On Being Pursued by the Black Dog

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"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared." Psalm 130

"God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent." Psalm 22:1-2

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt as though when you prayed God put you on hold, or the best you can do is get his voice mail? Have you ever felt alone and abandoned by God?

Today, as I talk about depression, I'm not talking about the pathological condition for which people need to be hospitalized. I'm talking about something serious but lighter. It is what I call the common cold of mental health. It is that time when you have a sense of deep sludge in your veins and can't move, the time when you get up in the morning and find you can't put your feet on the floor. You don't want to face the boss or the family. You feel you have had all you can take, there is no way to turn, and you feel trapped.

Half of the suicides that occur every year in America are the result of depression. Every year 125,000 people are hospitalized, and 200,000 people are treated for depression. One psychologist said to me, "More human suffering results from depression than from any other issue."

Occasionally, someone will say to me, "I'm a Christian; I'm not supposed to be depressed." That's nonsense! I have learned that just because I'm a pastor I am not immune to my moods going up and down. I just hope and pray that I don't have a dark mood on Sunday morning.

One time when I was in one of my dark moods, someone told me that if I really loved the Lord, I shouldn't feel that way. "There is no depression in the Bible," he said. I reminded him that Moses begged God to kill him. Jesus began to be sorrowful and was in agony before His arrest. He wept before He raised Lazarus. We should remember that Job cursed God and asked to die, and if you think that being depressed or melancholy is non-Christian, I must say to you that if you are a human being, if you have blood in your veins and skin on your bones, your moods will go up and down.

The trouble occurs as we go through life and all of a sudden we are surprised by depression. We think no one has ever had this, and we are all alone fighting our way out of the fog. It's like a fog moving in. The Greeks called it melancholia.

Depression is a disturbed mood, a self-debasing behavior, a wish to die. It can be a delusion of having committed the unpardonable sin. No person or profession is free of it -- rich or poor, old or young -- we are all in the center of the cross hairs for depression. It has nothing to do with IQs or even our spiritual life.

Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th-century English preacher, talked openly in his lectures to students about his dark moods that he called "his fainting fits." Winston Churchill spoke frequently about being plagued by the "black dog," his code word for depression. Franz Kafka talked about his dark moods, and Edgar Allan Poe obviously wrote most of his work during a depression. Stephen Foster, the Southern songwriter, gave us his finest melodies while depressed, and Van Gogh, the artist, cut off his ear in a fit of depression. So if you sometimes find yourself being pursued by the "black dog" or caught in an emotional fog, welcome to the human race!

What causes it? I don't know. Someone has described it as "the melting of frozen anger." Others tell us that it is the lack of self-esteem. It may be anger that can't find a place to land. It could be trapped feelings or a chemical imbalance. Many times these moods come after a big event in one's life -- a promotion, a pay raise, or a wedding in the family. You are all pumped up, but then you find yourself plummeting when the big event is over. Whatever it is, we all have it and it's not fun.

What does the Bible say about this? There are general statements in the Bible about it. The psalmist cries out -- and Jesus quoted this on the cross -- "My God, my God, why?" And in the psalm I quoted a moment ago: "Hear me, Lord, when I cry out to you."

There is an interesting Bible story in 1 Kings 18 and 19 about the irascible prophet Elijah, Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal that may shed some light on this. In brief, the story unfolds like this:

A foreign queen, Jezebel, had married Ahab, the king of Israel. She brought with her hundreds of prophets of Baal, a pagan god. And when she arrived in Israel, she tried to establish a mission there and was doing a good job of it. Jezebel was a conniving, mean woman. Ahab was a weak king, and things were not working very well for him or Israel or the God of Israel.

So Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest. It was a winner-take-all contest. They went to Mount Carmel and built two altars, one to Baal and one to Jehovah. The rules were that the prophets of Baal would sacrifice the bull and do their thing, and then Elijah would do the same on the altar to Jehovah. The god who brought the fire to the altar would be the god that Israel would worship.

So the 450 pagan preachers did their thing -- they beat their drums, they prayed, they danced, they called on Baal, but nothing happened; and, finally, they gave up. Then it was Elijah's turn. He put the sacrifice on the altar and poured buckets of water over it to demonstrate his confidence in God's power. He prayed and God sent the fire that consumed the sacrifice. Jehovah was obviously the victor. Then he killed the 450 priests of Baal. When Jezebel received word of this, she was furious and sent word to Elijah that she would have someone do the same to him.

Now here was a man who had scored the greatest victory of his life. He had called down fire, embarrassed the opposition, and had 450 pagan priests killed. He was riding high, and all of a sudden, one word from a defiant queen sent chills up and down his spine. So what did he do? He started running because he was afraid of Jezebel. This happened in northern Israel, and he ran past Jezreel and got all the way to Beersheba to the south. And he was so exhausted that he collapsed.

Then God sent an angel to him in the night. The angel said, "Arise and eat." The angel said that to him twice and then fed him. Elijah got up, took care of his body, and then he was instructed to go down to Mount Sinai, about another 150 miles. When he arrived there, he still wasn't relieved of his fear and depression. He stood in the mouth of the cave and watched the lightning and the storms. God wasn't there, he determined. Then he heard God in a still, small voice say, "Go back to Israel by the way of Damascus. Anoint Elisha to follow you. There are 7,000 people waiting for you to come. They are the people of God who have remained faithful."

I have told you the story, painting a verbal canvas for you. Now let's pull out the three pegs to hang the lesson on. This will help us when we are pursued by the "black dog."

Remember, the first thing God said to Elijah was "get up." In a sense, take care of yourself. I will guarantee you this: If you want to be depressed, the first step on the road to depression is to let your body get depleted.

Elijah had neglected to take care of himself physically and this had resulted in an emotional collapse. Body and soul are connected as one, and when we neglect self-care, the fog rolls in, the "black dog" advances.

The Greeks convinced us that we are divided into soul and body. Our experience of life and the Hebrew Scripture show us that we are one. The body must be cared for in order to prevent the "black dog" of depression from overtaking us. So, get up and take care of yourself: Eat, sleep and exercise.

Next Elijah, standing in the mouth of the cave at Sinai, realized that God spoke in the still small voice - not the earthquake - wind and fire. And he began to reestablish his relationship with God. This prevented the "black dog" from overtaking him. So, look up. God loves us, even when dark moods overtake us and God is speaking quietly.

Finally, God makes it clear to Elijah that he was not alone. Dark moods, depression, the "black dog" make us feel that we are one against the world. Elijah is reminded by God that there are 7,000 in Israel who are still loyal to their God, and he is to link up with them. When the dark moods overtake us, we need other people.

Our faith is a plural faith. Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered together, I'll be with them." It is not a singular faith as reflected in the country-western song "Me and Jesus, We'll Get By." We are not complete without our Christian family. To beat away the "black dog," we must link up.

Elijah gives us a clear path to surviving when the "black dog" is after us: Get up, look up, link up.

And let's remember that we can act our way into a new way of feeling easier than we can feel our way into a new way of acting.

Let us pray. Eternal God, let us not be controlled by our moods, but let us
be controlled by your Word. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.

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