Monday, April 2, 2018

Breaking Depression's Fear Cycle

In the previous article, (Learning to face distressing symptoms instead of dreading them) I discussed the importance of facing depression’s distressing symptoms rather than fearfully shrinking from them, as explained by Dr Weekes, 'I have no doubt that you are tensely shrinking from the feelings within you and yet, are ready to “listen in” in apprehension?...Now examine and do not shrink from the sensations that have been upsetting you. I want you to examine each carefully, to analyse and describe it to yourself...Do not tensely flinch from it. Go with it. Relax and analyse it…Now that you have faced and examined it, is it so terrible?' (1) That is, although we are initially convinced that we cannot possibly live or function while these symptoms rage within us, the fact is that after we have faced them, we realise that we can still live and function with them.

Once we have faced those symptoms and robbed them of their power, the next step is to put into practise a technique that will break depression’s ‘fear-adrenalin-fear cycle,’ as Doctor Weekes calls it.

The Fear-Adrenalin-Fear Cycle

The cycle works like this: we react to depression by fearing, fleeing or fighting it. These reactions cause too much adrenalin to flow, and it is this adrenalin that causes depression’s symptoms. We are so desperate to get away from these symptoms that we fear, flee and fight even more, which in turn produces even more adrenalin, which prolongs symptoms and produces new, even more alarming ones, which we fear, flee, and fight, and the cycle continues.

It is crucial that we recognize that it is this cycle that causes depression’s disturbing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual sensations/symptoms, and that by breaking that cycle, we can eventually be free of them.

Below I outline a system that can slow and eventually stop that excessive flow of adrenalin. The system is simple and presented quite clearly in God’s word, yet it is so ‘unnatural’ that it does not occur to us when lost in a state of anxiety. (The natural reaction to depression is to fear, flee or fight the symptoms.)

How to Break the Fear, Flight, and Fight Cycle:
1. Accept each of depression’s symptoms as being part of our life, instead of fearing, fighting or fleeing them
2. Learn to live with the symptoms as part of our life as if they were background music
3. Let time pass while trusting that God is in control (2) and keep ourselves constructively busy.

Our first reaction to these steps could be, “But I don’t WANT to learn to live with these disturbing sensations - I want them to go away!”

And there lies the irony of it all. It is only when we accept those sensations, learn to live with them, and let time pass, that the flow of adrenalin begins to diminish, as it the very reaction of desperately wanting them to go away that makes them worse. And as the flow of adrenalin diminishes, the symptoms lose their intensity, shorten in duration, and slowly begin to disappear. Accepting them instead of fearing or fighting them is the way to make them go away.

The Bible teaches us time and again that we should not be anxious, and it is not just because anxiety is the opposite of peace and trusting in God, but because God knows just how much fear and anxiety harms us. Here are scriptures that illustrate this technique of breaking the fear cycle by accepting, being content, and letting time pass.

Here are some reflections in my diary about putting this technique into practice:

Verses for Acceptance:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. James 1:2-3

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6

Verse for Learning to Live with the Symptoms:
‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.’ Philippians 4:12-13

Verses for Letting Time Pass while Trusting that God is in Control:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” John 14:1

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. James 1:12

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Matthew 6:25,27

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5.

While I was depressed, although I knew the Bible said I should not fear, should be content, and should rejoice in the midst of my sufferings, trying to put this into practice through sheer will power alone did not work. However, once I understood that putting those Bible verses into practice would break the fear-adrenalin-fear cycle, those verses suddenly came alive to me, causing hope to spring forth like spring rains after a drought.

It Takes Time for a Nervous System to Heal

Note that breaking the flow of adrenalin does not happen overnight, it is a gradual process that occurs over time. However, my life is a testimony to the fact that it does happen. Dr Claire Weekes says, “Accept it [the symptom] as something that will be with you for some time yet – in fact while you recover – but something that will eventually leave you if you are prepared to let time pass and not anxiously watch the churning during its passing. But do not make the mistake of thinking that it will go as soon as you cease to fear it. Your nervous system is still tired and will take time to heal, just as a broken leg takes time.” (3)

It is important that we keep ourselves busy as we let time pass while our nervous system slowly starts to heal. We need to go out of our way to find engaging, constructive activities and hobbies that interest us. Physical exercise, such as swimming, aerobics, circuit, walking or jogging, can also be of great help.

Within two months of reading “Self Help for Your Nerves,” a significant number of my symptoms, especially the physical ones, had greatly reduced in severity or ceased altogether. Over the next six months, I joined a new church, became a musician in a home group, started teaching Sunday School, and engaged in normal social activities again. Some symptoms took longer to fade away than others, but by reacting to them in the correct way, they no longer had the same power or intensity as I no longer feared them. Some symptoms, especially the mental ones such as panic attacks, lasted longer, but in time, they too faded away. Counselling was a crucial step in helping to deal with these, by helping me to retain my thought processes and gain new Biblical perspectives on the things I feared.

While stuck in depression, we think we have no future and no hope, but that is a lie from the kingdom of Satan, for in Christ we always have hope and a future. "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him." 1 Corinthians 2:9.

Hope enters our lives again when we know it is only a matter of time, whether weeks or months, or in the case of some symptoms, years, for our nervous system to recover from this cycle. After reading “Self Help for your Nerves,” my diary entries went from being bleak and full of despair, to containing hope, like this entry:

28th July 1990 -
This book has taught me how to react so that the merry go round will be stopped. And it’s teaching me how to react whenever it strikes again in the future.

The Importance of Surrender

To recover from depression we need to surrender every aspect of our life, including our desires and will, to Jesus. Romans 8:28 assures us that God is trustworthy and can bring good out of any situation. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’

We sing, “All to Jesus, I surrender,” but do we really surrender everything? (I am pointing a finger at myself here too!) For when a storm of life comes along, instead of surrendering every aspect of the situation, including our desires, to Him, we typically react by fearing, fleeing or fighting - because we do not want to be where we are. Yet, by reacting like this, we make the suffering worse as this causes more adrenalin to flow.

Even in the midst of the storm called depression, when we accept what we are going through instead of fearing, fleeing or fighting it, when we learn to live with it, and let time pass, we can find rest and experience inner peace again. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28.

(1) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p21.
(2) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p19. Note, Dr Weekes includes 'floating' as a step in the treatment technique, whereas I wrote 'learn to live with it.' In my case I found the 'floating' concept hard to grasp, but easily related to that step (or my interpretation of it) when I thought of it as 'learning to live with it.'
(3) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p22.

All verses from NIV.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Dealing with Panic Attacks

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack (also known as an anxiety attack) is a relatively brief episode of intense fear that comes on suddenly, where the person is both terrified of the physical symptoms that are afflicting them as well as by the associated fears that either triggered or accompanied the attack.

A panic attack typically lasts for at least ten minutes but can stretch on for much longer, even hours or days if cyclic in nature. Cyclic panic attacks are where a person is subject to a continuous cycle of attack after attack, with a new attack triggering even as the previous one is fading away.

The fears associated with a panic attack are strongest when the attack begins. These fears demand our attention, yet the more attention we give them – the more we fear them - the greater they become. Fighting, arguing with, fearing or trying to flee the panic attack and its disturbing symptoms causes negative adrenalin to flood our being. This in turn causes even greater anxiety and even more disturbing sensations to afflict us during the attack.

In my case, a typical panic attack included an increased heart rate, flushed face, increased temperature, shortness of breath, chest feeling constricted, a complete lack of peace, and an intense churning/discomfort in the stomach. These physical symptoms were accompanied by a terrifying fear that was so vivid and threatening that I would often ‘scream’ in my mind. Many sufferers wail or scream quite loudly during an attack.

What triggers panic attacks?

A panic attack can be triggered by an extremely stressful or fearful situation, or even by an exceptionally terrifying fearful thought. Subsequent exposure to the same situation or fearful thought may trigger further attacks. Being afraid that another attack may come increases the likelihood of them striking again.

The stress of trying to making an important life decision can also trigger a panic attack. (See below for how this can affect Christians in particular.)

Panic attacks can even trigger without a cause, however, in these cases, the mind typically searches for a reason for the attack, and may latch onto a fear which then becomes the associated fear for that attack. It is typical for the mind to latch onto a fear that has terrified the person in the past.

A mind prone to anxiety is the perfect seedbed in which a panic attack can take root and flourish. Some people by nature have a sensitive nervous system, which can be due to past or recent traumas or even due to genetic inheritance. However, those suffering from depression are especially susceptible to panic attacks as their minds are locked in a state of constant anxiety.

1 Peter 5:8 is a perfect description of how panic attacks operate. 'Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.’  Although Satan has been defeated by Christ’s victory on the cross, he masquerades as a roaring lion and tricks people into believing that panic attacks have real power and can devour them, when in fact they have no power at all.

Dealing with Panic Attacks

In late July, 1990, I read ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ by Dr Claire Weekes, which taught me all about the ‘fear-adrenalin-fear cycle,’ (1) and how the more we fear, flee or fight panic attacks, the worse we become as the additional adrenalin produced prolongs symptoms and produces more disturbing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual sensations. It is a very vicious cycle.

To recover from panic attacks we need to break this cycle.The AWARE Technique is one effective method used by many to break the cycle:

Breaking the Panic Attack Cycle using the AWARE Technique:

A- Accept the panic attack. Do not fear it or fight it. Fearing or fighting it just makes it worse. Just let it be there for now, like background music. Do not be afraid that you may have more panic attacks in the future. Let them come.

W- Watch the panic attack, by rating it right now on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worse it has ever been in the past, and 1 meaning it has gone. Remember all anxiety attacks follow a pattern in that they increase to a peak and then decrease and stop. So do not be alarmed at its intensity during its worse phase. It will pass.

A- Act normal Carry on as normal. If you are currently engaged in an activity, concentrate on that activity. Otherwise, find something constructive to do, such as going for a walk, weeding the garden, washing the car. If you stop being active and focus on the panic attack and the fearful topic associated with it, it will suck you in and it will get temporarily worse. However, if you carry on as normal, choosing to focus on something else, the panic attack will start to fade.

R- Repeat Let time pass and keeping repeating the above three steps until the panic attack has faded away.

E- Expect Expect the best and remember that this panic attack will end soon just like all the previous ones did. Furthermore, expect each future attack to reduce in severity and duration, the more times you react to them with the AWARE technique. Eventually, you will no longer fear them and will be able to nip them in the bud before they start.

To help with future attacks, write this on a card or print it out and keep it in your wallet/purse:

A- Accept the panic attack. Do not fear it or fight it.
W- Watch the panic attack, by rating it right now on a scale of 1 to 10.
A- Act normal Carry on as normal. Do not stop being active and therefore focus on the panic attack.
R- Repeat Keeping repeating the above three steps until the panic attack has faded away.
E- Expect Expect the best and remember that this panic attack will end.

I used to say this little summary to myself when hit by a new panic attack:

Peter, you're having a panic attack,
Just accept it, (don't fear it or fight it,)
Learn to live with it,
And let time pass.

(These steps are a practical application of Bible verses Philippians 4:12-13, John 14:1, James 1:2-3. If you would like to read further Bible verses to deal with panic attacks, ie, that illustrate the above technique, please read this post, Breaking Depression's Fear Cycle.)

After I read ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ whenever a panic attack hit me, I said to myself: “Peter, you're having a panic attack. Don't fight it or fear it, just accept it, and learn to live with it, don't debate it and argue with it, and let time pass, and it will fade.”

To my amazement, the above technique worked, as it broke the fear-adrenalin-fear cycle. First the intensity of the attacks reduced, then their frequency grew less, and finally I found that in most cases, I was able to nip the attack in the bud before it could take off.

Another thing that can help when afflicted by an annoying re-occurring panic attack is to share the panic attack topic or fear with a wise Christian friend, so that we can get a fresh, healthier perspective on the issue. Although a fearful thought may seem larger than life to us, our friend will see right through it. In this case, trust their perspective, not our own fearful one. (A word of caution, it is not wise to continually run these fears past our friends, as this will not only drive them crazy, but in time we need to learn how to find a fresh perspective ourselves from prayer and Bible study.)

Another small note: if you suffer from panic attacks and you simply cannot put into practice the steps I have outlined above, I recommend seeing a doctor. If the doctor recommends anti-depressants and professional counselling, consider the advice carefully. Anti-depressants dull the effects of depression and panic attacks and this is a huge help in overcoming them. (See my entry, Depression, Christians, and Anti-Depressant Medication.)

2 Timothy 1:7 ‘For God did not give us a spirit of timidity (of cowardice, of craven and cringing and fawning fear), but [He has given us a spirit] of power and of love and of calm and well-balanced mind and discipline and self-control.’ (Amplified Bible)

Panic Attacks and Christians

Unfortunately, for some Christians, a panic attack caused by the fear of making the wrong life choice has another insidious dimension to it. Since they cannot control it or make it stop, and because it is accompanied by a distinct lack of peace, they erroneously misinterpret the panic attack as God guiding them. A common expression not found in the Bible is, “Let the peace of God guide you.” It embarrasses me to admit that for many years I thought panic attacks were God guiding me.

Mistaking panic attacks as being God’s guidance actually makes the panic attacks worse, as such Christians in their eagerness to obey God are (unnecessarily) terrified of disobeying Him. A verse which used to torment me when I resisted and fought against a panic attack was 1 Samuel 15:22 “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD. To obey is better than sacrifice.” As I drew closer to depression as 1989 wore on, I had an attack and lost my peace every time I was faced with a major decision. Every time I tried to take a step forward, an attack (which I misinterpreted as God’s guidance) would send me reeling two steps backwards. In the end, I was too scared to make decisions any more. 18/2/1990 – I’m scared to commit to anything, such as joining a new church, getting a girlfriend, buying a computer, etc, in case He says no. It’s got to the point that I won’t do anything in case God says 'no.'

Can you imagine the relief I felt when I discovered that panic attacks were not God’s guidance, and that ignoring them was not disobeying Him?

The most bewildering aspect of mistaking panic attacks as God guiding us is trying to work out exactly what God is trying to say (since He is not actually saying anything). When severely depressed I was frequently afflicted by cyclic panic attacks over a period of months. These were associated with a large range of fears, most telling me that I was supposed to be doing this or that. Here is a diary entry showing the exasperation I felt at that time.

15/3/1990 – I feel like saying, “What sort of God are You to do this to someone, and why don’t You speak clearly? All You have to do is speak to me or give me a vision, etc, and I’ll obey, but what is this ‘Guess what I’m saying with the hit and miss affair [when I take away your peace to guide you.]’ ”

Before I became depressed, one thing that reinforced my belief that losing my peace due to a panic attack was God’s voice, was that every time I gave into the panic attack fear, the attack ended and my peace returned immediately. For example, once I was about to leave my job, enter part time ministry and look for a part time job. The massive panic attack which followed ceased as soon as I decided to turn down the offer for part time ministry and remain at my job.

However, when I became clinically depressed, giving into a panic attack and doing what it appeared to be 'saying' no longer stopped the attack. The attack just kept coming back, normally by switching immediately to another fearful thought, or topic. This was because while suffering from depression, we are in a state of constant anxiety. This was when I got my first real clue that the attacks and the lack of peace were not God’s attempt to guide me, but something else. Being convinced of this was another matter entirely.

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8:32

Finally in April 1990 I saw a Christian counsellor. She told me that I was suffering from depression, and assured me that the panic attacks and lack of peace were NOT God attempting to guide me. She said that I had been placing my trust in following a lack of peace as guidance – “It’s always worked before” – instead of in Him. Through her counselling, prayer and Bible study, the Lord taught me the following truths, which set me free from the erroneous belief that panic attacks were God guiding me.

Isaiah 9:6 ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ Jesus is the Prince of Peace, not the Prince of a lack of peace.

John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” It does not say “My lack of peace I give to guide you.”

John 14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.”

So if the Bible does not say, “Let the peace of God guide you,” what then does it say should guide us?

Psalm 119:105 ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.’

Proverbs 3:6 ‘in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.’

James 1:5 ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.’

In conclusion, we need to make our life decisions prayerfully, with wisdom based on God’s Word, and we need to do so while dwelling in His peace with an untroubled heart.

A small footnote here. Our heart can of course be troubled without suffering a panic attack – our heart can be troubled by a great number of things. For example we may have agreed to take on one too many jobs, causing such stress that we cannot relax or sleep properly. To reduce our workload here would be the wise choice. This is a case of noting the warning signs of our mind and body and taking appropriate action.

If we are feeling pressured, rushed, or stressed out by any circumstances, we need to step back, meditate upon God's Word, pray and seek His guidance. In such times, we need to wait upon Jesus to receive His rest for our soul. Matthew 11:28. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Now although I was relieved to know that the panic attacks were not God guiding me, the attacks continued relentlessly and with almost as much power. My nervous system was still exhausted, and I was still reacting to the attacks in the wrong way - by fighting and fearing them. Freedom from the panic attacks came when I read “Self Help for Your Nerves,” as I mentioned above.

(1) ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ Doctor Claire Weekes, Angus & Robertston Publishers, 1989, p10.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Letting Go of Past Hurts

Past emotional, mental or physical abuse, or being deeply hurt or mistreated by a friend or an enemy, are common causes of depression. I have had my share of such experiences. Bitterness, anger and unforgiveness are typical responses to such injustices suffered, but as these reactions hinder our walk with Christ, the Bible gives us ample instructions on how to overcome them.

Let me also mention here that in many of the above cases, especially where abuse is involved, getting help from a trained Christian counsellor or a professional health care worker is very highly recommended if not absolutely necessary.

Keep No Record of Wrongs

Isaiah 43:18-19
"Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland.”

This passage provides a vivid description of a life damaged by past hurts – a life that has become a wasteland, a desert. Dwelling upon a record of wrongs weighs us down and heavily burdens us. But the Lord’s instructions to forget those former things and not dwell on them, comes with a beautiful promise. Letting them go releases streams of living water into our life and enables God to do a new work in us.

One of the greatest new works Christ does in our lives is to bring us to a place where we can forgive those who have hurt us. This is such an important aspect of our daily Christian walk that Jesus included it as part of the Lord’s prayer. Luke 11:4 “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”

Instead of dwelling on past hurts, we can let go of those memories and forgive the person that hurt us. Although we cannot make ourselves forget the memories, if we stop clinging to them the painful associations will fade significantly.

1 Corinthians 13: 4-5 ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.’

“But it is Part of Who I am…”

One reason I had trouble letting go of past hurts was because they had become part of my identity. “I am this way because of how that person mistreated me,” was an excuse I believed. I feared that if I let go of the anger and record of wrongs and forgave the person who had hurt me, I would lose a part of myself, part of my very individuality.

However, Jesus taught me that such fears were unfounded, that I did not have to hold onto past hurts in order to maintain my identity. He showed me that there was another option - to allow His love and forgiveness to flow from me towards the person who hurt me. And when I did this, instead of anger and the record of past wrongs being part of who I was, Christ’s love and forgiveness became part of my identity.

If someone were to meet me and hear my testimony now, they would not hear me say, “I am this way because of how that person mistreated me.” Instead, they would see that I have forgiven the person who wounded me, and in fact love them dearly with the love of Christ. If they were to ask me how this could be so, I would answer, “I am this way because of Christ’s work of love and forgiveness in my life.”

When we let Christ's love and forgiveness become part of who we are, we change and become more like Christ. And is that not our goal, to become more like Him? 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.' Galatians 2:20 (NLT)

As we learn to surrender our lives to Christ, He can give us such a powerful revelation of His love for us that we can view others through His loving gaze rather than through our own eyes. I have experienced this very powerfully in my life.

Let us be like Stephen, whose attitude towards those who unjustly stoned him to death was: ‘While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.’ Acts 7:59-60

What a wonderful testimony this is to the power of God’s love. When others see us forgive - even love - those who have hurt us, they see the power of God’s kingdom in action, and their lives are changed too. I have heard of many cases of abusive prison wardens in Soviet countries coming to Christ after witnessing the unconditional love and forgiveness of their captives.

Harbouring Unforgiveness Hurts Ourselves

If we have been deeply hurt by someone in the past, we earnestly desire to flee that pain and be set free from the wounds. A thought that I would like us to bear in mind is that by consciously or unconsciously harbouring anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness towards that person, we unwittingly participate in keeping those wounds fresh and unable to heal. That is one reason that Jesus spoke so often of the importance of forgiving those who have wronged us. By not forgiving them, we hurt ourselves even further.

To Forgive Others, Reflect On How Much God Has Forgiven Us

The most liberating Biblical truth that helps us to forgive those who have treated us unjustly is to recognise the depths to which God has forgiven us.

Why does the Bible say, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” Matthew 6:14? It is because for us to refuse to forgive others after God has forgiven our massive debts towards Him, shows a lack of appreciation of how much God has forgiven us.

We all know of the parable in Matthew 18:21-35, where a servant who owed millions of dollars to a king, had that debt cancelled when he asked for mercy. The servant then went on to throw a fellow servant that owed him a few dollars into prison, because he had not paused to reflect on the mercy the king had extended towards him.

This is the key to forgiving others, as Selwyn Hughes writes: ‘I would not judge you or condemn you if you said: “I can never forgive that person for what he (or she) did to me.” But what I would say to you is this: the more you reflect on the wonder of how much you have been forgiven the easier it will be to forgive even the worst sins that have been committed against you.’ (1)

So, regardless of how much we have been hurt by others, let us forgive them. If God forgives us of our numerous sins towards Him, we can forgive others of their (comparatively) lesser sins towards us.

And then we will be sons and daughters of God, revealing His nature to a hurting world, as it shows us in Luke 6:35-36 “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

(1) Every Day with Jesus, Monday 18th Feb, Selwyn Hughes, CWR, Jan/Feb 2002.

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All verses from NIV unless noted otherwise.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Has God Abandoned Me?

“Has God abandoned me?” or "Why has God abandoned me?" are desperate cries from the heart of many, whether stuck in the depths of severe depression or struggling to deal with a major crisis such as a personal tragedy, chronic health problems, even the destruction of lifelong goals.

After floundering in the depths of severe depression for over three months, I wrote this in my diary:

10th April 1990 –
I see others who live and prosper,
And yet here am I, stuck in this dark prison cell.
Jesus, where are You? Please see my circumstances,
Please hear my prayer.
Please set in motion Your answer, Your solution.
Why have You abandoned me?
Why do You remain silent?
I’ve waited and waited, yet I am met with silence.

Someone suffering from depression typically loses interest in life, experiences a sense of overwhelming dread, has terrifying obsessive fearful thoughts, and also panic attacks, insomnia, guilt, confusion, anger, and a dozens of other disturbing symptoms. A depressed Christian also tends to loose the ability to feel God’s presence, cannot take comfort from His Word, and can no longer feel His love.

If struggling with severe depression or a major life crisis, we may also look at our dire circumstances and jump to the conclusion that these terrible things have happened because God has abandoned us. We cannot comprehend how God could still be with us and yet allow us to undergo such suffering.

Here is another entry from my diary:
28th Feb 1990 –
Dear Jesus, I continually get angry with You.
Why have You allowed this? Where are You?
How long will You remain silent? Why won’t You heal me?
I know what You are capable of, yet You do nothing – why?

We may become frustrated, worried and angry when it feels like God’s Word no longer seems to be working, and when He does not seem to be honoring His promises. We wonder if God has left us to fend for ourselves. We cannot understand why He will not answer our desperate prayers – can’t He see what we are going through? Doesn’t He care?

My diary, 14th June 1990 –
The Heavens remain silent,
and this both angers and disappoints me.
I thought I felt Jesus say that He is carrying me through this.
But how can I be sure?
And if He is, why won’t He let me feel His presence?
Why won’t He help me?
Where is His Word? Where are His promises?

Another common reaction is to fear that we have let God down in some major way, wondering if we have stepped outside His will by disobeying Him, or have committed an unforgivable sin. We wonder if this was sufficient cause for God to turn His back on us and abandon us. And if we get angry with God for letting us go through this inexplicable suffering, devastating guilt may follow these bouts of anger. We may even think that we have lost our salvation and are no longer a Christian.

From my diary, 20th July 1990:
Experiences like the past eight months
almost make you wonder,
it makes me wonder if I am one of His children.

Some Christians suffering from depression or a major crisis say: “It feels like God has abandoned me! I can’t feel God’s presence anymore.” Or, “Why has God abandoned me?”

There are two common threads weaving through what I have written above:

1. We may look at our circumstances and leap to the conclusion that God has abandoned us, and/or
2. We can look at our feelings, and because we cannot feel that God is with us, we conclude that He has abandoned us.

So what can we do when we feel or fear that God has abandoned us? What can help us get through this phase?

Recognise Our Feelings are Deceiving Us

When stuck in the midst of severe suffering, we need to recognise what a friend once told me, “We can’t see properly in times like this. Our feelings completely distort our world view and vision.” It is as though we are wearing extremely dark glasses all of the time. Although light surrounds us, we cannot see it because of the dark glasses.

We Must Not Trust Our Feelings

Bearing in mind that our feelings have become distorted, we must remind ourselves daily that we cannot trust our feelings nor pay them any heed – they are tricking and misleading us. This is hard, I know, because throughout our lives we have learned to listen to our feelings and let them guide us to some degree or another. But what may work for a healthy person does not apply to someone suffering from depression. We need to learn not to place any significance on what we are feeling, and recognise that we may remain in this condition for a while. But be encouraged, this phase does not last forever. When our exhausted mind and nervous system heal, whether this takes months or years, our feelings will return to normal. We will feel God’s presence and love again, and we will take comfort from His word again.

We must not use our Circumstances as a Basis to Conclude that God has Abandoned us

We need to realise that our circumstances are not an indication of whether God is with us or not. We Christians sometimes fall into the error of thinking that while things are going well, God must be with us, but when our world falls apart, it means that God has abandoned us.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, the Bible assures us that God will never leave us nor forsake us. Secondly, it tells us that we will face trials, and that God will use these for good in our lives, and that He will comfort us in and through them.  

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ James 1:2-4

‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ Romans 8:28

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7

We Need to Keep Things in Perspective

We need to remind ourselves that this world and its troubles are only temporary. We who trust in and cling to Jesus have a wondrous hope – one day we shall spend eternity in heaven and see the face of God and Jesus everyday - a perfect place filled with love, joy and peace. We will also have a brand new body that is perfect in every way.

When I consider the unimaginable, eternal riches that await us in heaven, the temporary trials I endure on the earth fade into insignificance.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.' Romans 8:17-18

Trust in What We Know, Not in What We Feel

So if we cannot rely upon our feelings nor upon the way in which we interpret our circumstances, what can we rely upon? We can rely upon what we know and believe.

We know and believe that God is with us (although we can’t feel it), we know and believe that He loves us (although we can’t feel it), and we know and believe His word is all powerful (although we can’t feel it and things seem to be out of control). We know these things because the Bible tells us, and because the Holy Spirit in us testifies to that fact. For now, it is enough to know God is with us, to know that Jesus loves us, and to know that His Word is all-powerful. It does not matter than we cannot feel these things while depressed or our world view has been distorted by suffering.

In reading through my diary entries, it is interesting to see that although I lamented that I felt abandoned by God, in those very same entries, I also concluded that I knew He was still there and still cared for me. I was learning to rely upon His Word instead of upon my feelings.

13th May 1990 –
The Bible says to consider it joy to endure trials,
I must say that there has been no joy in this trial.
It defies any previous experience known to me.
But I’ve been forced to trust God
when it seems like He has abandoned me.
I have been forced to come to a place
where I have trusted Him without feeling like doing so.
All I want to do is cry out that He had abandoned me,
that He is not faithful.
But He is faithful. And I know that.
He is faithful and true. He is Jesus.

14th June 1990 –
I feel so like Job.
“Curse God and die!” my thoughts yell at me.
“Look at this suffering!
How can He be faithful,
when He’s apparently done nothing
for six whole months now - curse Him and die!”

But God is faithful, and I know that –
it is His name – Faithful and True.

Bible Verses that we can Rely Upon

Feelings can change like the wind and are colored by our circumstances, and circumstances can also come and go. However, God's Word remains constant, it never changes. Let us look at some of those Bible verses now – verses we know are true and can be relied upon.

God’s Promises to Never Leave Us

Deuteronomy 31:8 “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged."

Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Matthew 28:20 “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

John 10:27 “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”

God’s Promises that He Loves Us

Romans 8:35,38-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Galatians 2:20 The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

God Never Changes

God never changes, He is the one constant in an ever-changing world. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8

Assurance of Salvation

If it feels like we think we have lost our salvation, here are a few verses to reassure us of the gift of eternal life that we receive from God when we believe in, cling to and rely upon Jesus.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23.

That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9 And "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16.

It does not matter if we cannot feel that we are saved if suffering from depression or going through a major life crisis, what matters is that we believe in Jesus and stand upon His Word. (More on this topic in this article.)

Relying on God’s Word, not our Feelings

One last thought before I sign off. When we have learned to cope with or passed out of difficult times such as depression, we will be able to look back upon the phase where we thought God had abandoned us, and we will recognise very clearly that He was with us and holding us safely in His hands the whole time.

We will also realise that it was during this time that we learnt to rely upon and stand on God's Word, instead of relying on our feelings.

Luke 6:47-48 “I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.” 

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Depression - Suicide is NOT the answer (Christians, Depression, and Suicide)

The extract below is from my diary, written while stuck in the miry pit of severe depression. I had virtually no hope, could see no future, and feared depression would never end.

29th April 1990 -
How many other people are out there like me?
I wish I could help them, comfort them,
But I wouldn’t know how.
I don’t even know how to survive myself.
What was it that stopped me from ending it all?
Why did I persist?
Jesus was some of the reason, sure,
But even my spiritual life was in a complete shambles.

The one main thing that stopped me from ending it was my mother.
I had to keep going for her,
And for the others who cared for me.
How could they cope if I had killed myself?
I saw the devastating effects a suicide could have on a family,
And there’s no way I could put others through such an ordeal.

A common reaction if experiencing unbearable suffering such as depression, is to want to die or kill ourselves. Unable to see an end to the suffering, and not knowing how to be free from it, suicide or wanting to die may seem like the only escape route available.

This is a lie from Satan. Capitalising upon our fears and feelings of hopelessness, Satan tries to convince suffering people that death is the only way out. He tries to hide the truth from us because he wants to destroy us. We must not give into Satan; we must not give him the victory.

John 8:44 “the devil…was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

Another extract from my diary, 14th June 1990 –
I keep asking myself, why am I still here?
Why am I still even trying?
Why don’t I just give up and end it?
I mean, is this all there is to human life?
Is this it?

But regardless of how hard it gets,
I can’t end it, for my mother could not handle it.
I’ve seen the effects suicide can have on a family,
And I would not willingly do that to anyone.
I feel so like Job. “Curse God and die!” my thoughts yell at me.
“Look at this suffering!
How can He be faithful,
When He’s apparently done nothing for six whole months now –
Curse Him and die!”
But God is faithful, and I know that -
It is His name – Faithful and True.

The main thing that stopped me from ending it was that I had witnessed the effects suicide has upon a person’s family, and I loved my family too much to destroy their lives by ending my own. They loved me, cared for me, and were supporting me the best they could, as were my friends. If I had taken my own life, it would have destroyed their lives by causing them to enter a depression worse than what I was experiencing. I refused to put them through that.

And as to the fear that depression would never end – that was a lie as well. I did recover. The fact is, if I had succumbed to Satan’s lies that death was the only way out of depression, I would have been robbed of all the wonderful blessings that God was yet to give me.

1 Corinthians 2:9
However, as it is written:
"No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him."

Once I came to understand how depression worked and how to recover, hope re-entered my life. During the next four years, while I slowly healed, I learnt to live with it and got on with my life. I made a lot of new friends, took up new hobbies such as writing and computer games, and joined a new church where I played the piano and taught Sunday school.

And then, when I recovered from depression, God continued to pour His blessings upon me. I bought a house, married a wonderful lady and had two beautiful (busy!) children.

Quality of life after depression was also much better than it had been before depression. Why? Because it was through depression that had I finally learnt how to deal with anxiety and panic attacks – I was finally free of them for the first time in my life! And best of all, I came to receive a much deeper understanding of God’s love for me, I learnt how to trust Him during difficult times, and I came so much closer to Jesus.

Another thing that helped me to press on, where the memories of my relationship with Jesus before I became depressed. I often reflected upon the times He had comforted me, the times I had felt His wonderful presence, and upon Bible passages that offered encouragement. Most of all, I remembered when Jesus so clearly revealed His love for me - a love so deep and touching that I had wept for joy afterwards. I focused on the fact that God is faithful and true, irrespective of my circumstances.

Ephesians 3:17-19 ‘And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.’

One thought that helped me persevere was the joy of reaching heaven and hearing Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!” Matthew 25:23. How could Jesus say that if I had taken my own life? That is not being a good and faithful servant, making the most of the life and gifts He had given me – that is giving up!

I also kept in mind that God rewards the overcomers, those who persevere in times of trouble. The book of Revelation lists several wonderful rewards that Christ gives to the overcomers. If you have a moment, please check them out. Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 3:5, 3:12

In conclusion, if plagued by thoughts that suicide is the only way out of depression, remember that this is a lie - there is a way out, we can recover, and we can enjoy the richness of life again.

And some advice - we need to talk to those who are supporting and caring for us, and tell them if we are having suicidal thoughts. When I confided to my mother that I felt like ending it all, she immediately arranged for me to see her doctor. The anti-depressants the doctor gave me were very effective in reducing the severity of depression’s symptoms, which made life much more bearable. So if having such thoughts, please see a good doctor and follow his or her advice.

As well as seeing a doctor, we need to get help from a professional therapist or counsellor and deal with the underlying issues that are causing the depression. I also recommend reading “Self Help for Your Nerves” by Dr Claire Weekes. It was after reading this book that hope returned to my life.

And most of all, we need to cling to, rely upon, and trust in Jesus. He will not abandon us if we turn to Him.

If no one is available and you need to talk about suicidal thoughts, please talk to someone at a suicide helpline. Here is a helpful listing of such helplines available in a number of different countries.

All verses from the NIV.