Paul, had a pretty impressive resume of education and experience, but he refused to talk about it, instead opting to preach simple messages and point people to Jesus.
Their religion was nothing like the ones around them. Corinth was full of beautiful temples, lavish decorations, crazy religious performances, and hugely popular speakers and personalities. Christians, on the other hand, gathered at some guy’s house, sang a few songs, and then sat quietly as a few people taught and prayed. And the teachings they heard, at least at first when Paul was there, kept telling them – from the wealthiest man in town to the slave who tied his sandals – that they were all foolish sinners in need of a Saviour, starving beggars in search of bread, wicked, hellbound people that experienced undeserved grace. They were told that God wanted them to be humble, their acts of charity and prayer should be done in secret. They were told that they would never be good enough, strong enough, wise enough, or smart enough to achieve the perfection that God desires – and that the only way to be accepted by God is to throw themselves at His feet, acknowledge they were spiritually bankrupt, and ask for mercy in the name of Jesus.
But, if you’ve been told that your whole life is about amassing knowledge, wisdom, riches, pleasure, honour, and status to impress the gods and everyone else – and that it’s the god’s job to give you all these things if you perform all the right rituals – the Gospel of Jesus comes as a shock because God’s version of knowledge, wisdom, riches, pleasure, honour and status are radically different than the world’s. They’re not boast-worthy.
If you’ve been told that you need to be stronger, better, smarter, and wealthier than everyone around you in order to be worthy of God’s attention, and know you have been blessed by God, then the Gospel of Jesus will come as a surprise because it says that the first step towards getting saved is acknowledging that you are too weak, too foolish, too ignorant, too poor, and too broken, to be able to do anything of value for Him – that you are spiritually dead inside, and that you absolutely need God to resurrect you before you can begin.
If you believe that you need to suck it up, pretend everything is ok, deny you are hurt, deny your temptations, and ignore your pain, so you can look happy, successful and spiritual, then the Gospel of Jesus Christ will challenge that belief by saying that you need to come to Him on your knees, and acknowledge to those around you that you are in need. You need to realize you are broken, lost, afraid and dirty; so He can pick you up, clean you off, put you on the right path, and give you a hope and a future.
The whole Gospel of Jesus Christ is backwards to most of our worldly thinking – and that’s kind of the point.
God Doesn’t Choose Like We Do
Look back at our scripture today and see what Paul reminds them of. He says, “Consider your calling… not many of you were wise according to worldly standards.” He reminds them that God didn’t call them (or choose them, or save them) because they were so wise and intelligent that they discovered His secrets. No, in fact, they were so off the mark that God had to go and get them because they were too foolish to find Him themselves.
He tells them, “not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth”. He reminds them that God didn’t choose them because they had so much to contribute to His church and Kingdom. He isn’t like us humans that look at wealthy celebrities and think, “Oh wow, if only that person would become a Christian, if only they would join our church… that’d be amazing!” No, God goes the other way, choosing the weak, the sick, the broken, the obscure, the afraid – and then He gives them His version of strength, His version of healing, His version of success, His version of courage.
Why? Why would God do that? It’s certainly not how we would pick our star team, is it? If we lined the whole of the world up against the gym wall and wanted to pick our teams for who is going to lead our religion and tell everyone how to get saved from Hell, who would we pick? The wisest, the smartest, the most powerful, the most influential… right? God’s upside-down kingdom is exactly the opposite!
Why? If you look back one verse it says, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” How can humanity know this is true? By God, “choosing what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Everyone looks at the person who has great physical or mental powers and is so very impressed – and God says, “That’s not strength. Do you want to see strength? Look at my follower here… they are in pain but full of joy, they have depression but still encourage others, they have anger issues but choose to be gentle, they are in the throes of addiction but choose every day to walk with me instead, they lost everything they had but are still generous with others.” That’s God’s kind of strength.
How else can humanity know that God’s way is “wiser” and “stronger” than ours? Because He “…chooses the low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are…” Our society idolizes people who are unique, talented, remarkable, overachievers and successes. We watch singing competitions to see who’s the best singer, talent competitions to see who is the most interesting, hockey tournaments to see who is the best player, and then hand out MVP awards to individuals who outshine even their winning team-mates. Our democratic process is largely a popularity contest, and our movies are dominated by a small group of people the industry has decided are the most marketable.
But God almost always does the opposite. God almost always chooses “the low and despised… the things that are not” to be the ones to carry His signature, be His defenders, show His glory, lead His people, serve His kingdom, do His work. He takes the drug dealer and turns them into a Sunday school teacher, turns the porn addict into a faithful husband and father (or wife and mother). He chooses the smallest group, the most socially awkward person, the one with the lowest score, the one that we would overlook every time – and chooses them to be one of His champions.
The prophecy about Jesus from Isaiah 61:1-4 ( which Jesus says is about Him (Luke 4:16-30)), says this:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
Who has God chosen to be the ones who will populate His kingdom and rebuild the devastations of many generations? The brokenhearted, the captive, the prisoner, the mourner, the weak… That’s Jesus’ beatitudes from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the persecuted…” Why? Because in God’s upside-down kingdom, their poverty, sadness, meekness and pain is what allows them to realize their weakness and turn to Him for strength!
Why the Weakest?
Why does God operate that way? First, “…To bring to nothing the things that are”. In other words, to negate, invalidate, to deprive of all validity, every thought that says we are good enough, strong enough, and able enough to serve Him, save ourselves, and do good things in this world without Him. He wants to negate that thought completely in our minds.
He wants us to look at the strong, successful, proud, rich, famous person who does not know Jesus and watch them fall apart at the seams because they don’t have God holding them together. He wants us to watch a society built upon human wisdom turn and eat itself, corruptin everything that makes them human, because they have refused to acknowledge God. And then he wants us to contrast that with the weak, obscure, and powerless ones who know and trust God, and marvel in wonder as we try to figure out how they can have such inner strength, such spiritual power, be so kind, so joyful, so wise, so calm, and so patient. He wants to negate in our minds the thought that strength is found within ourselves, or within any human creation. He wants to bring that thinking “to nothing”.
Which leads to the second reason that God gives for why He chooses the weak: from verse 29, “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”… so that all of our boasting will be done “in the Lord”.
God wants us to realize our weakness, turn to Him, and say: “I need you because I cannot do this on my own. All that I have is not enough. I need Your Word to guide me, Your Son to save me, Your Spirit to protect me, Your church to care for me, because I am too weak on my own. And whenever I choose my own path, or design my own god, they fail me. I can’t be a good enough husband, wife or parent. I’m not strong enough to conquer this temptation. I’m not wise enough to know what to do. I need the One, True God.”
And then, as He strengthens you, and changes you, and cleans you, and remakes you, and teaches you, and uses you to do His will, you return to Him the glory. “I didn’t do this, God did! I didn’t conquer that sin, God did. I didn’t become less angry, or proud, or vain – God changed me. I didn’t conquer that sin, God did. I didn’t make that wise decision, God lead me.” You get a life that is touched by the blessing of God, He gets the glory. It’s actually a pretty good deal.
And so, let me close with this: You’ve probably heard the scripture that most people call “The Great Commandment” which says “Love the Lord your God with your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength” (Matthew 22:37-38), right?
I want you to use that scripture to consider your weakness today, and let that acknowledgement of your weakness drive you to prayer, asking Him for help.
Some of us are weak in Strength. Some here are physically weaker than others. You have illness or some kind of handicap. You are not as strong, or tall, or well as others. You cannot run as fast, jump as high, go as far, or do as much as you want to. Acknowledge your physical weakness before God and turn it over to Him. It was His idea. He has chosen to make you weaker so that you will lean on His strength. You are not less of a person because of your health status – you have been given a greater opportunity to show that God can do amazing things through someone like you.
Some of us are weak in Mind. Some here have learning disabilities like dyslexia, or are forgetful, can’t do math well, can’t spell properly, can’t read well, and struggle to pick up concepts well. Does that mean you are less valuable to God? That you can’t serve in His Kindom? Of course not! It means that you have been given a greater opportunity to show what God can do through you! Turn to Him, acknowledge your mental weakness, and ask Him how you can use the gifts he has given you for His glory. Stop trying to be who you are not, and allow God to work with who He has made you to be.
Some of us are weak in Heart. Some have a really hard time with things that most people don’t see – your brain chemistry and emotions. There are people that suffer from Depression, Anxiety, Bipolarity, OCD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, PTSD, Social Anxiety, Eating Disorders, Sexual Disorders, Insomnia, or other things that you didn’t ask for, came out of nowhere, are a constant burden, require medications and doctors and treatments and make your life miserable. Does that make you unfit for the Kingdom of God? Does that mean God is disappointed in you? Does God expect you to suck it up and get strong before you can come to Him? Does God expect you to get healed before you can worship or serve Him? I hope you know by now the answer is “no”.
Though I can’t tell you why, I can tell you that God has given you that so He can use you to shame the wise, shame the strong, and negate everyone who has ever said that people with mental illness are a problem to be solved and a burden to those around them. He has created you exactly the way you are so He can use you in a way that He can use no one else. Acknowledge your weakness, and that you need help – not just from meds and doctors, which are fine by the way – but ultimately from God, the only One who can give you the “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” that you need to live with what the burden you carry every day (Gal 5:23).
And finally, consider that we are all weak in our Soul. None of us have what is necessary to fix that which is most wrong with us. The Bible says “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), which means that everyone who has ever done, thought or said something wrong is spiritually dead (Eph 2:1) and in need of the miracle of a resurrection. God promises to do that for all that call on Him. Only God can raise the dead, and it is only by faith in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord and Saviour of the world, that we can experience that healing.
As long as you are trying to save yourself, as long as you think that you are a ‘good enough person’, as long as you think you are better than others, as long as you think that you deserve to go to heaven – you will never call out to God and never receive His healing. It is only when you acknowledge that you are a sinner in need of a Saviour, and turn to Jesus, that you will be saved.
And so, I implore you to acknowledge your weakness, and then turn to God for strength, so He will provide what you need – and then as He does, give Him the worship and praise He deserves.