3 Ways to Fight Depression When Counting Your Gifts Doesn’t Help

Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts made a lasting mark on Christian culture, and rightly so. In her “dare to live fully right where you are,” she recounts her transformation from despair into joyful gratitude through the simple practice of counting her gifts, blessings from God that are all too easy to miss unless we commit our eyes to intentional sight.

“Morning shadows across the old floors,” she writes.  “Jam piled high on the toast. Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce” (p. 45).

I read the book when it came out in 2010 and was captivated by Voskamp’s poetic writing and fresh expression of a timeless truth. And today, healthy and healed, when I count God’s gifts, a gloomy demeanor on an off day is put into perspective, an inward focus turns upward and outward, and joy begins to diffuse the despair.

But when I was severely depressed, this practice backfired. In the years of the deepest depression, I fought back with Voskamp’s advice. In a tear-riddled journal, I etched my gifts hard into the pages day after day.

And all I felt was shame.

Shame at how God had given me so much, yet I still had a perpetual lump in my throat.

Shame that the hopelessness I felt outshouted the hope I had in Christ.

Shame that God had given me so much to live for, yet, on some days, I wanted to die.

If the same has happened to you, you are not alone.And if the same has happened to you, remember this:

Faith and feelings are not synonyms.

When the gifts you are supposed to be counting turn astringent on your tongue, know that your inability to manufacture feelings doesn’t anger him. The lovely truth is this:

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103: 13-14)

Armed with these words of compassion, you can be confident that your emotions do not sway his love and faithfulness. My emotions took years to align with the truth, but during that winter season, He taught me 3 ways of fighting depression that banished shame and gave me hope:

1.Instead of counting your gifts, count His promises.

Whereas counting my gifts brought shame, writing out Scripture showed me that this shame was not from Him. The book of Psalms is a game changer when shame comes knocking. In the Psalms, we see the raw cries of those who felt forgotten and abandoned by God. In their prayers, two themes emerge:

  1. They were unafraid of pouring out the darkest thoughts of their heart to God.
  2. While shouting their afflictions, they kept His promises in view.

Psalm 42 is a beautiful example of these 2 themes. The Psalmist is honest about his state: “My tears have been my food day and night…I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?”, but comes back to the Lord’s goodness: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

For me, a journal was how I followed the pattern of the Psalmists. Writing Scripture focused my mind in a way that speaking did not, but for you, it might be saying Scripture out loud or singing. Whatever your preference, know that proclaiming the promises of God is a beautiful and powerful act of defiance against Satan’s schemes.

Some great places to start are Psalm 42, Psalm 73, and Romans 8.

2. Rest

I cannot think of one example in Scripture of a human saving himself, yet that is exactly what I was trying to do in counting my gifts. I thought that with enough grit and drive, I could lift myself out of the pit and get on with the things that God wanted me to do. What he was actually calling me to do was rest. I am not saying that you shouldn’t pursue help when depressed. Seeking out counselors and doctors was an integral part of my journey. What I am saying is that in trying to find a quick fix in counting my gifts, I put more stock in my own power to save than in the One who created me.

Soon after the Israelites fled Egypt, the Egyptian army came after them armed and furious. Understandably terrified, the people said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?”

Instead of devising a battle plan, Moses said this: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today….The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:13a, 14).

In a culture that idolizes initiative and action, being still can feel uncomfortable and even wrong. But in that season, that was exactly what the Lord was asking of me. And as I sat in that uncomfortable place of rest, he sanded away my perceptions of him as a harsh taskmaster and revealed just how much he loved me regardless of what I was able to do or produce.

3. Talk to a believer who has been there

Sharing my heart with believers who have struggled with depression paved the way for hope and healing. Having been there, they didn’t judge my inability to manufacture feelings. They knew what it was like to doubt God’s goodness, to feel unwarranted shame, to feel there was no way out, yet they had emerged on the other side even more convinced of God’s goodness and compassion.

It is vital to be wise and selective in whom you choose to confide. A prime example of this need for selectiveness is in the account of Job’s friends, who, though well-meaning, spoke in ignorance and ultimately slandered God’s character. Similarly, I have talked to believers who just don’t get itbecause they haven’t been there. I even had one believer who didn’t know about my struggle harshly label his sister’s mental illness as sin. If you don’t know a believer who has been there, I strongly recommend talking to a pastor at a local church who can connect you with someone trustworthy. I realize that this is a big step, as depression has been stigmatized by the church in the past. But I will tell you that in my experience, fewer and fewer church leaders stigmatize depression, and it is worth the effort in seeking them out in pursuit of a confidant.

So, friend, do not feel ashamed if counting your gifts has left you with a lump in your throat.

Instead, remember that faith and feelings are not synonyms.

Know that your emotions are not a measure of your faith, that God looks on you with compassion and acts toward you with love, and that He truly is mighty to save.

Much love,

Hope

When the Timing is Wrong and Your Faith is Wavering

It’s easy for me to sit in judgment on the Israelites, on their lack of faith so soon after God took them out of Egypt. The splitting of the sea, the destruction of the Egyptians, shouldn’t those miracles have carried them for the rest of their days? Shouldn’t the truth that God was good have been permanently lodged in their hearts? Yet the records of their journey are filled with a cyclical lack of faith:

“They forgot what he had done, the wonders he had shown them. He did miracles in the sight of their fathers in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan. He divided the sea and led them through; he made the water stand firm like a wall. He guided them with the cloud by day and with light from the fire all night. He split the rocks in the desert and gave them water as abundant as the seas; he brought streams out of a rocky crag and made water flow down like rivers. But they continued to sin against him, rebelling in the desert against the Most High. They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved, they spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the desert? When he struck the rock, water gushed out, and streams flowed abundantly. But can he also give us food? Can he supply meat for his people?’” (Psalm 78: 11-20)

I’ve often sat in judgment on them, but it’s amazing how quickly I too forget the miraculous. How one who was so recently brought to awe by His truth, her grainy eyes cleansed to see a firm path before her, is now wandering into that default ditch of faithlessness.

The rational mind swaggers in and tells me that the sharp-eyed wisdom I asked for and received was just a figment of a desperate imagination.

That the impressions I believed were from Him were just the machinations of a deceitful heart.

That it is better to be faithless and be right then to hope and be disappointed once again.

Because, you see, I know I have a heart as deceitful as us all, a heart that time and time again has almost killed me with its leadership. So my human instinct is to fight back with the logical mind to quash the deceitfulness.

But the human logic I try to fight back with while ignoring the voice of the Holy Spirit is just as diseased.

“The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6)

Both the natural mind and heart have elements of truth but are distorted by the fallen nature. And truth distorted is more dangerous than a bold-faced lie.

In a desire to end the longing, I’ve taken the directive to guard my heart as meaning to sterilize it with cynicism, stuff hope into Pandora’s box because then I won’t get hurt again. I believe that with enough analysis, I can think myself into dissolving my desires. It’s a systematic theology built on the idol of self: one where there’s no room for what I can’t understand, where the only dimensions are those I am aware of.

In her book Fully Alive, Susie Larson explains our reality is often not God’s reality; we often misinterpret the facts of our situation because of our limited perspective. When she was betrayed by a group of friends, in her reality, it confirmed a deep-seated fear that she was rejectable. As she looks back, though, she now sees God’s reality: he was freeing her from the fear of man.

And I’ve interpreted my reality concerning singleness in much the same way.

My reality goes like this:

Because I’ve been rejected, I’m rejectable.

Because I’ve never been chosen, I’m unlovable.

Because God has not answered my prayer, He doesn’t care.

And because He hasn’t answered me yet, He never will.

Over the past 5 months, God has led me straight into the fire of each of these realities and worked a painful refining. I’ve had to face my greatest insecurities and relive old wounds. But the key word here is refining: through the pain, he burned away lies I’ve believed about Him for years, about His goodness and about His love.

But now, like the Israelites, I’m tempted to exchange the truth He’s revealed for the comfortable lies. In publishing this, though, I’m publicly saying that I refuse to do so.

Instead, I’ll look back on the times that God’s timing seemed so wrong, even cruel, but the miracle that followed was so much more glorious than what man could imagine.

When God granted Abraham the long-awaited Isaac, and twelve years went into nurturing him all for God to command his death, I can imagine Abraham’s torment. But God brought a ram at the last moment, and now, as believers, we can see the prophetic picture of Christ killed and raised for us.

And Lazarus, Jesus knew he was sick, knew he would die, yet He stayed away. Why? Again, to tell a more glorious story by raising him from the dead. Before the miracle, Jesus told His disciples, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

And the most glorious story of all seemingly descended into a cruel joke before the full story was told. In Luke 24, we hear the account of two believers rehashing Jesus’ recent crucifixion, perplexed and despairing as they interpreted it through the lens of their own understanding:

“ As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”“What things?” he asked.“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.” (Luke 24:15-21)

In their eyes, all hope was lost. They had been wrong about Jesus, wrong in believing that he was the one who would redeem them. What they couldn’t see was that the resurrected Christ was standing right in their midst.

So looking back at how He’s worked in the past, I choose to trust that in my little story, God is working for His glory in the greater story, one that speaks through the millennia of a goodness that shatters human understanding.

Sometimes God works the most beautifully by making the timing seem impossible. We feel teased, when in reality, he is preparing something breathtaking.

We feel hopeless, when he is actually building us up into women and men defined by a tenacious faith that is not rocked by circumstances or the caprices of our emotions.

I’m tempted to be faithless right now, but as I publish His goodness in the past, I know it’s time to step up to a higher plane of belief.  To rest in the mystery, in the lack of logic and in the uncomforted heart, and to trust that he is indeed working. To proclaim that however the story unfolds, The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps” (Ps. 85: 12-13).

References

Larson, Susie. (2018). Fully Alive. Bethany House Publishers: Bloomington, MN.

All Scriptures are taken from the New International Version.

 

A Countercultural Faith: Why We Should Fight for Community in a Culture that Idolizes Independence

Nearing the end of my time in Russia in 2014, I sat with a close friend trying to puzzle out my next steps. I was going to be in grad school part-time, which would make a full-time job difficult, but I had to find a way to support myself. I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that it was imperative for me to set out on my own. I couldn’t return to my parents’ house if I wanted to wear the title of true adult; going back home would be to regress into immaturity and an unhealthy dependence. It would definitely be something to be ashamed of.

But my Russian friend didn’t see it that way.

“Why don’t you just live with your family, Hope?” she asked. “It would be good for you and good for them. You could help to support each other.”

The way she said it made it sound so easy-too easy, when as a young adult I should be paving my own way, not relying on others, being self-sufficient and independent. But something about her words made my perspective ring hollow. And as I let her words linger, I began to realize that my perspective wasn’t necessarily right, it was just…American.

The Role of Culture in Our Worldview

Although I thought that my viewpoint was one built by morality and maturity, I see now that it was actually a perspective built largely by my culture. It took seeing through the lens of another culture to realize that my view did not have the moral high ground.

The more I interact with my international friends and students, the clearer it becomes that as humans, we often place moral judgment on other cultures’ viewpoints and behaviors when in reality, our way of doing things isn’t necessarily better than theirs.

A great example of this is the typical American’s reaction upon entering Russia and being met with unsmiling, seemingly harsh faces. Americans tend to interpret a lack of a constant smile through their cultural lens: in America, smiling equals politeness and goodwill, so these unsmiling Russians must be rude, cold, surly people. What most don’t know though, is that a smile has a different definition in Russia. Russians generally smile when they are truly happy, and it is not seen as necessary to smile in public. In fact, it may even come across as disingenuous. So smiling, something we assign moral value to without even realizing it, is actually more neutral than we realize.

I believe it is much the same with the American ideal of independence. Many of us were taught the value of hard work and being able to support oneself from a young age, and there is much to be said in favor of this. However, I’ve learned that when this principle is taken to the extreme of I don’t need anyone else, the effects can be devastating. Since that conversation with my friend back in 2014, I’ve gotten to explore the issues of American independence and individualism through conversations with my international students and friends, in my grad work, and in my experience living both sides of the story. And the conclusion I’ve come to is that the belief that independence from others equals maturity and freedom is a lie that has had costly effects on our culture.

Dissecting American Individualism

The Geert-Hofstede model of cultural dimensions is a fascinating way to see how American culture’s individualism stacks up to that of other countries. For those of you who like Myers Briggs (INFJ anyone?), it’s basically the Myers Briggs for countries and their cultures. Geert Hofstede analyzed different cultures by 6 orientations: Masculinity, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Indulgence, Future-Orientation, and of course, Individualism. All are fascinating, but what stands out especially when you see America is how much higher it is on the individualism scale than that of the cultures of many of my friends and students. Geert Hofstede defines individualism as “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.” It has to do with whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies, people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In Collectivist societies, people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)

What this means for American culture in general is that, “The society is loosely-knit in which the expectation is that people look after themselves and their immediate families only and should not rely (too much) on authorities for support. There is also a high degree of geographical mobility in the United States. Americans are the best joiners in the world; however it is often difficult, especially among men, to develop deep friendships.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)

This “loosely-knit” geographically mobile culture is in stark contrast to the more collectivist cultures I am familiar with. Take Russia and China for example. Russia comes in at 39 on the individualism scale, while China scores a mere 20.

picture1

Chart: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/

Collectivist culture manifests itself in different ways, both negative and positive. One thing that I have found in cultures that are more collectivist is that a.) moving out of the house is not a rite of passage into adulthood, but families often live together, and b.) there are tightly knit communities that are not only based around the nuclear family. Whereas in collectivist culture, community is almost a given, in American culture, it is relatively foreign. There are certainly pros and cons to both individualistic and collectivist cultures, but what I want to highlight is that pursuing community certainly doesn’t come naturally to Americans.

Many of my ESL students have expressed bewilderment and a sense of sadness at the way Americans act as individuals rather than as part of the community, for example, moving across the country on one’s own for a job. Whereas Americans take pride in their self-sufficiency and view isolation as a necessary cost of success, many I know from other cultures would argue that the toll that loneliness takes on a person far outweighs any benefits.

An Afghani friend who studied psychology hypothesized that the current mental health crisis in the U.S. is strongly related to loneliness and isolation. My own experience supports my friend’s thoughts. During my 9 months in Russia, I had no church community and was an outsider in a closely-knit foreign culture. By four months in, my mental health weakened to a point where I didn’t know if I could wait it out. God gave me the grace to push through to the end of my grant, but I came back a shell of myself.

Then, 3 years later, I became one of those Americans who moved across the country for a job. It seemed like the perfect opportunity at the time, but it soon became clear that what the job required of me would leave no margin for the type of deep Christian community I longed for, one that was woven into the fabric of my daily life. I felt myself wilting by the day, so I decided to make a choice that seemed strange from an American perspective and leave it all behind. I left a stable job with a fancy title for a place where I had no job lined up, but I knew that I would be living life with my best friend.

When I arrived in Burnt Hills, I didn’t think that I would find a true Christian community. I had become cynical of the possibilities for community that the American church structure provided, and I hadn’t seen many people who thirsted for community like I did, who had been so deprived of it that they wanted to find it and never let go. But God surprised me by placing me in the midst a diverse group of people united in their love for Jesus Christ and a desire to do life together.

This, I found, was the body of Christ in action. Imperfect, but beautiful. Human, but miraculous.

Called to Be Countercultural

As Americans steeped in an individualistic culture, it may feel natural to approach our faith as a solely personal thing: me and God and maybe my family, but nobody else. But if we approach our faith like this, we disobey the Lord and we lose something precious.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul calls us the body of Christ, in which God lives and works and ministers. As the body of Christ, each of us has a specific function given for the common good (1 Cor. 12). God has given each of us spiritual gifts, but we can’t live solely off of our own gift. God may have given me the gift of discernment, for example, but it’s arrogant to think that I can live my Christian life without others encouraging me, teaching me, and loving me. It is also selfish to not contribute what God has given me to the common good. We are not meant to function alone, but we “are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” (Romans 12:5)

During my short time being a part of this community, I can attest to the way that I have seen the body of Christ work together toward the common good and for the purposes of God’s kingdom. One thing that has been special to me is the way the Lord surrounds us and provides for us through His people.

Recently, we had a worship and prayer night with a visual that powerfully illustrated this reality. We stood in a circle while different struggles and sins were named. We were encouraged to step in the circle to receive prayer for those struggles and sins and to be reminded that we were not in this alone.

It was what happened after the service that was the most powerful though. Friends laid hands on me and prayed for me that evening. One checked in on me during the weeks after, talking through my tangled emotions and offering the blunt truth I needed to hear. And when God freed me from my struggle in an unexpected miracle, this friend was there to praise the Lord with me. This is just one of the ways I’ve seen God work over these past 5 months through this body of believers. And as I reflect upon my time here, I’ve seen myself change in many ways:

  • Whereas once I thought that a romantic relationship was the only thing that would take the ache of loneliness away, deep-hearted friendships with other believers have replaced my frantic longing with a hopeful contentment.
  • I feel empowered to use my gifts for the common good. Now that I’ve been poured into, I have energy to pour out, and I have the desire and opportunity to minister to others with the gifts that God has given me.
  • And most importantly, I’m growing leaps and bounds in my love for Jesus and in the knowledge of His love for me.

Aggressively Pursue Community

It is not easy to pursue Christian community in our culture. Many of us are raised and conditioned to solve our problems on our own and to approach our faith in isolation. But now that I have seen, experienced, and participated in a community that is committed to God’s kingdom and committed to each other, I can earnestly say that any sacrifice it takes to pursue this type of community pales in comparison to the beauty, grace, and power that you’ll receive from it.

Christian community is certainly not perfect; in our sinful state we still hurt each other, in our differences we frustrate each other, and in our limited perspectives we misunderstand each other. A quick glance at Paul’s letters tells us the story has been the same from the earliest of churches. But the miraculous thing is that though on our own we are sinful and petty and weak, Jesus Christ has blessed us with the honor of being His body and whose power in us overcomes our shortcomings. “[We] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

So my charge to believers who are reading is this: aggressively pursue community. This will look different depending on your season of life, but the principle is the same: seek out a group of likeminded people who desire a community that goes beyond crossing paths once a week, who are committed to using their gifts and keeping you accountable and spurring you onward in this journey of becoming more like Christ. It may take time. It may take sacrifice. But it is so, so worth it.

Divine Translation: The Word Became Flesh

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1:14a

The Word become flesh is the most breathtaking, precise translation of language ever accomplished.

In all other cases, there is something lost in translation, the nuances and intimacies of the native tongue sanded away until only the general message remains. But in this one, the precision is only intensified because the translator is also the Creator, knowing the hearts of the people He is speaking to and exactly how to reach them.

The truth of God, His mind, His heart, His message, translated into our flesh-language, the language of skin that bristles in the cold, is singed by the fire, that stretches, wrinkles, dies.

The Word become flesh is a translation of eternal omnipresence into a finite house of one human’s consciousness, a consciousness often clouded by hunger and cold and loneliness.

The Word become flesh is a translation of omnipotence into backaches and sweat and veins that would open and leak life away.

The Word become flesh is beautifully inefficient. An efficient translation would trade nuance for speed and intimacy for numbers, but He chose to save us by growing up in obscurity, 30 years of humility in mundane labor, living an unseen life so similar to ours. And then, in His ministry, again and again He slowed and stopped to listen to the individual, to hear their story to to speak healing into it.

God’s ways are higher than ours, His wisdom and love beyond our comprehension, but He has revealed them to us in the language that we can understand: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. And I pray that you would let this language rest in your heart, that you would know, personally, the depth of God’s love that is in Christ, our Lord, our Savior, the Word become flesh.

I Have Seen the One Who Sees Me

Unclean.

Unclean am I, I am unclean, because of a bleeding that won’t stop, no matter how much I adhere to the doctors’ instructions, more outrageous and extravagant by the day. Weakness does not just fill me; it is me.

I feel cold in the sun.

I want to seek Him, Jehovah, the Lord, the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But I am cut off. Shame and sin are mine, are me. An unrepentant woman. I hear the whispers: “It’s her sin. If only she would repent, she would be healed.” I am unclean, unclean am I. I used to have a name before the condemning blood.

When I heard about him from my mother, when she told me about what he did for the blind man that used to beg at the end of our street, all I could think of was how much he sounded like the One who saw and loved Hagar abandoned in the desert. But compassion was a word for others; it could never apply to me. For my uncleanness, my sin, they said, had cut me off from the people. Compassion should not be shown to one who willfully persists in iniquity. It might imply that misdeeds were acceptable in the eyes of Jehovah. But with Mother’s story about this Jesus, I saw that this man did not play by the Pharisees’ rules.

A rebel, a kind rebel.

I touched him, merely touched him, and I was healed. For a moment, I was thrilled, but then I felt the question like a slap.

“Who touched me?” 

I should have known better.

His voice wasn’t angry, but I knew it would be as soon as he realized that I, an unclean woman, had touched him. And if he was as powerful as my mother said, he would most certainly realize.

I feared that he would be angry, that I may have tainted his power with my unclean hands. But I was desperate; he was my last chance. My hands went numb and my body began to heave with tears that left me gasping for air. With my last bit of strength, I moved toward him, then fell near his feet, my hands scraped by the gritty ground.

“It was me! Forgive me, it was me.” The tears kept coming, but my face grew numb. I kept my head to the ground, waiting for the blow, or the curse, or the command to leave.

But instead, in a gentle voice, he said “daughter.”

I lifted my head in disbelief, and he looked in my eyes, really looked-not through me or past me as the others do. And when he looked in my eyes, his own filled with tears. And with a lump in his throat and a soft smile, he said, “your faith has healed you. Go in peace, and be freed from your suffering.”

He called me daughter, and he called me free. This compassion, this love, still feels strange and unreal. It’s been so long since I’ve been clean that I have to remind myself that my encounter with him wasn’t just a dream. But as I wake up every day with strength in my body and the memory of his words, I know that it is all true. And now I can proclaim with joy, just as Hagar did when he rescued her, “I have seen the one who sees me.” 

~

This fictional account is based on Mark 5: 25-34. Hagar’s words are from Genesis 16:13. Italicized words are direct quotes from Scripture.