Are Depression & Anxiety Rooted in Grief?

“My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.”
Psalm 55:4-5

Psalm 55 is a passage I use frequently when counseling those who have experienced deep loss and trauma. David’s words are so honest and raw. He doesn’t cheapen or minimize his suffering. He asks God the hard questions, and he laments the injustice of experiencing betrayal and loneliness. My clients are sometimes surprised by these verses, because David’s words may seem harsh, critical and even a bit sacreligious. But he gives us a kind of template into the heart of what it takes to grieve well. 

When I meet with someone who feels depressed, anxious or angry, I try to ask questions that consider the possibility of grief. This can be a very important distinction, because I don’t want to dive into discussion about strategies for managing anxious thoughts or depressed mood if someone actually needs to process pain with me and before the Lord. I have discovered that when a person has the space to approach her distressing emotions and consider how they are affecting her life, she will then be better equipped to walk forward in wisdom. So it’s not just a matter of identifying the feeling and then finding a solution for it – it’s a matter of entering ‘the house of mourning’ (Ecclesiastes 7:4).

The most common distressing emotions related to grief are sadness, anger and worry. When these feelings surface, we should consider the signals they are sending to us. 

Sadness
Sadness includes a low mood and feelings of sorrow or despair. This is the most obvious feeling associated with grief, since a person is mourning the loss of something he or she holds dear. But we often ignore the sadness we feel over situations or things that we think shouldn’t be sorrowful. For example, a college graduate might not understand why he’s feeling sad upon entering the workforce. He believes he should be excited to be finished with school. But it makes sense that he would mourn the loss of college life, even while he’s excited about the future. When we are feeling sad, we should ask ourselves what’s prompting the sorrow. We need to be curious about what we believe about ourselves when we’re feeling sad, and we need safe spaces to share our pain.

Anger
When we feel anger, our bodies, minds and emotions are activated. We sense that something is wrong, and we long for justice. I don’t know about you, but I have heard many Christians say they were taught to quickly forsake anger. While I agree that we should not sin in our anger (Psalm 4:4), squelching it too quickly could lead to bitterness and doubt. I spend a lot of time in my counseling office encouraging clients to open the door to anger. I invite them to approach it and ask what anger might be trying to tell them. When it occurs, it’s a signal that something feels wrong inside. Ignoring that signal could bring about long-term consequences. I want my clients to ask themselves how anger manifests itself, what they believe about anger, and whether their anger is linked with the anger God feels toward injustice and evil. 

Worry
When I think about worry, I think about Jesus’ sermon in Luke 12:22-32. He reminds his listeners that they can trust God in the midst of turmoil, because He loves them and will provide for their needs. Jesus’ compassion is evident in the way he relates to people. When I’m sitting with someone who is worried, I don’t know what has led to her feelings of worry. Perhaps she has experienced the loss of a significant relationship or source of help, so now she senses a lack of future stability. I want to ask about what is causing worry, and I want her to have a safe space to share her concerns. She doesn’t need a solution – she needs compassion. 

I think we sometimes move too quickly to find a way out of our sorrow. We feel uncomfortable, and we want it to stop. But Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” If we refuse to acknowledge our brokenheartedness, how will we receive the comfort of the Lord? He longs to come toward us, but we must welcome Him into our grief. 

I have created a questionnaire that can help a person explore the emotions associated with grief. This resource is available to members of Chrisitan Trauma Healing Network. Click HERE to access it.

Losing Heart, Gaining Perspective

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This week I’m particularly drawn to a passage in 2 Corinthians 4. Paul explains our frailty as humans and compares it to the glory of God and the salvation we’ll inherit when our suffering on earth finally ends.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)

“Losing heart” indicates deep discouragement that leads us to give up and stop moving forward. I don’t know about you, but I have lost heart to varying degrees during 2020. Why does Paul say he isn’t losing heart? What kept him going through so much trial and suffering? The answer comes in previous verses.

  • In verse 6, he reminds us that God shines light into our hearts – “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Light is shining into our hearts if we are believers in Christ, and that light gives us hope.
  • In verse 7, he paints a word picture: treasures in jars of clay. He’s saying that the absolute glory and goodness of God lives inside these human bodies. God’s design in putting His glory into these frail vessels constantly reminds us that He is the one with all the power, not us. This is good news! We don’t have to muster up the strength to carry on. His power is at work to move us forward.
  • In verse 14, he says he knows …”that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” The truth of his inheritance spurs Paul forward and encourages his heart.

So Paul does not lose heart. His body is wasting away, but his spirit is renewed every day as he consciously recalls these truths: God’s light shines into our hearts, God’s power is hard at work within us, and God is bringing us home to heaven where suffering will no longer afflict us.

Paul then goes on to say that our affliction is light and momentary. At first blush I feel offended by this statement. I look around and see death, sickness, abuse, poverty and racial discrimination. I have a very hard time calling our present suffering “light and momentary,” and I certainly would never say that to a counseling client or friend who is grieving. What is Paul doing?

This passage is an example of a literary form of comparison in which the author holds one concept up next to another in order to magnify the difference between the two. The comparison lies between our current affliction and the “eternal weight of glory” that’s coming for all those who trust Jesus as Lord. So even though our current affliction is very great, Paul is saying that it will seem minuscule once we’re settled in our eternal home. Paul isn’t saying our suffering is worth nothing. He actually says our suffering is preparing us for the eternal glory that’s coming. In other words, we’re gaining perspective as we suffer.

I am currently standing on the earth. Compared to my body, the earth is massive. But compared to the whole universe, the earth is tiny. My suffering matters to God. Nothing is lost on Him. Psalm 56:8 says God keeps our tears in His bottle. Every moment of affliction is recorded and felt by Him. But He’s preparing us to see the earth fade into a tiny dot. The universe of heaven is waiting for us.

Remembering these truths doesn’t stop us from suffering. It’s not a form of denial. It’s a widening of our perspective. It’s a “zooming out” so that we can understand more fully what God is doing. We’ll never completely understand. Suffering is mysterious. But we can trust that He is with us. Our tears are in His bottle. And glory is coming.

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Why Are You Sleeping, O Lord?

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The words of Psalm 45:23-26 ring deafeningly in my ears:

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!

This is actually in the Bible! It sounds so accusatory toward God, and it’s definitely filled with bitterness and sadness. The Sons of Korah (who wrote this song to be sung by God’s people) intentionally used language that was so strong and harsh to express the despair felt collectively by the Israelites.

When I read this psalm a few weeks ago, I felt something that surprised me – relief.

If this passage is right there in the middle of the Bible, surely there’s something I’m meant to do with it. Surely there’s a posture that I’m allowed – even encouraged – to emulate when life throws me to the ground.

Grief.

It comes in a thousand forms, and it doesn’t walk a straight line. Anyone who’s grieved a terrible loss will tell you that the “five stages” model doesn’t do it justice (although it’s a helpful tool). Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. And then some more bargaining, and then some guilt for being a little bit happy. And then a barrage of cussing and spitting directed at those we love. And then sleep that doesn’t seem to relieve us. And back to denial. It’s exhausting.

As I watch our world collectively experiencing the thousand forms of grief (whether or not there’s an awareness of it), I’m drawn to Psalm 44. I’m comforted by the fact that even though the world cannot handle my anger or my fear, my God can handle it. In fact, my God wants me to bring my questions and doubts and frustrations to His ears. That’s the difference between a perfect Father and an indifferent judge. My questions aren’t judged as irrelevant, and my doubts aren’t deemed a lack of faith or prayer. Only in the wrestle with questions of “Where are you?” and “Why is this happening?” am I able to come face to face with the God who sees. And asking the question is, in itself, an act of faith. Pouring out my grief before God means I believe that He’s actually listening. What a gift.

The answers don’t come quickly or easily. In fact, I may not get an answer. What I get is a PERSON. Someone who’s right there in the middle of it with me. Never leaving and always abiding.

This is something I love so much about my God. And as a believer, I know I am called to represent Him in the world. If I cannot hear other people, if they cannot come as they are with their questions and doubts – how will I mirror God’s character? I must be a listener first. I must believe that a person who’s screaming (just like the psalmist) has experienced something so excruciating that a scream is all they have left. And I must not be afraid of the expressions of grief that are happening all around me. Caring about people means letting them be themselves and seeking to show them the heart of God amidst terrible pain.

I’ve learned over the years that those who cannot tolerate the grief of others have not yet entered into their own grief honestly. The best way to do this is to first take it in prayer to God. Emotion is not an enemy. It’s an arrow pointing us toward redemption.