Loving Our Students with Depression: The God Who Sees
“… Darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88:18)
“… My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:3)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Depression can have a variety of faces.
It can have a detached, distant-eyed gaze that seems as if the loudest shout couldn’t reach it.
It can have heavy, sunken shoulders with a fallen countenance, framed by a curtain of sadness.
It can have frenzied, busied hands that compulsively work to keep the ever-threatening wave of weighty emotions at bay.
It can have a persistent giggle and incongruent smile that communicate happiness while thinly veiling a deep well of pain.
It can have snippy reactions and persistent irritability that serve as an ever-present “Keep Out” sign.
For some, depression is a pall that hangs, a darkness that just can’t be shaken. And for others, the world becomes very small and it is impossible to imagine anything changing. Either way, depression tends to disorient us and repeat the lie that “You are alone.”
In seasons of grief or crisis, it is natural for us to experience more emotions and more variability to our emotions than we normally do. We may have greater despair, more prolonged periods of numbness, or higher stress than we imagine ourselves able to tolerate. And some of us may be unaware of what we’re feeling as survival mode has taken over. Instead, we find ourselves opening the fridge for the tenth time in an hour or yelling at our kids for the hundredth time in five minutes. Or, we envision ourselves screaming and pulling out all of our hair during our sixth Zoom meeting of the day.
I see you. And the God who draws near (Heb. 1-2) sees you. We are in this together.
In Genesis 16:13, after Hagar has run away from Sarai and the Lord has pursued her, she exclaims, “You are the God who sees me.” In various places in Scripture, we read about how the Lord looks at, notices, and sees people who are not worthy of being seen, according to their context’s values. He is the one who spots Zacchaeus (Luke 19), the one who addresses the Samaritan woman (John 4), and the one who speaks to the woman he healed from bleeding for twelve years (Matthew 9).
His intentionality in seeing is unparalleled.
In moments like this one, during a global pandemic, we need to see and be seen more than ever. I want to invite you to pray for the Lord to show you how he sees you, and I pray that you’d take time to remember moments when you’ve been seen in the past. These are ebenezers for you to stand on and offer your students as you seek, in turn, to see them in Christ, and to point them to stories in his Word where he has seen people with eyes of love. Was there a moment when he provided something at just the time you needed it? Is there a specific way in which he has reminded you of his love for you through a song, a piece of Scripture, or through a friend at some point? Have you ever experienced a moment of perfect timing that you couldn’t possibly have planned yourself? His seeing manifests in different ways in Scripture, sometimes exposing in love, sometimes providing in grace, and often stopping the natural flow of events to display his goodness.
But first, it is often just seeing. So how do we lovingly see our students struggling with depression?
Well first, we start by looking, by noticing. We note to ourselves what we see about our student. For instance: while on a video chat, are they making less eye-contact or looking away from the screen more than toward the screen at you? Is their face blank or stuck in a frown? Are they quieter than usual? Do they seem sadder or more hopeless? Is their tone of voice flatter or heavier than normal? Are their comments more pessimistic, cynical, or negative?
Then, we pray as we consider reflecting that back to our student. We invite the Spirit to lead us in gently and lovingly letting our student know that we see them, and we invite them to share more about what we see, if they’d like. You know your students better than me; for some kids, a loving way to engage is to casually say, “Hey man, it seems like you’re down. What’s going on?” And for others, you might know that they need to talk about everything else going on around them before they want to talk about how they’re actually doing. That might be in your 3rd phone call to them. Love is patient, and it tends to be inexpedient.
Jesus’ seeing is always the beginning of something more. It often initiates relationship, moves toward someone in grace, or connects their life to the bigger story of redemption at work. It is the beginning of his entering in.
This is what we are invited to as our students struggle with depression. We are invited to enter into their lives, as they welcome us, faithfully walking with them in their disorientation. Over and over again, we lovingly reflect to them what we see and validate their suffering. We walk with them in truth, calling what’s hard “hard” and in grace, empathizing with them. And as the Spirit leads, we offer them bites of the manna we’ve been fed, stories of God’s provision in our own lives. We point them back to the One who sees and walks with them much more intimately than we can. We take them to stories of him meeting his people in hard places, walking with them and securing their future in himself. We take them to Jesus in prayer every time.
We remind them explicitly through our words and prayers, and implicitly through our continued pursuit of them, that they are not alone.
We are all in this together.
And more than that, we are in Christ together. We are bound to the King of the Universe together through the Son who provided us access through His death and resurrection. We are bound to the story of redemption that is currently at work in our world through the Holy Spirit. And we are bound for an eternity of all things made new, where death and tears are no more.
Nothing we do can alter this. Nothing we feel or don’t feel can alter this. Our journey is secure in Christ Jesus, who has both gone ahead of us, and who walks with us (Ephesians 1). Nothing can separate us from his love, and his promise is “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
*Depression is a tricky business: it can have many manifestations, and it can have various causes. It is both a normal part of the grief process, and it can be devastatingly difficult in its clinically-diagnosable forms. Context is an essential part of understanding the landscape of someone’s depression, and as Covid-19 is our current context, it is worth noting that many of us are experiencing some level of depression as we navigate the crisis. However, if you are aware of someone experiencing depression that includes any suicidal ideation (thoughts of taking your own life), please reach out for professional help by calling a licensed counselor, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), or 9-1-1. Never, never hesitate to ask someone if they are thinking of taking their own life if you have a suspicion that that may be the case.