You’re Not the Boss of Me: Mental Health Lessons in the Psalms

Last week was World Suicide Prevention Week, so I’m a little behind the times, but better late than never, right? Anyway, in the wake of RUOK? Day and all the great awareness campaigns that champion good mental health habits, I’ve been thinking about my own mental health and the part that faith plays for me in maintaining it. I have been suffering, on and off, but mostly on, with depression and anxiety for the best part of a decade now and in that time, I have seen the public dialogue around mental health open up significantly, which is awesome, I never would’ve been brave enough to write this five years ago, but thank to the people who were brave back then, I am now!

Ironically, the hardest times for me to draw near to god are the times I am gripped by anxiety or depression: the times I need to most! Nothing sends me into a spiral like uncertainty! I’m learning though, that the more certain I am of God, the more uncertain everything else becomes. I’m learning, very slowly it would seem, to let go without becoming paralysed by anxiety.

Just because I am not in control, doesn’t mean I’m out of control. It’s okay, God is in control.

I just read Psalms 42 and 43 (they are a sort of part 1 & 2 of the same psalm) and was encouraged to see some of my own struggles mirrored in the Word. (FYI this post will make more sense to you if you have a read of these psalms too!)

Check out this refrain, which appears three times in the passage:
“Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
For I will yet praise Him,
my saviour and my God.”
Ps. 42:5, 11, 43:5

This refrain is the psalmist mastering his emotions. He’s basically telling his soul to submit to his spirit; although his emotions are intense and they are very real, he will not allow them to be in control. He will not allow them to become his identity. Although they demand that he gives up, he’s hanging onto hope.

This guys is pretty miserable. He writes that his tears have become his food! He has a downcast and disturbed soul; he is in mourning; he feels oppressed, taunted; he is suffering; he feels rejected and forgotten.These psalms are his outlet to be open and honest about what he feels, both to himself and to God. This is just where he’s at.

I think this level of openness is absolutely crucial to maintaining a strong faith through mental health battles. Our psalmist recalls the days before his exile, when he led worship at the Temple (Ps42:4). He looks back on the good times and contrasts them with his current situation (Ps42:1-3). In the end, he concludes that the love of God is unchanging throughout any circumstance (Ps 42:8). It’s vital to the longevity of our faith that we recognise the temporary nature of circumstances, compared to the endless, boundless love of God.

Understanding God’s nature and heart towards him is one of the tools that this psalmist uses to get through his tough time. He acknowledges that God is a trustworthy person to put his hope in and writes of his certainty of salvation (Ps42:5). He dwells on the love of God, which is with him in the dark times, and the rest of the time too (Ps42:8-9). God is his rock, steadfast and immovable, and his stronghold, a safe place to hide (how important is that on a tough day?!) (Ps43:2). God cares for him faithfully and makes His presence readily;y accessible (Ps 43:3).

For the psalmist, knowing God deeply brings hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. He still feels the rawness of what he is going through, but he understands that his circumstances will change; he sees his temporary predicament with an eternal perspective. Even more importantly, he sees it in the light of a faithful and loving God. His certainty is in God, not the moment.

Some days, it honestly doesn’t take much to trigger a spiral into depression for me: the most minor of conflicts; a messy house; being too busy; not being busy enough; it honestly could be anything. In those moments, I’m learning (again, slowly) to be real with God and with my inner circle (and apparently the internet) about what’s going on in my “downcast and disturbed soul”. I’m learning to see it for what it is: a moment. Granted, sometimes there are a lot of those moments in quick succession, or a moment that lasts a week or so, but they are still just moments, and my perspective is eternal. My hope, my joy, my peace, my strength and my purpose are found in an eternal God. So take that, crappy moment!

Like this psalmist, I’ll continue to let my spirit take charge of my emotions. They are real, but they are NOT the boss of me. I’ll continue to declare the goodness of God and draw near to Him, in both the daylight and the dark.

– Jen


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