The Black Dog, the Dark Cloud, the Painful Nothing …

Depression is one of the most dreadful enemies of the soul, because we often can’t see it coming, and if we do, it’s an enemy that has no bodily form. We swing at it, and our punch goes right through. It doesn’t feel like a fair fight. And so we try to avoid it, and medicate over it, but that only seems to give it more space to metastasize. Depression is without form, and yet heavier than lead; it moves slowly and softly, and yet is as relentless as a freight train. 

And this is the time of year that many experience it – especially in the next few months. So I want to give just a few thoughts about it here. I won’t cover everything, and I will return to this subject in the near future. 

Pay Attention to the Metaphor

When listening to someone talk about depression, there is usually no way to describe it head-on. As I heard someone once say, “How do you describe a zero? How do you describe nothingness?” So instead of demanding specificity, either as a helper, or of ourselves, we must listen for the metaphors that we use to describe depression. Metaphors are the pot of gold, at least in gaining awareness. 

I once had a counselee from Africa describe it to me as, 

”You know, it’s like when you have an elephant, as a pet, a small elephant, and the elephant wants to climb on your back, and it does, and you throw it down, and it dies. But then it comes back . . .”

He motions somewhere behind him – the elephant is reincarnated in some dark corner behind him.

”And then it climbs up again, on your shoulders, and you throw it down again . . . Must you get tired of this . . .You know, it’s like this.”

Well, no, I don’t know what it’s like to have an elephant as a pet. But now I understand, much better. And then that metaphor became the governing image with which we battled depression together. 

Sometimes the metaphor is small and simple. C.S. Lewis once remarked at how much grief felt like fear. There’s a metaphor. I’ve called it the black dog. Another I know calls it the dark cloud. Listen for the metaphors. They tell us a lot. 

Together Is a Big Word

Sigmund Freud once dreamed aloud of a worldwide systems of centers where people might come and get wise care from other people on their maladies. And yet here we are, with our Bibles, the wisdom of the ages, just before us. 

And the wisdom of this Bible often says something like this: Job’s friends were really helpful, for as long as they kept their mouths shut. We often chuckle knowingly at the last half of that, but forget the first part: they were helpful, as they sat at Job’s figurative kitchen table, and as Job spoke of his sorrows, they simply sat, and listened. Perhaps they asked clarifying questions. Perhaps they even wept with Job. This was terribly helpful, in the midst of Job’s terror. 

The point is that we, the church, are living Freud’s dream. That is not to say that there is no need for outside, trained counselors – not at all. But there is tremendous power in being that friend, that another can tell the metaphor to, and still be loved, and accepted. That friend that can listen, and simply be with the other, in their toil. We the church are living Freud’s dream. 

But this requires a devotion to each other that is Christ-like. I mean a devotion that doesn’t just default to “Call a doctor”, or “Have you tried medication?”, or “Just do this”, or “This worked for my aunt,” but is gritty, and persevering. That goes at the pace of the other person, knowing God has always been content to move at our very human pace, in our toil. 

Sinner, Sufferer and Saint

And fighting depression is often like toil. We believe that it might, will lift, perhaps . . . so we toil until it does. For this reason, I think that those who battle depression are some of the most courageous people I’ve ever met. To toil in the face of a dark, faceless, amorphous enemy – that takes great courage. I respect it. 

Where does our energy come from in the toil? One source is by remembering – whether you are in it yourself or are a helper – that we are all three things, not just one. We are all sinners, sufferers, and saints. Our problems come when we emphasize only one of these perspectives, and our help comes when we see all three clearly. 

All three are clearly pictured in 1 Cor. 10:13-14:

13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

We are sinners. We are constantly tempted to bend away from God, in one way or another. And sometimes our sins do bring depressing consequences. But the word for “temptation” above can also just as easily be translated as “trial”. And plenty often, depression is itself the trial that brings about temptation. And it is the trial that reveals the idols that were already there, lurking inside us. 

And what a trial it is! It is easy to forget, when helping another in depression, this simple truth: that something hurts. It is suffering. So we don’t sing songs to the suffering. We sit. We smile. We pray. We cry out to God, together. And while we do that, remembering that we are sufferers, physically, we might consider what is contributing, bodily, to the depression. Diet? Is medication needed? Sleep patterns? Other illness? Friendships? Circumstances? And then we wait, looking to Him. 

Because we are saints, too. Though the dark clouds of depression hide His face from us, He is still there, working in the clouds to bring us raindrops of grace. But not yet. Thus it requires faith – and often the faith of another – to see that we are still saints, and that God still there, putting boundaries on this depression, keeping its size within our ability. And behind the scenes He’s plotting the way of escape. But the way of escape will not be an airlift up and out of depression, but an enduring through it. And the way we endure is by faith – faith in that which we cannot see, the God behind the dark cloud, the God Who holds the black dog on a strong leash of fixed length. 

We need good friends to help us see all of this, and then – verse 14 – to help us flee from the idolatry that will ooze out of us, when we are squeezed. The hard part is realizing then that depression can be a dark and severe friend, for God often uses it as a cleansing agent in our lives, to rid us of idols we did not know were there. 

Don’t Waste the Clarity

I will have more to say about depression, another time. But I’ll end here, on this point. When God applies the screeching brakes to our lives, whether through illness, or in the regret of sin, or the turn of the calendar year, or in the darkness of depression, He always brings with it clarity. As G.K. Chesterton once put it, 

One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak. G.K. Chesterton

Best to not waste this clarity. Don’t waste the stoppage time. Let the clarity that it brings lead you to new horizons, of life and mission. That clarity may come in one of those three areas: of being a sinner, sufferer or saint. That clarity will come, for God is never doing random. Often we need good friends to help us see it. And when it does, embrace it, and take another step. Perhaps it will be for a new mission in your life, a new horizon of faithful labor in love, or a new dream. And whatever is left behind, it’s best to leave it there. The new horizons God is taking you to are too light for so heavy a burden.