At ten, it looked like a young girl in the backseat of the car, heart racing, mind reeling, with prayers for safety whispered on repeat. I was sure that the moment I stopped praying, we would crash.
At fifteen, it looked like months of deep sadness. Emptiness, loneliness, loss, and the choking fear of being left, unwanted. I felt guilty for grieving ten years too late for a dad I never really knew.
At twenty, it looked like cold-sweat fear if I didn’t feel my unborn baby move. Intense unease if the house wasn’t perfectly clean. Crippling guilt if a workout was missed. If I had a headache, it was probably a brain tumor. Was it my turn for loss? For failure? For death?
At twenty-five it looked like panic attacks in the car; panic attacks in my college classes; panic attacks at night, during the day, with my husband, and alone. A constant cycle of work, panic, rest, panic, repeat. I never attempted self-harm, but one night in my kitchen, alone and distraught, I wondered how close to the edge I was. I wondered if we should move the kitchen knives. I wondered if I was safe with me.
At thirty it looked like heart palpitations, G.I. issues, migraines, and insomnia. Mental paralysis over simple decisions. What if I don’t get the cleaning done? What if the kids miss bathtime again? What is this pain? Do I have cancer? Is this it? Is this where it all falls apart? Lord, please take this away!
At thirty-five it looked like exhaustion. Anger. A sense of oppressive, unbearable weight. Looking at the life I loved, I failed to find joy. Tired. Afraid. Tired. Afraid. How can I take care of six children? I can’t. Failing. Falling.
I came to a breaking point at thirty-seven years old. I sat in front of a room full of happy children and energetic adults, as I led songs for Vacation Bible School. Though I loved the Lord, my family, and my church, I felt absolutely nothing. Zero. Blank.
I knew it was time to get help. So I did. Ah, anxiety and depression, my old enemy. We’ve been together for a long time.
But, you know what it looks like now, at forty? Anxiety and depression is my thorn, my trial, my friend.
In Any and Every Circumstance
I have not conquered anxiety, mind you, but it has not conquered me. Instead, in a sense, I’ve made friends with my anxiety, like you make friends with unlovable neighbors simply because they live next door and because, who knows, God could use them to mold you into the image of his Son.
There is no “how to” section of this story, only a “why,” and here it is: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
The apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:11 are my “why.” Read them again with me, slowly. I have learned . . . in whatever situation I am . . . to be . . . content.
The past three decades of my life as a believer have been penciled by the hand of a Sovereign God, with high hills of joy and deep valleys of darkness. Though I am in a better place now, there are still ups and downs, and I have no indication that the landscape will change. Therefore, I am to be content.
Don’t Pull Away from the Hand That Holds You
Paul’s example aside, the older I get, the more I realize that my struggle with anxiety and depression has been at the center of the circumstances God has used in the past three decades to strengthen my faith and to increase my desire to know Him through His Word. All of the times that I consider to be the most deeply formational in my faith have occurred in the valleys. After all, aren’t trials are the very means that God uses to sanctify us?
In the past year, I’ve had several opportunities to come under the teaching of the Word through 1 Peter. And honestly, friends, if you can read that text and walk away with the idea that there is any better way to be confirmed, strengthened, and established in Christ than in the fires of trial and tribulation, then you are suffering from a case of spiritual nearsightedness!
“In this you rejoice,” Peter told us, “though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6–9).
My trials—my anxiety and depression—are a part of the fire that God is using to purify, strengthen, and test my faith, the outcome of which, my sanctification, will result in praise and glory of my Savior! How precious a gift . . .
Sinful Staying or Sinful Squirming?
Perhaps you’ve noticed that until now, I haven’t mentioned sin. Sin’s work within anxiety and depression is a vast and tangled web, so lest there be any doubt, I fully recognize and affirm that without sin, both Adam’s and mine, my depression and anxiety would not exist. I’ve taken steps to recognize and fight my sin as it rears its head in my seasons of darkness. Plenty of ink has been spilled on the numerous ways we can be sinful in times of depression, anxiety, and worry. I am careful to own my sinful thinking and repent. But have you ever considered that the other side of the anxiety-sin coin could be begging (dare I say, demanding) that the Lord remove the very thing He is using to refine us? Could my prayers for deliverance actually be sinful discontent?
In The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Puritan preacher Jeremiah Burroughs minces no words when it comes to calling us out in our discontented squirming:
This murmuring and discontentedness of yours reveals much corruption in the soul. As contentment argues much grace, strong grace, and beautiful grace, so murmuring argues much corruption, strong corruption, and very vile corruptions in your heart. If a man’s body is of such a temper that every scratch of a pin makes his flesh to rankle and be a sore, you will surely say this man’s body is very corrupt. So it is in your spirit, if every little trouble and affliction makes you discontented and murmur, and even causes your spirit within you to rankle.
You see, friend, I’ve come to understand that the Lord is using every valley for my good and for His glory. And compared to the joy I’ve found in Christ, and the imperishable reward that awaits me, who am I to complain as He carries me through the valley, drying my tears? Burroughs puts it this way:
Am I the soul to whom the Lord has revealed the infinite excellence of Jesus Christ, and yet shall I think such a little affliction to be so grievous to me, when I have had the sight of such glory in Christ as is worth more than ten thousand worlds? But has God given you that, and will you be discontented for a trifle in comparison to that?
Be Still, Child
What if my struggle with anxiety and depression is drawn with the careful lines of God’s hand? The very same hand that:
- Feeds me
- Leads me
- Holds me
- Disciplines me
- Loves me
- Works all things together for my good and for the good of those who love Him
Why would I, like a foolish, impatient toddler, attempt to wiggle away from my Father’s hand when He whispers to me, “Peace, be still”?
Sister, are you trudging through a dark valley? I know you want lists and answers and a guide for “how to survive.” For me, “valley care” has included medical care, including medication, sharing my struggle with trusted sisters and brothers in Christ, and learning to pray in the valley instead of trying to pray my way out of the valley. Instead of worrying that I’m simply covering up my sin by taking medication for my condition, I entrust my sanctification to a loving, Sovereign Father for whom medication is no hurdle. Believe me, I have no shortage of sin for Him to expose. I don’t know what your journey through the valley will look like. But this I know, God will carry you.
The poem “Submission” by William Cowper (to whom depression was no stranger) is one of surrender to the sovereign hand of God, and I love that it ends with a reminder that clouds will come again. And when they do, might you bring yourself to thank God for the clouds? May they be a reminder in the steady rhythm of your life that his purifying fire is preparing to renew your faith once more.
O Lord, my best desire fulfill,
And help me to resign
Life, health, and comfort to Thy will,
And make Thy pleasure mine.
Why would I shrink at Thy command,
Whose love forbids my fears?
Or tremble at the gracious hand
That wipes away my tears?
No, rather let me freely yield
What most I prize to Thee;
Who never hast a good withheld,
Or wilt withhold, from me.
Thy favor, all my journey through,
Thou art engaged to grant;
What else I want, or think I do,
'Tis better still to want.
Wisdom and mercy guide my way,
Shall I resist them both?
A poor blind creature of day,
And crush'd before the moth!
But ah! my inward spirit cries,
Still binds me to Thy sway;
Else the next cloud that veils the skies
Drives all these thoughts away.