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The Gospel and Depression

February 3, 2015

darknessO LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
     Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
     I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
     your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
     they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
     my companions have become darkness.
     (Psalm 88:14-18, ESV)

If you look up the word in an English Bible concordance, you might be tempted to conclude that the Bible says nothing about “depression.” The word never occurs.

That conclusion would be a terrible mistake. Partly because it fails to realize that the absence of a particular word is not the same thing as the absence of an idea (there are lots of ways to describe what we call depression; see Psalm 88 above). And partly because drawing such a conclusion effectively cuts off those who suffer depression from what they need most—the transforming presence of God.

Depression is not a popular subject in the church. We tend to avoid what we don’t understand, and depression is notoriously complex. Worse than avoidance, depression often caries a subtle stigma. Christians are supposed to be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted, we think. If we face depression or any variety of mental illnesses, then something must be wrong with us. We’re not believing God enough, or praying enough, or reading our Bible enough, etc.  We don’t dare speak honestly and openly about it, for fear of what others will think.

But the sad and potentially dangerous reality is that we’re avoiding an issue that by some estimates affects 25% of our congregation in a given year.[1]

As Kathryn Green-McCreight, a theologian and minister who suffers from bipolar disorder, describes, “Depression is not just sadness or sorrow. Depression is not just negative thinking. Depression is not just being ‘down.’ It is being cast to the very end of your tether and, quite frankly, being dropped.”[2]

Depression is real. Whether clinical or situational, it’s part of life in a fallen world. But if that’s true, then the gospel of Jesus has something to say about it. For God has promised to make right everything that’s wrong with this world through the cross and resurrection of his Son (cf. Col. 1:15-20).

The Bible speaks openly and honestly about the countless ways that life can fall apart. Not only the ways we mess it up through our own sin and rebellion (which can have depressive results), but the ways we feel the often impersonal effects of the fall through injury, natural disaster, disease, and yes—depression. Consider the refrain in Psalm 42–43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5).

But the Bible also speaks hope into the darkest of circumstances, as the refrain continues: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Ps. 42:5-6, 11; 43:5).

This hope is secured through the cross and resurrection of Christ. It’s the promise that God will make all things new, that a day will come when “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3). It’s also the promise that God is with us today by the Holy Spirit, shining his light into the darkness and speaking the truth of the gospel to the lies that threaten to destroy us, as he leads us deeper into his presence (Ps. 43:3-4).

Because depression is complex, we should freely recognize that finding healing can be complex, too. The hope of the gospel is not mutually exclusive with counseling, therapy, or medication (especially when depression results from physiological factors). But the gospel does put all our care into context. For even as it frees us to call depression what it is, it announces its defeat. For the gospel connects us with God through Christ. And God is bigger than depression. As Jared Wilson reminds us, “You will outlast your depression, because Christ in you, the hope of glory, will outlast it.”[3]

If we love our friends and family members, if we love our fellow congregants, we cannot afford to avoid or ignore this issue. When asked how churches can best reach out to those in the congregation who might be struggling with depression or anxiety, Rebekah Lyons answered,

“Churches can talk about it, and talk about it often. I’m a firm believer that secrets lose power when they exit the dark. Confession is a healing balm toward connectivity and we’re loved to the measure we are known. The more we name our struggles, the more others have permission to do the same. I can’t think of a more perfect medium to provide this healing community than the church.”[4]

As a pastor, I don’t have all the answers about depression. Not even close. I do know that the gospel frees us to be honest about it, and gives us hope. And so I want to help us start the conversation, and frame it with the gospel of Jesus.

So join us this Sunday at Westgate Church as we consider Psalms 42-43, “The Gospel and Depression.”

UPDATE: Listen to or read the sermon here.

End Notes

  1. See, e.g., Ed Welch, “Hope for the Depressed,” Jan. 10, 2010.
  2. Kathryn Green-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 21.
  3. Jared Wilson, Gospel Wakefulness (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 157.
  4. Ed Stetzer, “Freefall to Fly: An Interview with Rebekah Lyons on Anxiety, Depression, and Freedom,” The Exchange, April 15, 2013.

When Persecution Gets Personal

January 20, 2015
Niger

A Nigerian church, after last weekends attacks.

Over the past few months our small New England church has watched international crises touch uncomfortably close to home. First was news that our own missionary, Dr. Rick Sacra, had contracted the deadly Ebola virus disease while serving in Liberia. It’s a strange thing to see your friend and missions partner plastered all over every major new station in the western world. Of course we were already praying and concerned, but the Ebola crisis was no longer theoretical or ephemeral; it became personal. We gathered to pray and hung on the news stations as our friend fought for his life.

And the Lord was merciful. Not only has Dr. Sacra recovered, but he arrived back in Liberia last Thursday in order to provide care at ELWA hospital in Monrovia, and help lift the burden in a country whose entire medical system has been brought to its knees. (Click here to listen to Rick and Debbie Sacra tell their story at Westgate Church last November.)

Then news came just days ago about the attacks on Christians in Niger. Niger—where not one, but two of our missionary families have been serving long term. Over the past weekend the BBC reports that 45 churches were burned, resulting in 10 deaths and 170 injuries—many of these in the capital, Niamey, where our friends live.

They shared the following pictures on their Facebook page:

Before (Dec 14, 2014)

Before (Dec 14, 2014)

After (Jan. 17, 2015)

After (Jan. 17, 2015)

We praise God that things appear to be calming down. But we’re scared and hurting for our friends. One of them reflected yesterday:

A day full of grief. Very somber atmosphere in the office with many tears and much prayer. Quiet around town as well with many neighbors wishing to communicate their own sadness for the weekend’s events. Continue to pray for wisdom for local and mission authorities as rumors fly. Continue to uphold those staggered to have lost so much that they would know the comfort and provision of Jesus. We’re praying that something beautiful will come from the flames.

It’s hard to know how to process these things from our relatively comfortable and safe position in the West. My initial emotions are anger and fear. Anger that people would terrorize and kill Christians in Niger in protest to some foolish secularists in France. And fear of what might happen to our friends as a result.

But when I think of these events through the lens of the gospel—the good news that Jesus left the glory (and safety) of heaven to lay his life down for treasonous rebels like us—those emotions are slowly replaced with humility and gratitude. Humility in remembering that but for the grace of God, there is no difference between me and the blind zeal of rioters and terrorists. And gratitude over the privilege of being partnered with such courageous missionaries, men and women who are willing to follow the model of their Savior and leave the comfort and safety of home to give their lives away for the gospel.

I’m also reminded of Hebrews 10:32-39, which speaks honestly about the sorrow and suffering that sometimes comes with our witness, but then calls us to a defiant joy and a persistent hope. Read these lines and reflect on them:

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Heb. 10:32-39, ESV).

Please join me in praying for these dear men and women—for the safety, and for their hearts to be filled with joy and hope in our Great High Priest and Victorious King, Jesus Christ, to whom belongs all power and all glory.

And pray that God would indeed bring something beautiful from the flames.

Whose Story Anyway?

January 14, 2015
tags: ,

THE GOD-CENTEREDNESS OF THE GOSPEL

unbrokenImagine buying tickets to go see Unbroken, the great survival story of World War II veteran Louie Zamperini. Except when the film begins, you quickly realize that it’s been replaced with somebody’s home videos.

The uproar that would ensue is not hard to imagine. Nobody wants to watch that for two hours, let alone pay money to see it. There’s only one person interested in those videos—the person who stars in them.

But so often the way we apply the gospel to our lives is exactly like this. Read more…

The Gospel for All of Life

December 30, 2014

2015 PREACHING SERIES AT WESTGATE CHURCH

The-Gospel-for-All-of-Life-Cropped2015 marks Westgate’s fortieth year as a congregation. It’s an exciting milestone as we reflect back on all that God has done since a handful of college students from Park Street Church joined up with a small Bible study meeting in Weston. But it’s also a good occasion for us to look forward as a church, particularly as we seek God to make our vision a reality.

God has called us to be a gospel-centered community living each day on mission for Christ. But what does it really mean for the gospel to be at the center of everything? What difference should that make in our hearts, in how we do church, in our relationships at home, our aspirations at school, our attitude at work, our posture in the public square, or our global perspective?

The gospel is the good news of what God has done to establish his kingdom and deal with our sin through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit. But too often we view the gospel as something small and introductory—an entry point, the elementary things of faith.

The gospel is so much bigger than that. Because the grace of God in Jesus is bigger than that. It literally changes everything. As the apostle Paul points out in his letter to Titus, the same grace that saves us also teaches us to say no to sin and yes to godliness (Tit. 2:11-14; cf. 3:3-8). Or as pastor and author Tim Keller reminds us, “The gospel is not just the ABCs but the A to Z of the Christian life. It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians, and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more deeply as life goes on” (Center Church, 48).

We are committed to the centrality of the gospel in everything. We want everything about our lives, relationships, and ministries to flow out of and point back to the good news of Jesus. For this reason, we are devoting our worship services in 2015 to exploring and applying the practical realities of the gospel for everyday life.

So if you’re in the MetroWest area of Boston, join us this year as we consider the gospel in me (Jan-Feb), the gospel in the church (Mar-Apr), the gospel at home (May-Jun), the gospel at school (Jun-Jul), the gospel at work (Aug-Sept), the gospel in the public square (Sept-Nov), and the gospel to the ends of the earth (Nov-Dec). In other words, join us as we explore and apply the gospel for all of life.

The King who Is Enthroned on a Cross

November 24, 2014

crossThis morning I turned to the final folio in Matthew’s Gospel—the last two pages. That’s all that’s left to preach in this series.

It has been a wonderful journey—for me personally, hopefully for our congregation as well. Without a doubt, the predominant theme of Matthew’s Gospel has been the kingship and authority of Jesus Christ. The book opens by announcing his birth as the long-awaited king. “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (2:2). Jesus launched his ministry by declaring that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.  He demonstrated his royal authority through his teaching, his healing, and casting out evil spirits. He revealed the hidden nature of the kingdom through his parables. He entered into Jerusalem his final week lauded as a king. Finally, the book closes with Jesus’ own words, “All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me” (28:18). There is no mistaking the point: Jesus is the King of heaven and earth.

Yet as the book draws to a close, two themes collide that seem otherwise foreign to each other: kingship and cross. We don’t normally see those together. Yet as Matthew’s Gospel concludes, he makes clear that if you don’t understand kingship in light of the cross, then you’ve missed the point of his book. Read more…

How Should We Think About the Ebola Crisis?

October 28, 2014
Ebola, Liberia

Photograph: Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA

Fear. This is the word that seems to best describe the American perspective right now. From mandatory 21-day quarantines for healthcare workers returning from West Africa to New York or New Jersey, to the U.S. Army’s announcement today of the same policy–fear seems to be taking the day.

And understandably so. With a death rate between 50-90%, it’s understandable to be scared of an epidemic getting out of hand. It’s a good thing to plan and prepare for containment.

But are mandatory quarantines really the best solution?The CDC and healthcare professionals with direct experience dealing with (and surviving from) Ebola seem to think not.

How should we think about the Ebola crisis? And how should we think about it from a Christian perspective? These are some of the questions Dr. Rick Sacra, missionary doctor and Ebola survivor, will address during his talk this Sunday night at Westgate Church in Weston, Mass. It’s a free event, from 6:30-8:00 p.m., November 2. Find more information here.

An Evening with Dr. Rick Sacra

October 23, 2014

sacra 3When Dr. Rick Sacra heard the news of his friends and colleagues, Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol, being diagnosed with Ebola while serving in Liberia, he knew immediately that he had to return to Liberia to help fill the gap. He arrived on August 4th to the country that had been home to him and his family for the better part of two decades, where he began providing care for obstetric patients that previously had nowhere to go due to the strain of the Ebola crisis.

Despite extra precautions, Rick developed symptoms on August 29, and three days later was diagnosed with Ebola. He was flown to Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha for treatment, where by God’s grace and the fine care of the physicians there, he recovered from a disease that claims the life of somewhere between 50% and 90% of patients. Rick is now home with his wife Debbie and their three boys, continuing to regain strength.

Rick and Debbie have been missionaries of Westgate Church for many years. I met them a year ago at our annual missions conference. We gathered as a church in early September to pray for Rick’s health when news of his diagnosis broke. Now on Sunday night, November 2, from 6:30-8:00 pm, we have the joyful privilege of having Rick and Debbie come share with us Rick’s recent experience working in Liberia, and the story of his own battle with and recovery from the deadly disease.

Please join us if you’re in the Boston area. The event is open to the public and free of charge. We will take a voluntary collection to help SIM and ELWA hospital in their ongoing fight against this devastating epidemic.

Westgate Church is located at 100 Winter Street in Weston, MA. For more information, contact the church office.

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