Depression, Suicide, and Psalm 88


When I was your age, when I was in the seventh grade, my family moved to Georgia. We moved to this tiny little town where most of my mother’s family lived. I had so many cousins and aunts and uncles there that when we moved into the town we didn’t need the help of a moving company—not even our piano which was actually so heavy it took six guys to move.

One of the people who helped the most was my cousin Chuck. Now Chuck was an adult—he was actually my mom’s cousin—but he was probably only as old as I am now back then, so 30. Chuck was super friendly and willing to help out with anything. He was there helping out the entire time we moved in, and I remember him as being super friendly and very nice.

The first funeral I ever remember attending was Chuck’s. It was later that very same year—I was your age, in seventh grade. Chuck didn’t die from any illness or an accident. Chuck committed suicide.

He committed suicide on the anniversary of the day his father had committed suicide many years earlier, but I never knew his father, my Uncle Gene.

Why are we talking about this? Well I learned earlier this week that a teenager that I knew when she was your age committed suicide. And we need to talk about this. Because this may not affect you now, and I pray to God it never will affect you, but odds are someday you will know someone who suffers from depression, and maybe even suffer from it yourself.

Can you guys go get your Bibles? I need you to turn to Psalms. So the trick to finding the book of Psalms is just open your Bible directly to the middle. Page wise in the Bible, Psalms is in the middle so it can often be found this way.

Don’t flip to any specific one yet. I’m just going to talk about Psalms in general. Psalms is basically a book of poetry. People often contribute all of Psalms as having been written by King David, and while it’s true some of the psalms were, it’s basically a collection of poems written by different people. Now I don’t know how much poetry you guys have studied in school, but a good way to think about the psalms is basically as songs. Why do you guys think people write songs, and music? [Let them answer.]

I think people write songs to express emotions that are greater than words. Through a combination of sounds that create melodies and harmonies, a musician can create emotion. Movie music does this all the time. A movie composer is trying to express the emotion the people in the movie are feeling—since we don’t live inside the people’s heads. Let me play some examples for you.

Don’t tell me the movie but tell me what emotion does this song make you feel? [Star Wars theme song]

What about this one? [Jaws theme song]

And those are the ones without words. Psalms doesn’t have background music. It’s just lyrics. Can lyrics alone make you feel an emotion? [Let them answer] Well, here’s one of my favorite songs, I’m going to read the lyrics and I want you guys to tell me the emotions:

Oh, my love, my darling
I've hungered for your touch
A long, lonely time
Time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
I need your love
I need your love
God speed your love to me

What emotion is this song about?

From the lyrics we can tell this is someone who has been separated from his love a long time, and because it’s been so long, he’s afraid she doesn’t love him anymore. But he still loves her and he hopes against hope she does. This is a song of love yes, but more it’s a song of yearning.

The psalmists are basically lyricists. They write lyrics that express emotions and feelings. Some of the songs are prayers and some are songs, but both are things in which they are expressing everything from the happiest of happys to the deepest of despairs. Today we’re going to turn to a Psalm where the writer talks about the deepest of despair.

Please turn to Psalm 88. It’s long so I’m just going to read the whole thing, but please follow along.

   Lord, God of my salvation,
    when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2 let my prayer come before you;
    incline your ear to my cry.

3 For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
    I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
    like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
    for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.Selah

8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9     my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
    I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
    from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
    my companions are in darkness.

What is the emotion of this Psalm? [Let them answer]

There is a word for this level of sadness. It’s despair. The dictionary definition of despair is thus: “The complete loss or absence of hope.”

This Psalm is written by a person who knows God is his salvation, knows God is the one to whom he should take his troubles, but still he is in despair. He feels like God isn’t listening to him. He feels like God has put him in the lowest of pits. He has no friends left, he feels completely alone in the world and he feels like God too has abandoned them.

This level of despair where you feel completely isolated from everyone around you and feel like there is no hope left in the world, and that even God has forsaken you—this level where the Psalmist says he feels near Sheol—which is death—we have a word for this. It’s called Depression.

This is what depression feels like, this psalm. If you have a friend ever tell you they’re depressed and you don’t know what that means I want you to remember Psalm 88 and I want you to look at it. And if you ever feel like this—like you have not a friend in the world, including God—I want you to remember that this is what depression is. Psalm 88 is depression.

And this is not the only Psalm about this. Yes a lot of the psalms are about happy things, but if you read through the psalms you get a full spectrum of human emotion. Because we’re human, and some days we are happy and some days we are sad.

But depression is more than sadness. It’s like an oppressive never ending sadness. It’s despair, a feeling that there is no hope in the world. A depressed person looks to the future and they don’t see happiness—they don’t see any prospect of anything working out. They just see bleakness. They also often feel that not only have they been abandoned by all their friends, but that they are a burden to them. This is why depressed people don’t always get help. They think their presence and conversation is not even welcome—not just not welcome, but hurtful to you. They think their very presence is harming everyone around them.

This depression can lead to suicidal thoughts. Because if a person things they’re harming everyone around them, they think the best solution is to take themselves out of the equation. That by removing themselves they will make everyone else’s lives better.

This is a lie.

I’m telling you now that if anyone of you died, you will be missed. I would miss you.

Even if you think you’re my most annoying student, or you think I don’t like you, it’s not true. I think you all are smart young people with bright futures ahead of you. I pray for each and every one of you. And if you think no one else on this planet will miss you, I want you to remember that I will.

You have all touched my life. You have changed me and the way I approach the Word of God—how I study and present things with new and fresh eyes. And it’s not just the future I see in you, it’s now. You guys are changing lives for the better now. You are changing my life for the better now. You are not and never will be a burden on me. And it is never too inconvenient for you to talk to me. You can always talk to me about anything. Any time. That is literally my phone number on the board.

But I can guarantee it’s not just me who cares for you. I’ve met many of your parents. Whether you believe it or not, they would die for you if they thought it would spare you pain—that’s how much parents love their children. I’ve met many of your siblings, some are sitting here in this class. I’ve seen how your siblings look at you, how they interact with you. Even if you think they don’t, they love you.

My little sister annoys the ever-living daylights out of me sometimes. Sometimes I just want to shake her and say “Why can’t you be normal?” But I love her more than I can express in words, and if she ever died, I don’t know if I could recover. Nothing could ever fill the void she would leave in my life. Nothing.

But when a person is depressed, they can’t always see these connections. Just look at the Psalm. We know God is love, but the Psalmist thinks even God has abandoned him. This is what depression does. It feels like a wall that just settles around you, separating you from everyone else. And you feel like they can’t even see you, and that you can’t reach them.

And here the Psalmist is crying out to God, he’s saying to God please come help me! If we look at verses 13 and 14 he says,

13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?

This is not the cry of a man who has lost his faith. Historically, some Christian groups have tried to blame depression on a lack of faith in God, but if we look at the Psalms we see that is just not true. This is written by a man who is devout. He cries out to God every single morning, “God take this pain from me!” That is not the cry of a man who doesn’t believe. That is the cry of a man who does. He knows God could take this pain from him.

But remember when we studied Joseph—we saw how Joseph’s life went into this out of control spiral of horrible things. His siblings sold him into slavery! Potiphar’s wife tried to rape him! He got put in jail because she accused him of raping her! A man he thought might be able to help him get out of jail forgot about him for two years.

Horrible things happen. We live in a world where people have the freedom to make choices that can be bad and affect you like Joseph.

But depression is different. Depression can certainly be triggered by things in your life going horribly—like if you were Joseph. But sometimes your life is going on just fine. Things are great. And that’s when depression strikes.

Because depression is a chronic illness, just like getting the flu or bronchitis. We live in a world where people can get sick. Where people can be born with things like cancer or birth defects. And you don’t get these things because God doesn’t love you. You don’t get them because of some moral failing. This psalmist didn’t do anything wrong or commit any sin. He was devout and doing his best. He felt like God didn’t love him, but God still did. The Bible is clear God loves us all. It’s John 3:16 “For God so loved the world…” Psalm 107:1 "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever."

He loves us. All of us.

But this illness called depression can cause us, just like the psalmist, not to feel that love. We can know God or our families or our friends love us, but we also just feel like…maybe they don’t. maybe it’s all a lie. Maybe they’re pretending and just tolerating us. And maybe they would be better off if I wasn’t here. You can see this is verse 8 of the Psalm.

If you ever start feeling like this, even if you think it’s a bother, you need to tell someone. The only way to fix bronchitis or flu or cancer is by treating it like the disease it is. Ignoring it will just cause it to get worse and people can and do die from the flu and cancer. Suicide is basically someone just dying of depression. And like those other sicknesses, if you go to a doctor they can help you and help make you better.

And that reaching out to someone for help is probably the single hardest thing for a person with depression to do, because remember a person with depression might feel like their very existence is a hassle to you. So if your friend ever reaches out to you that they’re feeling depressed or mention that sometimes they want to kill themselves, you need to take them seriously. You need to not argue with them, but listen to them. Be sympathetic but remind them emphatically that you are there for them. Do not under any circumstances promise to keep it a secret, because the most important thing is you need to tell an adult who can get them help.

And if you are depressed or feeling suicidal or someone tells you they are, and you’re afraid to go to their parents, your youth minister and myself are always here for you. The youth minister has made her cell phone number available to all of you, and mine is on the board.

And if you don’t want to talk to us? If you’d rather talk to a stranger because you’re too afraid. Or if you’d rather text a stranger there are numbers for that too. They are also on the board. I recommend you guys take pictures of these numbers, just in case. You may never experience depression, but odds are you will have a friend who does. And you want to be prepared if they ever reach out to you.

That said if you do have a friend who commits suicide, it is not your fault. Sometimes we blame ourselves, we think if only we had seen it. Or maybe they said something about suicide but we thought they were joking.

My cousin Chuck in the months before his death was one of the friendliest happiest seeming people I knew. If you had asked me, I would have said there was no way he was suffering from depression.

He was.

And he died.

It wasn’t my fault. It’s not your fault when you have a friend who dies of an illness.  And if you ever get depression, it is not your fault, just like it’s not your fault if you get a cold.

Illnesses happen. And if the Psalms are anything to go by, depression is an illness that has been around for a very long time. Fortunately, we now have modern doctors who can help with these things.

I hope none of you ever experience depression, just like I hope none of you get any other chronic debilitating illness. I pray for you all, and I am here for you all. If you ever need to talk, I am here for you. Like I said, my number is on the board. You can always call me. You can always call the church. That is why churches exist, for that community, so you’re not alone. Because God knows we need people on this earth who can help us.

And if you ever need help, even if it’s the hardest thing you ever do—ask for help.

And that’s it. That’s the end of today’s lesson. Shorter than normal I know but if you have any questions now is the time to ask.

Phone Numbers for the Board:

  • National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: Text "Connect" to 741741

If you'd rather talk to a teenager, there are specially trained teens who can talk to you:

  • Teen Line: 1-800-TLC-TEEN
  • Text "TEEN" to 839863

Notes from Class

We actually had a really small class for this lesson because it was the Sunday of Spring Break. Most of the students were on vacation. That said there was some good discussion and things I think that are good to capture here.

A seventh grade boy said, "My friends joke about killing themselves all the time. 'I got a B on my test, I'm going to kill myself' sort of thing. What do I do?"

The best advice I had was always respond as if he's serious. Respond with something like "Are you okay?" or "Do you need to talk about it?" or some variant of that. A kid who is honestly joking will be like "what? no man, I was joking." Then you should probably explain how that's an inappropriate thing to joke about and maybe even use the example of a girl from your church recently did commit suicide and it's not funny. But if someone is not joking and there is more going on, your seriousness will given them the opportunity to open up. If you have other suggestions of what kids should do in this scenario, please leave it in the comments! I would be happy to hear them and pass them on.

In both Sunday School classes (because we have two now, both at different hours) the topic of "being afraid to tell your parents" something came up. And I told them if they were ever in a situation where they needed to get out and they were too afraid to call their parents to come pick them, I would happily do so. But I also reiterated that they should call your parents, because it is better to be grounded than dead. 

Also when talking about how depression is an illness, I compared it to the allergies I was actually suffering from during the lesson. I explained how allergies are basically caused by your body freaking out, thinking that pollen is dangerous and going to kill you. So it throws your immune system into full drive trying to protect you. Your body thinks what it's doing is right, but it's actually not a necessary reaction. Mental illness is the same way. Your brain is either over producing or under producing something, and it's just doing what it thinks is best. But like allergies and any other illness, if you visit a doctor they can help you.