The Sunday Sermon: Depression, Temptation, and Healing

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Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.

            This is going to be very different from most of my sermons, I’m going to be deeply vulnerable, not to be flashy, or edgy, but because I hope it inspires each of us to risk reaching to a deeper place. For the past month, as I prepared for the forty days of Lent, I noticed growing negativity in my thoughts. I felt my brain gravitating to things I wish I had done or regretted in life. My self-critique got harsher, and I felt an emptiness. And then it hit me: be it seasonal or some other trigger I hadn’t consciously recognized, my depression was back. With that realization, my Lenten practice came into shape, to start being open and honest about mental health, not to overshare, but to pastorally affirm that struggles of all varieties are real and impact us. I do not wish to be an identified patient, or a spectacle, I seek only to humanize Lent.

 After this service, we’re inviting everyone to the Wondering Together potlucks in the Guild Room, as Dean Penny mentioned. Today’s topic is “wondering about Jesus.” In that spirit, I wanted to talk about Christ’s temptation through a lens of living with and navigating through depression. While it is personal, I hope it is also relatable and allows us to explore our own lives in the light of God’s love in the person of Jesus.

            I’m not going to go into every gory detail, but I have dealt with some form of depression since my late teens. I never acknowledged it until I was living alone overseas in South Africa. In the medical clinic I served, there was a lot of loss. After I first arrived, a baby died due to fever, even though we got it to a hospital. One person came to have the same wound cleaned every single day, never fully healing. Many people suffered. Health care in a garbage dump slum is hard to do, and there were a lot of evenings when it all felt hopeless, or worse, meaningless. Even if none of it physically happened to me, seeing it, touching it, would still get to me.

I didn’t always cope in healthy ways, but we work with the tools we have until we learn new ones. One tool that always works for me is long walks where I must be physically present and accountable to my body. Going to South Africa’s wild coast was always restorative for me, the beauty of the landscape and the sounds of the ocean made me joyful. The imminence of it all made reality easier to bear because it felt smaller in the face of nature.

My most significant bout with depression came in my mid-20s. After dealing with several different types of loss over the course of six months or so, I got to a point where I could barely get out of bed. This lasted longer than I like to remember. My thinking was clouded, I dreaded the future, and nothing felt sacred or secure. This time it wasn’t the situation that was hopeless, it was me. There are serious physical detriments from deep depression, like eroded immune health. I reached a rock bottom that left me with physical scars from an infection during that time. In the cascading stress of not knowing what was happening to my body, I thought the worst was happening, which drove me further into isolation, despair, and a sense of abandonment and oblivion. It took a lot of work, medical and personal, as well as help from friends who I should have confided in more, but eventually I did move out of that place. Fortunately, I have better coping mechanisms now than I had developed then.

When I read about the temptation of Jesus, I read it through the eyes of someone who felt deeply lost. I never physically harmed myself, but it is very, very easy to do psychological self-harm, too. Feeding feelings of worthlessness, or the sense we’re already as good as dead, and that maybe even it’s better that way, is psychological self-harm. When Jesus is tempted in various ways to give up or give in, it’s less about the use of his divine power than it is about his purpose. It reminds me that even God has sunk to the depths, contemplated giving up, and that gives me solace and hope because I know Jesus walks with us there.

Satan, quoting Scripture, tells Jesus to turn stones into bread, knowing that Jesus was fasting, and his body was desperate for food. It makes me think about feelings of emptiness, or the reduced appetite or overeating many experience in the midst of depression. It’s almost as if Satan is saying to him: “All you must do is change your perspective, smile, be cheery, that will end this time of emptiness for you. How easy it will be if you only lie to yourself!” But Jesus’ response shows that he knows he alone cannot have the answer. “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Jesus refers to the Israelites wandering the desert, begging for food, and then being delivered manna from God. Yes, the food sustained their physical lives, but God also sought to sustain them in relationship with God’s self. It takes more than simple platitudes to help us through the lowest points of life. Jesus is saying that in relationship with God we can find things we are hungry for. That takes more than one person’s effort, it takes friends and community to help us persevere. When we know we’re loved, it’s easier to keep going.

Next, Satan takes Jesus up to the top of the Temple, as close to a skyscraper as one could get in Jerusalem then. Still quoting Scripture, he tells Jesus to prove his divinity by flinging himself off the tower, for surely angels would rescue him. It can be a temptation, in depression, to give up, to give in, to roll over. That hopelessness is self-perpetuating at a certain stage, sinking ever deeper. “Throw yourself into the oblivion, either it’ll be over, or a miracle will happen.” Thoughts of death and doom can be the result. It reminds me of self-blame, fixating on failures and flaws, to the point of forgetting the goodness in life, even one’s own.

Jesus responds: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” I read it as an admonition to not willfully harm ourselves, that we shouldn’t undermine our own physical, mental, or spiritual wellbeing in hope of a miracle, or just to be done. Self-harm, physical or otherwise, only serves to traumatize us further, making us even more liable to self-sabotage.

Last, Satan takes Jesus to a mountain top, and tells Jesus that if he bows down to worship the evil one, Jesus can have it all, be the prince of peace, a singular earthly authority. I see this as anxiety, addiction, or the total loss of enjoyment of life. Jesus knows just how bad the world can be, and Satan is hoping that clouds Jesus’ thinking into an easy answer. “Declare allegiance to me, cut some corners, and you can have the power you desire, to save and redeem, Jesus. This will be much easier than what you face in Jerusalem and on the cross at Golgotha.” Indeed, it may have been easier than sacrifices Jesus makes, in theory. “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus’ focuses not on what will be easiest, but on the way he must live. That is in relationship, with God, his people, and his ministry to the whole world. Jesus knows where kingship leads, his own ancestor, David, the most lauded king of Israel, failed miserably as a father, as a husband, and often as a king. There is no amount of power that will make everything right in this world, but there are ways to live that can help heal the brokenness in life.

In these temptations, Satan plays to a man who is in deep need of sustenance, contemplating what shape his ministry will take. Jesus knows that there’s no depth too deep for God to reach, to remind us of our beloved-ness, to form our lives anew from the ashes of what is left behind. May we all be brave enough to face what we need to, and if we need to invite others we trust on that journey with us, do it! The world is so desperate for compassion, mercy, and gentleness. If we can start by being authentically vulnerable together, we can help stave off the temptation to give up. May we each be healers, even as we are ourselves need healing, like Jesus in the desert. Amen.

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