A Few Words on Shame/Depression/Guilt

Several weeks back, I asked the Crossway family to give me some topics or scriptural texts they would like to hear a sermon about. This coming Sunday (Oct.16) I will address a requested topic(s) that, in some ways I have been personally acquainted. The topic is shame, guilt, depression. etc. Here in the words of the person who requested the message, is how they framed it ;  “Depression,  how to overcome shame. How to believe that we are loved by God. How to accept God’s love. How to create self discipline to be in God’s Word and not feel guilty when we don’t.”  I invite you to come this Sunday (Oct.16) and hear what the Scripture says about these topics. 

When I say I have been personally acquainted with these topics, what do I mean? Let me briefly explain. By nature I am an introvert who tends to engage in unhealthy introspection resulting often in a melancholy mood.. I was always the artistic/musical kid in high school. I am overly sensitive at times! Depression and a sense of shame, always seem to be just around the corner if I am not careful to take care of myself. Growing up, I would often hear in verbatim, “I wish you kids were never born.”  What do you do with that as a young boy?  Now, let me say, there are some wonderful graces to growing older! At my age I have learned some ways to battle depression/shame, and, to not let my natural temperament rule the day.  So, when I received this sermon request, my heart went out to all those who have had similar struggles. Let me start this blog with a few observations and then offer some words of encouragement.

  • First, shame is the lot of all humans. If you are alive, you have felt shame. Regardless of temperament/]personality/upbringing, shame is the common lot of humanity. What do I mean by “shame”? Defining it adequately is difficult, but I would suggest that shame always includes some sense of I am not enough. Something is wrong about me. I am inadequate. Shame is different than guilt. Guilt says “I did something wrong”. Shame suggests “I am something wrong”. Shame flourishes in our lives and remains entrenched primarily by the stories we have learned to tell about ourselves. Curt Thompson in his book, “The Soul of Shame” unfolds this. The subtitle to his book is “Retelling the Stories We Believe about ourselves.”  Intentionally or not, shame-inflicted people who feel they are “not enough”, end up shaping the lives of those within their influence. This dis-ease of shame spreads from one generation to the next as we live our lives by the stories/narratives we believe about ourselves. I obviously do not have room in this blog, or, the expertise, to try to unpack the implications shame has on our lives. I would encourage you to purchase Thompson’s book. It’s accessible to lay-folks like us, but it will take some emotional/mental investment on your part to get something out of it. If you are aware of the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology and how it affects our spiritual formation, you will love this book! In short, we can learn to grow and not be devastated by our shame stories ourselves as we make ourselves vulnerable to others who love us despite our sense of shame. We need others to help us begin and believe new stories that line up with what God says about us in the Scriptures. As we learn to tell God’s new Gospel story (Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 3:1-2) to ourselves, the neuro-pathways of our brains physically change, enabling us to begin to live, feel and breathe this new story God is telling about us. Part of the new Gospel-based story we have to learn to tell ourselves is that Jesus is not ashamed of us (Hebrews 2:11), and, on the cross He despised the shame of it all, bearing the curse of our sins, and thus enabling us to begin rewriting the stories we tell about ourselves (Hebrews 12:2). I know for some, all of this may sound a bit heady, abstract, or even impractical, but I have found it incredibly helpful to begin to understand how the brain works, and, how shame, this sense that I am not enough/deeply flawed becomes literally embodied in us. Jesus took our shame upon His body, making it possible for us to begin telling ourselves and living new stories. 
  • Now, here’s a word or two about depression. Though depression and shame are two different things, I believe that the more one listens to shame’s story about themselves, they make themselves more vulnerable to depression. Now I am not a medical doctor and I don’t want to wade into waters I am not qualified to swim in, but if you are struggling with depression, please, don’t be afraid/shamed to seek help. And, related to our body, I would encourage you to watch your diet, your sleep, and, your exercise. No, diet, sleep, and exercise alone will not make depression “go away”, but our depression can surely  be exacerbated by poor bodily habits. How we treat our bodies affects the “immaterial” parts of us as well. Make sure you are doing what you can to treat your body well. Your depression will lessen to some degree if you are doing this.
  • Learn to talk to yourself far more than you listen to yourself. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his book Spiritual Depression, said this: “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” Now, I would say that while not all depression can or should be understood as “spiritual”, this advice can still be very helpful to depression in general. What Jones has in mind, he applies briefly: Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now (the Psalmist) treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? . . You have to take yourself fin hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself..”
  • Another preacher once said:  “For every look you take at yourself, take ten looks at Christ – Robert Murray McCheyne. This act alone, will help you to begin to rewrite your story.
  • Sometimes I think it can be more difficult for Christians  to struggle with depression/guilt/shame than it is for those who are not followers of Jesus. You see, we get this subtle or not so subtle pressure to think because we are believers, we should not struggle emotionally. We must be “overcomers” and “victorious”. Frankly, whenever I hear such thinking/teaching, I get angry. Yes, Jesus can indeed help us “overcome”, but we are still weak and dependent people, subject to depression and other effects of our brokenness. Following Jesus does not take these struggles away overnight, or, perhaps not even at all (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Yet, because we want to be “victorious”, we don’t share with others our struggles. I think it’s getting easier than it used to be, but this unbiblical “victorious” mentality for believers is still out there. I know, at least for Pastors, it is still unhealthily entrenched as a mentality. I mean, if anyone should “know how to be victorious” in the Christian life, it’s the Pastors, right? Nonsense! One of my pastoral heroes of the past, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (b.1834-d.1892) struggled mightily with deep and lasting depression. Yet, God used him mightily.  
  • I could say much more  but for the sake of time/space, I must close this blog here, but let me encourage you as I close. You do learn how to cope with these things the older you get. Yet, if needed, I would like to give you “permission” of sorts – if you are struggling with mental health issues like depression, to remind you that you are not as alone as you think you are. There are a growing number of people, even in the church (!), who will not judge or try to “fix” you if you open up to them. We never change/grow in isolation. We need the help of others. Please, don’t struggle alone. We promise to listen.