When the Darkness Will Not Lift – The Causes of Spiritual Depression

This morning at Panera Bread restaurant, I begin a men’s group focused on the Psalms of Ascent with additional insights gleaned from Euguene Peterson’s book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.If you’re not in a men’s group at Trinity, let me encourage to come be a part of ours. It’s a small group focused on studying and sharing life together.

This morning we began by focusing on lifelines for our journey through spiritual depression from Psalm 120. At various times in all of our lives we suffer from spiritual depression. We become overwhelmed with a sense of oppression, negativity, and despair so  much so that God seems absent from our lives.

As he begins his journey, the Psalmist feels far away from God. A spiritual melancholy has enveloped him. Do any of you ever struggle with a melancholy spirit? Does a gloomy state of mind ever plague you? Have you ever felt far from the Lord when no enthusiasm for God’s worship or God’s Word? The thought of doing good for others absolutely wearies you. This malaise that comes upon us from time to time is called spiritual depression.

Martin Luther called it Anfechtung – spiritual assault and distress. Anfechtung is an assault on either the body, mind, or soul, involving fear, conscience, sin, and/or guilt, that always test your faith. It is all the doubts, turmoil, pains, despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man.

What is spiritual depression? In verses 1 and 5, the Psalmist describes his emotional state as one of distress. So much so that he pronounces a woe upon himself. Distress – being in a narrow and confining place that causes emotional pain due to unfavorable circumstances.

Secondly, spiritual depression can occur due of Satanic assault. Also, at times our physical and hereditary make-up can make us prone to spiritual depression. It is important that we don’t overlook the physical. The condition of our bodies makes a difference in the capacity of our minds to think clearly and of our souls to see the beauty of the hope of the gospel.

The greatest and the best Christians when they are physically weak and exhausted are more prone to an attack of spiritual depression than at any other time. There are great illustrations of this in the scriptures. Elijah knew spiritual depression. After his great spiritual battle and victory on Mount Carmel against the prophets of Baal, we find Elijah sitting beneath a juniper tree, utterly dejected, despairing and wishing to die (1 Kings 19:1-19).

Where is God in all of this? The two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Spiritual depression often results from the trauma of God’s apparent hiddenness, impotence or unconcern. For example, you believe that God is loving and sovereign and your four-year-old daughter dies of leukemia.

What are the causes of Spiritual Depression?  Spiritual depression can result from many causes. Our Psalm highlights two causes for spiritual depression.

The warring ways of the world (vv.1-2). The sin of others. These warring ways are seen in our sins of speech. Lies…Deceit. Lying lips and deceitful tongues wreak havoc in all our relationships. We cause others to suffer by our harsh, critical, and unloving words.

Samuel Cox wrote on this passage back in the late 1800s. He says that “half of the miseries of human life spring from the reckless and malignant use of the tongue… These tongues wag fastest behind a person’s back.”

Grima the Wormtongue. Grima was the counsellor of Theoden, the King of Rohan in Middle Earth. He betrayed his master by becoming an agent of Saruman. His directive was to weaken King Theoden in preparation for an invasion of Rohan. Theoden slowly succumbed to the whisperings of Grima, the wormtongue. Slowly and deceitfully, he had squeezed all life and health from Theodan with his deceitful lies.  BUT… deliverance was near. Hear the words of Gandalf:

“The wise speak only of what they know, Grima son of Galmod. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth.” But Gandalf comes to reclaim and rescue. And in sort of an exorcism of sorts, he frees Theodan from his pitiful condition.  I love the pastoral counsel of Gandalf to King Theodan: “Breathe the free air again.”

The world is more than just a hostile and antagonistic place for us. Yielding to the world’s allurement. For the Psalmist, rubbing shoulders with other believers and being sharpened had been withdrawn and he was in danger of compromising his faith.

The second huge cause of spiritual depression is the alluring ways of the world (vv. 5-6) as well as our own sin. The sin of worldliness. The verb “dwell”… to be too much at home in this world.

The Psalmist longed to be home in Jerusalem, but for some reason he found himself far away from Jerusalem as it was possible to get. Meshech is thought to be near the Black Sea in what we would call the Baltic Republics. In the south, ‘among the tents of Kedar’ in the Arabian desert. He was in a place and among a people that were far away from Jerusalem and that were hostile to faith!

Isolationism – the holy huddle… Over-accommodation to our culture.

Thirdly, spiritual depression can result from our unwillingness to let go of some cherished sin. This is why we regularly take time in our corporate worships to confess our sin. John Piper writes in his booklet, When the Darkness Will Not Lift: “In doing this, we are all prone to make two mistakes. One is to make light of our sin. The other is to be overwhelmed by it. However, the biblical approach is to take our sin seriously, hate it, renounce it, and trust Christ as our only Savior from its guilt and power.”


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