It’s been very moving to have messages in the last few days about my black dog posts. Thank you! At least it shows that it’s been worth it. As I mentioned in the first post, I’m genuinely not motivated by the kind of confessional culture that is all around us; still less am I trying to elicit sympathy. And I’m definitely not seeking advice or support (kind though some offers have been!). It is only to help those who don’t quite have the words for this yet. But I do realise that it’s raised lots of questions for some…
From time to time, the black dog achieves something very unexpected (yet another reason the words ‘depression’ or ‘feeling low’ are so irrelevant). It’s not low feelings, but NO feelings. It’s the sense of no sense – which, of course, sounds like nonsense. Not least because it seems to contradict everything I’ve been writing this week.
So for someone for whom music (of all types) has been integral since childhood, that’s been one of the hardest things. I could get through difficult days at school etc by having a good cathartic bash on the piano for an hour or so. But for too long, music has left me unaffected. Very occasionally it breaks through. But it’s rare. And then, the cloud bursts, and the spiral of negativity that I’ve described previously, engulfs and drowns. I’ve not had the manic highs that some poor folks get – it’s either a flatline or a cave most of the time.
But here’s the oddest thing about that. It’s actually taught me something about Christian discipleship. I’ll explain more in a mo – but it’s one of the ways in which this whole business has been compatible, and even, dare I say it, helpful, with my walk.
When I preached about depression at All Souls a few years ago, I suggested that it can possibly be a gift as well as a curse. I didn’t say that lightly, but nor did I say it dogmatically. And I’d never dream of saying to someone in the throes that they just should buck up and embrace the gift. I’d never wish the cave on my worst enemy.
But you see, my faith has caused both the greatest perplexity and ultimate balm in the cave. But I couldn’t necessarily feel it.
The perplexity is obvious. The equation just don’t add up. Apparently.
[BlackDogged Believer] ??=?? [Good God] + [Sovereign God] + [Just God]
Yet down the ages, the black dog hasn’t stopped people believing. (Nor has suffering generally, for that matter.) Just look at this little list:
- In The Bible: Abraham?, Job, King Saul, King David, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, Paul
- In History: Charles Spurgeon, William Cowper, C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Piper etc
It’s hardly exhaustive. But it reveals one thing, surely. There are no quick fixes – nor does faith make one immune. Christians suffer just as much (if not sometimes, more) than the world around them. Yet how often we slide into a kind of psycho-prosperity gospel. It might not be vocalised, but it assumes that we must somehow be ok in our heads if we follow Jesus. What total codswallop.
After all, check this out from the inspired Psalmist:
I had to make that little pic myself – after all, that quotation is hardly going to come top of the cheesy-christian-poster-pops is it?
But I cannot tell you how grateful I am it’s in the Bible. It gives permission – not to mope or despair deliberately – but to describe reality as it is experienced. No pretence or hypocrisy. Of course the psalm is unique – it’s the only one to end in such bleakness. But many other psalms echo that darkness… it is fair to say that the largest subset of psalms was written in times of despair or confusion. That’s very telling in itself.
I think it is because, in the mystery of God’s reality and involvement, he knows this reality for himself – in his greatest speech-act of them all: the Incarnation of Christ. Jesus experienced everything the world, flesh and devil could fling at him. EVERYTHING. And so he faced the deepest, darkest, bleakness of despair’s cave. I have no doubt that the black dog pursued him in his 40 days wilderness nightmare. And it certainly overwhelmed him in Gethsemane. That’s the bottom line. He really knows. As I mentioned the other day, it always helps to encounter others in the cave. So it is quite something to say that the one who was ONE with the Father is ONE OF US.
So how can I say that the black dog has actually taught me anything. Well, I’m forced to recognise that reality is not changed by my experience of it, or my lack of experience. The numbness doesn’t change earth’s rotation around the sun nor the glorious resurrection of the Son. I know these are true by faith – which is emphatically NOT mere wishful thinking. It has been reasoned through. And held to in the darkness. Think about it – if, for even a moment, I thought I was deliberately conning myself into believing falsehood, it would NEVER sustain me in the cave. Christian faith is trust in the one whose trustworthiness is proven. And he’s the God with Wounds.
The Apostle Paul said got it in one:
7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. (2 Cor 5)
Living by trust, not by sight, hearing, taste, touch, feeling. In other words, it is by trusting Christ, even when there is no sensory perception whatsoever. Or the sensory perception is frighteningly and cruelly negative. It is exhausting to do that day after day. It’s why I need my friends around me more than ever – sometimes even to trust for me, as well as with me.
But how that can be done, is the subject of another post…