Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Using the Psalms to Counsel Anxious, Depressed Teens

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: When you’re anxious, it can seem impossible to hold on to the promises of God. Dr. Shona Murray says . . .

Dr. Shona Murray: When you’re in that position, there’s one thing you can do, and it’s cry out, “Lord, I can’t! Help me to do this!” That very act itself of casting yourself literally on God’s help and His mercy has given me a strength that you didn’t realize was there—as you really let go of your own strength, and you’re leaning heavily on God’s.

Nancy: We’ll hear how dependence on God is a key in a teenager’s fight against anxious thoughts. This is Revive Our Hearts for July 20, 2021. I’m Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth.

I probably don’t have to tell you that depression and anxiety are running rampant in our society today, and increasingly so—alarmingly so—among young people. I’ve witnessed this firsthand with a number of young women that I’m close to.

But these issues are not new. They date back to the very first family, as we heard yesterday, when God asked Cain why his countenance (his face) had fallen? Today on Revive Our Hearts, Drs. David and Shona Murray are back with us, and they’ll be talking with Dannah Gresh about what the Scripture says about these kinds of challenges.

We’ll learn about recognizing signs of depression, keys to overcoming it, and the role medication can play. Shona Murray is the mother of five children and has homeschooled for fifteen years. She’s also a medical doctor and worked as a family practitioner in Scotland (you’ll be able to tell that from her accent pretty quickly) until she and her husband moved to the United States.

David Murray, a pastor, has written extensively on this topic. In fact, someone came up to me recently and said, “David Murray is my pastor,” and spoke so well of him and how his counsel is solidly rooted in the Word of God.

If you missed yesterday’s program, you’ll want to go back and listen to it, because David shared his own story of how he battled depression as a teenager. 

And Lord, my prayer is that today You would bring hope and help and encouragement as only You can do, through these your servants and through this conversation. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

And now, let’s listen to this hopeful conversation!

Dannah Gresh: Thanks for being back with us again today, David and Shona.

Dr. Shona: Thank you, Dannah. It’s our privilege!

Dannah: I want to know, how do you know when the depression a teenager is struggling with is kind of normal, because all the teens kind of experience a depression, or if it’s the kind of depression where you need to see a physician? Or you may need to see a Christian counselor? What are the signs that tell us you need more intervention?

Dr. Shona: I think it’s important to remember that depression has four components to it: the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual as well. And in each of these areas, the most noticeable thing for people is mood swings—in boys more anger and outbursts, in girls more tearful, social withdrawal, not going out with friends, not motivated to study or to work.

Everyone—and certainly every teen—goes through stages like that, days when they’re like that, maybe a week when they’re like that. And girls, especially premenstrually, that’s predictable as well.

But once you reach a period of about two weeks or more and this is fixed and not settling, not improving . . . You’ve addressed things like lack of sleep—which is a common teen problem—and eating and such like, then you have to ask, “Is this something more serious, or is this not just temporary anymore?”

Dannah: So, just two weeks!?

Dr. Shona: Yes, at that two week stage, it’s really important to call it out and to have an open conversation with your teen about their low mood or the fact that they’re experiencing anxiety or sleeplessness.

At that point, if a conversation and just simple supportive measures are not helping, the fact that they have been open about it and honest with you, you have to watch much more closely and consider whether you need to get a professional opinion. Maybe it’s a spiritual problem for sure. Maybe discuss the spiritual aspects with a pastor or Sunday school teacher. But beyond two weeks, you really have to take it seriously.

Dannah: Hmm, that’s sobering.

Dr. David Murray: Yes, I think even earlier, Dannah, in cases when suicidal thoughts are being expressed, we can’t even wait two weeks. That requires urgent intervention. It’s not something to observe; it’s something to act on.

Dannah: How do you know when thoughts are suicidal vs. anxious?

Dr. David: First of all, you ask. I know it sounds counterintuitive . . . people are always a bit afraid. “If I ask somebody if they are thinking of ending their own life, that will give them the idea, and I will prompt them to do it.” No, that is not the finding of all the research.

Indeed, those who have been asked about whether they’re contemplating that have all said that that was the question that sort of broke the dam and allowed them to get the help they needed. So that’s a generally accepted principle: it’s better to ask rather than to think the best.

They might say, “Oh no, of course not! I’m nowhere near that!” Fine, that’s fine. But it does give that opportunity that oftentimes they’re looking for, to just begin that conversation.

Dr. Shona: Yes, I would add to this a decline in or lack of socialization is a very worrying sign—you see teens withdrawing from teens they used to hang out with, good friends. As David says, open conversation and questioning is so important! Very often, by the time you notice your teen is perhaps suffering under depression, they’ve actually been suffering a lot longer.

Dannah: Yes, and really what you’re talking about—having a conversation that no parent really wants to have (because we do want to think the best, we do want to think, “Oh, it’s just a thing they’re going through; they’ll be fine!”) . . . But you’re talking about using the key of understanding to unlock their hearts.

Saying, “I’ve noticed this. I’m concerned; I see this. Are you okay? Help me understand how you are.” And that, in itself, can really wipe away a lot of the loneliness that feeds this depression and anxiety, can’t it?

Dr. David: And especially the way that you asked it there, Dannah. It doesn’t come across as condemning, judgmenta,l or looking down on them, but just very empathetic, coming alongside. You can say, “Look, I’ve had struggles in my own life. Don’t think that I’m perfect. Don’t think that you have to be perfect.”

I think in general, it’s better to have conversations about mental health long before the issues arise, so you’ve built a culture of openness. Talk about it in the car, talk about it at the supper table. When it’s raised, if somebody has it, don’t speak demeaningly of them or in an insulting way. That will just close off teens when they come to their own experience of that. So, I think long-term, build that culture, and then the willingness to talk will be much easier.

Dannah: I love that.

Dr. Shona: Tell your teens if you’ve suffered with it. Any parent who has been through depression or anxiety themselves, then be open about it. We would tend to be open about physical conditions, but somehow over the years this has been hushed, and you don’t tell the kids that.

But please do, because they’re already weighted towards an increased likelihood of developing it. If you’ve had it yourself, if that day comes, they’re not going to be afraid to talk about it.

Dannah: It’s going to be an ongoing conversation, isn’t it? It’s not going to be a once-and-done conversation. We need to revisit this over and over, continually building their toolbox for how they handle it, right?

Dr. David: Yes, very much so. It’s one of the reasons that I wrote this book for teens and a companion book for parents, so that it will give the material for a two-way conversation. The parent and the child can work through each book—one for the teen, one for the parent—and come together at breakfast, coffee, over a walk.

“Hey, what did you read this week? Yes, I read my chapter on that, too.” There is slightly different content for the caregiver as opposed to the sufferer. Hopefully, that will just continue to build trust and that precious two-week communication so that they can navigate it together.

What we’ve seen and we’ve heard from others is that, if that’s there, rather than it being a destroyer of life, actually it’s a giver of life. It can really restart parent/child relationships. It can give a depth to them and a closeness that was not there before, and it could be there for the rest of their lives.

So, God turns everything around for good, even these darkest times. The key is, just get that conversation going.

Dannah: Let’s give listeners some tools for that conversation. In your book you talk about something called “elephant training.” Tell us about that.

Dr. David: Yeah, well, elephant training really refers to our emotions, which can often feel like an elephant rampaging around in our lives. Obviously, if you let your emotions go on a rampage—just like if you let an elephant go—then you’re going to damage yourself. You may damage others as well.

I point people in the book to Psalm 77, which I frame as, “Here’s God’s elephant training. Here’s the way He helps us train our emotions.” Just to keep it very simple, in the first part of that psalm, the elephant is on the rampage.

There’s trouble in Asaph’s life, but the way he is reacting to it is by letting his feelings dictate. He feels God has forgotten him. He feels God has broken His promises. He feels God has changed. Therefore, he concludes in his thoughts that God has abandoned him, God has left him, God has broken His promises.

Dannah: He’s actually kind of stubborn. If I could read verse 2:

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.

Dr. David: That’s right, and I think we’ve all been there at points. But it’s causing these terrible side effects in his life. He’s not sleeping; he’s not eating; he’s withdrawing. Everything’s just out of control because he’s got the order all wrong. His feelings are dictating his thoughts; the elephant is in control.

But halfway through the psalm, in verse 9, he takes a big deep breath. He says, “Selah.” You know, “Pause. Deep breath.” He just pauses, and he lets his emotions subside. Then something really interesting happens. Instead of all these feeling verbs, we get all these thinking verbs.

In verses 11–12 he talks about things like: “I considered. I meditated. I remembered. I thought upon.” And the subject of his thoughts and meditation is God and His character and His promises and His providences.

It’s like you put this biblical mind on the elephant as a little rider, and as this little rider of biblical rationality takes the reins of this elephant, the whole scene begins to calm down. Instead of “I, me, and my” being in the forefront, it’s, “God, God, and God,” that’s in the forefront.

Instead of it being troubled feelings/thoughts, it’s the feelings that result from these much more God-centered, God-focused thoughts are more confidence and optimism and security and hope. With the help of Scripture, Asaph has trained the elephant of his emotions and brought them under the control of biblical, God-centered thinking.

Dannah: I love that. We all need that, not just the teens in our lives.

Dr. Shona: I think it’s a very important time with our teens, when they’re going through that, to go through the psalms. So many of the psalms have this pattern, this real raw experience of struggle and overcoming by looking outside of myself to God—who is the God who can do everything and for whom everything is possible.

I think if you even look at Psalm 130:1, “Lord, from the depths to you I cry . . .”

Kristyn Getty singing: “Out of the depths I cry to You; in darkest places I will call. Incline Your ear to me anew and hear my cry for mercy

Dr. Shona: I’m listening to some of these songs, to music that has Scripture in it. It reinforces the truth vs. the lies that are going around in your head.

Kristyn singing: “Thy face alone. I will live for You, I will wait for You. On Your Word I will rely.”

Dr. David: And I think, as Shona said, even just the fact that there are psalms in the Bible that reveal depressed and anxious believers, that in itself is very therapeutic. It seems that Christians can be depressed. This is very much part of the Christian experience, but the Christian doesn’t need to stay there. The Christian has been given helps in God’s Word and in God’s world to recover.

Dr. Shona: I often think as well, when you’re in these depths or when you can get into these depths, the temptation is to say, “But I can’t! I can’t hang onto these promises. I can’t pull myself up . . . even through Scripture.”

When you’re in that position, there’s one thing you can do. It’s cry out, “Lord, I can’t! Help me to do this!” That very act itself—of casting yourself literally on God’s help and His mercy . . . Over the years I have found that itself has given me a strength that I didn’t realize was there . . . as you really let go of your own strength and you’re leaning heavily on God’s.

Dannah: One of the things that comforts me is the fact that I don’t have to be the one to tame the herd of elephants in my mind. I can take those thoughts to Christ. The verse 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells me to “take every thought captive to obey Christ,” not to obey Dannah. What a comfort!

Dr. Shona: It’s a huge comfort! Christ loves these cries. He wants to help. He wants to strengthen and encourage. Part of the problem with us is that, when we are in these depths, we tend to believe Satan’s lie that, “God doesn’t want to hear this. He doesn’t want to listen to my cries.” But He does! He’s honored by that, and He runs to our help.

Dannah: So we’ve talked about so many keys to helping our teens overcome depression and anxiety. One of them is Christ Himself, surrendering to Him. If there’s sin in your life, if there’s sin in your teen’s life, there really does need to be a surrender to Christ.

But we’ve also talked about more practical things, like just having an understanding conversation with your child and getting them into God’s Word. Specifically, Psalm 77 is a great training ground to help them take those thoughts captive. It’s called “elephant training,” David says.

I have to ask this question; we only have time for a brief answer (we could probably do a whole program on this). Medication . . . Shona, can you give us a biblical perspective on when we get to that place where a doctor may be saying, “I think medication might be helpful for this teenager.” How do we know how to filter through that and say, “Yes,” and how do we know when we need to say, “No”?

Dr. Shona: The first thing I would say is, medication is not always the answer. It’s not the immediate answer unless the situation is dire. So, for example, if you’re dealing with a teen who is suicidal, then I would say medication is critical—with other helps, too.

But what I have found a lot of times is that our own pride gets in the way of accepting the help that God gives. I view medication as a gift from God. Yes, it’s something that has come out of science, but science is not the enemy of God. It’s bad science that’s the enemy of God.

So, as Christians, we embrace good God-honoring science, and medication is a wonderful blessing that we have in 2021. But, medication is not the only answer, either. It does help get your brain to that point where you can begin to embrace other necessary helps for whatever the cause of the depression is. 

Medication is directed at the chemistry in your brain to allow your brain to begin to start processing correctly, so that you can embrace God’s Word. So, for example, if you’re struggling with severe lack of concentration and you can’t actually read the Scriptures, medication will help, over time, get your brain connections fixed so that you, then, are able to read Scripture and are able to process and think for more than a split second. And then also to embrace other things that are so important, like sleep and exercise and diet and address spiritual concerns, especially, as well.

It’s not the only solution, but it’s important. When we are directed to take medication, that is received as a gift from God, and it is a good gift. Every perfect gift is given to us from our Father in heaven (see James 1:17). Antidepressant medication or antianxiety medication, as much as insulin for diabetes or blood thinner for blood clots.

Now, that said, we shouldn’t rush into it, either. It’s not the only solution.

Dannah: I think when it becomes a problem is when we exalt it above the Word of God, and when we don’t use the Word of God, and we don’t apply the Word of God. When we just say, “Here, take this medicine. It will fix it!”

Everything is spiritual; everything is physical. When we separate the two, that really is a heresy of our day, isn’t it, to separate the physical and the sacred?

Dr. Shona: Right. Yes, and just the whole sense of personal responsibility. If I need antidepressant medication, then I have a depression issue or a burnout issue. Then I have to address honestly the causes that factor into that as well. 

That’s where personal responsibility for things like sleep, downtime, exercise, and fueling myself with God’s Word regularly are so important! Because if we neglect fueling ourselves daily with God’s Word when things start to go wrong (as David mentioned earlier) then spiritual depression can seep in.

So it’s a multifactorial problem with a multifactorial solution. And God’s Word for Christians is vital as part of that.

Dr. David: Dannah, I like the word you used there earlier. I just want to pick out “heresy.” Nobody is deliberately heretical as a Christian, obviously, but we can lapse into it. You’re right to put your finger on the theological error at the root of some of the opposition to medication.

I think there are two errors, really, I’ve often found. One is a wrong view of humanity: that somehow we can separate the body from the soul; that all we should be concerned about is the soul; that the soul cannot affect the body, the body can’t affect the soul. That is just an unbiblical anthropology.

We don’t actually apply it in any other area of life. We all accept that a diabetic whose pancreas is packed in, their physical disability results in emotional problems—whether it’s a hyper or a hypo, whether they’re flying high or they’re sinking low. The physical problem affects a person’s emotions and even their thoughts.

Therefore, to think that the brain—the most complex computer in the whole world—has somehow escaped the curse of God on sin is wrong, and it’s an error.

And the other error, I think is our view of the world—that somehow or other the world is necessarily sinful, an anti-God place in everything.

You know, every gift of God can be abused, but just because gifts are abused does not mean we don’t use them.

Dr. Shona: Just take technology!

Dannah: Right, exactly. Technology would be another good example. I’m thinking of Ephesians 1:10, where Paul writes that God has a plan. He has a plan for all this depression, all this anxiety, all this suicide, and everything else that is broken in this world.

And of course, the plan is Christ—as we read in the verses preceding that. But verse 10 says He has a “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven [those are the spiritual things] and things on earth [those are the physical things].” 

And one day, that curse will be lifted. But until then, we have to battle this. I think it’s horrible when we have to battle it for our own minds. It’s really sad when we have to battle it for our 

children and our grandchildren, and we see them struggling. So, David, would you end our time together just praying over the mom, the grandma, who maybe heard a new key today. They’re like, “Oh! This is the key! I’m going to apply it and begin to unlock the freedom for my child!” Would you just pray over them? 

Dr. David: Of course, Dannah. And just to encourage everyone, I think we had time to cover three or four keys. There are eighteen in the book, so please know that God has provided abundantly for us! Let’s pray.

Our wonderful God and Savior, we thank You for providing for all our needs—spiritual, physical, emotional, mental, social, relational. You are so generous. You are so abundant in Your goodness and in Your truth! You have allowed multitudes—young and old—to fall into depression and anxiety in massive numbers over recent years.

We know You have a good plan in this, as Dannah said, and we’re seeing some of it. You’re teaching Your church. You’re teaching Your people. But You’re also giving us amazing opportunities to show the power of the gospel. You’ve given the church so much of the answer to depression and anxiety, and we pray that this epidemic would open the door to Jesus, and that He would come with His joy and His peace, and that many would be able to thank You eventually for their depression and anxiety because of the way it pointed them to Jesus. We ask it in His precious name, amen.

Kristyn singing: “Out of the depths I cry to You. In darkest places I will call. Incline Your ear to me anew and hear my cry for mercy.”

Nancy: God’s Word is vital to overcoming depression and for helping others who are in the midst of it. That’s a song based on Psalm 130 from Keith and Kristyn Getty. And before that, we heard a conversation between Dannah Gresh and Drs. David and Shona Murray.

We can help teens face challenges like anxiety and depression with hope because Christ Himself is our Hope. He’s given us His Holy Spirit along with other practical tools and gifts to direct our minds back to Him.

A few moments ago, David referenced two books he has written specifically on these issues. They’re really important books, and I want to make sure you’re aware of them. The first is called Why Is My Teenager Feeling Like This?: A Guide for Helping Teens through Anxiety and Depression. The other book is called Why Am I Feeling Like This?: A Teen’s Guide to Freedom from Anxiety and Depression.

So whether you’re a teen who is struggling with depression or a parent or someone who loves a teen who is battling anxiety and depression, these are two really valuable resources. 

We’ll put a link to both of them in the transcript of today’s episode at ReviveOurHearts.com, along with information on how you can get them. Or you can give us a call at 1–800–569–5959.

Have you ever thought about the fact that one of the weapons we have in the battle against depression is kindness? That’s right! Whether you’re concerned for someone you know who is being sucked into despair, or maybe you’re the one feeling overwhelmed by anxious thoughts, receiving the kindness of Christ—and giving it to others—can make a huge difference!

A Deeper Kind of Kindness is a booklet I’ve written that will encourage you to experience and share God’s kindness. Be sure to ask for my booklet on kindness when you give a gift of any amount to Revive Our Hearts. It’s one way we want to thank you for your support of this ministry.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear more from Shona Murray, and I’ll also be doing some teaching from Psalms 42 and 43. This is a powerful passage about dealing with anxiety and depression. So, before you listen to tomorrow’s program, you may want to read Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 for yourself and ask the Lord to speak to your heart. Please be back tomorrow for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts wants to help you learn how to deal with depression and anxiety. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

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About the Host

Dannah Gresh

Dannah Gresh

When Dannah Gresh was eight years old, she began praying that God would use her as a Bible teacher for “the nations.” When she sees the flags of many countries waving at a Revive Our Hearts event, it feels like an answer to her prayer.

Dannah is the founder of True Girl which provides tools for moms and grandmothers to disciple their 7–12 year-old girls. On Monday nights, you’ll find Dannah hosting them in her online Bible study. She has authored over twenty-eight books, including Ruth: Becoming a Girl of Loyalty, Lies Girls Believe, and a Bible study for adult women based on the book of Habakkuk. She and her husband, Bob, live on a hobby farm in central Pennsylvania.

About the Guest

David and Shona Murray

David and Shona Murray

David Murray (PhD, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is also a counselor, a regular speaker at conferences, and the author of Exploring the Bible. David and his wife, Shona, attend Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church.

Shona Murray is a mother of five children and has homeschooled for fifteen years. She is a medical doctor and worked as a family practitioner in Scotland until she moved to the United States with her husband, David. She is the author of Refresh: Embracing a Grace-Paced Life in a World of Endless Demands.