Sermon June 19, 2022 by Rev. James Rausch

“The Depression Psalm (Who Knew They Talked about That?)”

Rev. James Rausch

It might seem crazy what I am ’bout to say;  Sunshine, she’s here, you can take a break;  I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space; With the air, like I don’t care, baby by the way, because I’m happy…

The above is a lyric to a popular song by Pharrell Williams called, “Happy.”  It’s a fantastically catchy song!  Makes even a non-dancer like me want to get moving.

Today we receive lots of messages telling us that if we are not ecstatically happy all the time there is something wrong with us.  This is a lie.  A lie that has caused a lot of damage.  While Christians can describe themselves as filled with joy, they also can affirm that times of ordinariness, sadness, anger, grief, disappointment and confusion are normal and part of being what a human is.

And in many ways, this is what the Psalms are all about.  For a long time, I tried to read and understand the Psalms, but frankly felt little connection to them.

The Psalms are a prayer book with every emotion and human situation represented.  Not surprisingly, the dominant voice of the psalter is prayer.  Prayer is the offering of the whole self to God, including praise, joy, trust, and thanksgiving as well as pain, fear, grief, loneliness, and sinfulness . . . even desires for vengeance.

One major problem faced by people today is depression.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the Bible contained something that dealt directly with depression?

Let’s read it in Psalm 77.  (READ 1-10)  Verses 1 to 10 have been called the most pessimistic poem in the Bible.  It is as if the psalmist has become so discouraged that prayer has become impossible and has given way to anguished meditation.  I want people to know this is in the Bible!  When someone is depressed, let them know someone else has been down that path – one of God’s people who hit bottom.  And I also want them to know that this person was shown a way out!  (Read 11-20)

Now the connections might not be obvious at first, but they will become clear.

Look and see how characteristic signs of depression are outlined.   “I groaned.” (V.3) Groaning and sighing are symptoms of depression.  “My spirit grew faint.”(v.3)  Sounds like another way of saying “I felt depressed.”  “You kept my eyes from closing” (v.4)  is another way of saying what?  You don’t let me sleep.  This person is having trouble sleeping.  How many of us can relate to that?

“I was too troubled to speak.” (V.4)   This person has withdrawn from others.  Other people and perhaps even God as the NLT translates it:  I am too distressed even to pray!

“I thought about the former days, the years of long ago.”  (V.5)  This person does what many depressed people do, comparing the “good old days” to the present.  This in itself is not depression, but when you get stuck there, as this fellow seems to have done, your dreams of what once was or what you are afraid never may be paralyze your ability to deal with and make the best of what is now.

A person caught in depression finds that continued lack of sleep, withdrawal from others and contemplative focus on the present woes made to seem more drastic by continual comparisons to dreams of what used to be or what might have been work together to create a downward spiral to places of despair.

It is no surprise that this biblical writer found the same thing to be true.  All of the symptoms of depression led him increasingly inward – absorbed in himself and his situation to a point of despair – despair represented quite powerfully by the questions in verses 7-9.   “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?  Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” 

Did you know that the writer here deliberately used these questions to represent the pit of despair?  The verbs here parallel the same verbs in Exodus 34:6 where God gave a description of himself: “The LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”

It is those very qualities of God that the psalmist here says that his spiraling depression led him to question.  He thought God who was once compassionate, loving and patient had now changed.  The NLT translate it this way: “This is my fate, that the blessings of the Most High have changed to hatred.”

This is hitting bottom, and it is a powerful argument for treating and attending to depression as quickly as possible.   How?  We find some clues in the text.

First, the psalmist shows that he was led out of his depression by changing the focus of his remembering and meditation.  Instead of continually remembering the good old days and meditating on his own spirit as in verses 5&6, he remembers the deeds of the Lord and meditates on all his works as in verses 11&12.

This kind of a shift is what Walter Brueggemann calls a shift from “I to Thou.”  The center moves from self and to God.   Indeed, psychologists have found that the writings of a depressed person will include many more statements that begin with “I” than do those of people who are not depressed.   Look at verses 1-10.  The words “I” and “my” appear 18 times!   But after the focus shifts in verse 11-20 you find the word “I” only 3 times in and “my” does not appear at all!

It is as if the psalmist moved from a self-perception as an isolated individual to one of being part of “God’s people.”  Can you see the references to “your people” in verses 15 & 20?  Here is our second clue in treating depression.  The withdrawal into isolation needs to be reversed.  When the depressed person sees him or herself less as an isolated individual and more a part of a community, God’s community, the downward spiral now has something else slowing it down.  The communal processes of remembering God’s promises and power that we do here at church are crucial to our mental health, according to the Bible.  We are a people of memory and hope.  If we remove the memory, if we do not continually call to mind who God is, what God has promised and what God has done, then we lose our hope.

This is subtly reflected in the way the psalmist refers to his own, isolated hand stretched out in verse 2 – which led him nowhere, and then refers to the outstretched hands of Moses and Aaron which led his community out of bondage and suffering.  Withdrawal from others – from God and from your church community is a risk factor for depression.  Sir Thomas More said, “The world does not need so much to be informed as to be reminded.” So, the Bible says again and again “Forget not!” and “Remember! Remember! Remember!”

Faith is no guarantee against the possibility of despair, but even in the midst of despair, the faithful will remember that, as the famous hymn says, that God has been our help in ages past and will be our hope for years to come.

Get good sleep!

Recognize when you are turning inward toward self – try to change directions by turning outward toward God.

Fight the urge to withdraw from others, from God and from your church community.

Work on remembering who God is, what God promises to you and what God has done for God’s people, and do it repeatedly.  A garment that is double dyed, dipped again and again, will retain color a great while; so, a truth which is the subject of meditation.

Here come bad news talking this and that (Yeah)

Well give me all you got, don’t hold back (Yeah)

Well I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine (Yeah)

No offense to you don’t waste your time

Because I’m happy…