Tag Archives: Struggle

Robin Williams, Depression and the Church



My last two postings have been on the Dark Night of the Soul. This week, after the second posting, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide broke, and since then there has been a wide-ranging and nonstop conversation throughout our culture about depression, and while I deeply grieve the trigger, I gladly welcome the result. It’s long overdue. Depression is not well understood either by those who suffer from it, or by those who know and love people who do. And as the tragedy that is Robin William’s death so painfully shows, this kind of ignorance has devastating consequences.

Because everyone has periodic episodes of reactive or situational depression, stretches of feeling “blue” when things have not gone your way that becomes the interpretive grid that most people use to understand what depression is all about. It’s part of the inner response to an outer experience of loss, disappointment, failure, betrayal, sickness, discouragement or struggle. Something negative happens to us and depression is one of the things that we feel as we process the experience. It’s one of the phases or stages of adjustment; think of the way that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross mapped the grief experience in her seminal work On Death and Dying – Shock, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Depression is just part of the journey, one of the steps along the way to healing. It’s real and it hurts, but it’s temporary, it passes. The circumstances change and we start to feel better. In fact, people in situational depression are often encouraged by their family members and friends to “get out,” to “do things” and “go places” in order to start to feel better.   Because it was a situation or a circumstance in your life that made you feel bad, just engineer a change in your situation or circumstances and you will start to feel good again, or so the conventional wisdom goes.


We used to have a Mary Englebreit illustration printed on a piece of fabric and hanging on a wall at the house. It showed a rather stern looking little girl with her feet firmly planted, her hands on her hips and a set to her jaw with the words in the text box over her head reading “Snap out of it!” And that’s what depressed people are expected to do. Because experiences of reactive depression pass with time, when it is perceived that someone is staying too long at the fair – that one is wallowing in their misery – this impatient little girl shows up with her scowl and her screech. And while this kind of “shock” therapy, this swift sharp whack up the side of the emotional head might work for someone who is situationally depressed, it can’t touch the other kind of depression that there is, “clinical” or “endogenous” depression.

If reactive depression starts outside of us with a difficult circumstance or a bad situation, constitutional depression starts inside of us. While reactive depression is triggered by something that happens to us externally, clinical depression is just part of the way that some of us are wired internally; it’s part of our state of being. The way that I have sometimes described my own experience of being clinically depressed is to say that while we all fall into deep, dark holes from time to time that we then have to climb out of, that there are some of us who find ourselves in holes so deep and dark that they can’t be climbed out of. They are not a temporary state, a passing emotion that we can “snap out of,” they are where we live.

Since his suicide, I’ve heard people in the media wonder about what could have been so terrible in Robin Williams’ life to have prompted him to do this. I’ve heard the speculations that he was having money problems, or relationship problems, or career problems – a cancelled television series, or a health problem – more heart disease, or a substance abuse problem, and that it was this problem, whatever it was, that prompted him to take his life. But that’s reactive depression thinking in a clinical depression life. Something didn’t happen to Robin Williams this week that resulted in one desperately bad and irreversible decision. No, Robin Williams was sick; had been for a long time, and it was that disease – clinical depression – that killed him. Like any disease, you can live with clinical depression, function at a very productive and creative level, even while you are desperately ill. Think Abraham Lincoln. Think Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Think Vincent Van Gogh. Think Ernest Hemingway. This is what has confused so many people about Robin Williams. We saw his genius. His gifts were obvious to us. His accomplishments were great. But all of this happened against the backdrop of his very real suffering from a very real disease.

A few years ago we admired the strength of Patrick Swayze as he continued to act while battling terminal cancer. And when his disease finally claimed him, in the sadness of his death there was a widespread recognition of the courage that he had displayed in the way that he had continued to ply his craft when it would have been so easy for him to just have rolled over and quit. He “played hurt,” and we greatly respected it, even saw it as “heroic.” Well, so did Robin Williams, only it appears that he “played hurt” for his entire career. But because his terminal disease was mental rather than physical, it’s unlikely that his passing will be viewed by society at large in the same way. But I do. For all of the sadness of this week, I want to go on record here with my admiration, respect and honor for the courage and strength of Robin Williams.

Some of the most courageous people I know are those who battle mental illness. There are men and women all around you every day in the cubicle next to yours at work and on the pew next to you in worship who have to muster every last ounce of strength they have just to get out of bed in the morning to step into another day. They carry burdens and fight battles that we can’t even begin to imagine. And because we just don’t “get it,” because we don’t understand mental illness as a disease that is just as real and devastating as cancer, diabetes or emphysema, we think that these people could “snap out of it” if they really wanted to. Tell that to the next person you see having a heart attack!

It was in a class on ministry that I took in seminary taught by Dr. Charles Kemp that I first heard the quote: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” He said that this was one of the most basic principles of pastoral care. And if Robin William’s tragic death this week is to have any enduring impact on us, I urge it to be this.

In Matthew 12:20, it was said of Jesus Christ that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” In the history of interpretation these descriptions have been applied to the discouraged and the disheartened, to those who have been overwhelmed by their lives and are just barely hanging on. And it seems to me that the stance that Jesus took toward such people should be the stance that we as part of His church ought to be taking as well, and this begins with simple kindness, and a recognition of the depth and the darkness of the fight that so many find themselves in every single day.  DBS+


I highly recommend –

Robin w







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The Struggle of Prayer

A Summer in the Psalms


The very best book on the theology of prayer that I’ve ever read is Donald Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer (Harper & Row – 1980).   I’ve got other books in my library that are better on the practice of prayer – Richard Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (HarperSanFrancisco – 1992) for instance.   But Bloesch’s The Struggle of Prayer is hands down the best book on the theology of prayer that I’ve ever come across. In fact, it’s not just on my list of my favorite books about prayer; it’s on my list of my favorite books of all – a top ten volume.

At a time when the contemplative spiritual practices are in rich ascendancy – a move I fully and passionately support and in which I personally participate – Bloesch’s book is a reminder that such practices, while spiritually valid and valuable, are nevertheless not prayer by Biblical definition.  The Bible has category for meditation.  Some of the soundest teaching on meditation by the Biblical standards that’s out there was written by the late Peter Toon, an Anglican priest. Almost all of his books on meditation are available free on-line at http://www.anglicanbooksrevitalized.us.  When you start looking for material on meditation you’ll run across lots of spiritually shaky stuff pretty quickly – we’ve always got to be discerning. This is why I would urge anyone who is interested in exploring Biblical meditation further to go on the journey with a really good guide, and Peter Toon is one of the best.   But even should you take the trip with Peter, when you’ve meditated, you’ve meditated and not prayed.

Meditation is spiritually legitimate and even enjoined by the Scriptures.  But Biblically, prayer is different from meditation, and that’s Donald Bloesch’s big point in The Struggle of Prayer.  He argues that Biblical prayer is not “mystical rapture nor ritual observance nor philosophical reflection,” but rather “the outpouring of the soul before a living God, the crying to God ‘out of the depths” (8).  The image that immediately comes to my mind when I hear this is that of the Patriarch Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord through the long night at fork of the creek named Jabbok (Genesis 32:21-32).  The picture at the beginning of this week’s blog is an artist’s vision of this Biblical moment.  It’s the image of a struggle – painful and laborious – and Biblically it’s an image of prayer. 

 As Donald Bloesch wrote –

True prayer involves… wrestling with God in the darkness.  Wrestling not whining, for it springs from strength, not weakness.  It means refusing to let go of God without a blessing; as Jacob wrestled with the angel of God, so the Christian wrestles with his God in prayer. To be sure,, we also wrestle with the powers of death and hell and the law of sin within us. But at the same time we wrestle with God, as Job persisted in doing: “If he would slay me… I should still argue my cause to his face” (Job 12:15 NEB).  A similar attitude d reflected in Luther’s version of Jeremiah 20:7: “O Lord, thou hast persuaded me against my will, thou art stronger than I.”   The Canaanite woman  who implored Jesus to heal her daughter and who persisted even after he at first refused also exemplifies this theme of striving or wrestling with God (Matthew 15:21-28)…  Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane exemplifies the man of prayer striving with God.  His prayer was “not stoic resignation to the inescapable, but a profound acceptance of the ways of God that are not the ways of man.”  He did not meekly submit, but pleaded for his life.  He surrendered to the will of his Father only after striving to change this will. (76-77)

Striving to change this will?  Do we really wrestle with God in prayer to somehow change His will?  I’m an expert in “struggling” with God in prayer, but mainly because I’m such a slow student.  Paul was talking about me when he said that “we don’t know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26) and that we don’t “naturally” understand the things of the Spirit (I Corinthians 2:14).  Most of my striving with God in prayer is the result of my own failure to apprehend the ways and will of God.   Last Sunday in church our focus was on the seven Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 & 143).  These Psalms all assume that the primary problem I have with prayer is me. The rebellion of my sin directly interferes with both my access to and discourse with the God who has made it abundantly clear in His word that He is holy. There is wrestling every time I pray because God has made a commitment in Jesus Christ to pursue and subdue me.  Like a calf roper in the rodeo, every experience of prayer that I have begins with my sense that God has to ride me down and tie me up.  Just like Jacob I can be unruly and need to be hobbled before God can do much with me.  This kind of striving with God in prayer I get.  It’s my experience.   I’m an expert in it.  But Donald Bloesch is pretty adamant that this is just part of the story of the struggle that we have with prayer.

Prayer is not simply petition, but strenuous petition.  It is not just passive surrender but active pleading with God.  It involves not only submission to the will of God but seeking to change his will.  It consists not merely in reflection on the promises of God but in taking hold of those promises (cf. Isaiah 64:7).  It is often said by those who are attracted to mystical or to philosophical prayer that our petitions change our attitude toward God but that they have no real effect upon God, who is unchangeable and impassible.   My contention is that prayer does effect a change in God’s attitude to us and in his dealings with us. Prayer is reciprocal: it has a definite impact on both parties involved.  That God permits prayer to exert an influence on him is attested throughout the Scriptures (Abraham’s bargaining for Sodom – Genesis 18:22-33;  Nineveh’s repentance after Jonah’s preaching – Jonah 3:10; Moses’ intercession after Israel’s idolatry – Psalm 106:2; the staying of the plague when Phinehas prayed – Psalm 106:30; Amos stopping the judgment of God from falling on Israel – Amos 7:1-6).  In this light we can understand Spurgeon’s contention that “prayer is able to prevail with heaven and bend omnipotence to its desires.”  Prayer in the sense of striving with God in order to alter his ways with his people is utter nonsense to the philosopher… Against the philosophical understanding of prayer Karl Barth insisted that real prayer presupposes a living God who hears and acts – “He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts.  He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not.  Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence.  This is what the word ‘answer’ means.”  Christian faith, to be sure, affirms the essential trustworthiness of God’s declared will and purpose for the world; God cannot deny or contradict himself.  Yet Scripture makes clear that God has chosen to work out his purposes in cooperation with his children. His ultimate will is inflexible, but the ways by which he seeks to implement this will are flexible.  He does not change his final purpose, but he does alter his methods for realizing this purpose. He is unchangeable in his holiness and righteousness, but changeable in the giving of his grace.  Prayer, as Fosdick observed, cannot change God’s intention, but it can change God’s action. (73-74)

And so, if this right, the struggle of prayer goes two ways.  We wrestle with God and His will, and God wrestles with us and our fervent requests.  When we break the terms of the covenant that we have with God (how God has “structured” our relationship), the penitential Psalms become the script we voice.  They teach us how to say “I’m sorry.”  And when it feels like God is just not keeping up His end of the covenant that we’ve made with Him, a different category of Psalms – the Lament Psalms – provide us with the vocabulary that we need to give voice our deep frustration and disappointment.  They teach us how to say “How long, O Lord,” and to ask the urgent “Why?”  And it is between these two poles of the Psalter – the Penitential Psalms and the Psalms of Lament – that the struggle of our prayer gets waged.  DBS+

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